Ladies: Accept your body, know your place

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business.

Swinson wants magazines to “celebrate the beauty of diversity in body shape, skin colour, size and age”. While it’s easy to scoff at a Coalition MP lecturing others on diversity, it’s fair to say that the problem Swinson highlights is real. Most women and girls grow up believing that the way they look is unacceptable. What passes for mainstream popular culture in the UK is saturated with language and images that promote disordered eating. And yes, not every woman in the UK has an eating disorder, and that’s the very thing that always lets popular culture off the hook. It’s not us, they’ll say. Eating disorders are caused by deep psychological issues. Linking them to diets merely trivialises them. That’s an argument that used to always get to me. I might have been an anorexic, but I didn’t want to be a vain, frivolous anorexic. So I’d defend the likes of Cosmo and Closer to the death. These days I’m more suspicious. I think there’s an ED culture that surrounds us all – constant messages that undermine our relationship with our own flesh – but only some of us are prone to absorb it (and perhaps that’s the link with trauma). Once this ED culture’s got in you, though, it’s hard to get it out. It’s far easier to starve away fat and muscle than it is to rid yourself of the voices telling you how ugly and worthless you are.

So why don’t I want to support Swinson’s campaign? Is it to do with her politics? I guess that partly, it is. It strikes me that no one ever tells women to feel good about their bodies unless they’re trying to sell them something, regardless of whether it’s body lotion or party policies. For instance, let’s take a look at Swinson and fellow MP Lynne Featherstone’s Body Confidence Awards, an event where “by turning the spotlight on those clever enough to weave conscious thought into the business of making money by considering self-esteem, the organisers aimed to shine a light on the way forward” (whatever that means). So who’s getting a pat on the acceptably-sized back for making us all feel better about ourselves? Dove – fucking Dove, the cosmetics company who suggested to women that we should even be feeling paranoid about our underarms – and Boots no 7, “for their decision to eschew retouching and for celebrating the idea of real women” – providing said “real” women don’t sully their anti-ageing serum adverts by looking too damn real. And these awards – “presented in association with bareMinerals” – “were announced at an event at the House of Commons”. Wow. I feel great about myself already – don’t you, fellow “real” people?

It’s all terribly clumsy, but that’s not the worst of it. Why is it that female self-esteem has become a thing to be rebuilt by MPs and cosmetics companies, but only after it’s been knocked down in the first place? Why can’t we be trying to protect it from the start? Because it’s not the same when it’s been stuck back together with Dove Pro Age Body Butter and Boots Protect and Perfect. Being a “real woman” comes a humiliating second best to simply being a person. So those who still decide what beauty is will deign to let you purchase their products. So an MP will basically tell you that yes, ultra thinness is still the reigning ideal but ultra thinness is not for the likes of you. So rather than challenging a sexist, appearance-obsessed culture head-on, Jo Swinson decides the little (or not so little) people shouldn’t go on crash diets. Starving oneself down to catwalk model proportions is tantamount to getting ideas above one’s station. That’s the reason why, when Swinson attacks “fad diets”, I’m tempted to spend a week living on cucumber just for the hell of it.

It’s worth noting that Swinson is not against glossy magazines telling women to lose weight per se, offering editors the following sage advice:

As editors you owe more to your readers than the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight. If your aim is to give practical, sensible advice about losing weight – and not how to drop a stone in five days – you should encourage reasonable expectations, instead of dangerous ones, along with exercise and healthy eating.

Quite why it is still reasonable for Heat and Glamour to assume their readership wishes to be smaller – and quite why these magazines should then support such a view – isn’t clear, especially not in our brave, new, diversity-worshipping world. What’s even more problematic is the deliberate blending together of weight loss for “health” reasons and weight loss in order to look thin. These are not the same thing and let’s be honest – does anyone buy magazines to read about the former? It’s just boring. Furthermore, a poor diet – regardless of whether it’s associated with obesity – isn’t linked to getting the wrong advice from Marie Claire. It’s linked to poverty. MPs should have something to say about this, but it needs to be something a little more meaningful than “when your sister or your friend is standing there and moaning about whether she looks really fat, and actually she looks gorgeous, tell her so” (not that that’s not helpful; I, for one, have now resolved to stop telling my friends – the gorgeous ones, that is – that they’re ugly porkers).

If politicians are serious about changing how women feel about their bodies, there are things that they can do. These might include: challenging gender stereotyping in education; actively confronting age and sex discrimination in visual media; re-examining pay inequalities; allowing those born with a uterus to have exactly the same assumption of bodily integrity as those born without. All of these things might start to add up to a world in which women and girls don’t continue to assume they’ve been allocated a passive, decorative status, and one in which they know their bodies belong to them and not anyone else. It’s not a solution, but it is at least starting to look at where real confidence comes from – not from “beautiful underarms” or eating five a day, but from feeling you have genuine agency in the world. And this is something you don’t have when your equalities minister is busy telling magazine editors what to tell you to eat rather than looking at the inequalities you’re facing on a daily basis.

6 thoughts on “Ladies: Accept your body, know your place

  1. So, so true. Why aren’t reception teachers instructed never to let girls be the angels in the school play? Why aren’t parent and more importantly grandparents told by politicians that when a little girl says No, decisively and definitively, that it is a behaviour to be celebrated, not curbed and modified as a sign of the terrible twos. Why isn’t Jo Swinson out burning every pink plastic cleaning trolley between Westminster and John O’groats?

    We need our daughters to learn that being too big for your boots is amazing, that fancying yourself is to be encouraged and that we can take up as much space in the world as we need, not as much as others think we deserve.

    The culture that encourages women and girls to be small, pretty and quiet doesn’t cause anorexia, but it sure as hell triggers it. For those with an eating disorder timebomb in their heads, there are few fuses as powerful as Weight Loss=Happiness headlines. And these headlines are not intended to cause eatingdisorders but to keep us in our place. Silent, small, hungry and waiting our turn.

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  3. I am so glad to have found your blog. It’s this ‘assuming’ of things that is so damaging and offensive. By suggesting that women don’t like their bodies they imply that if you do, you’re in the wrong. I mean, how preposterous that a woman be comfortable (gasp) in the skin she’s been granted. And then there’s the deviation between ‘too big’ and ‘too thin’ that varies between magazines and between measurements as close as a few centimetres. Photos of Nicole Richie in 2005 were, in one magazine, labelled as fabulous diet inspiration were in another emblazoned with headlines declaring her on her deathbed with anorexia. Can you say “mixed messages”?

    Is the human condition at such a low ebb that we must attack things that we can’t change? Or perhaps, things we don’t want to. What magazines have to understand, and more importantly, convey, is that there are no two
    women the same (that’s quite a newsflash, hey). That by our very diversity we are all, technically, ‘perfect’.

    There’s also something to be said for a woman’s own conviction. If I feel heavy or uncomfortable in my clothes and self, I’ll eat healthier and chop out junk, temporarily. On my terms. We are responsible for what we read and how we intepret it: this is not Cold War Soviet Union. We’re allowed to be okay with our bodies; to read these articles and agony aunts’ comments and think “that’s good advice, but I’m okay with how I am”.

    I worry about young girls today. Their exposure to magazines, to social networks, the amount of television they watch that is littered with skinny-minnies. They have so much more pressure on them than my generation, the biggest worry of which was how disproportionate Barbie dolls were. A fact only really noticed by parents.

    But how do we ‘solve’ this issue? It’s something that, truth be told, should never have been allowed to grow legs, under-nourished or otherwise. Do we get on the censoring bandwagon and stop all mention of diets in magazines? Or just crash diets? We need to stop bandying around the word ‘normal’: I’m a confident individual but that word terrifies me. There is no ‘norm’ and it angers me when people consider others ‘not normal’ and imply it’s a negative thing. It’s not, because when there is no norm, there can be none who are ‘normal’

  4. I grew up looking on as my Mother was on a diet or going on a diet. My grandmother became anorexic after remarrying a bully and lived on a diet of crackers cheese and mostly fags. She had a stroke in her 40s. I went through my teens feeling that I was a thin person in a fat body when I was a very normal size 12 but I was the wrong shape for 80s fashions. As I grew older I lost weight when I couldnt control my life. When I was desperately lonely in my first marriage I weighed myself everyday and living on cucumber and mustard sandwiches. When my second marriage broke down I went down to a size 8 and shivered constantly. Sitting down in a bath was uncomfortable because I had no bottom. And when my last partner left me my immediate thought was to lose weight but I couldnt because I was 16weeks pregnant. Models and images in magazines don’t bother me. I saw a famous model in Camden and she looked bloody awful, skeletal even. I lose weight because of whats going on inside of me not outside of me. I never weigh myself because I know I can become obsessive. That was the thing I most feared about my antenatal care-being weighed. I am on a healthy eating routine at the moment but its not a diet and I haven’t dropped a dress size. And I hope because I am happy in my life that I never do these things tro my body again.

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