I remember my distinct feeling of revelation when I considered, for the first time, that weight and health were not always related. Just as advertising will tell us ‘youth’ is inherent to beauty, so is thinness bound so tightly to health (and youth, and beauty, in fact) that I could not tear them apart in my mind. You lose weight, and gain health.
This message glares at us from every laptop and phone screen, from a society that ferociously and ruthlessly sells us solutions to our every so-called flaw. And let us not ignore the elephant in the room: this is marketing for women alone. It’s the message women have grown up with, really grown up with, plastered in every shop window or bus stop, every user manual or fitness app, every stock Google image and every celebrity: be thin. We are in a world which, increasingly, has media prepped for consumption at every turn, be it consciously or creeping around in the peripheries of our minds. And these media can be said to tell us, amongst so many other messages detrimental to our state of mind, that to have this elusive, perfected, youthful beauty, you must be a glowing, effortlessly healthy woman. And to be naturally, effortlessly healthy-looking – you are thin.*
Parcelled into this goal of thinness, are, of course, many other things: for example the fact that this thin-beauty aesthetic is to be the object of a heterosexual male gaze, or indeed how thinness works alongside the message that women must be small(-er, always smaller), or quiet(-er), to take up less space or to accommodate others. And if unconvinced, or interested, I have a 13,000-word dissertation about messages in women’s magazines to back this up.*
We… praised one another for what we weren’t and could never be
The surreptitious normalisation of women needing to be healthy for youthful beauty and societal (male) validation, and in turn being thin to prove your health and beauty, presents itself in so many facets that they become easy to overlook. At fourteen, we’d go after school to the local shopping centre and stand in the Topshop changing rooms, trying on dresses for someone’s fifteenth birthday. I would hear my (much) smaller friends in next-door cubicle, saying, “Oh God! I’m so fat!” and I’d calmly call back to her, by default, “Don’t be silly, of course you’re not!”, clutching at my hips and boobs, wistfully thinking that if she were the satanic “fat”, what the fuck was I?
It was as if she’d called herself a serial killer (or something you believe to have a concrete value of immorality) and we duly leapt to disclaim it (“You’re not fat at all, stop it! Honestly, look at my tummy!”). We would pander to one another, grasping for validation that we were a ‘suitable’ size and shape. We tiptoed on and on, around fatness and thinness, and praised one another for what we weren’t and could never be. It would be like smiling sweetly at a friend’s straight, dark hair and quipping, “Oh shut up, don’t be silly – you’re completely peroxide blonde – and I love all those curls, I’m so jealous!”
Meanwhile, I never consciously took in the wall-to-floor pictures of models enclosing us in every shop: draped and angular, photographed to look comfortably uncomfortable, effortlessly up-to-date, and thin (Model wears: T-shirt, UK Size 6). Even better, American brands like Hollister and Victoria’s Secret sashayed into fashion, telling me that an “EXTRA LARGE” skirt would rip on my hips, whilst Vic’s aforementioned ‘Secret’ seemed to be that apparently, my boob size was too big to exist. A confusing contradiction from a brand whose bras have push-up pads and promote illusions to make boobs look desirably larger… But I was too large? GCSE maths did not help me with this equation. My personal favourite: USA store Brandy Melville has one size only. One size! But which size? WHY that size? Whose size? Their bikinis were nipple covers, the dresses like confusing t-shirts. In fact, I have no friends, of any size or shape, who can reliably shop there. Another point awarded to the elusive, ‘perfect’ female body type in its unattainable and completely unfounded glory.
In parallel, around that time, mental illness presented disordered eating in our peers, worming into our year group and gently pushing itself round the gossip mill. I don’t remember ever thinking or talking about how our own constant body-shaming was perhaps related to the dangerous weight-obsession: illness was for other girls, not us with our frivolous sleepovers and Topshop sale-raids. Yet ‘fat’ was still a stock curse word and in tandem, bit by bit, the stories of in-patients and diagnoses swept closer to the fringes of our friendship group, brushing past us, uncomfortably near, in family members and good friends. Anorexia diagnoses ticked past, but ignorance and distraction meant distance was kept: real, serious illness was still for others, and we overlooked our own eating behaviour in the light of others’ graver symptoms. I wasn’t ill, but simply weeping as any girl would over my lack of will-power, making charts and calendars to tick off how ‘well’ I’d eaten, and a friend offered to help hold me accountable by getting me to text her updates of each of my meals. It was quite, quite ludicrous and yet genuinely felt like ‘success’ (read: thinness) would be a solution to anything in my life. A friend went out with my prom date, and I felt sure that it was because I was not as thin as her.
this is normal behaviour for women
The normality of it all is striking; I was not underweight and my day-to-day, like so many others’, was not seriously hindered other than in persistent misery and guilt. I had people to go to, and we would snap one another back from diets or restrictive eating, while around us at university, the ‘wellness’ craze truly took hold. My insides pinched in panic as friends mentioned regimes, cutting gluten and dairy, or “trying to be good” (‘good’! Good, how? Morally good? Manuka honey and gluten-free substitutes make you a better person, do they?). I would, against my better judgement and all prior experiences, write up another eating plan. By then, YouTube was a daily tool in any facet of our perfection-seeking quests, and we devoted time to videos about meal prepping guides and work out schedules and then felt like absolute shite when we could not stick to a damn one of them. We needn’t dwell here on the fact that each video and voice would dictate something contradictory to one another, each with a new set of commandments that would solve it all.
Let me reiterate here: body image and weight took up a despicable amount of mental space and energy, but we were never a serious cause for concern in the scheme of things because our eating, no matter how miserable, was not a ‘serious eating disorder’. No, the habits we developed as teens concerning diet and weight were just a small, normal facet of a society with persistent marketing and centuries of ingrained traditions about who and how women should be. It was me and everyone else: this is normal behaviour for women. Normal behaviour.
Even when conscious of my habits, I was sceptical to unlearn them after being trapped in such a passive, defeated attitude. We were stuck in a tunnel of “need to be thin, wanna be thin, won’t give up trying to be thin ‘cause I wanna be happy and thinness is the way to achieve that”. It seemed unreachable just not to care. Actual health, and feeling good, weren’t in the deal.
I began to take each day as nothing and anything, to forget about food altogether
However, slowly, tiny changes made huge impacts. YouTube was cut instead of gluten, as was anything on Pinterest or Instagram that brought back the little tinny woodpecker in my chest that said, “be better, change, be something else”. It is an effort to unlearn something that is constantly reaffirmed to you in every media outlet and many, many conversations, but somehow, the habits started to chip and crack. I read Ruby Tandoh’s articles about enjoying food, sought out art and activism by diverse women*, avoided Deliciously Ella like the plague itself, and promised not to buy into franchises which included restriction. Instead, I began to take each day as nothing and anything, to forget about food altogether, and always to take a sec and nibble at something I really felt like. For me, it was fruitful, ‘cause that meant bits of whatever, whenever, including a Chinese takeaway for breakfast after a heavy night out. It also turned out that my five years of indigestion were not a gluten allergy at all, but just stress. Fancy that! Being so stressed about food and weight that you cause yourself physical pain – oh wait, yep, seems legit, that’s literally just like women sacrificing comfort and contentment to strive to be a perfected object of male sexual desire all the fucking time for centuries.
Time spent with my male friends helped. They’d Snapchat my double chin whilst I watched TV and laugh at me, and make me laugh too, or ask, “Brown or black shoes with this suit?” instead of “Oh God, my dinner is showing in this dress, isn’t it? My arms look awful…” Their goddamn uncaring privilege was inspiring, and it normalised very different behaviours. Ideal male body standards are certainly present in media, and dangerous, but cannot be reduced in the same way simply to a human having to take up less space to be attractive to the opposite sex. I took leaves out of their confident books and slowly forgot to care. I ate whatever was there and drank wine, and sometimes didn’t, or did, or whatever, but I wasn’t thinking about it. Mindfulness didn’t do it for me: I was just being mindless in the most blissful way.
‘Fat’ stopped being a curse word, eventually, and was allowed in my mind to be just another thing about a human, like ‘brown-eyed’ or ‘kinda tall’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘likes weird cult films’. It takes stern pep talks with myself (and, sometimes, others) to maintain the mindlessness of diet and weight, and that is long. Like, honestly, it’s bloody relentless, all these pictures of really thin people living their best lives. But, even knowing that people close to me have been so ill because of disordered eating, it’s an ongoing effort to stop myself yielding to it all and whipping out a calendar to see how long I can go without cheese or something. What’s more: lest we forget I’m in my twenties, well-educated about mental illness, with a dissertation about women in media under my belt, and a good bit of practice in fighting society’s bullshit mantra that ‘thin is healthy is youth is beauty is male validation is success’. Christ, no wonder at a mere fourteen years we were using ‘fat’ as an insult and then going home to cry that we probably were fat, and that it was awful, and would never change.
Bodyweight and image are things women battle with constantly, like rain and sun
My mother noted recently that women talk about their size like one talks about the weather: a bland time-filler, or something to drop in as if it carries no weight other than what’s packed, or not, on your abdomen, thighs, boobs. Bodyweight and image are things women battle with constantly, like rain and sun, finding one haven of self-esteem only to be thrown back against a thrashing, cold tide of messages expecting us to be whichever made-up projection of ‘perfect’ is currently in fashion. And these messages are still perpetuated, in glorious surround-sound, all over. With certain friends, when shopping, or getting ready for a night out (activities women are traditionally encouraged to do together, often), those old fat comments echo back, leering from grey Topshop changing rooms. “Oh my God, look at this belly!” my friend sighs, patting her stomach. “It’s awful, I ate so much earlier…”
It takes every fibre of my being not to scream and shake her shoulders, not to grow hysterical from a decade of seething anger at our conniving, soul-snatching bitch of a society; not to shout in my friend’s gorgeous face that she is quite simply just what she is and it doesn’t matter, really – and is it saddest of all that we are manipulated into body or food worries, when there’s so much else out there to do instead?
I wouldn’t lie and tell her that she’s good at sport: she can’t catch a fucking tennis ball when you throw it from a metre away. She is still worth just as much as a human.
So, my days, I’m not going to lie and tell her she’s not quite rightly made of fat and flesh and muscle, of bones and skin, and of tiring, full days of walking, running, laughing and crying, and talking and dancing and eating with her friends, her family.
*Notes, sources, references
I recognise that eating disorders are not necessarily linked directly to media messages about women’s bodies, either, and can be triggered by a whole range of experiences. If you want information about or support for disordered eating, visit sites such as Mind, Time To Talk, BEAT Support Services, or Rethink Mental Illness.
Feed your mind
Unlearn the things you’ve been taught to believe. Get used to images that go against what you see in mainstream media.
- “Bodyposipanda” Megan – body positivity and diversity champion; over a million followers. Click here for her articles, Q+A and columns on The Unedit
- i_weigh – campaign started by all-round superstar Jameela Jamil, asking women to look at all the things they’re made of – not just weight
- Jessamyn – body positivity in yoga
- Laura Thomas – weight-inclusive nutritionist; “Fuck food fear”
- Fancy Feast Burlesque – sex and body positivity; Miss Coney Island 2016
- Florence Given – artist: centred on racism, feminism, social issues
- The Every Man Project – “A visual conversation about diversity”
Watch! “Big Mouth” (Netflix): I Love My Body
Although having researched predominantly messages about (and for) women in women’s magazines and print media, I am drawing parallels here to the messages and images in other media, including social media.
- Ballaster, Ros and others, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and The Woman’s Magazine (London: Macmillan, 1991).
- Englis, Basil G., Michael R. Solomon and Richard D. Ashmore, ‘Beauty Before the Eyes of Beholders: The Cultural Encoding of Beauty Types in Magazine Advertising and Music Television’, Journal of Advertising (1994), 49-64.
- Ferguson, Marjorie, Forever Feminine: Women’s Magazines and the Cult of Femininity (London: Heinemann, 1983).
- Lindner, Katharina, ‘Images of Women in General Interest and Fashion Magazine Advertisements from 1955 to 2002’, Sex Roles (2004), 409-421.
- Thompson, Mary J, ‘Gender in Magazine Advertising: Skin Sells Best’, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal (2000), 178-181.
- Winship, Janice, Inside Women’s Magazines (London: Pandora Press, 1987).