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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A Comment on Women and Food

Last year, I gave up any form of weird food restriction after a Dieting Decade which saw me trying every single fad going to keep my weight under control. Atkins, Dukan, 5:2, GI – I’d done the lot. And I was heartily sick of it.

I had my ‘epiphany’ on a Turkish beach, when I suddenly realised that it was all utter bollocks – I didn’t have to adhere to some magazine advertising executive’s view of female body shape and I could simply be me, as I am, eating normal foods and being my normal shape. The world didn’t end and I didn’t suddenly die socially – if anything, I became happier, more confident, sexier and sharper-minded. I simply realised that restricting food restricts a woman’s ability to perform well in the world and I describe my Road to Damascus moment here: https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/24/epiphany/

Since then, I’ve really noticed how other women seem amazed that I order normal food in restaurants, and don’t sit there picking at a protein-based salad (as I used to do). When I offer up the excuse that I walked to work that morning (it takes an hour and twenty minutes) they seem happy that I’ve ‘earned’ the right to have a proper meal (ie with carbohydrates). What I’m eating is always commented upon, and I notice more and more that the other women feel the need to ‘be good’ at the dinner table. And to tell everyone about it.

I went for a dinner last year with a group of friends and sat next to a Serial Restricter. She talked about the calorific value of her food throughout, then told me all the various ways she was going to ‘work it off’ the next day. When women go out for meals together the topic often turns to weight control, and the more they eat and drink at that meal, the more they tell everyone about all the ways they’ll keep the weight off afterwards. I used to do it too. Yawnsville. You can guarantee the guys aren’t talking about this shit.

Recently, a friend I hadn’t seen for a while turned up for lunch and another female friend immediately ‘complimented’ her on how ‘skinny’ she looked. A little piece of me died inside, knowing that this is the first thing we value, or monitor, about each other. Now, I make a point of never commenting on appearance, until I’ve at least asked about how a friend’s life is. And that applies to women and men. If I tell them they look ‘well’, it’s because they truly do look healthy – I’m never going to use it as a codeword for ‘slimmer’, which is what most women do.

I’ll never forget seeing a work colleague take a brownie from someone who’d baked for the office and watching her scrape her teeth down it before discreetly throwing it in the bin. That moment has stuck in my mind as a truly tragic one. This woman was, and is, an amazing person. She is better than brownie-scraping.

But women in groups police each other’s weight. Codewords are used to comment on shape and you get used to your body being surreptitiously scanned by other women when you walk into a room. I’ve worked in female-heavy offices where eating disorders break out because one woman goes on a crash diet. When I taught ballet, a promising young girl of twelve became anorexic because another girl told her she had a ‘funny’ body.

I think that women owe it to themselves to be strong and healthy-bodied, able to stand, walk and run in the world without fear of a small gust of wind knocking them over. I think we owe it our brains to keep them well-fed, so that we are able to speak confidently, debate loudly and deliver a killer pitch at work. Not to mention show younger women a good example. You can’t do any of this well if you’re surviving on 500 calories a day.

Ladies, let rip. We don’t need to do this. No one is asking us to be control-freak skinny and unhappy except us. And we are agreeing to it because we think that’s what the world wants from us. Ask yourself who is going to love you more for being ‘skinny’ – possibly the magazine advertising executive because he/she is selling you products based on your biggest fear. It won’t be anyone else, not even you. Because you’ll never be skinny enough.

Don’t be scared. Have the brownie, then walk out of the door and take up your space in the world.

You’ve earned it.

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On policing women’s appetites: http://www.dailylife.com.au/life-and-love/parenting-and-families/stop-policing-my-daughters-appetite-20140423-373ur.html