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Why women’s bodies can’t do anything right

Enviable curves v skinny self-control.

Fat Betty is no more. For those busying themselves with the earlier Mad Men box sets, let me explain. Betty Draper, a frustrated housewife and one of the show’s central characters, spent the last season of the show eight months pregnant and wearing a fat suit.

Played with perfect froideur by January Jones, Betty had previously had the svelte figure appropriate for an ex-model. But after just one series waddling about, “Slim Betty” is back. As a narrative device, the sudden appearance of a double chin had signified many things, not least that the character had relinquished her obsessive, controlling tendencies and, surrendering to her misery, had finally “let herself go”.

In a recent interview, Jones described how the audience had responded to the character’s weight gain: “When Betty was bigger, audiences were more sympathetic to her,” she said. We’ve read enough interviews with villains from Coronation Street to know that television viewers often conflate the character with the actor who portrays them. But in this age of Supersize v Superskinny, when you’re either “celebrating your curves” or showing off your “tight little body”, this observation is particularly interesting. Just what is it about a skinny woman that so gets people’s backs up? And how does putting on weight somehow make you a nicer person?

In the size-zero years of the early Nought - ies, everyone seemed to be worshipping at the altar of skinny. The Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe pioneered a look that seemed mostly to involve huge handbags on twiglike arms while sporting equally huge, bugeyed glasses, which gave the wearer the look of a light-averse stick insect. Inevitably the fashion changed again and in the resulting backlash those who’d previously been congratulated on their trim figure were widely condemned and denigrated as “bony”, “unfeminine” and “anorexic”. Thanks partly to the buxom Christina Hendricks, another Mad Men actress, breasts were “back in”, and suddenly Mail Online was teeming with lasses “pouring their enviable curves” into various jewel-coloured outfits and “celebrating” the fact that they were “real women”.

“So what am I? A fictional character?” the skinny woman cried. The tide had turned as the fat-shamers shifted their attention to poking size eights in the ribs instead. Of course, in the past hundred years the ideal female body type has waxed and waned more rapidly than the phases of that most mind-controlling of feminine motherships, the moon. Whether it was the flapper girls of the Twenties, the pinups of the Fifties or the Amazonian supermodels of the Eighties, we’ve always had something to aspire to, body-wise. Shop mannequins have changed too, over time. In the war years they were much broader and chunkier, a look unachievable for those on meagre wartime rations. Why are we encouraged to hate those who look the way we ourselves are supposed to want to look?

If society deems that fatness indicates a gross inability to control oneself, then thinness connotes the maniacal opposite: steely resistance to temptation and a stoic submission to the deprivation required to maintain such a figure. Never can a woman be naturally slim and healthy; oh no, she must be subsisting on a diet of salad leaves and a fascist exercise regime that makes Gwyneth Paltrow’s look like a Sunday tea dance for the Blackpool elderly.

In 2013, when – thanks to advertising such as Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty – merely owning tits is seen as a great achievement, those who are slight and flat-chested complain of feeling shamed and marginalised. Oh boo hoo, the wobbly-arsed might think, naturally conforming to society’s definition of beauty must be so difficult for you. And yet being told “you’re a twig” comes from exactly the same place as telling someone that they’re fat – a place where women’s bodies are common property, to be jabbed, pinched and dissected, like meat.

Mad Men is set in the Sixties, a period when our emancipation looked not only likely, but achievable. Naturally, it coincided with society tightening its grip on its women. Keep us anxious, keep us hungry, and we’ll achieve little. An advert from Betty Draper’s day reads: “Are you twice the woman your husband married?” Another, for tapeworm tablets: “Eat! Eat! Eat! And always stay thin.” And yet it is when Betty ignores the adverts and deigns to eat that she becomes a figure of pity.

As a character, Betty Draper is fascinating. Cold and unfeeling, she has little maternal instinct, something that becomes most apparent in her interaction with her daughter, Sally, who she worries “looks fat” and is a “little lesbian”. It’s one of the few times we’ve seen the mother- daughter relationship portrayed so dispassionately on screen, as Betty transmits her fears and anxieties to Sally before our eyes. This is not unique to fiction. Perhaps it’s because mothers see their daughters as an extension of themselves, and so their self-criticisms and their anxieties are easily projected on to those with whom they share flesh and blood.

So many of my friends and acquaintances talk of being “fat-shamed” by their mothers, of how they’ll reach out and pinch their hips when they return home, how they’ll say, “Are you sure you want to eat that?” If it sounds like something from the Fifties, that’s because it is. It has trickled down from our mothers and grandmothers and, regardless of whichever size society happens to be championing, it will continue to do so, to our daughters. Because, whatever the size society decides to champion at any one time, you can bet your (barrel-shaped) arse it probably isn’t yours.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter write the V Spot blog for the New Statesman

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog. Her novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue