One of many seemingly trivial things that infuriates me is the sight of the strappy summer top or dress. This is an item of clothing under which most women would want to wear a bra and yet, unless it is the fashion, bra straps are not meant to be on show. Up till now there’s been no real solution to this. Strapless bras slip down, while transparent bra straps have never fooled anyone. However, the bra-free alternative — nipples at your navel — is even worse. So you see these clothes in shop windows and in magazines and after a while you start to think “is it me? Do other women have breasts of helium? Who — apart from the woman who’s buying the smallest size — is meant to wear these things?” It is a mystery and like many fashion-related mysteries, it’s one that will make you feel a failure at womanhood for no reason whatsoever. Continue reading
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.
Does this blog make me look fat? I only ask because, in a recent flurry of hostile comments from men’s rights activists, I’ve found several telling me I’m “fat and ugly” or “fat and bitter” or – well, lots of things, but it’s always “fat and [something]”. So go on, give it to me straight — do these posts look plump to you? Are these the kind of opinions which might be caught celebrating their curves? Go on, I can take it.
It’s strange that, of all the things that could be used as an insult, “fat” comes up so often. Hell, I can think of a million things that are wrong with stuff I’ve written, but none of them have anything to do with the size of my thighs. When it comes to attacking women whose views you don’t like, “you’re fat” remains the weapon of choice. To be fair, I’m not surprised. It has two advantages: it doesn’t demand any intellectual effort yet it manages to convey female inferiority without even seeming to do so (yes, you can say “you’re fat” to a man but it won’t mean the same thing. Indeed, chances are he might actually be fat, which wouldn’t make you any less of a judgmental fuckwit, but a different kind thereof).
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
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
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
You know when you see something crap that has nonetheless made the originator masses of money – the latest Turner Prize-winning sculpture, or Fifty Shades Of Grey – and you can’t help thinking “bloody hell, I could do that!”? Well, I do that all the sodding time. There are a billion and one things I could have done to make my fortune. Of course, I haven’t done any of them, although I’d like to think it’s because I’ve had better things to do. After all, what’s writing a bestseller compared to reaching the final level on Jak and Daxter 3?
One thing I still think I could do – and just might – is write a diet book. Whereas mommy porn is probably much harder to write than you’d imagine (I got stuck on “oh my” and “oh crap”), I reckon diet books are a piece of piss. I’ve invented loads of diets in my time and most of them have worked. Any diet works as long as you can brainwash yourself into thinking entirely fucked-up thoughts. Continue reading
The linguist Eric Hawkins once compared MFL teaching in our schools to “gardening in a gale”. Whatever seeds are “planted” risk getting blown away the moment a pupil leaves the classroom and is surrounded by the “gale” of English. It’s an apt, if depressing, metaphor, although clearly there are ways in which to challenge it. After all, learning a foreign language doesn’t have to be anything like using English. You use the second language in different ways and in different contexts. It enhances rather than undermines your experience of English. The truth is, while the cultural dominance of English does make things harder for MFL teachers, things could be a lot worse.
I’m thinking of the “gardening in a gale” image now in light of recommendations that children as young as five should be given body image lessons. I read this and find myself thinking “yeah, Mrs Parkin who’s teaching adjective endings to Year 10, you think you’ve got it bad? Try doing this!” Because while a second language is a second language, you only get one body. It’s either acceptable or it isn’t. What they tell you in the classroom is either true or false. And they can tell you to accept yourself as many times as they like. None of this matters if the moment the bell rings you’re back in the real world, struggling against the “gale” of diets, size zero celebrities and fat girl jokes.
As you may have guessed, I’m not particularly in favour of these lessons, mainly because I suspect they’d be a bit useless, what with them not getting anywhere close to the root of the problem. Not that I know how one would get to the root of the problem. Feminism is probably a good start. Perhaps, if we’re using language metaphors, feminism provides the “second language” which, eventually, we should all be speaking. It requires a development of our critical consciousness and a new way of valuing others, women and girls in particular. But all this is a bit poncey and theoretical, certainly if at the end of the day you’re faced with the Special K girl in her red dress insisting that no, you can’t really be hungry now you’ve had one of my mini-breaks. Au contraire, you’re just a weak-willed loser.
Do you know what else pisses me off about these lessons, though? This might sound ridiculous but I suspect that, deep down, there’s something quite sinister at work, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. It might feel well-meaning but ineffectual, but to me, lessons in self-acceptance just scream “know your place!” A politician preaches “self-acceptance” and this is what I really hear: Being thin and beautiful – it’s not for the likes of you. So yeah, accept yourselves, little people. Be happy the way you are and don’t aspire to be any more. Meanwhile watch the thin people continue to claim the prizes. We’ve no intention of doing anything to counter that.
Perhaps we should be encouraging people to “accept” everything else in their lives which doesn’t measure up to the ideals thrown in their faces. How about “poverty acceptance”? “Inequality acceptance”? Why don’t we just encourage young people to grow up without any hopes and dreams? Won’t that make them happier, given that we can’t be arsed to make their lives better in any real, meaningful sense? After all, this is what we’re doing with body image. We don’t attack the diet industry; we just tell children to get over themselves. Is it me, or is this not grossly unfair?
Well, I’m finishing this post because I need to get on with some language-y stuff. Then I’ll leave the study, chat in English to my partner and kids and stuff my face on a lunch about which I’ll later feel guilty. Brilliant. Gardening in a gale. That metaphor is my life (fortunately, I never bother to do any actual gardening. God knows what metaphor I’d have to find for that).
Hey everyone! I feel fat today! Isn’t that just a terribly pathetic, boring, self-absorbed thing to write? I mean, even more than the stuff I usually write. But anyhow, it’s true. Today, folks, I feel fat.
There’s no point saying it to my partner; he thinks I look fine and besides, he’s still jobless and has proper shit to worry about. No point saying it to my sons; they’re too little to understand and if they were old enough, it’s hardly a message I’d want to share. No point saying it to my friends; they’ll just point out that I’m smaller than them (even if I’m not) and that by saying I feel fat, I’m making them feel fat. So I have to shut up about it, and I will, apart from here. Here I’m fat fat fat fat fat.
It’s not as though I haven’t had genuinely crap things happen to be. With some very selective editing, I could cobble together a properly tragic life story. Hey, if I were more successful in life, I could make it into a real “overcoming the odds” drama-fest. But I’m not. And sad things aside, today I’m more sad about feeling fat.
There may be lots of reasons why I feel fat. I’m stressed at work. I worry about being a good enough mum. I worry about money. I worry about my partner. I worry about my extended family. An experty-type person would say “ah, when you worry about your weight, you’re transferring your worries over into something you can control”. But that’s not even true, or it doesn’t feel true. I feel fat and it’s not a feeling I believe I can control.
To feel at odds with your own body is horrible. It creates a low-level, buzzing anger at yourself that’s with you all day, an anger that flares up every time you pass a mirror or rest your hand on your fat, stupid stomach. Or now, as I write, I pause and rest my hand on my chin and it’s a double chin and it’s wrong and it shouldn’t be on me. I feel infested with a moral weakness that everyone can see. And, quite obviously, this makes me want another bag of crisps. Or possibly a doughnut.
At the moment, I feel like I’m not really me. I’m occupying flesh, too much flesh. What a ridiculous way to think and feel. If I’d been told I had six months to live, would I still feel this way? Or if my children were sick, would I then? Actually, I know the answer to that one. I would still feel this way. I have a picture of me, in hospital with my youngest when he was five weeks old, hooked up on tubes with a then-undiagnosed illness. I was scared that he might die. I was also, albeit to a lesser extent, scared that my arms might look fat in the photo. What a complete and utter tosser!
So now I’m annoyed at myself for being fat, and I’m annoyed at myself for feeling fat. And that of course will mean I need to eat another bag of crisps. Jesus. Call myself a feminist? Is it just me? Do other people get like this? Well, all I can say is, what a stupid way to be.
This April, the UK edition of Glamour featured the Hunger Games‘ Jennifer Lawrence on the cover, looking suitably youthful and unattainably beautiful in a bejeweled designer body-type-thingy. I’ve just received June’s edition (I subscribe, y’see, so I’m ahead of the game) and it includes the following reader’s letter on its Mailbag page:
Hips? Check! Boobs? Check! Thighs that don’t look scrawny? Check! Thank you for putting Jennifer Lawrence on the cover – so refreshing to see a gorgeous, curvy woman.
Yes, thank you, Glamour (although the Good Men Project’s “small-breasted women” man may still want to have words with you). As for the rest of us, we are all eternally grateful that 0.1% of women featured in your magazine are not frighteningly thin.
Of course, the Glamour editors are not afraid to give themselves that much-deserved pat on the back, too. The Mailbag subheading sets the tone:
Love yourself (we do!) April’s issue made you realise that you’re gorgeous inside, outside, and just the way you are.
(btw, they didn’t credit Billy Joel for that last bit. They should have.)
Obviously, while it’s nice for your readership to get a little Real Woman ™ boost, you don’t want them getting too cocky. That’s why “LOSE 10lbs” remains in massive bold print on June’s cover, right next to JLo’s perfect head. 10lbs seems to me to be a strangely exact number. If I were to lose 10lbs, I’d actually look quite ill (mind you, I weighed 10lbs less than I do now at the end of breastfeeding my second child, and the jury was out on this. Some colleagues thought I was at death’s door and others thought I looked brilliant. The main thing is everyone felt happy to deliver their personal view right to my face, so I could collate the various opinions and decide on my next steps in my “how to please everyone by being the right weight” strategy. It’s always good when you don’t even have to ask for consumer feedback).
Alas, I digress. The main thing here is Glamour, and the importance of feeling good as a Real Woman ™ while also being conscious that you’re still too fat, regardless of what weight you actually are. It’s vital that, as women, we’re all able to do this. So thank you, Glamour. Thank you so, so much.
Hey girls, fancy some nutrients? Not from eating, obviously. That might lead to mid-afternoon sluggishness or mess with your blood sugar or whatever the new euphemism for “make you into a fat, ugly pig” happens to be. What I mean is, get some nutrients through your body lotion. It’s so the way forward.
You may laugh, but using body lotion is a big step for me. At the height of my anorexia I didn’t use body lotions or bath oils or any such “indulgent” things. I was, quite seriously, worried that the oil would sink in through my skin, get into my bloodstream and create more fat cells. What a total moron, eh? Guess who didn’t do GCSE biology? But still, it’s good that I’m over that and can look forward to “nourishing” myself with the appropriate beauty products in future.
Yesterday evening I was walking home from Bargain Booze, a bottle of wine in my rucksack and the Milky Way Magic Stars bought for my sons stuffed into my gob (btw, not deliberately trying to pose as shit mum from Shitsville here – just setting the scene). Anyhow, it turns out that close to my house there’s a billboard advertising a new Dove body lotion with the tagline “The Dove lotion with nutrients that last 10 days”. 10 days! Can you imagine? (The advert also contains a photo of the classic Dove “real” woman ie one who could be a model except for one minor flaw. This one has gappy teeth. Still, she looks happy because she’s feeling good about herself. It’s the “nutrients”, y’see. That and not being a total minger).
The advert doesn’t tell you precisely what the nutrients are. For all we know, the lotion’s one quarter lard. Does it matter? ‘Course it doesn’t. We’re Real Women(tm), not fucking scientists. It’s not like we give a toss as long as we’re smothered in the stuff and feeling sufficiently “pampered” to endure the endless wait til it’s possible to even attempt putting our tights back on (NB no one ever discusses the agony of nylon friction, but they should. Worse than PMS, I reckon).
Of course, with this type of ad you have to read the small print. This enables you to think “ha! I’ve read the small print which proves I’m not a moron who buys just anything!” (then you tend to buy just anything, apart from things without small print). In the case of the Dove advert, the small print says “Based on clinical trials with applications of 3 times a day”. Clinical trials! That sounds good, doesn’t it? The “3 times a day” bit sounds a little hardcore, though. I’m not even sure I always remember to give myself the obligatory Brazilian three times a day. But then I worked it out. Nutrients? Three times a day? It’s meal replacement body lotion. Got to be.
Ensuring that girls get their three meals a day is no doubt part of the whole Dove strategy of bringing self-esteem education to girls via the purchase of Dove products. It’s just this kind of altruism which saw Dove come top in the advertising category at the Campaign for Body Confidence Awards last week. I mean, adverts such as this might still freak out stupid anorexics who didn’t do GCSE science, but that’s probably fewer girls than you’d think. Particularly since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.
Anyhow, tomorrow I’ll be stocking the larder with Dove.* Of course, there is also a broader moral to this tale, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling it to you. And the moral is this: next time you can’t be arsed to go to Bargain Booze and are tempted to drink the cheapo brandy left over from Christmas, force yourselves, girls. Get up off that sofa and move. You never know what you might find.
* I don’t really have a larder. It’ll be the kitchen cupboard and the desk drawer in my office, although the latter’s still cool, since putting “indulgent treats” in there will make me a bit like the girl off the Special K ad.
You could be without even knowing it. After all, it’s an only recently made-up syndrome, created to fill pages 107-110 of May’s edition of Red.*
Semirexia, like all pretend diseases where journalists have lazily added -rexia (“drunkorexia”, “tanorexia”, even “excessorexia”), is not really defined in any clear sense. It’s basically feeling a bit rubbish about your body and food, kind of how you feel when you read glossy magazines full of skinny models, like, for instance, Red. But that’s just me being flippant. It might look like it’s no more than the low-level misery we all experience when we’re encouraged to be thin but obviously want to eat (so for most readers of such magazines, that’ll be “life”). But actually, as author Rosie Green informs us, “the causes of semirexia are complex”:
Easy answers to its proliferation are our culture’s ever-growing obsession with celebrity (we’ve all felt that funny mix of admiration / self-loathing after seeing Cameron Diaz in her hot pants). Or perhaps its the advertising industry’s increasing reliance on the airbrush. Maybe its even our own ‘alpha woman’ pursuit of self-improvement?
Yeah, Rosie, maybe, maybe. Here we are, idiotically comparing ourselves to A-listers, being manipulated by advertisers and harbouring ideas above our station. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us or “the advertisers”, and it’s something to do with the thundering, not-so-subtle message of magazines such as the one you’re writing for?
To be fair, Rosie doesn’t believe it’s just down to silly reasons like “wanting to look good in a bikini” (tch! where on earth would you get the idea that that’s important?). She’s talked to a health psychologist specialising in eating disorders, who lists possible causes as “a reaction to your childhood, stemming from a family member’s relationship with food or constant talk of dieting and focus on body image within the house”. So in short, if it’s not your own stupid fault you’re “semirexic”, it’s your mum’s. Well, no, Red. I’ve had enough with this. Let me say this quite clearly: A LOT OF THE FAULT FOR EATING DISORDERS LIES WITH THE LIKES OF YOU. WITH THE EDITORIAL LINE OF MAGAZINES LIKE YOURS. IT’S NOT US, IT’S YOU, YOU, YOU.
Throughout and immediately following my decade of anorexia, I would have vociferously denied any connection between the my illness and glossy magazines. Linking what I’d been through to “the fashion industry” or “the beauty myth” would have felt like a gross trivialisation of what I’d been through. I’d never wanted to look like Kate Moss. I’d suffered genuine childhood trauma and didn’t doubt that that was the main cause. I still don’t. Even so, it was never the whole story. That much is obvious to me now.
The simplest way of saying it is this: if a publication suggests that, by default, its readership wants to be thinner and needs to restrict consumption of food, then said readership is more likely to want to be thinner and to restrict consumption of food. It’s not a case of just preaching to the converted. The publication helps set the standard for what you believe to be normal and healthy. So if, for instance, on page 67 of said publication you see a photo of a thin woman “looking good in a bikini” alongside a heading that says “Lose that last 7lb, Eat your tummy flat, The only 5 exercises you need etc etc” you might think oh, in order to look good in a bikini, I’ll need to change how I think and feel about my body and food. And you might end up feeling really rubbish about both. And the causes of this are not complex. It is partly about “wanting to look good in a bikini”, but only because Red is assuming you should (yes, this appears in the same edition of Red. As part of an advert for the next edition, where presumably you can totally forget about all this “semirexia” hand-wringing and just get back to the business of being “semirexic”).
Thankfully Rosie Green is herself no longer severely “semirexic”:
And what was it that changed such an ingrained perspective?
No longer reading any of the publications for which you still write?
I had to give up control of my body and front up to the fact my weird eating habits could affect my babies.
Way to go, Rosie. Let’s exchange one ridiculous ideal of perfection (thinness) for another (self-sacrificing motherhood). And let’s make mothers like me, who try to be okay parents despite still exhibiting “weird” habits (eating and otherwise), feel that bit more useless. Motherhood. Bloody great.
Reading things like this almost make me want an eating disorder just to have something to throw in the faces of people like Rosie Green. Sometimes I give up, I really do. I am so sick of glossy magazines taking the moral high ground with eating disorders, blaming everyone else while pretending that their own hands are clean (step forward, Alexandra Schulman). Skinny model gloss world is not the place for a serious discussion on eating disorders. On the contrary, it’s the place you go to when your own ED is running out of steam. When it needs a little boost. Semirexia. Sounds so pathetic. Stuff you, Rosie Green. We want super extreme megarexia and we want it now.
* I tell a lie. Page 109 actually features a skinny model advertising Scholl shoes, in-between all the shit about how feeling bad about your body is all your responsibility.
… and some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers.
So sang Morrissey in 1986. I love The Queen is Dead – it’s one of my favourite albums – but I’ve never quite got this song. Is it a metaphor? If so, for what? And if it isn’t, isn’t it a bit bloody obvious? Well, evidently not. It might seem obvious to you and me, but some girls being bigger than others is a source of endless fascination for readers of Closer, Heat and the like.
Sometimes, when I’m getting dressed, I stand in front of the mirror and pretend I’m a celebrity in Closer (look, it gets boring round here. I get lonely. Don’t judge me). Wearing just my bra and pants (“beachwear”) I breathe in, clench my stomach muscles and picture the headlines: “the return of size zero”, “lollipop ladies at large”, or, if I happen to be flavour of the month or they want an interview with me, “best beach bodies”. Then I breathe out, relax my gut and picture next week’s issue: “piling on the pounds”, “lovesick Glosswitch turns to comfort eating”, or, if I’m in favour, “celebrating her curves”. It really is that easy. The strange thing is, at no point in this process do I look simply “okay”. That measure simply does not exist.
Anyhow, now I’ve written all this, I bet “some girls are bigger than others” is a metaphor and I bet it’s really obvious and I look really stupid.
Just to change the subject, is it just me, or is it quite bizarre how much of a tosser Morrissey is these days?
I am not on a diet at the moment. Although, to be honest, I never am. I am frequently, however, attempting to “cut down”, to “eat healthily”, to “learn good nutritional habits that will last a lifetime”. I’m not doing that at the moment, though, mainly because I’m now too thin. This will last about a week, then I will be normal aka “too fat”, and it will start all over again.
Being marginally underweight is ace, at least briefly. Several slices of cheesecake separate you from the horrific mundanity of having a “normal” figure, and each one tastes bloody delicious as you chomp your way back. This is different to long-term thinness, of the sort I “enjoyed” in my anorexic teens. Back then I was too damn hungry to be happy. I never allowed myself back to normality. Now the times I’m at my hungriest coincide with me being at my biggest, and feeling at my worst, while my skinny self always tucks into food with gusto.
The journalist Polly Vernon is thin all the time, but where’s the adventure in that? What a monstrous amount of mental effort to waste on staying in the same place, when you could be relishing the highs and lows of constant loss and gain. I like being thin, but I also like not being hungry. I don’t like having to choose, and I’ve spent years trying to think my way out of this.
This is the thing “they” never admit, none of them, all the slimming magazines and diet food manufacturers and nutritionists and gurus: being thin involves being hungry and being hungry involves feeling crap. It’s not something you get used to. It’s not something you can get around by eating particular sorts or combinations of food. It’s not a mental challenge you can intellectualize your way out of. Every diet “success story” involves a person thinking about food all the fucking time. It’s a triumph, of sorts, to do so and not to eat, but it’s not much of one. No one should underestimate how awful feeling hungry is. It’s not just physical pain, it’s mental torture.
Don’t believe that if you were a better person, morally stronger, an apple could make you feel full for hours. It’s not magic. It doesn’t work like that. The same goes for a protein bar, a bag of Special K minis, a Weight Watchers pro-points “treat”. Each is only that big and your needs are greater (but don’t forget – you also need to be smaller).
Don’t believe either that if you were a better person, morally stronger, you wouldn’t care about your size. You don’t live in a cultural vacuum. Being told to “celebrate your curves” is as meaningful as being told to celebrate all your other “failures”, because hey, they make you the beautiful person you are. And you’re meant to think that that’s not patronizing, not at all. It’s just an admission you’re not one of the special people, and somehow it feels arrogant not to accept this. But it’s normal not to want to feel invisible, or mocked, or pitied. It’s not arrogant at all.
The starve/binge cycle I’ve settled into these days is marginal, as is my weight gain and loss. Perhaps no one even notices it but me, but I’m glad I do. That way I can enjoy my cheesecake. And on the days when I’m not desperately hungry or feeling fat, it frees my mind up to think of other things. Like, what does it feel like to be Victoria Beckham or Kate Middleton, with all that money and nothing to eat?
I bet it feels crap.