In our culture, we’re all taught that the shape of our body really matters.
Two separate issues
It starts early. I remember complaining to my mum that my thighs were fat, when I was about 8 years old. How absurd (because they weren’t, and what a ridiculous thing for a child to be worrying about), when I look back, but I remember how I felt at the time and it was serious. It’s a pretty constant battle for most women trying not to scrutinise our bodies day after day – this obsession can form the basis of debilitating illnesses.
Childhood obesity is also of course a real problem – that parents cannot afford or do not have sufficient education to feed their children healthy food that doesn’t put their lives at risk is a tragedy, and a huge challenge for public health measures to tackle. It’s important for us to maintain a healthy weight for a variety of reasons; it lessens the risk of heart disease and cancer for starters. We all want our friends and families to be happy and well, so if people are trying to lose weight or bulk up to address this, great.
But there’s a difference between weight-related concerns that focus on health and another category of scrutiny; one that is far more shallow, cultural and full of underlying hatred and insecurity. People (and I cannot exclude myself) make negative comments on other people’s bodies all the time. We’re taught that it’s OK, that it’s our business, it’s just humour, and so on.
The ugly side
The women’s magazines (and the men’s for that matter), just about everything on television, the tabloids and many of the people we interact with daily – they all think it’s acceptable, appropriate, or even some sort of duty, to monitor fluctuations in how fat people are, or are not. I won’t get into the issues around having babies and what the media does with that, it’s a bit of a separate topic.
My problem I suppose is the kind of language that surrounds all of this. “You’re so skinny, you bitch” – it comes from a variety of people, people who are close and loving, people who are acquaintances and really have no right to comment. It’s seems to be based on the idea that it’s so important for women to fit their bodies into acceptable forms, and what this does to us – whether we realise it or not – concerns me. Obviously men face these things, too – “fat-shaming” is not exclusively directed towards women.
A particularly high-profile and shocking case of it has occurred this week and came from Abercrombie and Fitch. As most of us are aware, the USA’s obesity rates are shockingly high, and most shops will stock American sizes 0-14 and sometimes above. A&F, however, are very unlikely to do so, as Robin Lewis revealed of their CEO:
“He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people… He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.’”
So apparently you have to be thin to be hot and cool – oxymoronic vocabulary quirks aside, I’m sure most people would disagree with that. Personal tastes are one thing (I am attracted to people of a similar slim build to myself, for example – and I have friends with exclusive preferences for bigger builds) but they vary hugely between individuals, and one cannot criticise anyone else for that. But this retail policy from a company CEO does sound prejudiced and extremely insulting.
On the other hand, they are a company and are permitted to choose their audience and which kinds of customers they want their products marketed towards. If you specifically choose some subjective categories like “good-looking” and include “thin” within the entry criteria to that category… well, it’s offensive. Is it wrong? I’d say it’s ill-advised, much like I dislike sexist marketing for MAN CRISPS. Is it worse, or not, than that?
Fighting the tide
As I grew up I heard my dad call Lisa Riley on You’ve Been Framed a “fat cow” and say she should get off the TV as a result. Or he’d say “your fat friend…” instead of using their name (partly because he didn’t know it, but that always upset me). It’s easy for those of us who can maintain a low body weight relatively easily to point at and accuse people who cannot, but it would be nice if there were some more consideration around.
Going back to the health issue, a lot of conditions can cause people to become overweight, or to have extreme weight fluctuations. Medications can affect this, too; whether it’s a kind of birth control or steroids… how would you feel if that person whose weight you just criticised were undergoing cancer treatment? Sure, we make our little in-jokes quietly to ourselves and each other, but like street harrassment this too often spills over into unwanted and upsetting interactions.
Women with large breasts face an added level of this, with barrages of comments ranging from what people mistakenly think are compliments to accusations of being too slutty by showing a lot of cleavage (often something that’s difficult for such women to avoid without always wearing some variation of a sack) and an assumption that they should be grateful for what they are “endowed” with.
This is a sad state of affairs for many reasons. For starters, no woman should be judged on the size of her bust; with “flat” chests in my family it’s something I’ve seen the flip-side of, too, and have even received such comments myself (somewhat in error!!) based on strange men deciding it’s something worth using as an insult when I didn’t want to talk to them on a dating site.
As someone pointed out on Twitter this morning, one of many problems with Page 3 is that it perpetuates an idea about breasts, aspirations and attractiveness, which can be really damaging. Mastectomy is tough enough to deal with, without a daily reminder that women are only (desirable) women when they have (big) boobs. While the debate on page 3 is extensive and multi-faceted, if you do want to sign the petition against it, it’s here.
In addition to that, larger ladies have a lot to contend with: health issues such as back pain and possibly breast cancer risk; the inability to find clothes that fit, not to mention them actually being affordable.
But it’s not just fat-shaming. A friend who deals with multiple health conditions posted the picture on the right this morning and sparked a little debate around it (which prompted me to write this).
I’m also reminded of the Beautiful South‘s song, Perfect 10 (that I alternate between enjoying and not):
They don’t hold no weight with me
Well 8 or 9, well that’s just fine
But I like to hold something I can see
I have trouble saying that this is any more acceptable than unsolicited comments towards overweight people instructing them to eat less or run more. It’s a song, sure, and it’s about a couple of big people enjoying each other, but for some reason that strays into insulting others.
Women are often swept along by the misogynistic undercurrent and say incredibly horrible things about other women, as well as judging themselves harshly. I put on weight in my late teens and I lost it in my early 20s, partly due to illness. The amount of comments I have received on this over time is only now beginning to overwhelm me, and when this picture came up suddenly a number of instances came to mind.
I wish my friends, or their friends whom I barely know, didn’t feel the need to call me a bitch for getting back to my normal weight – I’m a small person. I feel more comfortable in myself having lost the excess. But it wasn’t exactly fun getting to that point – as is the case for many people, I’m sure. I didn’t do it for anyone else, or to spite anyone, either. I don’t want to feel like I should apologise just because I fit into something, or it’s too big for me. Being ‘skinny’ shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of all women*, and we shouldn’t be at each other’s throats about it.
When I was eating dangerously little and people kept telling me “Hey, you look great!”, that didn’t exactly spur me on to healthier behaviour. Weight loss and gain is a complicated seesaw and you’re unlikely to know the facts behind it for people you don’t know very well. It’s also never about one person, or one comment; It’s the frequency and ubiquitous nature of it. Just like one guy inappropriately touching you in a whole lifetime would make no difference, it’s the constant barrage of little things that turn it into a problem.
No stone unturned
Too fat, too thin, ‘real woman’ this, curves or bones that – it seems no one is immune.
*I haven’t touched on fad diets, why I hate gyms or pretty much anything regarding the health & fitness industry. But this article just appeared in my timeline courtesy of a couple of excellent friends, so you can read that for some great commentary on how women in politics are described, some links to what I’ve written above and the writer’s experience of finding a job in fitness. One of the take-home messages being:
“I wonder how my life would have been different if people had encouraged girls (me) to be strong instead of skinny”
And wondering what we can do for our young women today, to spare them some of this crap we’ve grown up with and are now trying to get over!!
“I became a more capable, energetic, independent, and mentally focused person once my focus shifted from what my body looks like to what my body can do“
– Jun 2014: American Apparrel CEO & founder fired. Here‘s an interesting take on misogyny in hipster culture.