I was young when I learnt I should have problems with my body. I remember reading issues of Cosmopolitan, left behind in our house by a guest, in the summer of 1989. A spread on must-have swimming costumes, each designed to help the reader to identify how to conceal her so-called flaws. Large hips, small breasts, a pear shape, an apple shape, the kind of body that we call, for some reason, “boyish”, rather than what it is: a body that belongs to a woman. I remember reading the pages and wondering how my eight-year-old body would develop. As I grew, what would go most remarkably awry so that I, too, would know what was wrong with me, what I should try to disguise and conceal?
Narratives about “body image”, like the ones I soaked up all those years ago – narratives that have endured, in spite of the passage of a couple of decades – centre women's concerns about our bodies in our appearance, which is to say, most of all, our concern about how our bodies will be regarded by other people. Flaw-fixing garments and products exist less to camouflage these ostensible problems from ourselves – for the most part, we know our bodies. More so, they are sold to us as if they’ll ensure that other people will not discern what is wrong with us, and not use their views of our bodies to make negative judgments about the people who we are.
Things that are designed to ameliorate our supposed flaws are not designed to cure our real anxiety. It is in the interest of companies that sell us these things that we remain concerned, so that we continue to buy whatever it is that we’ve decided will make us better people. Aware that feminism is now a thing, contemporary marketers who target women with body anxieties often suggest that their products are designed to “boost confidence”. In this, they’re unlike their predecessors, who were more open about suggesting that products were intended to help women to be good enough to be loved. But even promises of boosted confidence imply that our bodies in their natural state should make us lack it.
I'm thicker, not smaller, from training and, even though I know the reason why, I felt sad when I put some of my dresses on the to-donate pile
I’ve been thinking about my body a lot since 1989 but, in the last couple of years, my anxieties have shifted. In one phonecall from a doctor, I discovered that my definitive flaw was not my slightly asymmetric breasts or the size of my thighs, but a gene that put me at an up to 80 per cent risk of developing a smorgasbord of cancers. I would like to tell you that, through this process, I achieved a new kind of respect for my body that absolved me from caring about my size or shape, but I did not. I think more now about what I can do to keep my body healthy and thriving, but I can’t say that I’ve freed myself from the desire to make it look better or be smaller.
Earlier this year, I started working with a trainer at a gym. “I'm not here to lose weight,” I told her on the first day and this was sort of true – my primary motivation was to increase my fitness so that, if I do fall ill, I’ll be best equipped to fight it. I felt conscious of not wanting to be the kind of woman who merely wants to exercise to become smaller, even though, if I’m honest, I still, just a little bit, am. “Of course,” said the trainer, “you don't need to lose weight,” and I appreciated that, though I also suspected that if I told her that I wanted to lose a stone or two, she wouldn't have tried to dissuade me.
My trainer is a retired boxer, so that’s what she’s teaching me to do. At our first meeting, she asked me if I had ambitions to fight and I laughed and laughed. With her, at myself. She didn't know me (neither do you), but I am at home in a library, not in a ring. “Maybe,” I said, “if you can find me a 75-year-old opponent?”
In her 1992 book, On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that “life is a metaphor for boxing – for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it’s impossible to see your opponent is you”. Some of my clothes don’t fit as well as they used to – I'm thicker, not smaller, from training and, even though I know the reason why, I felt sad when I put some of my dresses on the to-donate pile, because my inroads in one bout against myself have undermined my efforts in another one. But, then, we're all fighting several fights at once, in several different rings.