Reading the article ‘“I feel guilty but I hate my body”’: a feminist confesses’ in last weekend’s Guardian, my heart was filled with both joy and sadness. Joy because I was so happy to finally read an article in the mainstream press saying what we all know to be true – that even smart women can hate their bodies; sadness because Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s story rang so true, both to me and to the other women in my life.
Cosslett perfectly captured the complicated relationship that most women, myself included, have with food and their own bodies. Even intelligent women, feminist women, women who can see the absurdity, unfairness and ridiculousness of the expectations placed on them, aren’t immune to its control. As she so aptly puts it, ‘the messages are everywhere, and being told that you’re too clever to fall for this kind of media manipulation does nothing to solve the issue at hand: that many women, of all different walks of life, are going about their lives hungry or hating themselves, or both.’
I have never been a calorie-counter as such, save for a brief flirtation with My Fitness Pal. But the feelings to which Coslett admitted – of always wanting to be thinner, rarely relaxing when it comes to food choices, and never, ever being happy with how she looks – were incredibly familiar. I could really empathise with Coslett turning down the opportunity to appear on Newsnight – not because she didn’t have anything intelligent to say, but because she feared how she would appear on screen and the anticipated reaction on social media.
Now, I’ve never turned down a slot on Newsnight, and I doubt I’ll ever be in a position to do so – but I have been guilty of a certain manaña mentality regarding my weight and my life – the ‘I’ll do that once I’m thin’ approach. I would need the hands of all my friends to count the number of things I’ve imagined some ludicrous level of weight loss would improve in my life over the years. I’d have a better job, for one; I’d certainly have taken that scary trip abroad on my own; I’d almost definitely have more friends.
Women like me are putting their lives on hold while they strive to achieve an impossible weight-related goal. But the irony is that when most women reach about 25, they look back at pictures of themselves when they were younger and exclaim, ‘Look how thin I was! Why didn’t I realise?! I had no idea!’. And therein lies the cruellest part of the whole rigged game – you can never win.
The biggest reason I found this article so powerful – and brave – is that Coslett shattered the code of silence we all complicitly abide by. The code that says we should look perfect, with ‘naturally’ flawless skin and the body of an adolescent, but that it shouldn’t take any effort at all. That we should keep quiet about the insane lengths we go to in order to achieve ‘perfection’ because it should be easy. After all, how many celebrities tell interviewers that they ‘hate the gym’, that they don’t deprive themselves, and that they stay ultra-thin through a combination of ‘running round after the kids’ and ‘just being outdoorsy’? We mortals read this and infer that we should keep our bizarre eating habits, exhausting workout routines and near-constant hunger to ourselves – the fact we’re having to try so hard means we’ve already failed.
I’m not sure what I hope to achieve by writing this post – I just felt compelled to write something. I certainly don’t have a magic solution that will free us all from this mindset. Personally, I think getting older helps; I feel nowhere near as negative towards myself as I did in my early twenties. But I’m not ready to accept that the pressure on women to look a certain way is something we just have to put up with. It’s one thing to know how ridiculous and dangerous these imposed standards are, but quite another to be able to defy them, relax and be OK with ourselves. But I agree that opening up about the subject and breaking the code of silence is definitely a good place to start.
What do you think of Coslett’s article? Do you spend a lot of your time worrying about how you look? What’s the solution?