When I sat down to write Fat Is A Feminist Issue 40 years ago I never dreamed, or feared, it would still be in print today. I naively hoped my book would change the world. By analysing and suggesting solutions to body and eating problems, I imagined they would disappear. But in truth, of course, when I was writing about girls’ and women’s body and eating problems, I was writing about inequality, too. And inequality is stubborn. It didn’t look it in 1978, at the height of what we now call second wave feminism. Everything was up for being rethought – families, bodies, education, science, medicine, class, racism, money, sex.
When feminism first appeared, I hadn’t much understood it. At school, we were encouraged to compete with boys for Oxbridge places while soaking in knowledge which would, when the time came for marriage, delight and please our husbands. It seemed ever so dull. Then, suddenly the Sixties spoke to women about their own experience. There was a spectacular protest at the Miss America beauty contest in New Jersey in 1968. There, a woman’s body was marked up as a cow ready for butchering, while a “freedom” trash can was ready for women to dump in bras and hair rollers, and pots and pans. It was the first hint that the way we personally felt about (and suffered) beauty, bodies and caring was a social issue. It looked like the world was changing. And when I published Fat Is A Feminist Issue, the message was taken to a wide audience through women’s magazines such as Woman’s Own, aimed mainly at working-class mothers.
Fat Is A Feminist Issue talked about our lived experience: how preoccupied we could become with eating, not eating and avoiding fat. Emotionally schooled to see our value as both sexual beings for others and midwives to their desires, we found ourselves often depleted and empty, and caught up in a kind of compulsive giving. Eating became our source of soothing. We stopped our mouths with food, and I proposed we could learn to exchange food – when we weren’t hungry – for words.
So far so good. Many of us started challenging the homogeneity of what constituted beauty. We stopped worrying and dared to live from our bodies. But we never saw the backlash coming, or the ingenious forms it would take, from the now rather innocent (“Because you’re worth it”) to the downright nefarious practices of industries that were growing rich on the making of body insecurity. And that was way before social media and the beauty bloggers with their, yes, millions of followers, would begin to reap money as daily beauty labour got instituted in a way that before then perhaps only a Hollywood makeup artist would recognise. Beauty work became relentless and, with it, the ubiquity of judgment and failure. Judgments and failures which, once internalised, destabilised girls’ relationship to their bodies and – as if that wasn’t enough – created an insecurity that hurt their minds.
The story of the past 40 years is grim. It’s a story of malice, of greed and of mendacity. Not content with destabilising the eating of many western women and exporting body hatred all over the world as a sign of modernity, the combined forces of what investigative health reporter Alicia Mundy so aptly termed “Obesity Inc” set about to create new so-called disease entities; these would medicalise and pathologise people’s relationship to food and bodies so successfully that vast industries would grow up to treat problems that these industries had themselves instigated.
In January we learned that one in three women in the UK won’t go for their smear tests. Why? Is it because they don’t know about them? No, they are invited by their doctors by text, email and letter. Why then? Because they feel so bad about their bodies.
This should alarm us. And yet sadly it doesn’t, because we know how ubiquitous bad body feeling is. It is constantly stoked by visual images which invade us, by pronouncements disguised as health directives, by blandishments to do, be, brand, mark ourselves in ways that reward not the human body as a place we dwell in but as an object to enhance the profits of the beauty, fashion, diet, cosmetic surgery, food and exercise industries, no matter one’s age.
So what has changed? Go back 20 years. The porn industry is being mainstreamed. Fashion magazines are normalising pornographic images of girls. Pre-teen girls with legs spread wide apart are looking to camera with a combination of allure, innocence and nonchalance. The girls who read them start going for Brazilian waxes. They don’t learn about labias and clitorises in school, they learn about how to put on a condom. Their genitals are not to be in view for themselves. And when they are in view, they are presented as inadequate and available for labiaplasty.
The search for ‘likes’ is an often desperate search for approval, for safety, for body acceptance
If we go back four years, we see the development of cosmetic surgery apps, games marketed to little girls in which they prepare for the surgery they will have when they are old enough. Already at six they will have been targeted with make-up and fashion and bras. Hourly vigilance is yet to come but the notion of a body ready and available for reconstruction is firmly planted. Indeed, many a girl will already have seen baby pictures of herself that have been digitally altered, so that the idea of “perfecting” and “fixing” becomes part of just what is. It is as normalised as the troubled eating she can expect in her journey through life.
By the time they become preteens, girls have been living on their smartphones. That is where life happens and the saturation of the screen with images and likes, with its constant entreaty to be approved of, should give us pause. Beauty labour has become part of girls’ and women’s lives and now that feminism is back on the agenda we can say, once again, part of our oppression. But, of course, it isn’t experienced like that. It is felt as the expression of personal agency, with the promise that looking good is doing good. But I know from the young women I work with that the search for likes is rather more troubling than that. It is an often desperate search for approval, for safety, for body acceptance – a frequently elusive quest.
If that young woman comes to parenting, frantic body preoccupation may have so invaded and insinuated itself into her that she will have schemes for managing food and managing appearance. Midwives and health professionals tell me they have noticed a dramatic change. Today pre- and postpartum mums can show considerable anxiety about their body self, so much so that the rhythm of early bonding is interrupted by rules and regulations, rather than the getting to know of one’s own body’s capacities and the wishes of the baby. For many, the parenting websites with their contradictory and commercially led “advice”, from recommendations for tummy tucks after your C-section to making a bespoke spreadsheet to track your feeding schedule, have turned postpartum into a straitjacket in which getting into pre-pregnancy jeans is the goal. And the anxiety the mothering person might well feel will be inadvertently transmitted to their baby, who will journey through life frightened of food and confused about their body self. A further tragedy.
This is then exacerbated by a rapacious food industry – from the diet promoters to the so-called clean eating movement to the manufacturers of non-food foods. The sole aim of the latter is to produce replicas masquerading as potato chips or cheese for children’s lunchboxes but whose chemical composition strives to stimulate their bliss point: the umami, sweet, crispy feel that means taste buds are stimulated rather than hunger addressed. Appetite, desire, is being undermined by the smells and tastes which beckon all day and yet often don’t deliver the nourishment we crave.
When you grow up absorbing the idea that food is quasi-dangerous, it is hard to know how to handle it. There are no end of experts selling their wares whose books and products end up generating enormous profits, and Weight Watchers’ newest push into the teen market has been criticised for potentially leading to teenagers becoming fixated on dieting. So, too, with other food and diet fads. The desperation that exists to be at peace and dwell in our bodies clashes with the knowledge that such schemas promote or reinforce confusion about appetite and desire. They don’t deliver peace. They deliver confusion. They deliver hurt.
If we weren’t continually assaulted by the merchants of body hatred, we would not be as vulnerable to the assaults
Another huge industry is the world fashion market, worth $ 2.4tn. The UK market alone is worth £26bn a year, with a £1,000 spend per inhabitant. I love clothes but how have we been persuaded to buy that much? The penetration of visual culture says how we look is so essential to our existence that we must spend, spend, spend. And that spend doesn’t include the cost of the clean-up from the fashion industry, the toxins in the water and the sweatshop conditions here and in China and Bangladesh. If the industry continues at its current rate, it will be using a staggering 26% of the carbon budget in 2050. I mention these statistics because it is sometimes possible to feel that when we are talking of bodies we aren’t engaging in serious economic and social issues, but we are. We are talking of large industries and excessive hours spent in persuading us to labour over transforming while attempting to live from our bodies.
It’s hard to get the figures that big pharma makes from products aimed at our bodily transformations. They guard them. But we do know that when they launch a diet drug, they spend a fortune marketing and defending it even when it doesn’t work or causes medical damage. I could go on. There is the cosmetic industry, the cosmetic surgery industry, the doll market, the role of internet beauty bloggers who have followers in their millions and of course the horror for youngsters of living online and being continually scrutinised. But I want us to think for a moment about #MeToo and Time’s Up, where we can see a line, not such a wiggly line, from pervasive bad body feeling to the compromising positions women have been put into in all the spaces where they work and love. If we weren’t continually assaulted by the merchants of body hatred, we would not be as vulnerable to the assaults. I’m not saying they wouldn’t happen; misogyny ensures that. But the shame, the hiding, the confusions that beset us would diminish and we would be stronger in our fightback and our fight to control our own bodies.
The body has become a political project. From rape as a weapon of war to the internal belief that we must be constantly wary about our appetites, to limiting ourselves individually and collectively because so much of our energy is misemployed, we have to act together to find ways through these minefields. The energy from #MeToo, with its reinvigoration of feminism, can help us say enough is enough. There’s just too much anguish, too much sorrow. We need more rage, more refusal and more love.