Once, as a teenager, in an attempt at a January, new-year-new-me transformation, I decided that I’d only eat tinned peaches. I’m not sure how or why I thought this would be an effective slimming method. I lasted only three days before my mum intervened; by the third day, my mouth felt gloopy and the sight of those glistening, slick globes made my stomach turn. And, of course, I didn’t lose weight. But, afterwards, I grabbed at a soft fold of stomach in the mirror and thought, “If I could just slice it clean away.” My body – The Body, as I came to call it – felt alien enough to make the idea of slicing off pieces not just palatable, but positively appealing.
It is January 2018. I’m almost 30 and, standing at the mirror, tilting right and left, I feel that same creeping revulsion for The Body. Then again, there’s something about this time of year that turns quite a few of us against our bodies. On the one hand, it is understandable – after December’s excesses (panettone slathered in clotted cream, Christmas pudding slathered in clotted cream, clotted cream scooped by the forefinger straight from the pot), we wake up in January subtly changed – blurry round the edges and slower to react. And, really, what’s so bad about wanting to undo some of the damage wrought by processed foods and gallons of saccharine mulled wine?
And yet. It’s obviously no coincidence that these feelings arise in time with the cult of “new year, new you” tropes. Every time, it pushes some of us to take steps we’d never dream of otherwise. We are seduced by the idea of a big transformation. And, of course, in deepest midwinter, we are bombarded with messages to slim down and shape up. It’s almost as if we become children again – naughty children, who’ve made a mess by eating and celebrating – and we must now pay the penance.
The thing is, in winter, as an evolutionary tick our bodies behave differently, our appetites increase and we store more fat. Honestly. Even this week, a new study was published, which showed that the fat cells that lie just beneath our skin shrink when exposed to blue light. “In other words [when we expose them to the sun], our cells don't store as much fat," explained Peter Light, senior author of the study and professor of pharmacology at the University of Alberta, where the study was conducted. And yet it is around now that the diet industry revs its engine. It’s no coincidence that, currently, half of all Amazon bestsellers are diet books. In deepest midwinter, when our biology feels most against us, the diet industry pounces.
In her seminal 1978 tome, Fat Is A Feminist Issue, one of Susie Orbach’s overarching gripes is that the diet industry does not want us to succeed. The goal is to achieve an ideal body but, once achieved, that ideal means less profit, which is, when you think about it, not at all a healthy business model. “Well-known diet companies continue to sell their wares despite their appalling recidivism rate of 90 per cent,” she writes. “If a hospital offered an operation that only had a 10 per cent success rate… who’d actually sign up?”
Our bodies, and the way we choose to govern them, have become political statements and/or signifiers of a personal brand. And January is the time we enact these statements
Well, embarrassed as I am to admit it, if it meant shedding a few pounds, then me, probably. From a young age, The Body and I were ill at ease. I can’t remember why it happened or when. I came to the UK (from Romania) when I was six and didn’t speak English, and I do remember feeling particularly awkward, gawky, ungainly, strange. I wasn’t at all fat then. But I soon became fat as a child because, possibly, eating was a comfort. Everything else – the new country, the new school, the children speaking a language I didn’t yet understand – was overwhelming.
Anyway, by the time I was a teenager I had learnt – from advertisements maybe, from magazines perhaps, from the internalised disgust other women, too, were taught before me – that my job was to police The Body. When my thighs – already solid for a 13- or 14-year-old, already filling adult size-16 trousers – spilled over the sides of the seats in class, I knew that The Body had to be brought under control. When I pressed my fingers deep into my soft stomach flesh, deep enough to leave marks on myself, I would think: “The Body needs to be punished.” Jesus, writing it down makes it seem stark and pathological. But it wasn’t like that. I was generally happy. It was more that I accepted, as a statement of fact, just as society told me to, that my body was an object of shame and that I had to reconfigure it to make it acceptable. I had to do better.
And I know nowadays we feel like we’ve made progress. It is deeply uncool to talk about “dieting”. “It’s not a diet!” I hear again and again. “It’s a lifestyle change!” We’ve developed a new lexicon for the policing of our bodies. Protein, Paleo, clean, vegan, strong, gains, holistic, plant-based, whatever… Spiv it up any way you want, pal. It’s the image industry selling us the ideal in a different form. In 2016, Orbach republished Fat Is A Feminist Issue with a new introduction. In it, she wrote about what had changed in the 38 years since the original publication: “... eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement. Eating certain foods becomes equated with moral value, almost a holiness. To eat them is to accord oneself a sense of goodness.”
While it might be a more elegant form of fascism than in times gone by, this is nonetheless an expression of a culture that looks in the mirror and sees nothing but room for improvement
Accordingly, our bodies, and the way we choose to govern them, have become political statements and/or signifiers of a personal brand. And January is the time we enact these statements. In January we go vegan, we stop drinking, we join the gym, we eat clean. To be clear, I’m not objecting to any of these things. Sober veganism is great for us and for the planet. What I’m saying is that, while it might be a more elegant form of fascism than in times gone by, it is nonetheless an expression of a culture that looks in the mirror and sees nothing but room for improvement.
The fact that dissatisfaction with the way we look is no longer the preserve of women just reaffirms my belief. Men, too, scroll lustfully through Instagram accounts that promote unrealistic ideals. Last year, government figures showed that the number of boys receiving treatment for eating disorders is rising twice as fast as the rate of increase among girls. (And, in fact, eating disorders in young people generally are growing at an alarming rate — a 34 per cent increase in admissions for inpatient care since 2006.)
And I am so far from immune. I’ll try it all this January. Four gym sessions a week and replacing bread with vegetables. Eating miso soup for dinner and waking up at 5am to do yoga.
It is funny and macabre – because I can see the cage and I can reach out and grasp at a better way of being, but I can’t quite escape. At the beginning of her memoir, Hunger, Roxane Gay writes about this same feeling. “It would be easy to pretend I am just fine with my body as it is… I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals… I believe it is so important for women to feel comfortable in their bodies without wanting to change every single thing about their bodies to find that comfort. I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.” I want to.
But still, years after the episode with the peaches, I paid the ruinous sum of £149 to sign up to The Body Coach’s personalised fitness plan. Like countless others, I was seduced by the before/after transformation shots that showed one body, two times, with inches of flesh shaved off.
I didn’t stick to it. It was expensive (so much food, so many ingredients) and took so many hours of prep that I started to feel like it was impacting on my quality of life (fine, slight exaggeration). For it, you have to submit photographs of yourself standing in front of the mirror in your pants. I kept thinking back to myself as a teenager, standing in front of the mirror in my pants, feeling a deep animosity towards my body. And yet, at the time, I saw it as some kind of progress. This new fitness plan was sold to me as progress.
Of course, there are so many points of light – so many chinks in the metaphorical constrictive gussetry – none more promising than the many body-positive activists who’re doing their bit to re-educate us all about beauty and bullshit diets. And for what it’s worth, The Body and I get on slightly better with each year that passes. It’s seen me through some stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been slow going, but I’ve learnt to – excuse the pun – cut it some slack.