Fat and Skinny had a race,
All around the pillowcase,
Fat fell down and broke her face,
“Haha”, said Skinny, “I won the race”.
Fat is a feminist issue, or so said Susie Orbach in the late 70s. Orbach claimed that female obesity was about much more than the simple maths of calorific intake versus physical output and that, instead, gender inequality makes women fat; body fat is a way of giving the middle finger to society’s concept of the ‘ideal’ woman. “For many women, compulsive eating and being fat have become one way to avoid being marketed or seen as the ideal woman,” she writes. “Fat expresses a rebellion against the powerlessness of the woman,” says Orbach.
I’m not sure about my opinions regarding Orbach, but I do know that weight, amongst women at least, is an issue to obsess over – and argue and lose friends over. I’ve experienced both sides of the fat/thin coin, having been in the position of wanting (and needing in my opinion due to personal health preferences) to lose weight following the birth of my little girls, and I can confirm that the reactions of people towards you vary vastly according to your size – but not in the way that you’d expect them to. One of my friends once told me that her fat friends no longer saw her as an ally following weight loss – she’d crossed to the ‘dark side’ and seemed to have given them silent criticism by shrinking herself. Ironic because she never saw herself (her real ‘self’) as any different, the only difference was in their eyes, yet she became alienated by her new weight, or lack of.
I have some other very good friends (including my mother) who have always been very slim. All of them have experienced the same thing: that when you are thin or slim, other people think it’s ok to tell you that you are ‘too thin’, or that you ‘should gain some weight’, or that you ‘look ill’. None of these friends is actually too thin at all, their bones are not protruding from gaunt faces, they are lucky enough not to be in the grips of an eating disorder, they do not hobble about on the brink of osteoporosis, ribs snapping when they laugh, and children pointing them out to their mothers as they walk down the street staring at their supposedly shrivelled and emaciated frames. None of my friends look as though they have bumbled out of Belsen, they are simply slim.
On the other hand, I also have friends who range from curvy to fat. These women too have told me that they know people comment on their weight, but that it is often done by strangers. Their friends do not see fit to tell them to their faces that there is something allegedly at fault with the way that they look. Interesting. Are we to assume that it’s ok to tell our friends that they’re too thin and to make derogatory comments regarding this aspect of ‘weight’, but not to tell someone that they are too fat? In the case of a person who is actually endangering their health with weight loss (or gain) – and I mean truly endangering it, not simply enjoying exercise and needed weight loss with health benefits – then should we say something? Because, ironically, slimness is the healthier option, but it’s become acceptable in society to openly criticise the slim or skinny person for their weight (I am not suggesting a BMI of 6 is healthy, I am emphasising slim or thinness without psychological issues or eating disorders). I wonder if a person who is happy to make mean comments to a slim friend’s face would be happy to openly criticise an obese friend to their face for their possible future drain on NHS resources and tendency towards conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and cancer caused by their own unhealthy habits?
Of course, on yet another side of the multi-faceted fat/thin argument, even if you are reasonably slim, you may still be unhealthy. If you don’t exercise and your arteries are clogged and you puff away on 20 fags a day and drink more than your recommended units a week, then on the inside you may not look so great. But I don’t believe that this is a health issue. When women make mean comments about how an anorexic looks, they don’t care about her health, just her jutting bones. Perhaps it’s down to women and an innate wish to criticise. The fact that women openly bitch about their friends’ thinness simply proves the very point that they are trying to pretend they don’t agree with – slim is preferable over fat for a majority of people. If slim were not the socially preferable option, then we’d all be happily telling our fatter friends to step away from the pie in the same way that we tell our skinny friends to get a Mars Bar down them and eat some cake.
After I lost my baby weight – and then some – I received comments from a vast array of people who suddenly found it ok to speak about my size. I certainly received compliments, which I note are always associated with weight loss and not gain (we don’t congratulate averagely sized women on gaining two stone and placing themselves in the obese category it seems), but I also started receiving criticism. My phone would beep with text messages telling me to ‘eat more’ – but NEVER when I was fat did it beep with messages telling me to STEP AWAY FROM THE MILKY BAR WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR. Funny that. I’ll always have the female guilt about ramming a Twix down my chops, bonkers but true and common amongst women, but as it happens I do love food. I lost more weight than was necessary because I know from dieting in the past that some weight would go back on once I’d decided enough was enough and that treats were allowed again. But I never saw myself as ‘dieting’ this time – this was a change of lifestyle. And I have never starved myself – as my husband and mother are happy to admit, when it comes to sharing an evening meal with me, I’ll put away more than they do. And part of this is due to having become a runner and an avid exerciser. I became interested in food as fuel. I even gave up the nightly glass of wine and cut more sugars out of my diet – not to lose weight, but to gain health. I started to eat differently, putting into practise what I’d learnt about fish, proteins and certain carbs and gluten and so on – and I managed to gain more muscle and to gain back, via this, some of the weight I’d lost. It took me a while to find a balance between diet and exercise, but I seem to be there now. I’m as guilty as the next woman in terms of having skipped the odd meal to get a zip done up, but last time I checked the Morality Counter this didn’t equate to child-beating, drug dealing, or other offences that may warrant heavy criticism.
The other thing I lost though, aside from fat, was friends. Not good friends of course – by definition I wouldn’t have lost them over something so essentially trivial. My good friends accepted that I had gained a strong interest in something new that excited me, and realised that my excited jabbering about it wouldn’t last forever. In fairness, many of said good friends share the same interest so we are able to all bore each other with it. However, my pride and amazement in a previously unthought of ability to run (especially as the asthmatic daughter of an asthmatic father, who died from an asthmatic attack), was seen by some as smugness. My wish to not eat cake randomly but instead when I really fancy a piece, was seen by some as my pissing on the proverbial party and dampening the mood. But never would I have considered turning and saying to those people that the constant takeaways, processed food, fags, drugs and beer combined with lack of exercise were doing nothing for their physique, skin, or health. And the reason for this? Myriad – including good manners, a lack of interest in what doesn’t concern me, and also the fact that I am comfortable in my own skin.
Fat, clearly, is a contentious issue – I’m still not sure about whether or not it is a feminist issue. I have experienced both sides and have doubtlessly done my fair share of bitching about other women, but I can genuinely say that I do not care if my friends are fat or thin or sat on a sofa or exercising their arses off – as long as they are happy and content and safe and enjoying life. I have never believed that you have to be thin to be beautiful, far from it, and I do not think that weight plays the part in beauty that the media would have us believe it does. On the other hand, I’ll hold my paws up and openly admit that I’d rather have an averagely cellulitely and wobbly leg, than a leg that looks like stilton pelted with cottage cheese and weighs in at more than an entire seven year old child, attached to the dysfunctioning hip of a 40 stone adult who can’t leave their abode without the use of a crane.
Perhaps fat is a defensive issue. I’ve never seen a fat or skinny friend from an extreme end of the weight spectrum post one of those pictures on Facebook that unfavourably compare thin women, such as Keira Knightley, to the curvaceous beauties from the 50’s pin-up era. Personally I think that both Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Kidman are stunning creatures; just because I’ve lost weight myself, it doesn’t mean that I think negatively of curvier shapes. I’d love to have an hourglass figure, but I haven’t, and that’s that. No amount of diet and exercise or, conversely, eating more, will change that. It’s not my natural shape, whatever I weigh. And so I find myself defending my weigh loss yet again: Fat is a Defensive Issue. At the end of the day, it might be nicer if women were nicer… and just live and let live.
In response to Orbach, perhaps women need to demonstrate for each other some of the equality that they have fought for as a gender since time immemorial. Equality doesn’t mean saying ‘we are all the same'; equality is appreciating and celebrating that we’re all different, but just as valuable as one another in our status as human beings, whatever our size, gender, colour or ability.
Who knows, one day I may be fat again. I wonder what my friends will say? Bugger all to my face I expect – that, as I have learnt from experience, is only acceptable when you’re thin.