Given that I am up this mountain with not a whole hell of a lot to do most of the time, I find myself glued to the tabloids online and I now know far more than any human being ought to know about Jordan and Peter, for example. I am trying very hard to be on her side (since, clearly, we are supposed to have a side) because she is a woman, a career woman, having to make compromises for the children and all that. But it is very very hard, especially as he comes across as such a sweetheart. Perhaps she would say; ‘Well, it’s easy for him to come across like that in public while I’m doing all the work. Men get credit for being with their children while women never do.’ But, even so…
My point, however, is that in reading all this crap all the live long day I realise that it is almost exclusively about being fat or thin. All the photos are of celebrities who have become one or the other and most of the articles are about how to lose weight or, occasionally, they are personal stories about the horrors of anorexia. It seems completely surreal to me that the same paper can run a long piece about one poor journalist’s completely terrible life long experience of starving alongside photos of an average-ish sized celebrity with a big splashy headline about ‘piling on the pounds’ and then another piece about how to lose a stone in a week. When you’re just trawling around on-line you realise that this stuff is a very bizarre national obsession. And nobody seems to be addressing the issue.
The reason for this is that they have no idea what the issue is. One can be flippant and say we’re all too fat because food is more plentiful and much yummier than it used to be (true-ish) or that fast food has ruined the nation’s previously ideal meal times of perfect family fun and unity. But both these things are bollocks really, just symptoms of the problem. I read an agonising piece by Liz Jones in the Mail about her own anorexia in which she concluded that it was too late for her but she hoped other people wouldn’t fall in love with being emaciated and starved in the same way that she had. The language she used about not wanting the body of a woman and stuff suggested she had had some therapy but, again, therapy treats the symptoms. Only psychoanalysis treats the cause. I desperately wanted to write to her saying that it isn’t too late. That a year or two in analysis (which she can easily afford since she’s staff at The Mail) would have her happy, normal weight and in a half-decent relationship. It seems so defeatist somehow to say – I just love my illness.
The problem, presumably, is something wider. Newspapers tap into national obsessions and feed them. Some people think they create the obsessions but, having worked for lots of them, I don’t think that’s true. So, a national obsession with eating and our weight must, I think, be linked to a general sense of inadequacy, imperfection, uselessness. Overfeeding seems to me to be a way of infantalising ourselves, hoping that if we cling to mother’s breast and take enough nourishment things will be okay. That is, if the world and the society I live in have no place for me, no need of me, I’ll run back to Mummy and hope that it will go away. People refer endlessly to ‘comfort eating’ and I think it is true that people are attempting to find comfort from a world they don’t fit into in the food they love and hate with the same passion as they might love and hate a person, a family member, yes, their mother. Conversely, some people refuse to be infantalised, refuse to take anything from this imagined mother who is perhaps, in their imagination, not a nice idealised person but a monster who might feed poison, and they feel a sense of control in independently, non-reliantly refusing food (anorexics talk a lot about control and fat people talk a lot about lack of control). But what these things have in common is that women (and it is mostly women with these obsessions) feel that they do not have any control over their world. Therefore they either go back to an imagined idealised mother who feeds them all the time or they seize control over an imagined evil mother and refuse the food. But either way, they do not feel wanted or needed by the modern world as they are. Take me as I am is something that no over-eater ever feels.
Even in what some people describe as a post-feminist world, a vast number of women still have no feeling of power over their own environments and, by environments, I mean even the constraints of their own bodies. It would be possible to argue that women no longer have a fixed role and must organise a huge number of different things – career, children, relationship – in order to be fully functional, that the always idealised ‘before’ when women were at home and men worked would be better for them (and a lot of the woman-hating tabloids who abuse women in both obvious and subtle ways would surely argue this wholeheartedly). But more likely is that society’s general misogyny makes women, especially young women having to come to terms with their sexuality, feel despised whatever course they take. Just think of the labels. Go out and have fun, be sexy, have sex – slag. Work hard, be ambitious – ball breaker. Settle down with kids – house wife. Try and do all three and you are damaging your children, failing at work and becoming a ropy old whore. There are no terms of abuse for men who do any of these things. Oh, and don’t forget ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ which apply to all of the above who do anything to irritate anyone else. The only thing that seems to matter, that allows us to fit in and not be insulted is to be some kind of fashionable perfect shape. Everyone will praise us (‘You’ve lost so much weight! You look great!’) and it will all be okay. Except it doesn’t work like that. They hate us anyway (‘She thinks she’s so perfect’).
No wonder then, that in a tabloid world that claims not to want us unless we are a perfect ten, topless and enjoying it (which also involves enjoying being denigrated for that) we feel a lack of control and a lack of real choice. It is interesting to note that women who, against the odds, have managed to find a place in the world and feel truly content with that are neither fat nor thin. That place is found, I think, by trying to ignore the horrors of tabloid (and, of course, many other) social constraints, thinking of ourselves not as pornified sexual objects or any other cliché, but as people making the best of the time available in a short life. Of course, for people who have already set out over or under eating they will need a lot of help in finding that place for themselves. And it will not involve forcing themselves to eat less or more, but trying to see themselves more kindly, gently and with sympathy (that sympathy will not come from any social stereotype but from finding a more accepting internal voice). Liz, call me!