The circle of shame

By Gemma Louisa Morrison, who previously bloggged for us here.

 Ah dear readers, come gather round my feet, with my saggy knees and blue veined legs, my cankles, the dark hairs sprouting viciously from my too long toes. I know it’s hot so let’s find a shady tree to sit under, it’s important that you listen carefully, because I’m going to tell you a story about dieting and magazines.

Dieting, or the limitation of calorific intake to reduce one’s weight outside of a medical context, is a current mass preoccupation. It also makes people a lot of money and buoys the circulation of a number of magazines.

My own experience of dieting began aged five, watching my mother cook things she’d never eat, buy biscuits whose sweet cloying texture would never grace her lips. It progressed, when at age 14, I went to a ‘Slimming Club’ meeting in our local town hall to wait for a lift home after a hockey match. I sat on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs and watched the women, heads cast downwards as they walked to the scales. There were only women on the plastic chairs, some with babies on their laps, some young, some old. Glossy magazines with their thin white cover girls lay sprawled lazily around the room.

And then I saw her. She was a small English woman, with a tiny, meek voice. To my adolescent eyes she looked ill, her head too big for her body, her hair frail and wild. She was the woman with the power; standing beside the scales she told the others that they occupied too much space in the world. Her voice was small and spiteful. I remember vividly looking around the hall for adult dissent but the women clutched their dieting books and gazed at the scales in horrified wonder.

This was my initiation into life as a woman; it began there, in a draughty hall wearing a muddy hockey kit.

At one stage of my university career I rendered myself too light to donate blood. This was for no other reason than my dissertation-addled worried mind bounced around from place to place, and as a result my diet consisted of tangerines, noodles and cups of black coffee. Perhaps it was unconscious dieting, I don’t know. What I do know is that everyone told me I looked great. I couldn’t run a kilometre, my mind was often too fuzzy to discuss the 1956 Hungarian Uprising but I looked great. I began to see how intoxicating dieting could become when loss of weight equaled immediate praise. After all, as women isn’t that what we’re supposed to aim for? Gold stickers on a classroom wall chart, declining numbers in a slimmer’s passbook…

So when I read OK! Magazine’s front cover, urging the Duchess of Cambridge lose her ‘baby weight’, I was not surprised. We can celebrate female bodies for what they can do (in this case provide a male heir to the throne) but not for what they are. Because in reality a woman’s body is too fleshy, too hairy, too wild to exist in its natural state; so it’s pushed and pulled and photoshopped until it becomes a sad and truncated version of what it really is.

The preoccupation with dieting, as so many have stated, is a means of control over women’s bodies. For every magazine cover that shames women for not conforming to societal standards and then publishes quick dieting tips on the following pages, is a reader feeling bad about herself. A reader who is thinking about her thighs as opposed to her career, inequality or politics.

Because I have an unwavering belief in humanity (and the press), I truly believe that journalists who write for these publications do not think about the misery and pressure they inflict with their pens. That they don’t consider the ramifications of every ‘circle of shame’, of every item entitled ‘bikini/wedding dress/red carpet ready?’ Because, if you knew and you continued to write these articles, what would it make you?

And do you know what? As readers and consumers you have the power to change this. Remember every trite article that makes you feel ashamed is time you could spend doing something amazing, and you should do it… Put down the magazines and step out into the world. If we do this enough, the focus will shift and more insightful enlightening female journalism will appear. Feminist writers, journalists and bloggers currently languishing in the shadows, will be given a chance to do great things.

And if you believe that it’s important to be more than just a declining number in a passbook, then vote with your feet, ditch the magazines and demand change. We’ve been waiting a long time.

Image by Christi Nielsen, shared under a Creative Commons Licence. It shows a white woman’s head and neck from below the eyes downwards. Numbers that reference weight, height and dress size have been drawn all over her skin. The image is entitled “Labelled” and is part of Christi’s “I’m Just About to Get Skinny” set.

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