When to battle the bulge?

// 30 December 2007

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With Christmas comes the obligatory over-indulgence that means for the next six months whenever we break wind we can smell a turkey dinner. As New Year’s Eve approaches and our waistbands become tighter, we reflect on our overwhelming gluttony with guilt, and decide that we need to take action. Every year it’s the same – the end of the festive season forces us to reflect on our behaviour, our life, and vow to make changes for the future. When I asked my grandmother what resolutions she would be making for the New Year, she said she only had one; to wear a new jumper. Honest, I thought. Achievable. Maybe my own goals should be as realistic; gain more weight, exercise even less, eat unhealthily? But then again, I’d rather not die before my 25th birthday if that can be helped.

For many, then, the New Year will begin with us filling our boots with celery and carrot sticks in pursuit of the physique we’ve spent the past 12 months wishing we had. Sorry, rather in pursuit of a BMI that is in the healthy range. Unfortunately, however, the word diet has so many negative connotations that for women like myself, women who need to lose weight before it becomes detrimental to their health, it is something to be resisted. Kira Cochrane, women’s editor of The Guardian, wrote an interesting column on this issue for the New Statesman this month. Cochrane, who’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 34, worries that if she does not make a change to her lifestyle, she may be damaging her health permanently:

“This brings me to the dreaded word “diet.” Dieting strikes fear into my soul – and not just because I know it’ll involve imbibing vats full of bean sprout juice. No, diets scare me because they involve buying into something hateful, a system that makes women feel terrible about themselves…Now, before you say it, I know that men are made to feel crap about their bodies, too; absolutely, no doubt. Yet there are some differences. One, a man’s achievements are not judged through a prism of his size to the extent that women’s tend to be. Two, the “ideal” male body shape is predicated on a healthier template – strength and a wee bit of brawn – rather than utter diminishment. By comparison, we women are taught from an early age that our success is dependent on our looks. In this context, looking good has nothing to do with strength or agility or being healthy and everything to do with being “bird-like,” “delicate,” or than modern confection, “size zero.” In other words, it’s about negation…And, having been taught that our bodies are our most important asset, and that the key is to remain slim, small and unthreatening, women very often (not always, but often) naturally proceed to police themselves and others.”

Dieting is not just about being healthy. It should be, but it isn’t. As a fat woman, I am called names in the street, and I’m sure the man who shouts “fat bitch” isn’t doing so out of concern for the ring of fat around my heart. I’m not so fat that I need to be air lifted out of my house, but wobbly enough that it is considered an acceptable way to treat me, and “my kind.” I understand that there are health implications, that I do need to lose weight, but what I resent on a personal level is the idea that I am not accepted by society for the way I look; that the only way I will lose weight is if I am pressured into taking action so as not to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities. Dieting is seen as a way to achieve the aesthetic ideal perpetuated by women’s glossies and the lollipop head brigade. It’s about showing your ability to exercise self-control and restraint over your body. And so, it’s easy to understand why the concept of dieting does not rest comfortably alongside Feminism, especially considering, as Cochrane remarks, that a woman’s success is seen as directly proportionate to her size; directly dependent on the way she looks.

Family members and friends have told me that I need to lose weight. That I would look better. That it would change my life. Cohrane is right, women are stuck in a cycle of self-policing and are increasingly preoccupied with the weight of their female counterparts. What is a more effective way to boost one’s own self-esteem than by trying to calculate to the nearest pound how much heavier your “fat friend” is than you? By criticising others you do not have to reflect on your own behaviour, but isn’t it sad that in order to increase our own confidence we are grinding away the self-worth of our nearest and dearest? As I’ve become older, being fat is a central issue, and something that affects me on a daily basis. These insecurities I realise, however, have been fostered by those who believe their comments will help me to change and be the “way I am supposed to be.”

As reluctant as I am to yield to this pressure, I am worried about my health and will make a concerted effort in the New Year to be healthy. In addition, the fact that this is a “thin woman’s world” does make me wonder, am I, and are we, foolish not to conform to some degree? If we are not taken seriously until we are at least somehow reminiscent of the “way we are supposed to be” should we give in? Would this be a necessary means to a positive end? Or should we continue to fight to alter the prevailing belief systems that keep the fat woman down? Will we ever be able to make headway when women’s magazines continue to promote the idea that the skinny minny reigns supreme? And will we ever reach a point where a woman’s success isn’t seen as relative to her physical attributes?

Photo by Christi Nielsen, shared under a Creative Commons License

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