Girls and women need to give themselves a break from the endless preoccupation with fat, argues Katie Muller
Why are so many women ashamed and repulsed by the fact they take up space? Oh to be smaller and slighter, to be less, less, less! But worse than size, far worse than taking up space at all, is what women take up space with.
Dare I mention what that space-filler is? Dare I even whisper the word? Fat.
It’s a word that could make the toughest cookie crumble, it reverberates through our bodies, settling in our stomachs, a knot we can’t untie, uncomfortable and embarrassing. We don’t like to talk about it, or even think about it. Push it away, out of our minds. Hide it. Or even better, but slightly more challenging – let’s get rid of it, this fat altogether and be free of it.
Weight loss is possible. Of course there are a million fad diets, a million lies weaving traps that leave you frustrated and as substantial as ever. But we won’t fall into them. All it really takes is the right mind, the right attitude. A strong will, a fierce determination, a sense of inadequacy, a lack of self-confidence, a touch of brainwashing and skills at self-deprivation and then, you’re set. The path of the eating disorder is yours to take.
It’s tough work, secret and sly work. Slowly (and sometimes drastically) food drops off the invisible list. First to go are the snacks and the seconds, until food will pass your lips only three times a day, under the strictest control. Later, eating three times in a day becomes a bit much and sometimes food is out of the question entirely. But an empty stomach feels better than you’d think, it feels like a triumph and it feels like a friend. Nobody can know about your plan – because if they know, they will try to stop you (out of spite and envy). They wish they had your self-control, they wish they could get rid of the toxic, disgusting fat on their bellies. They don’t even realise just how fat you still are. Just look at your fat bulge, hold it in your hands, watch it wobble as you jump, jump, up and down. And imagine that glorious day when you will wake up and breathe out and only your ribs will shudder from the sheer effort of it. Just think how good it will feel to finally look right.
The real horror of eating disorders is not they way they ravage a woman’s body, but the way the ravage her mind and her sense of self. Individual cases add up and a clear pattern can be garnered from studying the scattered skeletons of starving girls that can be found in every developed country in the world. And what is this pattern we see? I would like to label it the “shrink to fit” trend. There is no good reason why women should be so appalled by their natural size and inherent store of fat (women naturally have a higher percentage of fat on their bodies than men) but there is a simple reason why they are. We live, no matter how much we like to pretend otherwise, in a man’s world. We are still, in a million small ways and plenty of big ones, submissive, convinced of our inferiority and full of contempt for our own sex. And to fit into the small space left for us in this man’s world, we have no choice but to shrink.
Shrink to fit, we are told, and reap the glorious benefits of success, money and even love. And when that never happens, reap the benefits of dying exhausted and being buried thin.
The reason for this trend is directly linked to the enormous threat women would pose if they were allowed to exercise their full combined strength. But women who starve themselves (and all those women who try) don’t pose this threat. Women obsessed with food are not only preoccupied with a pointless task, but risk their mental and physical health. Self-starvation is encouraged because as long as fat is seen as the enemy and ‘beauty’ the prize at the end of the rainbow, men are safe and women are trapped.
And it is not the first time women have been cunningly ensnared. Each successive feminist wave was followed by a powerful and destructive backlash that put women in ever tighter situations. First we were trapped in society at large, then in our homes and now we are trapped in our bodies. Our focus has become more intense. It now rests sharply on us, on ourselves and on our faults.
And our main fault? Our main focus is, of course, fat. We hate fat. Fat is the enemy and nobody seems to contend this or even ask why? We think we hate fat because it causes high cholesterol and gives us heart attacks. But most of all we think we hate fat because it is unsightly. We think of it as ugly, unflattering, gross and utterly undesirable. There is a simple reason why we think this way and it ties in with the issue of having to ‘shrink to fit’. It also ties in with the issue of being women. Our hatred of fat is an extension and a result of our hatred of ourselves, as women, for being the way we are. Fat is womanly, therefore fat is wrong.
And as appalling as it may appear to make such a statement, it is one that is reasserted every day by every advert, every product and every ‘health’-obsessed woman working hard to keep fat our number one enemy. Suddenly, from this perspective, eating disorders seem like an obvious solution, a practical reaction to society’s demands. They are so perfectly suited, in fact, to the job of undermining women that it would not be unreasonable to suppose they had been invented for that very purpose.
So why exactly has society picked on fat? Why has it become the scapegoat?
I think it has to do with what fat actually is and its gender-specific purposes. Fat is a key ingredient in the differentiation between men from women. In general it is stored subcutaneously (that is, under the skin), but it is stored in different, significant, places for men and women. But everyone knows the Apple versus Pear analogy. There is a reason they are called “child-bearing hips”
Women, also, simply are fatter. At times during development, girls have twice the amount of fat cells that boys have and in adulthood, women continue to have more and fuller fat cells than men. Approximately 22% of a woman’s body should consist of fat and there are good reasons for this. Women need fat on their hips, thighs, bum, stomach and breasts because their bodies perform a greater array of fat-friendly functions than men need to.
From menstruation to pregnancy, the female reproductive system relies on a special relationship between fat levels and hormone production. For example, we know that sex hormones trigger and conduct the process of menstruation. It is also known that a certain amount of fat is necessary for the production of these essential hormones. Thus, when a woman loses too much fat from her body and ceases to menstruate, it should be concluded that something has gone wrong.
And yet, when my period stopped due to anorexia, I could still see the dreaded fat on me, still knew that if nature was kinder, if I was stronger, I could truly purge myself of what I still thought of as unnecessary fat. It is this mentality that is so wrong, so dangerous and so appalling. But it is so widely accepted we hardly notice it. And it will continue to be accepted for as long as women don’t bother to defy it. As I said before, it is the damage done to a woman’s mind and her sense of self that is the true risk to her life. We are all bashing our heads against the same brick wall. What are we trying to do? Break down the wall? It is not working is it? Perhaps that’s because we don’t need to break down the wall at all. We just need to stop bashing our heads against it. A little kindness towards our selves may be all we need. Give ourselves a break.
The minute I stop the relentless bashing, my head clears and for a while I can see what true recovery involves. Recovery from anorexia would be a complex matter of coming to terms with everything about me: the way I am, what I am made of, what I take in and what I give up, the society I live in, the world around me and the world inside me. A little room in my mind for all those matters to dwell is all I need. Less clutter, more kindness: I will let myself be.
Photo by Mrs. Maze, shared under a Creative Commons license