A Weight of One’s Own

I’ve already written a lot about body image, about embracing my own shape, eschewing dieting, and women’s relationships with food. Before a female-only dinner I went to recently, I joked on Twitter that there should be a Bechdel test for women’s dinners where at least two women talk about something else other than food while eating. It never happened. Someone turned up and promptly announced how many calories they’d burnt off at the gym and it was all over.

This policing of food intake, both by ourselves and by the media, drives me mad. It’s taken me forty-eight years to realise I don’t have to be thin to live a happy life, that I haven’t fallen into oblivion by stopping dieting. I have gained around 20lbs since my decade of dieting in my 30s, and have gone back up to the size I was before the dieting kicked in.

I honestly went into a panic as the scales showed a significant increase earlier this year. And yet every time I looked in the mirror, naked, I saw a body I liked. How can this be? I panicked myself into another low-carb diet. It didn’t work. The panic subsided and the body I liked was still there. Rounder around the tummy, thighs and upper arms, but it actually looked like the shape it was meant to be. Some clothes didn’t fit, some clothes fitted better. I filled out the bits that were meant to be filled out. This made me laugh with joy a few times, getting ready to go out.

I think my body is lovely. Am I allowed to say that? Damn right. For years I thought it was bloody disgusting and thank god that’s over. There are men (and women) who’ve only known me as post-dieting Lisa and they say such nice things about my body. I’ve had them call me things like ‘full-on woman’. They’ve commented on my shape, and called it ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’ and ‘lovely’. I bask in it, because my Inner Voice is saying, ‘Really? At this size?’ and then just when I’m about to say it out loud, I tell IV to shut the hell up and say nothing.

I must have my ‘fat radar’ set to high frequency because I was rewatching Love Actually the other day as part of my annual Christmas TV viewing and suddenly realised how fat-shamey it was.

From the start, Bill Nighy constantly refers to his ‘fat manager’, Nathalie gets called ‘plumpy’ by her parents, Emma Thompson bemoans her ‘Pavarotti’ clothing, Aurelia chides Jamie for getting ‘chubby’ and her ‘Miss Dunkin’ Donuts’ sister calls her a ‘skinny moron’. The movie even ends with Hugh Grant saying ‘God, you weigh a lot’ to his new girlfriend, the aforementioned ‘Plumpy’.

Someone making this film had some issues, I’d say.

Why is flesh so fearsome? Why do the Overweight Haters think it’s ok to distribute Fat Cards to women on the London Underground? Why is the worst insult a rejected man on Tinder can throw at a woman is ‘ur fat and ugly anyway’? They know it strikes at the fear in the very centre of our being. Even now, if someone shouted ‘fat’ at me, even though I know I’m not, I’d carry around the curse of that for days, weeks after. I know I would.

And then… And then that bloody women’s health report. Even though it rightly acknowledges that obesity is a nationwide, non-gendered problem, and has a significant effect on women’s health, the media has grabbed the chance to say “Women: You Are Responsible For a National Crisis By Eating Too Much.” Here’s what the Department of Health’s Sally Davies actually says in her summary of the report:

Tackling obesity in the population as a whole has to be a national priority, in order to reduce the impact of related, non-communicable diseases on healthy life expectancy and health services.

But guess what? The Daily Fail lays all the responsibility of a national crisis, just before Xmas, on women’s eating. Not the Cumbrian floods, not the terrorist threat – women’s eating:

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And rather effectively, it’s sandwiched (no pun intended) between an advert for ‘lady petrol’ and two feminine ideals (one of whom has been told to lose weight in the past). It’s a classic, ‘enjoy this, but don’t actually imbibe it if you want to look like this’ schematic.

I’ve returned again and again to the great feminist work Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, first published in 1978, and been amazed at how relevant it still is today:

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As Orbach goes on to say, “selling body insecurity to women (and increasingly to men too) is a vicious phenomenon. It relies on the social practices that shape a girl’s growing up to make her receptive … they are discouraged from using their body strength to explore the world.”

I have made it a life principle to take up space in the world, to increase my body strength, and to explore as far and wide as I can. On my own. I know that my anti-diet approach to life comes from a response to being body-policed from a young age, and from hearing female friends and relatives comment on their weight and others’ all my life.

I am happy to know a number of younger women who’ve taken a similar ‘This Girl Can’ attitude to life. But I know a hell of a lot more who’ll be monitoring their food intake and not have the strength to climb a wall or run a 10k. But it’s ok, because they’re skinny.

I will say again and again, and if I had a daughter I’d say it every day, that it’s our right (I see it as a duty) to be in the world, to take up space, to be sexual, to get into all its corners. Shrinking ourselves, Alice-like, is not the way to do it.

If only I’d realised this thirty years ago.

Happy Christmas, ladies – eat, drink and be merry.

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Who’s That Girl?

This weekend I visited my old university, twenty-three years after I last walked through its gates. Even though I live in London, mere miles away from the location, I’ve never gone near the place, so when an alumni reunion came up I thought it would be the perfect opportunity.

Roehampton University (or Institute, as it was back then) is arranged around a number of Grade I and II listed buildings in leafy west London, not far from Putney and Wimbledon (where I lived). When I first arrived there – a slightly scared and very naive 22-year-old in 1989 – the leafy beauty of Froebel college, where I did my dance and English classes was slightly lost on me, because I was from leafy beautiful North Wales.

Grove House, Froebel College

Grove House, Froebel College

Just walking through the Froebel gates two days ago made me realise I’d been so lucky to study there. Grove House, the main building, is an 18th-century villa once owned by a Parisian ballet dancer (and courtesan!) and her husband. I’d had no idea of the history of the place until this weekend’s historical tour – I just did classes there and sat in the Portrait Room for lunch (it popped up in the first episode of Strictly this weekend, when all the dancers met for the first time…)

The Portrait Room at Froebel College - used to be the bar, now saved for Strictly...

The Portrait Room at Froebel College – used to be the bar (via the little door to the right of the fireplace), now it’s hosting Strictly dancers.

I’ve known for a long time that the young woman I was at university is not the woman I am now. In fact, I barely recognise her, and there are very few pictures of me at that time. I tried to access my ‘story’ as I walked around the grounds with friends who recounted unrequited loves, Fresher’s Ball shenanigans and dorm parties, but I couldn’t really remember much of it.

I’d thrown myself wholeheartedly into studying Dance and English (it was a two-subject degree), and can remember myself sitting in lectures or at the back of class in the dance studio, but the person I was?

I’ve got no idea.

It feels like I was literally a blank page waiting to be filled in. I think that’s why I eventually got the urge to do a degree, after four years of teaching ballet. My brain was craving the experience and the information.

I didn’t drink or have boyfriends at university. I know, I know. This is the time you’re meant to do it, meant to get it all out of your system – make the mistakes, sleep with the wrong guys, wake up in someone else’s student accommodation and stumble hungover into the cafeteria for a burger and chips. But I didn’t. I was such a ‘good’ girl. I danced hard, I studied hard, I had crushes on guys at a distance, I didn’t notice the guys who were trying to make a move on me. It was only later that I realised a few of them had tried. They even tried to get me drunk and I resisted all their attempts. I seriously was No Fun At All.

That time for me was about becoming someone. Filling my brain with information and opening it up to possibility. Strengthening my body and expressing things through dance (and yes, we did run round a room and slap ourselves across the face – it was fashionable in contemporary dance back then).

It would still take some years after to actually Become Someone. I don’t really recognise my current self until around six years later, when I was living in Brighton, working in publishing and still doing dance classes. I was twenty-eight. In many ways, I’m still her.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

I often laugh with friends who were at Roehampton at the same time about our different experiences of the same university. They did all the things you’re supposed to do (well, most), I did none of them. Except study. At one point during the reunion, we listened to a lecture by Professor Nicola Humble on Modernist Fiction and food and I was transported back briefly to the Girl I Was Before, listening to Professor Humble talk to me about women in the eighteenth century.

She’d just started her teaching career at Roehampton in 1992 and I was in my final year. As she spoke so articulately and academically this weekend I remembered how I loved being in that world where thinking about things and drawing conclusions about them dominated my life. I look back at my old dissertation on Behind the Mask: Masculinity in Shakespearean Tragedy and wonder who the hell it was that wrote it. My voice is completely unrecognisable, but I sound so sure of my subject. (It makes me smile that I’m often pre-occupied with male behaviour today – this pattern of observation definitely started at university.)

I wandered around the old dance studio and remembered the young woman with a terrible body-image problem who couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, but put her heart and soul into learning contemporary dance techniques. I was fit as a fiddle, doing a two-hour class (or more) every day, but had no idea my body was so strong – I just took it for granted.

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The professor who had mentored my dissertation, Kim Reynolds, went on to found the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton and it makes me smile that I once bumped into her in the kitchen at Scholastic Children’s Books where I was the Publishing Director. It felt like a circle had been completed, but this time, Kim could meet the real me, the one who had blossomed later in life.

It was also a source of pride that author Philip Pullman had praised Roehampton so much at a dinner party I attended for The Golden Compass, when I was dreading admitting where I’d studied. And this weekend, author Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Chancellor of the University, commented on its excellence in her alumni speech.

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Wherever I go, my world circles around between children’s books and Roehampton, but I didn’t know that they would back then.

Some things are just meant to be.

Part of me wishes I could go back to Roehampton knowing what I know now, to really get the most out of it. But part of me is glad that Roehampton is where I started to become someone, even if I was a bit late to the party.

I’m making up for that now. You can’t be a good girl forever.

You Look Summery!

If I had a pound for every time someone tells me I’m looking ‘summery’ I’d be a rich woman.

It usually happens on warm, sunny days, in the summer, when I’m wearing attire appropriate to the season. But still, people appear to be surprised that I have opted for an outfit that is so blatantly appropriate, perhaps with bright colours or a floral print.

I live by a mantra that is ‘dress for the temperature, not the weather’, because living in Britain, you’d have your ‘summery’ clothes on for about five days if you only chose to wear them when the sun comes out. I start wearing my summer wardrobe (which lives in a case under my bed during the winter) right from the start of the summer, perhaps even in April or May if the weather is mild.

It puzzles me that even now, on July 4, many people and the media are still saying ‘look forward to the summer!’ when I, and the Met Office, think it’s been here since 1 June. It amuses me that at the merest hint of cloud cover, Londoners are back in winter coats and scarves, even if it’s still twenty-two degrees.

Some days I’m ready for the ‘summery’ onslaught. It usually happens right at the start of the season, when I have dared to wear a shorter sleeve or, horror of horrors, decided to get my legs out. It can happen up to five times a day and I really have to stop myself shouting, ‘BECAUSE IT’S SUMMER’ and adopt a gracious smile instead.

I started dressing season-appropriately for a number of reasons, the main one being the temperature mantra I mentioned previously. Why not get a few good months out of your summer clothes while you can? Another reason is Sex and the City. I always admired that the women in the show would go out and meet each other in a nice dress, not wearing a coat. I thought about how Brits can’t go anywhere without a cardi, light jacket or a padded duvet coat, ‘just in case’, and I decided to leave mine behind when I went out. You don’t need any of those things if it’s raining during the summer – just an umbrella. And yet, and yet, we cart these things round with us like our lives depended on them.

That got me thinking about how we wear certain clothes as armour, especially in cities. Until recently, I’ve felt very exposed without a jacket, coat or even a large bag to cover up my body – it prevents a level of scrutiny from men and women that makes me uncomfortable. We also use them to make a statement – a biker jacket toughens up a feminine dress, or a suit jacket will give it a professional edge. Without either, we are slightly undefined, I think.

We also wear clothes as much to blend in, as we do to stand out. Women, in particular, worry about ‘what everyone will be wearing’ on the run up to an event, some even going home to change if they arrive at a party to find everyone else is dressed up, or dressed down. When I first moved to London from North Wales I had to learn how to dress down at every occasion. Non-Londoners love a bit of bling when they go out but I could see the looks from some of the women I came across at parties, sheathed in black and grey jersey, when I had a bejewelled jumper on. Those looks said, ‘way too shiny, lady’.

I recently went to a gay Pride party where we’d all been asked to wear something with a rainbow theme, but hardly anyone went for it. I stood there in my big stripy dress, looking like the Uncool One, while people came up to me saying, ‘you look rainbowy!’ as though I’d just decided to do it on a whim. It was the ‘summery’ thing again, I thought, as black appeared to be the colour-of-choice that night.

I thought about a recent conversation with a young female friend who said she bought everything in black, mainly because she felt insecure about herself. Luckily, I experienced Trinny and Susannah training in the ’90s, which dictated that women should never wear black after a certain age, and never, ever keep nice clothes ‘for best’. I’m quite grateful to them for that – I rarely buy black now and love wearing vivid colours. But ooh, people do love commenting on ’em.

I guess I’m just going to have to get used to it.

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Me looking rainbowy and proud!