To be female is to be in disagreement with your body, I think. Or at least, I know very few women who have not fallen out with theirs, though some have come to a fragile, uneasy peace. I’ve ranted and raved at mine, willing it to curve a different way, for its pockets of fatty tissue to dissipate rather than undulate; I have compared it ruthlessly with the bodies of others. Was I to treat a friend the way that I have treated my own body, to berate her the way I berate myself, I would be called cruel and callous – a bully. So many of us bully, and torture, and starve ourselves. We are women, and so we suffer.
I have never been overweight, not medically, and yet I have tried every diet there is. I have what Susie Orbach, the psychotherapist and respected feminist body image campaigner, once told me was a disordered relationship to food; but the way I eat (and most importantly, monitor the way I eat) does not differ significantly from the habits of most of my friends. Make of that what you will, and draw your own conclusions about what all these hungry women signify. These diets, usually adopted after a dispiriting changing room experience, or a photo taken at a bad angle, followed by hours of frantic googling and scrutinising of meal plans, calories in and out, exercise regimes, before and after photographs, and supplements, rarely – if ever – work.
Recently, I lost a stone, maybe more. I haven’t been paying attention. As with all the times when I have lost relatively large amounts of weight before, it happened much without my trying, or really noticing.
But other people noticed, especially other women. They always do.
“Wow, you look so skinny!” they say, or, “you’re shrinking” (for it is good to take up less space, to almost disappear), and they expect you to be pleased because, well, why wouldn’t you be? Our society is infected with body fascism, and most women want to lose weight. Hell, you want to lose weight. And these are your friends, they know you. Over the years, they have stood by and watched you bully yourself, have occasionally interjected to say, “Noooo, you’re so pretty” in that voice. You know the voice. We all do. And so they know that you have wanted to lose weight for a long time. You should be happy.
The changes in your body are bittersweet, they are pain and pride. Pain because you suffered, pride because the suffering was not plucked from the pages of a diet book
But you are not happy, and that is the whole reason you lost the weight.
For me, it was a mental-health crisis. A severe anxiety disorder resurfaced from dormancy following a frightening experience at the end of last year and, as a result, I was essentially too frightened to eat. For weeks on end, I was buzzing on a higher frequency, barely managing more than a couple of mouthfuls of food and then, when I went onto medication, I found I wanted to eat even less. Several months later, and I am told I am visibly smaller. While I might be nowhere near the “target weight” the guilty feminist in me knows that I shouldn’t have, my body has changed shape. I recently tried on a pair of jeans I bought when I was 18, and they fit.
I say this not to boast, but to highlight the strange disconnect that comes from losing weight for unhappy reasons. You feel that you should be jubilant; this is what you wanted, after all. And you have suffered for it, like a woman should. And yet there is the feeling that that suffering is not worth the attractive results. You would rather not have suffered. Would rather not have got divorced, or been ill, or had a loved one close to you die, would rather not have had your heart broken, or been raped or assaulted, or run out of money to eat. All the forlorn life events that can stop a human consuming the food their body needs to release energy so it can live, none of them worth it, not one.
And yet, and yet. You admire your jutting hip bones in the mirror, the new slimness of your arms, take secret perverse pleasure in the emerging gap between your thighs. The changes in your body are bittersweet, they are pain and pride. Pain because you suffered, pride because the suffering was not plucked from the pages of a diet book, the self-inflicted, vain results of a ruthless regime, but involuntary, and therefore honourable.
The way the female body is scrutinised and dissected is messed up, and I know this now more than ever. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it cannot be found in our treating suffering with approval. I may fit into my old cocktail dresses, and I may even feel pleased at the fact, but I never want to be that ill again. I wish I never had been. And because of that, I’ll think more carefully before I compliment a friend on their weight loss in future, because who knows what pain they went though on the way there?