I am a reasonably thin woman and every ‘news’ story of a celebrity losing weight feels like a tiny betrayal. That sounds mean-spirited, doesn’t it? It sounds like an ugly way to live. Especially since I couldn’t give a toss what the people I know and love weigh. It just doesn’t occur to me to think about it; the only person whose weight I care about is my own. Until of course I check the news and see that a famous woman – it is, let’s face it, almost always a woman – being applauded lavishly for “slimming down”, for “showing off her incredible weight loss”, for “flaunting a jaw-dropping new look”.
Today it’s Adele. The breathless media commentary triggered by one Instagram post from the singer (in which she herself makes no reference whatsoever to her “new look”) manages to be both infuriating and utterly predictable. Not to mention the fact that Adele reportedly went through a divorce last year, which is second only to ‘death of a spouse’ on the Holmes-Rahe scale of major life stressors. Attributing her weight loss to unhappiness with her size, and lauding her for it is, if nothing else, insultingly presumptuous.
Examining my personal sense of betrayal closely (which is, after all, the only way to exorcise it), I know that it is not the famous women themselves who are letting me down by losing weight. Of course it’s not; I meant it when I wrote that the only person whose weight occupies my thoughts is mine. It’s the media that applaud them for it who are at fault; it’s the message that a woman only achieves real, true success when she is both talented and beautiful. I simply long to see women whose extraordinary gifts and record-smashing careers are deemed to be enough. Enough for them to be left alone. Enough for them to look how they damn well please. Enough for their eating habits and exercise regimes or lack thereof to not become tabloid fodder. It’s society that’s betraying me here. I know that, and yet seeing it play out still makes me despair.
There’s an ad I keep hearing on the radio – I forget what for – which includes the line: “we’ll soon return to a time when flattening curves happens at the gym”, and you will be unsurprised to hear I hiss at it like an angry cat every time I catch it. It’s such a thoughtless, throwaway line, and that’s the evil in it – we have internalised these messages so, so well. And I hate that I’ve been taught to detest my “curves”. I hate that I’ve been taught to loathe the softer parts of my body, to long for concave and fear convex. Because aside from its inability to tell imaginary threats from real ones, and its aversion to all kinds of pollen, it’s not a bad body and it functions mostly as I want it to. I write this steeped in privilege – petite, white, middle-class – so I can only imagine and fear what it’s like for other people.
I wasn’t born feeling like this, and I didn’t spend the first six or seven years of my life feeling like this. Some sort of fatphobia must have entered my field of awareness while I was still a child though; I was a ‘chubby’ kid – and the fact that I can type that without even thinking about it is in itself evidence of our deeply fucked-up narratives surrounding weight and health. No doctor ever expressed concern about my weight; the ‘chubby’ label did not come from any health professional as far as I can recall, it came from elsewhere.
Justifying criticisms about weight with the words “health concerns” is flawed at best. There are health risks at both weight extremes; you absolutely cannot gauge someone’s health just by looking at their figure. And when you bring mental health into the equation, as you very much should, the “thinner is better, fatter is worse” argument really starts to come off its scaffolding. I have been very thin twice in my life – the first time my diet probably looked fairly ‘healthy’ (lots of veg, little in the way of fat and sugar) but my periods stopped, and the second time I was so mentally unwell I was living on the occasional slice of toast and a lot of adrenaline. Healthy, right?
No, this isn’t about health, it’s about power. On one of my favourite podcasts, How To Fail With Elizabeth Day, writer Marian Keyes discussed weight loss in terms that had me punching the air in sheer relief:
“I think it’s where sexism, capitalism and puritanical-ness intersect in a particularly, horrifically juicy way to teach women to hate themselves… [there’s an awful lot of money] to be made out of women being hungry, being exhausted from going to, like, five spin classes a week before work, and keeping them too ashamed to speak up in meetings or to ask for what they want. It suits men to have women perpetually unsettled… It’s one way how men hold on to power.”
Keyes is absolutely correct: it is convenient for the patriarchy if women are unsettled. It’s classic ‘divide and conquer’ tactics: create a beauty standard for women, celebrate the ones who conform to it, hold them up as perfect examples of womanhood, and make those who don’t conform spend time, money and extortionate amounts of mental energy trying.
Go deeper into this and you find that it’s about restricting appetites of all kinds, really. If you force people into a strange relationship with something as essential to their survival as food, they’re less likely to risk making space for their other desires. They’re less likely to fight for ground in other areas. They are, in short, less of a threat to you. Pit women against each other, condition them into self-loathing and shame, and you can rest safe in the knowledge it’ll be a long time before they have the confidence to question the structures that confine them. It takes strength and courage to be a woman who won’t be confined, a woman who refuses to go hungry, a woman who wants more than she’s given.
And I know it’s not just cis women who are told relentlessly that their bodies are wrong. A capitalist patriarchy is a many-headed monster and the smell of its blood gets into everything. I also know that tabloids reporting on celebrity weight loss is neither the world’s nor feminism’s most pressing problem right now. But the smaller, seemingly-less-serious digs at women are powered by bigger, more oppressive forces. “Women are better when they’re thin” needs to stop going unchallenged. We’ve internalised it, it’s too late for us, but maybe it’s not too late for our daughters. I do not want the children I may or may not have learning to hate their bodies; I don’t want them sentenced to a lifetime of weighing and measuring, of counting and subtracting, of hunger and guilt. I want them to know that their brains and talents and hearts are more than enough.
We think we’re making progress in dismantling the patriarchy, burning the serpent one neck at a time. Then another head appears in another place, and we have to pick up our swords and torches and enter the fight once again.