“She’s let herself go a bit hasn’t she?”

I have a confession to make: I am a feminist and I am on a diet. Not the kind of diet with sins or points or one where you have to pay someone to humiliate you in front of a room full of people every week, but the kind where you just decide to cut out the booze and eat less crap.  So far my revolutionary technique has meant that I have lost 6 pounds of body fat and I am consequently feeling better about myself. The reason for the confession is that despite feeling a bit lighter, I hate the fact that how I feel about myself is linked to such an arbitrary characteristic as my weight.

The diet industry in the UK alone is worth over £2 billion . You just have to log in to Facebook to be bombarded with adverts that promise to reveal “One secret tip” (in exchange for your credit card details) that will cause you to shrink miraculously over night. The choice is bewildering: eat less carbs, starve yourself for 2 days a week, only drink liquid food, buy our startlingly expensive food bars or shakes, or simply eat this “one special food” that presumably hoovers up your body fat once ingested.  All this, despite the overwhelming medical evidence that suggests that crash diets simply don’t work. Not only do faddy diets mean that you lose out in terms of essential vitamins and minerals, but apparently losing weight too quickly actually causes your metabolism to slow down which means you are more likely to put weight on in the future, which means you’re more likely to buy the next faddy diet book.

I have never consciously dieted before in order to lose weight. I am a great believer in getting off my arse and running or cycling the weight away because that means I can continue to drink steadily and eat as much chocolate cake as I like. I like running but I like food a great deal more. After a summer of drinking too much real ale and consuming rather a lot of ice-cream, my plan was to put my trainers back on, try to drink a bit less beer and run my little legs off. Unfortunately I contracted whooping cough at the end of August so my plan has been somewhat thwarted, hence the diet. I do not believe in dieting and I do not believe that women should feel under any pressure to change their body shape. I tell myself that I like to maintain a healthy weight because you know, I like to be healthy, but I know that it runs deeper than this.

Everywhere we turn, there are unrealistic photoshopped images of impossibly thin women. The latest misogynistic weight loss ad in my facebook feed declares “Woman gets dumped by boyfriend for putting on weight, diets and then he wants her back” because we all know tuning into female insecurities is a surefire way to make us all buy their ridiculous bullshit product. I have been assured by a male friend of mine that equally ludicrous ads aimed at a male audience appear in his feed all the time, but I still think that this is a problem that affects women far more than men. Despite claims that we live in a post-feminist world, women are still constantly judged by their physical appearance. Research has recently shown that on one particular employment website there is a direct correlation between a woman’s perceived attractiveness and the number of job interviews she is offered. Unsurprisingly, there is no such correlation for her male counterparts. There is also no difference whether it is men or women doing the hiring, which I just find even more depressing. Women have internalised these patriarchal ideals so completely that even they will judge other women on their looks when considering them for employment.  Female MPs are more likely to be judged on their fashion sense and hair style, than whether they have a competent grasp of economic policy and female celebrities cannot show an inch of thigh without little red circles appearing all over their photo in Heat magazine.  Society is consistently giving us messages that being attractive is what counts and being impossibly thin is, of course, part of what we should be aspiring to.

Despite being in the middle of a recession, plastic surgery is on the increase, with liposuction experiencing a boom of 40% on previous years. While some men do choose to go under the knife,  90.5% of procedures are carried out on women, with boob jobs remaining the most popular procedure. According to Childline, eating disorders amongst teenagers are also on the up, increasing by 110% over the past 3 years. Girls outnumber boys by 32:1 and funnily enough, Childline holds the increasing popularity of social media responsible.  The kind of societal pressures that young women are now under encourage them to focus on their appearance and are no doubt contributing to soaring rates of self harm and a heartbreaking lack of self-esteem. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong, although I attribute this to patriarchal ideals around beauty, I am not suggesting that it is solely men who are responsible. Women are guilty of policing each other’s bodies as much as, if not more so, than men. My partner is hugely respectful and didn’t blink when I put on 5 stone during my last pregnancy. He tells me I am sexy whatever I weigh, and disapproves of us having a set of scales in the bathroom. The pressure that I put myself under to be thin is certainly not coming from him. The experience of getting older and putting on weight has made me realise that I have benefited from being thin for most of my life. I have routinely been able to buy clothes off the hanger that always fit, feel comfortable in a bikini, and have mostly had a fairly positive body image. I am so used to this ‘thin privilege’ that it has become part of my identity. I had a horrible realisation that part of my worrying about putting on weight recently was because I was concerned about other people thinking I had “let myself go”.

Until women are no longer judged on their looks, then this constant battle to keep thin, fight off the ageing process and beautify ourselves will continue. Although I would support legislation that banned photoshopped images of women, I am aware that it is not just the media that has to change. If we want things to be different, then it is women who are going to have to be brave enough to start challenging some of these social norms and conventions. I have already taken the strangely difficult step of tackling the taboo of female body hair by refusing to shave my armpits, pubes or legs and I have sworn not to give into the pressure to dye my head hair as it slowly turns silver. These are not always easy things to do and I have had a couple of wobbly moments when I’ve realised that my furry armpits are on display to all and sundry at the climbing wall. Perhaps the next step is to realise that just maybe it’s okay to let myself go a little bit too. Now, where did I put that beer?

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