It’s something that’s actually quite difficult for me to talk about, even now. Until a few years ago, I would never have dreamt of admitting to feeling this way. Not even to myself.
Growing up, it was a sentiment I didn’t hear expressed often. I’ll be clear: we were by no means explicitly banned from talking about it, but it was something that just wasn’t really discussed in our house.
And yet despite this, it’s a feeling that I continue to experience on an almost daily basis, and sometimes more often – although God knows I’ve worked hard over the years to contain, suppress, or ignore it.
Five years ago, if you’d told me that it would be something I’d eventually say to my friends, discuss in a women’s group, or write about in a blog read by hundreds of strangers, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet this weekend, something happened that reminded me why it’s so important to talk about this feeling.
I know that some people will feel uncomfortable reading what I’m about to say. They might feel anxious about the possibility of having to think about it themselves. But it’s probably quite important to get past this. It’s only words, after all, although the meaning those words convey is anything but simple.
I’m hungry, and I want to eat. To clarify: at the time of writing, I want to put something roughly the size of a sandwich into my mouth, mash it up with my teeth, and swallow it down into my stomach.
I’m guessing that at this point, roughly a sixth of you don’t understand what the hell I’m going on about. That’s OK: you guys were always going to find this difficult.
For the remaining five sixths of you who do at least sort-of see, to whatever degree, where I’m going with this, I’d like to make things even clearer.
I don’t want to eat something because I’m feeling sad, or angry, or bored, or guilty, or hungover (although I am) or because I need a reward (I definitely don’t). I’m pretty sure I haven’t done something bad for which I deserve punishment. No: I want to eat something because I haven’t yet eaten today and my stomach is yowling and growling and contracting and squishing its way slowly up through my torso to throttle my BRAIN.
It’s important for me to make that distinction. You see, for a long time, I was so used to eating for any reason but hunger that I didn’t always understood what it really meant. For about fifteen years, food, for me, wasn’t about satisfying hunger. It wasn’t even about pleasure. It was about lots of other things, like anxiety, and panic, and self-hatred – but then, so was not-food.
At this point I’d like to invite the one sixth and the five sixths of you to face each other in the safe, virtual space of D For Dalrymple, and agree on how completely fucking ridiculous that is.
It’s not like I avoided eating – quite the opposite. My mum was (is) a big advocate of a way of eating she calls ‘French’ – the idea being that you take what you want from a selection of vast serving dishes, leaving the rest to be stored in a series of smaller bowls that archaeologists will one day use to date her fridge.
This way of eating is totally logical – if you are a sentient adult, understand how food works, and have a measure of self-control. It doesn’t, however, work massively well for a twelve-year-old girl whose sole competitive edge over her talented younger sibling lies in the number of boiled potatoes she can put away in ten minutes.
During my teens I managed to learn to smoke, to kiss, and to lie, but actually LOST the ability to register and respond to the physical signs of hunger and satiety. And at the same time, I was convinced that for a girl like me to even talk about food was disgusting, shameful, and embarrassing.
I’m a grown-up now, living in my own space, making my own food decisions, totally absolving my parents of responsibility for my adult behaviours. I’m also at a stable weight and am in possession of a BMI that in theory makes me technically obese, but in practise means I fill out clothes nicely (and, importantly, in the right places, which is something I haven’t always been able to say). In recent years, my turbulent relationship with food and my body has settled down. But old habits die hard, and certain attitudes remain that are hard to bury.
I know I’m not the only woman to feel this way. And I know that I’m not the only feminist to feel this way, because I went to a seminar this weekend where 200 of the most educated, intelligent, coherent and utterly kick-ass females in London took it in turns to share stories about how food and body image controlled their lives to varying degrees.
Endangered Species, the group that facilitated the seminar at the UK Feminista 2011 conference, has recently launched a campaign called Ditching Dieting. Their aim is to raise awareness of the food, diet and beauty industries that work alongside one another to make money out of the insecurities that the same companies work tirelessly to create and nurture in men and women – particularly women – around the world.
The hope is that women who have long since been manipulated by these industries, the media, and their own cultures, can get access to the knowledge and support they need to reclaim their bodies and eating habits. It’s a campaign that I’m 100% ready to get behind, especially as one of D For Dalrymple’s favourite feminist writers, Susie Orbach, is involved*.
Some of the statistics brought up during the Endangered Bodies presentation were extremely sobering, though of course already known to Orbach readers – for example, the proven 95% recividism rate (that’s ‘failure’ to you and me) among dieters, and the chilling facts about corporate ownership of popular diet regimes (Weight Watchers is owned by Heinz, Jenny Craig by Nestlé).
Yet by far the most powerful element of the seminar was the 40 minute slot given over to delegates’ accounts of their own experiences of food, eating, and body image. Although it took a while for people to pluck up the courage to share their own experiences, soon hands were shooting up all over the room and a microphone passed around to allow people to be heard over the background noise of general feminism**.
While there were plenty of body-positive stories, it soon became apparent that many of them came as a kind of punchline to a deeply moving account of pain and self-punishment. An inspirational fourteen-year-old who despaired of her classmates’ body dysmorphia was a sadly isolated voice.
One young woman stood up and spoke of her experience growing up with the steadfast belief that her dreams – travelling to Australia, learning French, writing a novel – would be within her reach, if only she could lose weight. Another came from a sporty family and felt incapable of reconciling their strict food-as-fuel views with her own, more complex relationship with food. A particularly harrowing tale came from a woman whose female relatives were all food- and weight-obsessed. This woman had been able to identify these problems as an adult and was trying to work through them, but had been shocked, when she asked her 6-year-old niece what she wanted to be when she grew up, to receive the answer ‘thin’***.
I found that last story almost unbearably poignant, and it evidently registered with other delegates, too: one of the speakers, counsellor Rania Khan, brought it up again in the wider forum of Feminist Question Time. I was pleased that the issue was raised here, because I sometimes feel that feminist discourse around weight, food and body image can occasionally be relegated to the context of ‘other’ women: non-feminists, the unenlightened, the eating-disordered, the very young, the victims. Not strong women. Not Feminists.
One woman at the seminar recalled her feelings of utter disbelief when she realised that she had developed an eating disorder ‘despite’ her strong feminist beliefs. And that’s just it. It doesn’t matter how emancipated, how confident, how educated, how strong you are: none of that stuff makes a body impervious to the tacit, low-level misogyny that pervades our governments, workplaces, shops and homes.
I sometimes think that, as a feminist, it’s often easier to be more vocal about those issues that don’t have so much of an immediate impact on my own life. Strip clubs – boo! Genital mutilation – bad! Miss World – fuck off! Cosmetic surgery? I’d have to be actually tripping over my labia before I’d consider taking a scalpel to them, you BASTARDS.
But subtly suggest that my hips could be a little on the slenderer side and that I would be happier as a result, and odds are I’ll drink it up like a pint of Sam Smiths’ finest. Thin = good is a message that has been transmitted to me at every stage of my life since I was a tiny child. It’s insidious, hard to pin down: humiliating to have fallen for.
When you’re a kick-ass feminist in a large group of other kick-ass feminists, there is enormous pressure on you to be consistently kick-ass. It can be difficult to find the courage to own and voice any negative or self-destructive feelings you have about food or body image. No-one wants to be a victim. No-one wants to play into the hands of critics. No-one wants to let the team down.
That’s why it’s so, so important that feminist groups and meetings provide a safe, welcoming space for the women who occasionally have recourse to be a little less kick-ass than they’d generally like. So well done, Endangered Species and well done, UK Feminista.
And to those women who took the floor at the Endangered Bodies seminar: I salute you. You are brave, and intelligent, and strong, and beautiful. And I would have been right up there with you, telling my own story… if I hadn’t been so very, very hungry.
* I can recommend Bodies (2009) and the seminal Fat Is A Feminist Issue (1978) as particularly life-changing. Susie Orbach is to me what Germaine Greer is to Caitlin Moran: where Caitlin looks up to the Goddess Greer, I refer to the Oracle Orbach. However, I suspect that the way I feel about Orbach working on Unilever brand Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty resembles how Caitlin feels whenever GG says mean stuff about other feminists or does something really mental: not cool, Susie. Not cool.
** The sound of background feminism kind of gentle, thrilling hum, punctuated by fierce ululations of joy. It’s almost impossible to describe. You really have to hear it for yourself. Why not become a feminist?
*** You’ll be pleased to hear that this anecdote had a happy ending. Years later, when asked the same question, the little girl had adjusted her expectations. She now hopes to gain a university degree.