Bringing up Hilary Mantel’s body

In 2004 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the LRB on saints, fasting girls and modern-day anorexia. I read it back then and was not overly impressed (when it comes to disagreeing with Mantel pieces in the LRB, I was way ahead of my time). Looking back on it now, I still find the piece disturbing. Dressed in clever language, it’s essentially a pro-ana piece based on the over-interpretation of what anorexia looks like from the outside (rather like Rachel Cusk’s more recent “anorexic statement” piece for the New Statesman). The arguments are wrong but they are finely crafted and seductive. Mantel, inhabiting a body she dislikes, presents the female anorexic as someone who is able to “opt out” of the restrictions placed on women because of their physical form:

Most anorexics do recover […]: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

As a recovered anorexic, I want to say “no, it’s not like that, not like that at all”. And indeed it isn’t. All the same, I read Mantel’s words and feel that I, too, have “fattened, compromised”. As though anorexia gave me ownership of my body and now I’ve lost it, albeit not as dramatically as I lost it once.

One year after leaving my third and final treatment programme, I got fat. I didn’t just compromise by attaining a “normal” size, a size at which I could menstruate and hence “become a woman”, as it was called. I went beyond it. I ate and ate because I was frightened that if and when I stopped, next time it would be for good. Friends who’d known me as an anorexic thought I looked healthy. People who’d never met me before – of whom there were many, as I’d moved to another country – just saw me for the lazy fat bitch I believed myself to be. Anorexic, I’d been tiny yet sharp and striking. Fat, I felt lumbering and obtrusive, yet invisible. I hated being fat. I have nightmares about it still.

My best friend at the time was thin and pretty, the Duchess of Cambridge to my Mantel. I felt embarrassed to be with her. I worried people would assume I only tagged along with her in a desperate effort to increase my own value. I longed to wear a sign which said “yes, I know she’s worth so much more than me”, right next to the one which said “I used to be thin, too, you know”. I wanted everyone to know that, while I might have been heavy, I wasn’t deluded. My assessment of my worth was accurate. I didn’t want to be seen as one of those stupid fat girls who doesn’t realise what others are saying. I made no attempt to “celebrate my curves”, instead revealing my own repulsion at the slightest opportunity.

Today I find it hard to disentangle direct responses to me and my fat body from broader cultural attitudes towards women who dare to take up too much space. I was defensive, sure, but people were rude to me, and to my triple-chinned face. A “friend” in a bar once told me I should sleep with his attractive best mate because “he might be out of your league but when men are pissed they don’t see fat birds, they just see a pair of tits”. A doctor, mistaking me for an Enid Blyton character, advised me to “cut down on the jam tarts and lemonade”. Even people who knew my background started to drop helpful hints about Weight Watchers and Slimming World. When you are fat, people assume it’s because you’re an idiot. One boyfriend kindly said “I don’t think you’re that fat. You’ve just got the wrong haircut”. He was right about the haircut, wrong about the fat.

The Guardian recently published an extract from Mantel’s autobiography, Giving Up The Ghost. In it, she describes how “you have to experience it to know what fat is like”. It’s easy to read this and think “but you’re Hilary Mantel! One of the most respected novelists in the English-speaking world! Why waste a mind like yours on thoughts about the ‘experience’ of fat?  Can’t you rise above it? Can’t you just live in the world of the mind?” Worrying about weight at all seems incredibly low brow, yet as Mantel explains, it is not a self-contained thought process, dependent only on one woman’s inability to accept herself:

When you get fat, you get a new personality. You can’t help it. Complete strangers ascribe it to you. When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to he placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.

These are, one assumes, precisely the kind of virtues which should restrain a woman from writing openly and honestly about the shameful objectification of her apparent betters, those women who are wealthier, thinner and, with bitter irony, more fertile than her. Fat women are supposed to know their place. Mantel knows it; she just refuses, quite rightly, to accept it:

You think people are staring at you, talking about you. They probably are. One of my favourite grim sports, since I became a published writer and had people to interview me, has been to wait and see how the profiler will turn me out in print. With what adjective will they characterise the startlingly round woman on whose sofa they are lolling? “Apple-cheeked” is the sweetest. “Maternal” made me smile: well, almost.

Such adjectives are, of course, far sweeter than those that have been sent her way over the past two days, following the Daily Mail’s distortion of her essay Royal Bodies. While the Daily Mail merely notes that Mantel “dreams of being thin”, some twitter users have been more direct in their pitching of fat, witchy Hilary against poor, waif-like Kate, sending the former messages such as:

Hilary is such an ugly, fat, butter, tooth pig. Die bitch!!

You fucking fat horrible cunt.

Hilary Mantel does not need to be reminded that her female body is not as acceptable as the Duchess of Cambridge’s. She knows this. She writes about it, sometimes beautifully, sometimes disturbingly. In Royal Bodies she calls for greater tolerance and restraint when we come to objectify and dissect the living bodies of other women: “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes”. It’s ironic, then, that she should face such abuse in return. If we feel fury at anything, it should be at the nasty, vicious way in which Mantel’s own body has been presented as a flawed instrument, and in some way indicative of moral depravity (“jealous old hag”). How is it possible to think like this?  How can disgust at “failed” female bodies be so deep-rooted? This is not about an absence of aesthetic appreciation; it is about hate. It is not something that can be combatted with Dove-style Real Woman size acceptance advertising junk. What’s needed is a genuine return of fire. God knows, Mantel has made it clear enough that she resents the body she is in. What more is she meant to give? How much should a woman apologise for failing to be thin and fertile? Because that, I think, has come to be the basis for Mantel’s perceived lack of respect. If only we’d had another Sarah Ferguson, the tabloid’s former Duchess of Pork. If Mantel had written about her, no one would have cared (you’d almost think it was Ferguson’s figure, and not her divorce, that made her a commoner again).  

In recent years I have both lost weight and had children. An office worker, I have avoided the terrible fate that would have been to end up like twice Booker Prize-winning Hilary Mantel. I might not write things which change how people experience the world, but when I do write, people won’t claim I’m motivated by an apparent “failure” to be appropriately feminine and small. Thus before I get older and fatten again, I’m taking the opportunity to ask what the hell is wrong with the Mantel haters. Today I can say it and mean it; tomorrow I might be just another fat woman who lacks the deference befitting her form.


5 thoughts on “Bringing up Hilary Mantel’s body

  1. As a woman who has no expereince of these issues, you’ve just blown me out of the water with the clarity of your thinking. I am now asking questions of society and of myself that I have never asked before. I feel educated. And I always like to come away from a blog-read feeling that. Thanks!

  2. Another thought provoking post, I am reminded in a round about way of my weight loss and peoples reactions to it.
    I lost weight through my own choice, my mum had a stroke at the age of 56, type 2 diabetes was a risk factor, i had to look at my lifestyle and my own risks. So via slimming world I lost 4 stone. The thing is ppl didn’t believe me, though of course always congratulated me. I went from over 16 to 12 stone, and people just didn’t see a big difference.
    My conclusion was because I didn’t feel fat, I didn’t act fat. Body image is so much about how we feel and the attitude we reflect to others.

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