“You have an eating disorder,” some readers of my blog informed me, and I felt affronted. An unhealthy relationship with food, maybe; perhaps even disordered eating. But an eating disorder? I don’t think so. I am a healthy weight, as are many of the women who contacted me to describe their own struggles, their food obsessions, flaws and feelings of being just “too much”. This is despite these women having made significant real-world achievements: a PhD in astrophysics, two beautiful children, a successful career, a loving partner. This is despite, for many of them, being slim. Slimmer than me.
There are undoubtedly those who will say that, in the midst of an obesity crisis, “skinny bitches” feeling fat is the least of society’s problems. I can sympathise with that viewpoint. It is how I feel when I speak to those who are thinner than me. “What’s your problem?” I think. “I would love to be that thin.”
I know I have been socialised to compete with other women – to size them up, to envy those who are slimmer – but I believe their suffering is as valid as mine, and that body image problems can manifest themselves even when, from the outside, you’re seen to embody the media-approved feminine ideal.Yes. It's weight-think - and not some kind of ambient request to vary our shirt color - is the extra-added pressure on women in our society, holding us back from greatness, or just optimal enjoyment of our lives.
As for what to do about it, there are two possible ways to go. One is to raise awareness of the sheer ubiquity of this issue, which - and this is what Cosslett keeps hinting at - is wrongly assumed to impact only the small percentage of women with full-on eating disorders, or the especially vapid-and-vain. What a little digging reveals is that even the women you'd least expect will, say, get a diet Coke, and then drop other cues that amount to, huh, even she worries about this. Women who come across as serious, and who give back to the community. Women who've never been fat. Women who, by all other markers, don't appear to give a damn about their looks.
If we demolished the myth that women who care about their weight and think about this far, far more than the typical man does are some kind of aberration, perhaps progress would follow. Acknowledge the problem! Stop the dithering about how #notallwomen care about their looks, or the largely irrelevant asides about how some women are naturally thin, as if naturally thin women are somehow immune to a) worrying they'll get fat, or b) wanting to be even thinner than "nature" made them?
The trouble with that route is that it has a way of making the problem worse. Think the supposedly empowering blog posts denouncing thigh gaps, illustrated like so. (There were definitely some years in my 20s when I'd have as good as forgotten women's magazines existed if it weren't for Jezebel inviting its readers to summon outrage about them.) While weight-think hangs out in the back of women's minds, it's not always in the front. Certain triggers - fashion mags, protests about fashion mags, conversations with a friend who's thinner than you are but used to be thinner still and thinks you want to hear about it... - can ramp up the background noise.
So the second option is to suggest tuning out that sort of noise as much as possible. Cancel your subscription to the magazines that make a big deal of it every time they feature a woman with any body fat whatsoever. Hang out a bit less with that friend, or change the subject when she starts on it. Let weight-think fade into the background. It can resurface unexpectedly, even in women who think they've outgrown it. But you absolutely can control how present these triggers are in your life, and, to some extent, in that of your kids. Stop treating weight-think as an essential truth of the female experience, and it'll stop being one!
Awareness-raising and tuning-out, then, can seem mutually exclusive. And maybe to some extent they are. But there's got to be some way to reconcile the two, as they're both critical to getting rid of weight-think once and for all.