New Statesman: Anorexia, breast-binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The Pool: Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting wiser about body image

The last time I was ID’d when buying alcohol I was 32 years old. This may not sound too bad, except before I’d had the chance to respond, the cashier looked up and said “actually, it’s alright – I just hadn’t seen your face.”

I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, other than that I didn’t look under 18, which ought to have been fine, since I wasn’t. But of course I went home and scrutinised my obviously-not-underage face. “You ought to be pleased,” said my partner, “it must mean your body looks younger than your head.” I told him this wasn’t helping.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who worries about looking old, not least because that’s the kind of thing old people do. I’ve got enough to worry about, body-image wise – the tops of my thighs, my uneven smile, acne scars and a midriff I can’t even bear to touch. I had always assumed that by the time I was bothered about crow’s feet and a saggy neck, I’d have stopped noticing the rest.

I imagined there being a finite amount of body image worry a person could have. You were allocated it at birth and once it was used up, you were no longer capable of giving a toss. I even fantasised that having suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout my teens and twenties, I’d have “used up” my worry faster than everyone else. Soon I’d be safely on the side of not caring. Now, at 41, I’m starting to fear this might never happen.

Read the full post at The Pool

The Pool: Instagram “fit moms” aren’t the problem – policing pregnant bodies is

Performing motherhood, you soon discover, involves positioning yourself at extremes. If you can’t be perfect, you must excel at ineptitude. Just bumbling along in the middle, being “good enough,” simply will not do.

Take our approach to health and beauty. At the time of writing this I am rocking a “full-on slummy mummy” vibe. I have one breast significantly larger than the other, thanks to my baby son’s insistence on feeding from one side only, and I’m housing a family of nits, kindly donated by my shaggy-haired seven-year old. I can’t remember the last time I exercised, beyond the odd, panicked pelvic floor clench. Some might call this slovenliness; I call it “taking an organic approach.”

At the other end of the spectrum we find the women currently being hailed as the “fit moms.” Like their predecessors, the MILFs, they don’t see making a real, live human being with one’s own body as any excuse to let oneself go. On the contrary, women such as Sia Cooper, owner of the Instagram account @diaryofafitmommyofficial, are to be found working out on the very day they give birth (apparently giving birth itself doesn’t count as a workout, at least if you’re not doing it in the downward facing dog).

Read the full post at The Pool

Eloise Parry was not stupid

I am so sorry for being so stupid.“

Eloise Parry wrote these words in a text to her tutors, hours before she died of an overdose of the diet pill DNP, following an all-night binge-and-purge session.

Eloise Parry wasn’t stupid. She was bulimic and she was frightened. I can imagine doing what she did. I think a lot of women could.

Right now I could provide a very long list of the dangerous things I have done because of an eating disorder. I am, however, too embarrassed to do so. They are not dangerous in a way that lends itself easily to romanticisation. There is nothing poetic and edgy about them. They are, by and large, secretive, disgusting things. Continue reading

Almost Famous, real women and the normalisation of self-hate

I wish I wasn’t pear-shaped.

My nose is too fat.

Laxatives are definitely the answer.

Why can’t I be thinner?

Does all this sound familiar? If you’re a woman, it should. While these statements were taken from the walls of the ladies’ loos in a burger bar, they’re meant to represent what all of us are really thinking. Go on, admit it. We hate ourselves. We’re women; it’s what women do.  If you’re not drowning in self-loathing, you’re not in the club.

Staff at Almost Famous, Leeds, have now painted over their fresco of female insecurity, in response to a blog by food writer Helen Graves. The wall was a shitty idea, poorly executed. Nonetheless, you can’t blame the owners for trying. Why not cast an ironic eye on female self-hatred?  It’s what all the cool kids are doing. Twenty-five years after the publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth – bright, fiery and full of anger – women’s hatred of their bodies is seen not as a scandal but an inevitability. We no longer deny that women hate themselves but write it off as part of what women are. Continue reading

Bikini bridges and thigh gaps: On eating disorder concern trolling

This evening I found out what a bikini bridge is. I wasn’t seeking out this knowledge; I was reading the news and it popped out at me, unbidden. The trouble is, now I can’t ever un-know it (to give you a chance, I’m not linking to the piece in question). Bikini bridges will henceforth be stored in my brain alongside thigh gaps, muffin tops, bingo wings, cankles and a million other terms which exist solely to make women hate their bodies a great deal and their minds even more.

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Here’s what’s really wrong with Holly Willoughby’s “dress”

When I first heard that the BBC had apologised for a “revealing” dress worn by a female presenter before 9pm, I felt extremely annoyed. What kind of world is this? Of all the things one could complain about – Justin’s House, poverty porn, the mere existence of Bill Turnbull – why take issue with a flash of boob? Hell, there wasn’t even any nipple involved. What next? A primetime modesty code? Is it just me, or is it nothing we haven’t seen before at this time – except usually the boob-flasher’s not actually doing any talking?

Having since examined the apology in question, I’m less distressed. It strikes me as more of a fauxpology. The BBC is sorry “if some viewers found Holly’s dress to be unsuitable” but “felt the dress she wore was glamorous and wholly appropriate for the occasion”. So really, if you’ve got problems with a bit of female flesh, deal with it, matey. We don’t like you being sad but seriously, get a grip. Continue reading

On Dove, shampoo and self-esteem

This evening I am the parody of a spoilt middle-class feminist who can’t stop herself from getting in a tizz about relatively minor stuff. Oh yes, I am in a strop about a hair care advert. And yes, I know it’s not [insert your favourite “properly” bad thing to happen to women – MRAs are especially good at this]. But still, every now and then, providing you’re in a position to do so, it’s worth getting annoyed about the small stuff, if only because the small stuff remains really sodding annoying.

I’ve just been watching Dove’s latest advert for shampoo. It’s special shampoo because it repairs damage to your hair follicles, smoothing over all the rubbish bits using only the power of science and one quarter moisturiser (which is, as we all know, one of the key elements in the periodic table). Anyhow, I can’t find a link to it so you’ll have to trust me on this. In all probability the shampoo’s amazing. It wasn’t that that irritated me. It was the fact that because they weren’t advertising something linked to bodies or skin or ageing, Dove couldn’t be bothered to slum it with ‘real’ women in their ad. There wasn’t a single minor flaw that isn’t really a flaw only now you’ll think it is because Dove’s made such a big deal of it in sight. This lack of consistency really pissed me off. Either patronize us one way or another. You can’t do both! Continue reading

A brief guide to baby bumps

Baby bump: a stomach swollen to beyond its usual size due to the presence of a fetus. Precise size of bump will vary, dependent on age of fetus, genetic heritage of stomach owner and sheer bloody randomness. And, um, that’s about it as far as baby bumps are concerned, only that’s not saying much. So here are some further facts I’ve compiled, mainly out of annoyance at all the inexplicable admiration that the Duchess of Cambridge is getting merely for having a small one:

  • If you are famous, it is not possible merely to go out and about while in possession of a bump. You “debut” said bump, then “flaunt” it. To be fair, you might then go on to do a nude magazine cover with arms “tastefully” covering your tits but at this point why not? Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
  • Small bumps are, generally, good.* For instance, if you’re the Kate Middleton-as-was it’s really classy. Reporters can’t shut up about how petite it is, with the Express claiming that Kate “will be the envy of many pregnant women as she’s still modelling a tiny figure despite being six months gone”. Meanwhile reality TV star Kim Kardashian “blooms”, that is to say she is distastefully large. So too are Jessica Simpson, Lara Stone and “Channing Tatum’s wife Jenna Dewan” – pregnant porkers, one and all. Bet William’s relieved he didn’t pick one of them to produce his heir.
  • It is possible to “dress” a baby bump. For instance, in this picture Kate has dressed her bump in a “gorgeous blue cocktail dress”. Unfortunately she’s ended up having to put the rest of herself in it as well – meaning it doesn’t look any different from just her wearing a dress – but it’s the thought that counts, at least until they develop invasive intra-uterine styling.
  • Alongside housing a fetus, one of the main purposes of a baby bump is for use in advertisements for body lotion and financial services. Or any other advertisement seeking comic effect via the owner of a bump grumpily demanding rubbish food combinations in the early hours of the morning.
  • Once you have a baby bump, you are public property in a way that you weren’t previously. People will smile benevolently, even take the liberty of patting your stomach. It’s annoying, yes, but worth remembering that those who beam at you on the bus one week will be glaring at you the next if you dare to stagger on with a screaming newborn. So you still have to “enjoy” it while you can.
  • Baby bumps can be used for making political statements. You could write “100% pro-choice” on yours. Or “future anarchist leader”. Or you could just put “baby on board”, “under construction” and/or “it started with a kiss”. But know that I will judge you for it.
  • Once a baby is born, a baby bump becomes part of what is known as “baby weight” i.e. that weird, liminal fat that clings to a woman’s post-pregnancy body but isn’t really her. According to Grazia, you can “get rid of your post-baby mum tum with the Gowri Wrap […] an elasticated corset that helps restore your pre-pregnancy stomach” and costs £75. Or you can just not. Personally I’d recommend not.

So those are my baby bump facts. Personally I miss having one but do appreciate the whole “being able to lie on your own stomach” thing. And also the “being able to get drunk” thing. And there’s also the “having the actual children around” thing. So yes. Swings and roundabouts, really.

* Small bumps are sometimes rubbish and a sign that you’re a bad mother who’s not taking care of herself aka her baby (see Kate Moss).

Anti-feminist, transphobic, just plain nasty: I think I’ve just found the worst diet book ever!

People, behold! For I have made a great discovery. I have in my hands this very minute the worst diet book EVER!

<dramatic pause>

Now admittedly, I’ve not read all the other diet books available. In fact, I haven’t read very many at all. I’ve been on loads of diets but tend to go for kamikaze, self-devised ones (I might self-publish a book of them one day). However, I fail to believe that any other diet book can possibly be as bad as Dukan: Love Your Curves.

I started reading this book while waiting in a queue at the post office. My local post office happens to be inside WHSmiths so I decided to grab a random book I had no intention of purchasing to distract me during the wait. Rest assured I was under no illusions that Dukan: Love Your Curves would be a self-esteem boosting tome that would encourage me to adore my own arse. I’ve fallen for this crap before. I’m wise to it. Two years ago I bought Gary Taubes’ The Diet Delusion, thinking it would strengthen my resolve not to buy into this diet nonsense any longer. Turns out The Diet Delusion is merely the belief that any diet other than a low-carb one is the way forward. It’s rather like if Richard Dawkins were to stop midway through The God Delusion and go “aha! But as for fairies, you should totally believe in them! I do, don’t I, Tink?” Continue reading

Louise Mensch’s Unfashionista: A missed opportunity for un-learning

Every now and then, fashion-y  types decide that the most fashionable thing ever is to pretend to be anti-fashion. Witness, for instance, the so-called “anti-fashion” movement of the 1990s (which, from what I can work out from Wikipedia, involved dressing as though you were either very poor or in a CK One advert, providing you were both thin and not actually poor). I’ve always thought this kind of thing was not just bollocks, but snobby bollocks, the kind of thing a manipulative playground bully would try on (“wear this! Ha-ha! Fooled ya! What we actually meant was wear the precise opposite! It’s un-fashion!”). But hey, what do I know? I’m properly unfashionable, as opposed to being fashionably unfashionable, which is something completely different. Continue reading

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.
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Bump painting: Gimmick or potential pro-choice statement?

Until this week, I didn’t realise bump painting – having one’s heavily pregnant belly decorated by a professional face painter – was “a thing”. I knew about those plaster casts some women get made, and that some pregnant women choose to wear “statement” T-shirts (“Under Construction”, “Baby on Board”, “It Started With A Fuck” – I may have tweaked that last one slightly). But I didn’t know that some were actually going in for having their tummies made into temporary works of art. This is annoying; if I had known, I’d probably have had it done myself.
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Eating disorders: Some thoughts on being de-programmed

Yesterday I found myself in a room with a woman who was telling me that it was permissible to eat. She also told me that it was permissible to put on weight, and permissible to grow as you age, and permissible not to have rules about every single item of food that you buy. It was all very radical and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It felt a bit cultish, or rather un-cultish. It was as though I was being de-programmed, made to unlearn all that I’d come to believe. What she was saying made sense, yet it sounded so odd. I kept thinking “but that’s not what I’ve been told. How can you be right and everyone else be wrong?” Continue reading

Closer magazine: The world’s worst post-ED clinic “treat” ever

So yesterday, 18 months after I decided to go for treatment, I finally attended my first “proper” session at the eating disorders clinic. It went well and I feel positive about it. Therefore, once it was over, I decided I ought to treat myself. Hell, I deserved it. Because obviously, walking into a health centre, sitting down with a black coffee and spending 90 minutes moaning about your messed-up life requires huge amounts of courage (although thankfully not too much in the way of stiff upper lip).

You may be wondering, as was I, what constitutes a suitable post-ED clinic attendance treat. Not food, obviously, because Food Is Not A Reward. But then what? Fags? Booze? Porn? No, because all that would lead to potential cross-addiction (or whatever being into everything bad is called these days). How about a nice, good book? No, because I’ve still not finished my current non-fiction (Delusions of Gender) nor my fiction (The Stranger’s Child) and besides, when I’m allowed something new, it’ll probably have to be something boring like How Not To Have A Totally Ridiculous Attitude Towards Food. Continue reading

Anorexia: Crap illness, great metaphor

As a teenager, the actress Celia Imrie suffered from anorexia. Years later, in an interview with the Telegraph, she expresses regret at what she put her mother through:

I’m so angry with myself for putting her through that. Because it was my own fault. I had made myself ill […] I get very angry now – and quite unsympathetic – because it’s such a terrible waste of time and energy.

Part of me feels sorry for Imrie; it’s sad that she bears this burden of guilt. All the same, another part of me wishes she’d keep her feelings to herself. These might be her personal sentiments, and as such they’re valid, but they also happen to chime in with a broader undercurrent of opinion about anorexia, and it’s one that causes real harm. Continue reading

Kate Moss: Just like you (and every woman, ever)

A 16-year-old girl feels pressured into posing nude for a national publication yet it’s not until she’s in her late thirties, and a very famous model, that she reveals her misgivings. It’s all rather sad, partly for the girl in question, Kate Moss, but mainly for people like Alex Needham, culture editor of the Guardian, a man who risks having his enjoyment of groundbreaking art spoiled by the fact that bare-breasted ingenues have voices as well as tits.

In response to Moss’s own comments regarding a shoot she did for The Face in 1990, Needham has stepped in to reassure her that however bad it made her feel, she “took one for the team”:
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Chantelle’s baby weight: Look, I know you’re interested really

It has come to my attention that Chantelle Houghton is struggling to lose her “baby weight”. Chantelle – the woman famous for not being famous, and hence a postmodern symbol for something or other – features on the covers of New! and Now, looking like a normal person with a stomach and therefore totally rubbish. New magazine even quotes her as saying “this is the worst time of my life – I can’t stop comfort eating”.  If, like me, you happen to clock this headline while on your way to purchasing something far more serious (such as cheesecake), you’d be forgiven for thinking “well boo sodding hoo! Some of us have real problems” (such as the absence of cheesecake). In the grand scheme of things, Chantelle’s belly is a non-issue, so why am I still thinking about it at all?

Magazine covers such as these ones really piss me off. They’re sexist, spiteful and bullying. They’re also meant to be trivial, yet they don’t feel trivial to me. There’s something deeply wrong with an environment in which these images and headlines are peddled as entertainment. Moreover, the effect such magazines can have on the self-esteem of young women can be appalling. I think all this yet I don’t bother to say it very often. Mention it and you just get dragged into a debate about the legitimacy of caring at all. Continue reading

It doesn’t count if… The parts they edited out

Don’t you just hate it when you’re all set to have a grumpy, humourless feminist moment and you happen to find the thing that was meant to annoy you vaguely amusing instead? That totally pisses me off – but not enough to put me in the grumpy, humourless feminist mood I was aiming for to begin with. Pah! (That is about the level of it – a wry smile, then a “pah!”. Where’s the Sturm und Drang in that?)

In case you’re wondering I’m referring to that new “viral” ad for KFC. In It doesn’t count if… a young woman runs through various situations in which eating “forbidden” foods is permitted, all of them ridiculous (it doesn’t count if you drink green tea afterwards, it doesn’t count if you’re wearing gym gear etc. etc.). Ha, thought I, yet another food company making a massively unfunny joke out of women’s shitty relationship with food. I will not find this amusing. But then I did, a bit. It actually is what some women – myself included – do, and as such it’s very well-observed. I suspect the only thing some viewers might miss is that when women say these things, they already know it’s a lie; this is their sad, wry joke, not KFC”s. Continue reading

Anorexia, bulimia and pop star photos

Last Sunday my brother had his 40th birthday lunch in an Italian restaurant. As our starters arrived, I glanced across to the table next to us and spotted a young woman who I’m pretty sure was suffering from anorexia.

I hate writing that – “pretty sure was suffering from anorexia”. As though thin women aren’t constantly being over-diagnosed by ignorant observers who know nothing about the inner lives and fears of others. Celebrity magazines are the worst for this; one week a young starlet is in “size zero hell” (usually because she’s breathed in while wearing a bikini), while the next she’s “flaunting her curves” (having breathed out again). I don’t want to make these pathetic, faux-concerned assessments of others, especially since, when I was anorexic, I was paranoid that everyone else in the entire world had an eating disorder, too (at least I think I was paranoid). All the same, something about this particular woman really struck me. It was her face rather than her body. Pinched and haunted-looking. Her eyes looked so dead. She seemed so lonely amidst all the food and conversation. She looked cold and scared, and it reminded me of a fear that sometimes I’m able to forget. And then her order arrived. It wasn’t quite as she’d expected it to be. She questioned the waiter, her voice rising, this mix of nervousness – she didn’t want to cause a fuss – and terror – she had to say something, absolutely had to. I was afraid she’d cause a scene but she didn’t, eventually backing down. She ate only the garnish of a meal that perhaps she’d been planning for several days. Throughout it all her hollowed-out hands were shaking. Continue reading