Whether talking about Twitter or Twixes, our incontinence knows no bounds

Rachel Cooke takes on BBC2's "Fat Season".

Welcome to the World of Weight Loss
The Men Who Made Us Thin
BBC2
 
I wonder why Vanessa Engle (Women, Jews, Walking With Dogs) felt moved to make a documentary about diet clubs (Welcome to the World of Weight Loss, 21 August). They seem to me to be far too easy a target for such a subtle and talented director. After all, it’s hardly news that the leaders of Weight Watchers or Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs infantilise their members, praising them loudly for every pound lost, handing them pathetic little certificates when they reach their target size. (“Well done, Ginny!” said the leader of the East Finchley branch of Slimming World to a woman who had just shared her horror at her discovery that pine - apple added to cottage cheese made it a whole lot more naughty. “So, can we give her a big round of applause, please?”).
 
Nor is it much of a revelation that women who are fat enough – or imagine they are fat enough – to join these Moonie-ish clubs are often desperately unhappy; contentment and a desire to be weighed in public appear to be mutually exclusive. And the tedium and stupidity of the jargon! We are talking “portion pots”, “treat days” and “brown foods”. Forty minutes in, I found myself looking forward for the first time ever to my twice-weekly bolt around the park. Beneath my backside – not small, exactly, but not the size of Jupiter, either – the sofa had begun to feel positively itchy.
 
Of course, even a worse-than-usual Engle film is still miles better than your average Channel 4 “shock doc” (the titles of which alone make me want to throw up). For all her beadiness, she is an inordinately kind filmmaker, non-judgemental and always able to connect with her interviewees. It must have been tempting to ask Joan and Sharon, two sisters with a Ghanaian background and an almost religious devotion to the diktats of Weight Watchers, why they insisted on spending their “treat day” at an all-you-caneat Chinese buffet (with the emphasis on “all-you-can-eat” rather than bean sprouts) but somehow she desisted. (Sharon, by the way, was still so vast she had to walk with a frame.) They were enjoying themselves and clearly Engle was reluctant to spoil their fun.
 
Over and over, she threw her subjects a life raft – or at least the odd water wing. In a huge, gleaming house in Dulwich, south London, a fortysomething Weight Watcher called Penelope took Engle through her extensive designer wardrobe: Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney. On my sofa, bottom shifting, I began to feel more restless. Penelope, who did not look at all fat to me, obviously just needed something more important to worry about than herself. Engle, though, was a little more generous. Did Penelope think her determination to drop a dress size or two was perhaps born of a fear of getting older? Looking grateful, Penelope conceded that this was doubtless the case.
 
BBC2 seems to be having something of a Fat Season at the moment. Earlier this month, it brought us podgy kids in India (they’re like podgy kids anywhere, except a little bit late to the party). This week, it was Engle’s programme and the third part of Jacques Peretti’s latest series, The Men Who Made Us Thin (Thursdays, 9pm). In documentary-making terms, Peretti is what you might get if you crossed Adam Curtis with Louis Theroux, by which I mean he is a something of a conspiracy theorist, always going on – whoo-ooh! – about cabals of scary men who take decisions “behind closed doors”, but also the kind of chap who smilingly accompanies a Swedish man to the loo so he can watch him empty the contents of his stomach by means of a long, plastic tube (in bariatric surgery circles, this, so we were told, is the very latest thing).
 
I am not sure I bought all of his thesis – I’m not convinced that it’s possible for people to be fat and healthy, let alone happy – but Peretti was surely on to something when he suggested that, quite soon, even people who want to lose just the odd few pounds will be asking their friendly local surgeon to shrink their stomachs, funds allowing.
 
This, alas, is the way the world is going. We would rather be controlled than control ourselves. Our incontinence, whether we are talking about Twitter or Twixes, simply knows no bounds.
Fat loss is getting more extreme. Photo: George Simhoni / Gallery Stock

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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