Not just the Mail or males: We need to look beyond the usual suspects when asking why so many women have such terrible body image
When I saw a photo of Jessica Ennis in the news last week, with “Fat?” written below, I had to check that I wasn’t reading the wrong caption.
Ennis, the UK heptathlon champion who just last weekend broke Denise Lewis’s 12-year record in the event, has the body of a cartoon super-heroine. If she’d been around when Rolls Royce started designing cars, they would have hired her as the life model from which to create their famous ‘flying lady’.
Her body is toned, lithe, strong and beautiful. I could almost hear the incredulous cries of women around the country: “If she’s fat, then there’s certainly no hope for the rest of us.”
The comments were rightly slammed by Tony Minichiello, Ennis’ trainer. It’s good to know that he is a sensible guy who is focusing on her best interests, which at the moment seem to be training her up for the summer Olympics.
Criticism of famous women’s bodies is rife: you only have to look at most gossip magazines to see that anyone who dares to leave the house wearing anything less than a boiler suit is fair game.
You don’t have to pick up a toxic mag, however, to experience criticism about body shape, size or weight. Everyone is at it.
Women think they’re complimenting other women by commenting on how thin they look: this, in my eyes, denotes that thin is best, otherwise they would be saying, rapturously “Wow, you look so chubby. Those jeans make you look like you’ve packed on a few pounds. How do you do it?”
The women that make the uninspired ‘thin’ comments usually do so because they believe they’re being kind: but what is interesting is how the woman on the receiving end of a seemingly innocuous comment like this could fixate on the fact that the smaller the size of her arse, the more attractive she appears.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why women, from an early age often struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. After all, when you see a girl half-starving herself to death, you wonder how things could become so extreme and tragic.
It is also a keen reminder that a woman’s physical confidence often bears little relationship to her dress size. (There are obvious exceptions to this – obesity as a result of eating too much would certainly make most people feel unwell, lethargic and probably depressed – but lots of women who have serious issues with body image are healthy looking and within an acceptable weight range.)
Many adults continue to struggle with body issues that begin in childhood. A parliamentary report published today revealed that children as young as five are struggling with mental and physical illness as a result of worrying about their appearance.
There are myriad reasons why eating disorders – currently believed to affect 1.6 million people in Britain – develop, and these cannot always be linked to one thing, as their manifestation in females is complex and at times seems to bear little relation to simply weight issues.
But negative body image, something that most women I know have struggled with at some point in their lives, can be long-lasting and have a strong impact on emotional wellbeing.
It would be great to blame men, because most don’t suffer with negative body image in quite the same fashion, and they don’t come under the same scrutiny from others regarding their physical appearance.
There is a culture at the moment that goes something like this: “Let’s point the finger at the patriarchy. It used us women as mere ornamentation for centuries. Now it’s asking that we go out to work, look after the children and keep our tits as perky as the hills, and our stomachs taut even after extended breastfeeding.”
But I won’t do that, because, although the patriarchy has a lot to answer for – including the chastity belt and Diet Coke – they’re not the real villains.
The Daily Mail gives perfect examples of how they use appearance to gauge how a women might be feeling.
It seems that its journalists write about the celebrities they feature as if they can read their minds: “Poor XXXX leaves home looking depressed. As her choice of unflattering trousers reveals, she has gone up two dress sizes in the last month” or “XXXX looks ecstatic as she shows off the results of her latest diet in a revealing dress.”
I’d be hard pushed to find a woman in the UK who reads news websites regularly and hasn’t found herself staring at the sidebar, on occasion, with gormless intrigue.
It’s like cheap candy. You wouldn’t necessarily want someone to see you gorging on it, but you occasionally eat it to get rid of a deep craving for something bad and fairly harmless. But the messages, if they are taken out of the context of a flesh-ridden crackbar, are damaging.
However, it is not the fault of the Mail or the media or size 8 models and their enviable bodies being featured in Vogue.
It’s a well-worn truism that women are their own harshest critics, and if we’re feeling miserable about ourselves then we often feel obliged to bring others down with us. As long as women feel under pressure to conform, the conversation that surrounds the damaging effects of needlessly scrutinizing other women’s appearance for being less than perfect, needs to be kept alive.
That is, if we care about the younger generation, and their relationship with their bodies. It may be a start, but the government’s plan to introduce lessons in self-esteem and body image for school children in the UK is not the only answer.
I have an 11-year-old daughter. Unsurprisingly, she can read. She saw the Ennis story in the paper last week and said “That is ridiculous. Whichever idiot called her fat needs to get some glasses.”
Now at this point I could sit back, pour myself a full fat G&T and say that my work is done, because at the moment she has a very healthy attitude towards her body, even as she approaches the often cruel adolescent stage.
Our work, however, is far from done. There will be hurdles to cross in the future, hurtful remarks that my daughter will have to fend off, and stupid ideals that she will need to question if she is to maintain a thick skin.
But hopefully she will never be under any illusion that there is a perfect weight for a woman. It seemed that when I was young, I believed that if the needle on the scales rested on my ‘ideal’ weight, then everything else would fit into place.
Now I am that weight (tiredness and lack of money) I still have to deal with all the other problems. I wish I could have said that to my 16-year-old self.
I would have had the chance of enjoying life, instead of enduring years of unrelenting misery, mostly linked to abusing my body.
So the next time you see a woman you know, refrain from commenting on her weight. It’s boring, and if they’ve shed a few kilos, they’re likely to know about it. Say something else for once, like “You look great” or “Nice espadrilles.”Tagged in: body image, daily mail, eating disorders, jessica ennis, London 2012, olympics, women
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