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

We need to call breast-binding what it really is

Yesterday I shared a post on the rise of breast binding among school-age females in the UK. I’m not supposed to call them young women. They’re non-binary individuals or trans men and that, we are supposed to think, is what makes the binding okay. Whatever the risks – “compressed or broken ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, back pain, compression of the spine, damaged breast tissue, damaged blood vessels, blood clots, inflamed ribs, and even heart attacks” – binding is justified because of the psychological benefits. There’s no other way, you see.

I look at arguments such as these and I literally want to scream.

I don’t disbelieve the accounts of pain and suffering. I don’t doubt the psychological distress of not wanting a breasts or a female body. I believe it all and empathise. Nonetheless, I find contemporary responses to this suffering unconscionable. Treating dysphoric young females as subjects in need of physical correction is both deeply regressive and misogynistic. We’re not giving these girls a chance. Continue reading

Thoughts of a person, with breasts

Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.

The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.

I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.

For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back. Continue reading

Why even wait? On John Lewis’s toddler bras

Update to this post – John Lewis have tweeted this:

So it looks like we may not be at that stage just yet …
***

2014-12-09 22_59_36-Buy John Lewis Girl Vintage Floral Bras, Pack of 2, Multi _ John Lewis

John Lewis are selling Vintage Floral bras at £8 for two. It sounds a total bargain, right? Unfortunately they don’t have any in my size. It’s not the usual hassle, where all the nice ranges stop at a C cup. In this case, the problem is age. I’m 39 and this particular range only goes from ages 2 to 5.

I find the whole thing incredibly depressing, and not just due to the obviously creepy aspect of it (who buys a bra for their toddler? And why?). I’m saddened because it cuts into that brief time when girls have bodies that are just bodies and starts to tell them, ever so subtly, what their true value will be. To be treated like a person with breasts is bad enough; to be treated as such long before you’ve even got there is worse.

Feminists have long identified the onset of puberty (the time when you’d usually get your first bra) as a particular flashpoint for girls. Suddenly you’re no longer “a child” – a mini human – but someone whose humanity will always be in question. This shift from unisex person to female object can happen quickly, and cause a great deal of distress (even for girls for whom the onset of menstruation doesn’t mean forced marriage and/or withdrawal from formal education). Growing breasts means becoming fair game, someone who is believed to have put herself on the market simply by existing. You might have no choice in the matter, but still you will be held accountable for the responses your body provokes. Continue reading

Kate Middleton’s “Royal orbs”: Is this really the breastfeeding support we need?

Whether or not the Duchess of Cambridge chooses to breastfeed her baby – and if so, whether or not she chooses to do so in public – is fast becoming one of those utterly pointless “national debates”, the entire purpose of which is idle point-scoring. True, for all I know Kate Middleton is at home this very minute, scanning the reader comments in the Huffington Post in order to decide what to do with her own breasts and where to do it, but I doubt that very much. I can imagine Diana being that bothered, certainly, if she thought it would simultaneously win the nation’s hearts and piss off the queen,  but not so much Kate. All the same, it’s a bizarre pressure to be placed under. Isn’t it bad enough to be part of a family that is constitutionally obliged to treat you like a brood mare? Continue reading

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

Femen’s misplaced belief in the power of breasts

Over the past few days I’ve been deciding what I think of Femen (this has involved a lot bra unfastening and re-fastening while I make my mind up). On the one hand I’m quite drawn to the idea of knocking down great oligarchs with a rebellious, well-aimed tit swing.  And on the other I don’t want to impose boob-centric values on others. Argh! Will it be okay if I expose just one breast? Come to think of it, should I just dig out one of my old nursing bras for ease of selective flashing? Finally, I’ve come down on the side of covering up (even though I’m writing this in the bath, so I’m not actually wearing anything. Just saying). What others choose to do with their bodies is their business – or rather it isn’t, but self-aggrandising, racist rhetoric isn’t going to change this. Continue reading

Ladies: Your boobs, explained

As a woman, I often suspect I am just too close to my tits. After all, there they are, just there, morning, noon and night. There are times I’ve longed for a break. Those few days after giving birth when the milk came in and I suddenly find myself with red-hot, rock-hard, agonizing boulders of pain – I’d have happily gone tit-less then. And then there’s early on, back at school when I realized what an object of ridicule these things made me to bra-pinging, girl-fearing classmates –  that’s not an experience I’d call soarawaytastic, either. But still, it’s not all bad; they provide occasional “adult” amusement, plus they’ve fed my kids. On the whole, I’m happy that my breasts are still with me. Like Bagpuss, they might be baggy and a bit loose at the seams, but I love them. Alas, this means I lack objectivity on all matters tit-related.

When it comes to campaigns such as No More Page 3, it’s worth noting that many of those shouting loudest are in possession of womanly bosoms themselves. This is clearly a worry. What can these people – these women – really know about the role of tits in society? Having never been mere passive observers, they’re simply too involved. What can they possibly understand about the representation of breasts and consequent responses to them? Obviously, a man is required to explain all this (preferably one without moobs). Continue reading

Neil Wallis: Voice of the common woman (and her tits)

As a white, university-educated, middle-class feminist, there are many things about which I don’t give a toss. My children’s health and earning enough money to pay the bills, for instance. When it comes to those things, I really couldn’t give a monkeys. I prefer to let the “real women” worry about such mundane trifles. Meanwhile, my children starve / die of cholera (I pay so little attention I can’t remember which it is), which gives me time to ponder bigger issues, providing they’re not too big. Page 3, Special K, the pay gap – that sort of shit I can handle. I think about these things all day long (there’s nothing else to do except mooch around the coffee machine in my imaginary Bridget Jones office).  As for the real things – FGM, forced marriage, slavery – now that I can’t cope with. Thank heavens, then, for people like Neil Wallis. Continue reading

No More Page 3: The aspects that might still get on your tits

That No More Page 3 campaign – it’s all getting a bit bandwagon-y, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be in on it now and frankly I’m not sure it’s cool any more. Indeed, now that Bryony Gordon of the Telegraph has pinned her colours to the mast, I’m starting to wonder whether I should do an about turn and whip ‘em out for the lads. In fact, just in case you’re curious… (btw, getting that link to work is a nightmare. I suspect it’s because my body’s too bootylicious – or should that be boobylicious? – for it). Continue reading

The nappy cake: A metaphor for modern motherhood

What’s the ideal present for a new mum? Personally I’d recommend a cabbage. Your breasts hurt to buggery in the first week and, having tried all the remedies available (including that massive gel soother that my sons now think is a necklace), I truly believe nothing beats a good chilled cabbage leaf in the bra. Buy it for all first-time mums you know; they’ll thank you later (hell, if they haven’t thrown all the “warmed” leaves away, they could even make you a thank-you soup).

Do not, however, on any account buy them this. It is a nappy cake. A cake made out of nappies. What better metaphor for modern motherhood could there be? But that’s not a reason to buy it. We don’t want metaphors. We’ve just been through labour. We’re hungry. We want REAL CAKE!

The nappy cake looks nice – how thoughtful! Something pretty but you’ve also considered the practicalities – but don’t be taken in. Don’t try eating it, for starters (or for mains – cakes are for pudding). And don’t try putting it on your baby, either; you need to unwrap it first. And yes, it’s in the unwrapping that such all metaphors come to life:

Motherhood: pretty on the outside, possibly overlaid with some disturbing stereotypes (that “yummy mummy” sign, for instance), but overall, it looks ace. And cute. Then you truly get into it and find things don’t fit back together how they used to, and suddenly it’s all full of shit, and you’re left alone with it and no one cares because they still just remember the original cake.

It’s a bit of a bugger really, isn’t it? But hey, don’t despair. This is only because you had the original cake to begin with; if you’d never had it, it would never have fallen apart.

*waits a few moments for everyone to digest this deep philosophical observation*

Well, having given it careful consideration, I’m not going to extend this torturous metaphor any further. I had been hoping to eventually reach the conclusion that motherhood is, ideally, more like a cabbage. But alas, I can’t. I know when I’m defeated.

What I’m really trying to say is, nappy cakes look rubbish, a crappy retrosexist dream of a present. What we actually want is a colossus pack of disposables and an even bigger slice of real cake. That and a cabbage. Don’t forget the cabbage.

Motherhood: the more I think about it, it’s actually just like the end of Crackerjack.