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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Over-baring

Since I’ve got back from the Middle East, I’ve been struggling a bit over what to say about the current slew of female celebrities getting their kit off, Because They Can, in various publications. I rather enjoyed being in a culture where both men and women cover up out of respect for each other, and started to think a lot about why we are so hellbent in the west on getting so much of our flesh out in public.

I’ve already said what I think about ‘The Fappening’, and 4Chan’s privacy violation against female celebrities, in my blog post In Support of J-Law. Everyone has the right to take nude pictures of themselves and a right to keep them private. But in the last fortnight, we’ve had two women (weirdly both of them with the initials KK), both at massively opposing ends of the bodily spectrum, determined to bare all in the name of womanhood and freedom of self-expression.

Why?

Firstly Keira Knightley appeared in Interview magazine, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, in a series of images in which her body remains unmanipulated by the media. No photoshop, no cleavage enhancement, just as she is. Then Kim Kardashian appeared in Paper magazine, in a series of oiled-up nekkid shots that were intended to ‘break the internet’. Which they almost did, especially with the ensuing parody versions.

I happen to think that both of these women are remarkably beautiful in remarkably opposing ways. I think it’s a shame that Kim has clearly decided to enhance her best-known feature with surgery, but as someone with a pair of womanly hips and a small waist, I feel like this is a world where I can finally get them out with pride. And then Keira – seemingly no work done there, but she is campaigning against the ‘digital surgery’ that often makes her more acceptably womanly on film posters or in fashion features. One woman is flaunting her curves in extreme public displays, the other campaigning against the faking of curves whenever she is put on public display.

Interesting, isn’t it?

It’s also made me think about Lena Dunham, and her ‘I’ve got my body out and I don’t care if you don’t approve of it’ scenes in the TV series Girls. Her physically and digitally unenhanced body, seen in a number of nude scenes in the show, has attracted a raft of criticism from men and women alike, but that’s her point. Why should she look like Kim or Keira when she is really Lena? And who is dictating these rules?

In many ways I applaud all of these women for putting it out there – Kim looks gloriously (and uncharacteristically) happy in her images; Keira is poutingly defiant, and Lena acts care-free and unconscious of society’s disapproving gaze. Well done, you, I think, but then wondering why the hell they had to go that far to make their points. I’ve often laughed with guy-friends about their tick-box lists of female celebrity tits and ass – how the urge to see every hot woman naked in order to ‘tick them off the list’ became a thing that they did, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the infantile thing that Seth Macfarlane’s ill-advised Oscars song, We Saw Your Boobs, seemed to sum up perfectly, to the horror of the women in the audience.

Did these women bare all just to finally get the guys, and the media, off their backs? Once they’ve bared everything, does it mean they’ll be hounded less by the 4chans of this world, who’ve already moved on to the next starlet? What is it about the forced uncovering of women that makes female celebrities decide to do it themselves, so that they can control the outcome? Is it empowering or is it the ultimate sacrificial gift to the media that is hounding them already?

I realise I’m asking lots of questions here and not really answering them. I do think that there is great power in remaining clothed, in holding something back from the world (but only when that holding back is unenforced). I’m clearly part of a zeitgeist for women who are ‘baring all’ in terms of their experience (including Lena Dunham) but is that really the best thing to do? I have already said that part of the reason I am putting it all out there is because no one will be able to use anything against me in the future. There are no secrets for them to pounce on. Isn’t that what Kim, Keira and Lena are doing? All of us are owning our bodies and our lives but in the process we are letting everyone else have a piece of them too. It appears to be the domain of the modern woman. I’m all for having a voice that is heard, but are we saying too much?

It’s interesting that in the same period as the double KK bare-all, Nick Jonas, the erstwhile virginal member of the pop group the Jonas Brothers, did a Wahlberg-alike photoshoot for Flaunt magazine in his pants. The story registered as a medium-sized blip on the radar of various gay and women’s interest websites, and yeah, I had a look. He’s hot. But he’s one guy in a sea of a bajillion women doing this sort of shoot every day, for lads’ mags, for Page 3, for the latest ‘it’ magazine that promises them not to enhance their boobs and make nudity ‘arty’. We’ve moved on from Jonas already. Who cares if a guy takes his top off?

For women, holding back and wearing more might be the ultimate empowering thing to do with just a glimpse of a bared shoulder or ankle, but would you do that if you knew that your private bare-all photos made for your partner were likely to be posted online the very next day, rendering your peekaboo clothed pictures ridiculous? If you knew that the latest celeb magazine was going to show a range of high-definition images of you in a bikini on your holiday on its front page, and a close-up of your face without makeup, would you grin and bear it or rush out a series of naked, no makeup shots taken by a top photographer for a cool magazine?

I think I’d want to own my own images if I knew that these were the rules of the game, so I can’t blame the two KKs for doing what they’re doing. Kim K knows that her greatest social currency is her body and she is setting the bar higher and higher for how much she’ll show us, and how far she’ll go to enhance it. Many will say that they’re not interested in her antics, but I bet they have a good look before dismissing them.

As I write this piece, Gemma Collins, ‘star’ of reality TV show The Only Way is Essex, leaves the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here jungle to a tidal wave of fat-shaming tweets. When the ‘bikini shower scene’ becomes a woman’s main social currency on TV, and she’s pitted against ex-model and lads’ mag favourite Melanie Sykes, I’d be out of there too.