If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s this: it’s all a waste of time. Diets don’t work; the perfect bodies in magazines and on billboards are digitally enhanced; the fashion industry only makes clothes for six-foot-tall androgynes; however much weight you lose, it will never be enough. You might as well give up now. The only alternative is to embark on a lifetime of miserable attempts at self-improvement, regularly interspersed with binges on fat, sugar and the purest despair. Far better to get beyond the bargaining and depression and reach acceptance, the final stage of grieving for the body you’ll never have.
Yet most women of my acquaintance never seem to get there. Oh, we know how we’re meant to feel. Our abject failure to accept ourselves, love our bodies and celebrate our curves compounds the shame we feel at not having achieved perfection in the first place. It might have been okay to feel this way when we were younger – all teenage girls hate themselves, right? – but we know we shouldn’t feel it now. Shouldn’t we have bigger fish to fry? (Or to bake, with just a drizzle of olive oil, another wretched meal to overwrite with My Last Ever Chocolate Binge.)
Once upon a time we may have been angry about this. Fat was a feminist issue. Beauty was a myth. Oppression was structural and bodies were real. Now it’s every identity for itself. We have no desire to name the female body yet we manage to reject and abuse it all the same. An amazing achievement, to be disembodied creatures weighed down by so much flesh. Why, we ask ourselves time and again, can’t we just get over it?
An everyday kind of hate
When my friend Sarah was in her teens, she fantasised about losing both her legs in an accident. “Just so I didn’t have them. I hated those legs.” She appreciated being able to walk and run but still, the alternative – not having legs to think about – seemed more valuable. I try to explain this to my partner. “Well, some able-bodied people have strange fantasies like that,” he says. He doesn’t understand that it’s not about being incapacitated; it’s just about not having parts of yourself to hate.
Women’s hatred of their bodies is such an everyday phenomenon that we pay no heed to just how deeply it cuts into our sense of self. It’s a stupid tick, some silly idea that we picked up in our youth and still haven’t managed to shake off. It’s the teenage girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful (“but that’s what makes you beautiful,” annoyingly enough). It’s the woman in her twenties who doesn’t understand that “men like a woman with curves”. It’s the middle-aged woman, frowning in front of the mirror, too vain to realise that IT DOESN’T MATTER ANY MORE. It’s the elderly woman, reaching the end of her life, still engaged in the attempt to make less of herself before she gets there. All of these women, wasting so much time, all, quite literally, for nothing. Why hasn’t it been possible to patronise them out of it? How many Dove adverts would it take?
When I meet a woman for the first time, I like to pretend that she’s not like this. That she’s too sensible, too healthy, too feminist or simply too old for this shit. “Good for her,” I think. “Perhaps when I’m 40 – no, 50 – no, thin – I’ll be like that, too.” I observe the way she eats, how she holds herself, and do my best to copy. When we talk about other things, books or politics, I tell myself that these are what she thinks of all the time, serious matters, not how long it is until the next permissible batch of calories, or how much she would like to take the roll of fat that spills over the top of her waistband and slice it off with a carving knife. How wonderful to have a mind that thinks freely, unaware of that shameful mass of much too muchness, the body.
Then one day we talk about food. That’s when I find out that she’s not free of the background noise, either, that constant hum that sucks the joy out of eating, moving and touching your own skin. It doesn’t matter whether she is big (“you go, girl!”) or small (“you lucky thing!”). I genuinely find that most female people are unhappy to be living in their female bodies. You can run marathons, make babies, think yourself a million miles away from the plodding weight of material things and still you will feel that most of what constitutes you is surplus to requirements.
Last year the journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote a piece in which she described the guilt she felt at owning up to her own body hatred:
“I feel embarrassed about writing this now, as a feminist who has co-authored a book about the pressures the media, and women’s magazines specifically, place on young women today. I feel guilty that I hate my body to the extent that, in my mind, it detracts from anything else I might achieve, meaning that I have turned down television appearances for fear of looking fat, and that it has preoccupied me far more than my own career in terms of energy. I am aware of how it limits me, but I hate my body nonetheless.”
I think most of us, being capable of looking at it from the outside, recognise this sense of shame. We can talk about these feelings lightly, in jest (“huh! What is it with women and food?”), but anything closer to the bone is socially unacceptable.
When Candida Crewe published Eating Myself, her painfully honest account of what she calls a “normal-abnormal” relationship with food, some reviewers sought to distance themselves from her. “Don’t worry, women aren’t all neurotic like that!” they seemed to say. I found myself wanting to stand up in solidarity and say “well, actually, I am”. No woman wants to be a public navel-gazer, even if very few of us would like to be fat. We want to be the “girls that eat pizza and never gain weight”, the cool girl who “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2”. Women are the carer class. Wanting to be thin – to take up less space – is self-effacing, hence feminine; expressing unhappiness about the cost of this wanting is tantamount to asking to be cared for, hence unfeminine. Wanting to be thin is a trivial desire; constant semi-starvation might feel anything but trivial, but it is impolite to mention this in public.
If “I’m fat” were just a thought – akin to thinking “I’m no good with strangers” or “I’m hopeless at maths” – that would be one thing. You could either try to get thinner or train yourself to stop caring. “I’m fat” doesn’t work like that. We may treat the body as something to which we stand in relation, creating the illusion that there is some negotiation to be made, but it is more than that. It is us. When a woman says “I’m fat” she doesn’t think it; she feels it in every part of herself, and the words don’t do justice to the feeling at all.
It is a feeling of violence, albeit that peculiarly female violence that stays contained beneath the skin. In her poem “One Spring” Lesléa Newman describes the desire to self-mutilate with which I, along with so many other women, am familiar:
All at once I am ashamed of my new breasts
round as May apples,
I want to slice them off with a knife
sharp as a guillotine.
All at once I am mortified by my widening hips,
I want to pare them down with a vegetable peeler
until they are slim and boyish.
All at once I want to yank out my hair by the roots
like persistent weeds that must not grow wild.
But I am a sensible girl.
I do none of these things.
We do none of these things because we have other, less disruptive responses: starvation, surgery, self-harm, the renaming of our bodies, part by part. Even so, the violent fantasy persists.
“Drunk men don’t see fat birds”
In Newman’s poem, the desire to disappear is prompted by an experience of street harassment. I guess that’s ironic, given that so much of our obsession with thinness is supposed to be about making ourselves attractive to men (regardless of whether we are attracted to men ourselves). When I was at my fattest I remember being told not to worry because men still like a woman with some meat on her bones (or, the more brutal version, offered up during a pub lock-in by a man trying to foist me on his best friend: “don’t worry, drunk men don’t see fat birds, they just see big tits”). I couldn’t find a way of explaining why this was not my primary concern. Men assume that we want them to love us when we just don’t want them to hate us. I wanted to be rated as fuckable; I did not want to be fucked.
If you are female you don’t have to be long into puberty to know that finding a man willing to penetrate you will not be a problem in life. Simply existing in a female body has already placed you on the market and demand is consistently high. While extremes – sharp bones, or endless expanses of flesh – can make you an exclusive item, being roughly in the middle, as most of us are, you run the risk of over-exposure. Ideally one would like to be seen as something more than a collection of mounds to grasp and holes to enter. Failing that, if you’re going to be an object, might as well try to be a high-value one. It makes you appear less available, and less grateful for those things you never wanted to begin with.
Leaving behind the anorexia of my teens, I remember watching myself grow and disappear. To have breasts that spill forward and thighs that touch is to make an offer every time you walk down the street. You can’t withdraw it. Either brazen it out or make yourself harder, more sculpted, more contained. It’s incredibly clever, the way women have absorbed what others want our bodies to be, so much so that no one voices it other than in crude, cartoonish terms that it would seem churlish to take too seriously. You have to say “no, I want to be thin for me,” ridiculously, as though your self-perception is not in constant dialogue with what others perceive you to be. As though if you found yourself to be the last person on Earth, you’d really care about feeling like a woman, or looking like a model, or consuming too many calories from the post-apocalyptic food stores. You wouldn’t (still, I can’t imagine not caring, ever. If my stomach fat ceased to have meaning, I worry I’d lose my mind due to an inability to adapt).
The more I consider it, the less odd it seems to me that women are engaged in a hopeless quest to correct the shape of themselves. It’s about wanting to hit that point where you’ll be seen as a person, able to operate neutrally, without femaleness, without excess. “I don’t think,” says Sarah, “that any woman sees herself in a way that is unmediated”. Yet you are constantly told that your true shape – your “happy weight” – is out there somewhere. Then, and only then, can you belong to yourself.
In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran claims to have finally nailed “a sensible definition of what a good, advisable, ‘normal’ weight is”:
“What is ‘fat’ and ‘not fat’. And it is: ‘Human shaped’. If you look recognisably, straightforwardly human – the kind of reasonable figure a ten-year-old would draw, if asked to sketch a person in under a minute – then you are fine.”
I do not wish to be difficult but I think that if I asked one of my children to sketch a person, it would not look like me. Not because my children are terrible at drawing, nor because I am unlike most women, but because if I said the word “person” they would hear the word “man”. It’s very hard for them not to. In the stories they read and the films they watch, the default person is male. When they think of humans (or “fumans,” as they inexplicably call them) they think of men. I do this, too. And thus I sense that in order to be human shaped, one must not have the type of body that menstruates, gestates or goes through the menopause. One must not have breasts or “childbearing hips”. Anorexic, I came closest to resembling the “normal person” – straight up, straight down – that one of my children would have drawn.
In August this year the website xojane ran a piece under the title “I was sterilised and had my breasts removed and I couldn’t be happier”. The author, Lore Graham, a non-binary trans person, described the liberation of electing to have their body surgically modified in order to make it their own:
“I no longer feel like my body is a burden or a liability. It was a female reproduction machine, but I repurposed it to serve who I actually am: The body of an androgynous, neuter person who loves to write, cook, eat, cuddle, have sex, and go on adventures.”
Graham’s body is theirs, to do with as they please, and if this is their route to happiness, good for them. There seems to me nothing strange about experiencing the female reproductive body as “a burden or a liability”. Plenty of people, not to mention employers, do. However, I can’t help feeling there is something terribly depressing about the acceptance that there exists a necessary choice between being “a female reproduction machine” and “an androgynous, neuter person who loves to write, cook, eat, cuddle, have sex, and go on adventures” (in other words, between being a woman or a human being). The body itself is not the problem. Still, it’s all very well for me to say that. One needs to find a way of living in and as one’s own flesh in the world as it currently stands. However much I feel that human shaped ought to encompass woman shaped, too, I know that it doesn’t.
If your body is yourself, then you cannot have the wrong body any more than you can be the wrong you. That doesn’t mean that you cannot feel it. I feel it. My breasts do not feel like the breasts of someone who thinks the way I think – or perhaps I flatter myself that my deep thoughts do not deserve to be accompanied by a pair of Carry On-style jugs. Either way, I look in the mirror and see a flat-chested androgynous thinker trapped in the body of Barbara Windsor. It’s not that inside every fat person there’s a thin person trying to get out; inside every female person there’s a human person trying to be seen.
In daring to have “curves” — or just having them, regardless of choice – one walks a tightrope between being viewed as a sexual object or a mumsy non-person. Depending on the underwear I choose, I can go from one extreme (underwired balconette) to the other (saggy nursing bra) in an instant. Meanwhile, the liberated body – just like the bodies on the catwalk – has to be one with no breasts at all. The increasing popularity of breast binding amongst young females seems to me an expression of this. One can claim that the latter is all to do with an individual’s personal relationship with gender, but I struggle to believe this can be unrelated to our entire culture’s attitude towards reproductive politics and female breasts.
Part of me blames feminism, or a feminism, the one that problematised the female body and suggested that the only way out was to ignore its very existence. In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf presents the increasing pressure on women to be thin as a form of backlash politics (“dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history”). I think there is truth in this, but that we also need to recognise how much feminism has been complicit in promoting the idea that liberation for women is liberation from the female body. “Biology is not destiny” is regularly misunderstood to mean that any acknowledgement of the female body as a specific entity can only imprison women. Shulamith Firestone’s description of pregnancy in The Dialectic of Sex – “The child’s first response, “What’s wrong with that Fat Lady?”; the husband’s guilty waning of sexual desire; the woman’s tears in front of the mirror at eight months” – would not seem out of place in a magazine article on how to Lose Your Baby Weight And Get Your Body Back. Her insistence that these are “all gut reactions, not to be dismissed as cultural habits” leaves those of us who would like our bodies to be acceptable with neither disguise nor intervention with nowhere to go.
These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to admit that roughly 50% of the human population is meant to have more body fat than the other 50%. To do so would draw attention to the potential link between femaleness and reproduction (hey, if we say nothing, perhaps no one will notice!). If personhood resides in the mind, it pays to minimise the body. If your breasts offend your intellect, bind them flat. If female people are not considered human, be less female shaped.
The right to be you
In January 2014, after 18 months on a waiting list, I thought I’d knock all of this on the head. After a decade of anorexia, two decades of bulimia / eating disorder not otherwise specified / whatever one might call the way I am, I decided I would enter into treatment for the very last time. I didn’t want to turn 40 still feeling the way I’d felt at age 10, breasts budding, thighs swelling, nothing as it should be. Whereas on past occasions I’d had treatment forced upon me, this time no one was pushing me. I was taking my destiny into my own hands. I was going to become “a normal person”. It would be an act of will.
It didn’t happen. I discovered, yet again, that while starvation is draining, bingeing miserable, self-induced vomiting degrading, all of it is much easier than accepting your body as it is. By this I mean genuine acceptance, not just the repetition of mantras, when you tell yourself that you’re fine with this, you’re really, really fine, so you’re one size bigger, no big deal, no big deal. I used to do this when I was at my heaviest. Living in Germany, I used some sentences I’d read in a woman’s magazine – Ich mag mich, Ich finde mich gut – GCSE Foundation level German, and lies, all lies. It’s not that I don’t know the cost of failing to accept (or comply, as I cannot help but think of it); it’s that I literally can’t do it.
Size acceptance or body positivity seems out of my reach. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is because it is a kind of job. One must be actively size positive; it’s not enough to passively not give a shit. One cannot get dressed in the morning and simply go about one’s business; it is necessary to pose in bra and pants, making a formal declaration of one’s self-certified fuckability. One cannot profess never to having hated one’s body to begin with; one must enumerate the parts one has come to accept, using sufficiently infantilising terms (jelly belly, muffin top, cankles, thunder thighs, bingo wings). One cannot simply get married; one must present one’s fat wedding as a political act. It’s all very laudable but also, I suspect, a surprising amount of effort to sustain. Far too many fat acceptance icons end up recanting, claiming never to have been all that happy to begin with. If self-acceptance becomes a performance, what happens when you take a day off? And if it is not about measuring up to other people’s standards, why is there so much focus on broadening the criteria for male approval rather than ignoring them altogether?
It has also become difficult to separate true, grass-roots size acceptance from the Astroturf version, whereby companies that depend on women’s low self-esteem in order to make a profit claim to be trying to make us feel better about ourselves. In some instances – recent Dove campaigns being the most obvious example – it’s pretty clear what’s going on, not that our media literacy helps us. My friend Marina says her own body image was unusually positive until Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty reminded her that it was abnormal for a woman to feel that way. Like a partner who stops you from leaving by making you feel you can’t manage without him, the Dove campaigns not only insist your state of mind is unhealthy, they take it upon themselves to list all of your unhealthy thoughts for you. There’s no point in telling them you’ve never actually worried about having beautiful underarms; like the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper, they know best.
This was brilliantly parodied with the creation of the fake “femvertising” agency Jane St, “powering empowerment through the power of brands”:
“The first thing we need to do is identify an insecurity [women] might not even know they have […] It’s really important that we dig them up. The correlating insecurity to target model (C-LITT) really helps us hone in on the most sensitive area for a message of empowerment.”
My favourite “worry you didn’t have until you were told not to worry about it” moment comes with the mention of “fat ears”. That said, I have since discovered that “ear jobs” really are a thing. Or at least the Daily Mail says they’re a thing, which might be, if not enough to make them one, then at least enough to make us think that they should be.
Perhaps the only compromise is the one my friend Cathy has reached: “I haven’t accepted my body, but I’ve accepted that I’ve not accepted it.” This, at the very least, goes some way to addressing the guilt described by Cosslet. If I’m going to be on my death bed regretting all the years I wasted worrying about my size, I might as well dispense with the meta-regret. Otherwise where will it end?
“They are the marks of life”
There’s a scene in the 1989 film Shirley Valentine where Shirley expresses shock at her lover, Costas, daring to kiss her stretch marks:
Shirley: You kissed my stretch marks!
Costas: Don’t, don’t be too stupid to try to hide these lines. They, they are lovely, because they are part of you, and you are lovely, so don’t, don’t hide, be proud. Sure. These marks show that, that you are alive, that you survive. Don’t try to hide these lines. They are the marks of life.
Lest the audience is left wondering whether to find this sweet, cheesey or a mixture of the two, Shirley then turns to the camera and says “Aren’t men full of shit?” As a moment of bathos, it’s perfect, not least because the audience knows that if only Costas (and the rest of us) could mean it, he’d have been right.
For her project Bare Reality, the photographer Laura Dodsworth placed unadorned photos of the breasts of 100 women alongside a personal account of each woman’s experiences, in order to explore “the dichotomy between how women feel about their breasts privately and how they are presented for public consumption through the media”. It’s a fascinating piece of work, not least because, as Dodsworth says, “breasts offer a very authentic window into womanhood in this culture. Breasts project you into womanhood long before you get there. […] No other part of the body is as emblematic of femininity, sexuality and motherhood.” Crucially, whereas many size acceptance projects focus only on offering up more and more content for the male gaze (as though the worst thing about objectification is its selectivity), Bare Reality foregrounds the act of listening to women. A pair of breasts (or one breast, or none) is not just a picture posed; it is a weight that we carry and feelings only we can own.
Perhaps I am too far down this road to have an epiphany but talking to Dodsworth, I feel something click. Of course body image is about experience, because experience is all that we have. There is, as Dodsworth points out, a drive to “erase the signs of experience, the signs of childbirth, of breastfeeding, of ageing”. Whereas men can wear “the marks of life”, women are expected to remain pristine. So much of the effort we put into changing how we look is about making it seem as though we are passive objects, not subjects who might have an impact on the world. We must make it seem as though our breasts cannot feed, our brows cannot furrow and our bellies never, ever need to be filled.
I think we see this not just in the anti-feminism of the diet and beauty industries, nor even in the misogyny of public life, where women are not expected to take up space. We see it in feminism itself, in its current obsession with avoiding all recognition of female embodied experience lest this be condemned as exclusive and essentialist. Deconstructing womanhood has turned into a process of reducing female bodies to a permanent blank slate. In order to draw our own pictures, we must first remove all traces of anything that went before: the blood, the stretch marks, the breasts, the hips, the lines, the fat. We are not allowed to be messy. The all-or-nothings of patriarchal culture – we are either body or mind, matter or construct, man or not-man – set the boundaries of our own resistance to it.
Barbara is nearly 70 and tells me how she expected, at her age, “not to give a shit”: “I’m quite shocked. I can’t fight myself but I’m shocked that at this age the messages still get through.” Then again, what would be a reasonable point at which to become impermeable to the culture that surrounds us? And more to the point, how would one do it? Twelve weeks ago, just after my son was born, my belly was strange, deflated yet full, a curious sphere of once drum-tight skin collapsing in on itself. I could look upon it with appreciation and amazement, at least for a day, or perhaps it was an hour, just the length of the post-birth bath. I knew at the time that it wouldn’t last.
In spite of myself, I see losing “the baby weight” as an essential part of my journey back to the land of the living. It’s all too easy, I tell myself, to sink into the swamp of a fleshy, female non-intellectualism. Whatever generous thoughts I permit myself, beneath the skin is a misogyny hard to counter. I yearn for angles to show people that I’m here, that I can think and move, that, in another world, at another time, like every other woman, I could have been a man.