7 Jun 2016

Will it ever be enough?

Recently a friend of mine who is going through major weight loss publicly wondered if they would always feel like "that huge person" or if their mindset would eventually catch up with the reality of the mirror/scales. It took me back to my own musings on weight loss, where I wrote "What no one ever mentions in a weight loss success story though, is that you'll always be a fat girl in your head. It never leaves you." It seemed like it would be dishonest, then, to try and reassure my friend that eventually your mind updates and starts to believe the photographs and realise you're smaller than you were. It's partially true, but it's not the whole truth. This was highlighted by another thing she said - that even her friends who are a "normal" weight still refer to themselves as "so fat." This put me in mind of being 17, maybe half a stone overweight (thanks for highlighting that, doctor who could see from my records that I already had serious eating problems!), and resenting the fuck out of my perfectly slim friend as male attention continued to fly her way, passing me over as if I was a houseplant, yet she still complained about her weight, body shape, face, hair and seemed to loathe the way she looked as strongly as I did my own body. I didn't get it. Why weren't the skinny girls celebrating and walking around like they were hot stuff, when they had clearly won the contest of Who's Allowed to Be Attractive According to Incredibly Narrow Social Dictates? And yes, many teenage girls may appear to walk around like that, but if you've ever been a teenage girl, or spent time with one, you know that any veneer of smugness and arrogance is paper-thin, and will always be stretched to breaking point over acres of self-loathing, self-doubt, and the conviction that they are unsalvageably ugly.

That's the real pisser, though - by the time you've reached an age where your mental defences are sufficient to protect against the waves of confidence-destroying beauty bullshit that assault women every day, there will then be a new battle to fight (ageing, w00t!). The time when you're in possession of the universally worshipped looks is unlikely to align with a time when your personality is strong enough to realise how gorgeous you are and work it for all it's worth. In my case, being something of a, if not ugly, then somewhat grumpy duckling ultimately stood me in good stead, because it taught me never to rely on my looks for anything, and meant that when I did actually start getting some male attention in my late 20s, I was confident enough to feel like it was confirming what I already knew, rather than lavishing upon me something I lacked or wanted. But the point is, society never wants women to get too comfortable. You can be young and good looking, but not confident. You can be older and confident, but then you'd sure as shit better start worrying about ageing. Which leads me to the conclusion that the window in which a woman's confidence and the socially-approved version of the way she should look actually align with each other probably lasts about two days, and even that might be a generous estimate.

In her memoir Shrill, Lindy West echoes exactly my experience:
"As I imperceptibly rounded the corner into adulthood--14,15,16,17--I watched my friends elongate and arch into these effortless, exquisite things. I waited. I remained a stump. I wasn't jealous, exactly; I loved them, but I felt cheated.
We each get just a few years to be perfect. That's what I'd been sold. To be young and smooth and decorative and collectible. I was missing my window. . . Deep down, in my honest places, I knew it was already gone-- I had stretch marks and cellulite long before twenty [Chas: I had both at 12!]--but they tell you that if you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab just a tail feather or two of perfection."

That's exactly what they tell you, and that's exactly why my school friend--who I thought was ridiculous for loathing her looks when they were clearly exactly what society and those pesky things known as 17 year-old boys demanded and approved--was tormenting herself in grasping for that feather. She knew that no one, however much they may appear to fit the thin, white, young, long-haired, clear-skinned femme template, is allowed to rest on their laurels. A beauty culture that profits off women's self-loathing simply cannot have that. Because, as Lindy puts it "The real scam is that being bones isn't enough either. The game is rigged. There is no perfection."

And that's exactly what my friend going through weight loss now is discovering as she looks at the women who she thinks have perfect, enviable bodies--you never arrive at the promised land. As John Candy's character so wisely said about winning medals in every 90s child's favourite film Cool Runnings, "If you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it." Whether it's medals, flash cars, the latest bit of shiny nonsense from Apple or a certain amount of weight loss--none of it can make you someone new, someone better. I want to tell my friend that she was a great person before the weight loss and she remains that same person now. But I don't want to devalue what she's achieved, because I know what a journey it is: I've made it myself, albeit on a smaller scale, and I'm proud to have maintained the results for 7 years. I just want her to know the limitations of physical changes. Yes, I sweat less than when I was three stone heavier, I get acid reflux less frequently, I might even be a bit physically fitter although I'll still always view most forms of exercise with the horror of an overweight child being asked to run in front of the whole class. But my thighs still rub together so much that I have to wear lycra shorts under a dress or a skirt in summer. The scales at Boots still tell me that I "could" lose over another stone and still be in the "healthy weight" bracket for my height. I choose to reject their advice, because this is the weight I decided to stop at. I'm a size 10. I once mentioned my weight loss to a co-worker and she said "I wouldn't exactly call you slender." Instead of interpreting this as the mortal insult it could be perceived as (because the worst thing you can say about a woman is that she's *not thin*), I just figured she was being honest; I hadn't dieted myself down to the spindly-armed, visible-clavicled, bird-legged standard of the modern female celebrity, because I had no desire to. Incidentally, I stopped at the weight I did because once, when the light hit my chest I realised I could see the bones in it, and I'd never seen that before, and I didn't like it. Call it sod's law that even at that point, I still had plenty of flesh around my thighs and stomach, and still do. But funnily enough, I don't see possessing flesh as a sin, and I never saw the end goal of my weight loss to be the annihilation of every millimetre of me that might jiggle. I just wanted to fit back into my old clothes and for the doctor to stop bugging me. I also wanted to reclaim my body after a sedentary office job that I hated had made me depressed and driven me to comfort eat so much. So I quit the job, I lost the weight: achievement unlocked, as they say.

So what would I say to my friend, who fears that she may struggle to ever see her body clearly? I'm not sure there's much I can say that's of use, except to raise the point that the quest to like yourself once you're lighter requires an opposite; the fact you hated yourself when you were heavier. That's not a good starting point from which to proceed. Your body is you - you can't separate the two. Or as Lindy West puts it "I am my body. When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation. I am one piece." When I was three stone heavier, I still wore revealing clothes, bright dresses, tight tops, high heels, bold jewellery, colourful make-up, and met the world head on. I never hid or apologised for my weight. I shared my body only with partners who found it gorgeous and sexy and considered it a privilege to see it unclothed. (Incidentally, I was with the same partner during the 9 months that I lost all the weight and I'm not sure he really even noticed the change. Much as women think they're altering their bodies for male approval, I think it's usually other women who really do the scrutinising. Because we're trained to. Whereas a grown man recently asked me the difference between cellulite and stretch marks, because he genuinely didn't know, he just knew they were both things women worried about pertaining to their bodies.) 

Ultimately, I still decided to lose the weight, and maybe that makes me a traitor to the body positivity movement, or a bad feminist, but I tried to at least do it on something approaching my terms--no public self-flagellation, NO being a diet bore, no shaming of my old body, no fooling myself that anything other than my weight was going to change, no bullshit about "I'm SO much happier!" I'm still the same grumpy, misanthropic militant feminist who loathes diet talk, people tracking their jogs on Facebook (no one CARES about your faux-virtue) and the fact weight loss is still considered the apotheosis of women's ambitions. Recently I got violent, awful food poisoning and when I was slowly recovering from 24 hours of vomiting and diarrhoea, a woman in my life who will remain nameless said to me "Did you at least lose some weight from it?" As if that would necessarily be a positive side effect. As if, whatever my weight is, I must automatically wish to reduce it, as if it's impossible that a woman might actually want to stay the weight she is and might consider going under it a negative thing. And as if losing weight from all the food in your body deciding to violently and foully exit from both ends is a good way to go about it. I love this unnamed woman very much, but lady, please fuck off with that nonsense.

It's so culturally ingrained though. Another friend recently posted that they had found themselves gaining weight, and the comments underneath were all from other women either commiserating or sharing their own gripes about weight gain. I suppose there's no point patronising the friend in question (given that they made it clear they were unhappy with the gain) with the suggestion that getting bigger is only seen as a negative thing because we believe that fat is the worst thing a woman can be, and that what every woman must automatically want is to always be smaller. I still did think it to myself, though. That's why I call MAJOR bullshit on Polly Vernon's breezy suggestion in her book Hot Feminist that wanting to be a bit thinner is an entirely neutral act. Yes, she reassures her readers that "wanting to be a little bit thinner is just wanting to be a little bit thinner. It doesn't have to be an unsisterly act of simpering compliance with a restrictive physical ideal." Well of course, no woman is going to stick her hand up and admit to being unsisterly or a simpering idiot, is she - so Vernon's dubious argument gets to stand. But her second point doesn't stop her first point from being utterly untrue. None of us exists in a vacuum. As I've demonstrated above, we exist in a world where the imperative to reduce your physical size permeates every aspect of women's life. I can make all the arguments I want about why I wanted to lose weight, and I'd like to think that health was a factor in there somewhere, but I would never be stupid enough to try and argue that cultural pressures weren't also a factor in my feeling unable to remain three stone heavier and tell every doctor, nurse, family member, colleague, 'well-meaning' friend, magazine, TV show, online article etck to get fucked because I loved myself the way I was. It's enough of a battle just to defiantly refuse to lose any more weight, to refuse to become the bones that will still never be enough.

Wanting to be thin(ner) is not a neutral state of being. It's certainly an understandable reaction to a society that tells you you'll end up unloved, unfucked, unsuccessful, bitter, matronly and sexless if you don't dare to want it hard enough. But it's never just a context-free desire that emerges out of nowhere, and as someone who wrote about how she lost weight through illness and loved the props she received for her her new skinny figure, Vernon should recognise better than anyone the instant acceptance conferred by a (potentially physically dangerous) level of thinness. Who wouldn't want that? 

Ultimately, it's a battle that'll never stop - the friend I originally mentioned might always feel like "that huge person", her slimmer friends may still publicly criticise their bodies. They may do so because they genuinely feel that way, or because it's considered part of female bonding to slag your body off, and it's seen as arrogant to refuse to do so; we'll never know.They would all do well to remember Lindy West's warning that the game is indeed rigged, and you will indeed never win if you're trying to play on our culture's terms, because it will always find you wanting. We agree to love spouses for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Yet we see no contradiction in then telling our bodies we'll only love them for younger, for thinner, and we wonder why they can never measure up. Goals become the ever-moving end of the rainbow, forever just out of our grasp. Realising all this is the first step to standing up and walking away from the gaming table.

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