Something odd happened recently. For the first time in my life (apart from the two occasions when I got salmonella poisoning), I lost weight without trying. This may not seem odd to other people, to those who have a more relaxed, less obsessive relationship with their size and shape, but I’m sure any binge eaters or compulsive dieters out there will understand.
You see, I spent most of my life, until my early 30s, desperately trying to lose weight and almost always failing. Or I succeeded in the short term – through extreme dieting and compulsive exercising – but my weight crept up again as soon as I fell back into a cycle of binge eating and restricting. I remember feeling incredibly envious of friends who’d lose weight through stress, worry, relationship breakdown or because they’d fallen in or out of love. Why could that never happen to me? Why was excess food always an integral part of my reaction to life’s ups and downs? It was so frustrating.
So you’ll imagine my surprise when, last month, I did lose weight, not by striving or dieting, but through stress, worry, over work and sleeplesness. There wasn’t anything major going on – I just got myself into an unmanageable tizz around deadlines and around my perfectionism. I was so busy working and fretting that I wasn’t eating properly – grabbing snacks and insubstantial meals on the go. I even forgot to have my lunch on the odd occasion, something almost unheard of for anyone with overeating issues (you’ll often find us counting down the minutes to our next meal).
The result was that I shed a few pounds. We’re not talking vast quantities of weight here, but it was noticeable – to me and to others, although I should add, those ‘others’ were generally female. One of my friends, who I’ve known for over 20 years, remarked, diplomatically, that my slimmer figure didn’t suit me, that I was looking a little gaunt and not very healthy, a look that was exacerbated by the dark circles under my eyes. But quite a few people congratulated me on my trimmer form, even if some added: ”Don’t lose anymore”.
Now, I’m not complaining – I don’t mind anyone telling me I look ”great” – but the phenomenon of being congratulated on weight loss (when I didn’t actually need to lose any, at least by traditional BMI or high-street clothing standards) and the idea that being thinner equates to looking “great” has really got me thinking.
For most of my life, extreme thinness was my ultimate goal. Thankfully, I’ve now got more perspective. I pursue health and happiness over a Kate Moss-like figure. Despite this new approach and despite my efforts during Lent last year to cultivate acceptance of my body, weight, I’m sorry to say, is still often on my mind.
Weight loss is also one of the first things I notice on other women. And, as some have done with me recently, I invariably comment on it. I’ll probably be the first person to tell a friend she looks “great” if she’s lost a few pounds – unless I feel she genuinely has strayed into gaunt territory or I’m worried about her health.
And at the same time as I’m dishing out compliments, I’ll likely be harbouring feelings of jealousy on the inside. Yes, I know it’s a little crazy but even if I don’t need to lose any weight myself, I don’t like other women losing any! Does anyone else feel that way? Or perhaps it’s just me and I’m once again exposing my insecurities for all to read. But despite years in recovery from an eating disorder and despite having maintained a reasonably stable weight since my mid-30s, my brain unfortunately still thinks I’m in some silly competition with other women to be thin.
And then there’s the ‘weight-ing game’, as I’ve decided to rename it. You know the one. It involves thoughts like ‘I’ll wear that dress or take up that activity when I’ve lost weight or when I’m this size or that size’. Fortunately, I seem to have shaken that mentality for the most part, although I admit it often takes a Herculean effort to dress myself in clothes of the more figure-hugging or revealing variety.
So why is weight so important to us? Or should I say ‘so important to me’? I don’t want to generalise for all those women out there who are satisfied with the way they look and who don’t notice other women’s weight loss or tell them they look “great” after shedding a few pounds. I’m sure there are many well-balanced, secure souls out there.
But anyone who’s had or has an eating disorder will know that weight is an incredibly complex issue. I definitely felt more ‘in control’ and greater self esteem when my clothes felt a little looser over the past few weeks. And as my stress decreased and I returned to normal eating, I didn’t like the sensation of weight coming back on again. But I’ve also realised that it takes far too much effort for me to keep myself at the thinner end of my personal weight spectrum – it’s not worth it and it isn’t good for me. Self-acceptance is the answer.
So why are some of us more able to accept ourselves than others? Check out this article by Observer columnist Victoria Coren comparing the attitudes of black and white women to their bodies: Some black and white truths at last. As Coren points out, a survey commissioned for The Washington Post revealed that black women feel more confident in their bodies and have more self-esteem than white women even if they weigh more or are overweight. If you’re interested in the topic, I recommend you read the original Washington Post article on the survey: Black women heavier and happier in their bodies than white women, poll finds (you might have to sign up to read the whole thing but it’s free). But here’s an extract to get a flavour:
“The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.”
The journalist, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, talks to a black fitness instructor, Michelle Gibson, who is plus-sized and, according to her doctors, needs to lose between two and three stone (30-40 pounds). She also loves her body. She says: “High school is where I started to realize I was different … My quads were big, I had these boobs, and I had a butt. Not only that, I was dark with short hair. That’s when I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Either I’m going to go with it, or I’m going to go against it.’ I always went with it.”
I love that attitude – ”I always went with it” – but the article also points out that for some black women, this acceptance of their bodies can lead them down a slippery slope to obesity and poor health.
The article also quotes trainer and nutritionist Joseph Neil who says: “Every white woman who wants to work out and train wants to be petite, petite, no curves, no hips, no butt, nothing, just toned,” whereas black women say they want to keep their curves.
Both the Washington Post article and Victoria Coren’s column argue that black women have managed to form such a strong sense of self-esteem irrespective of their weight because they’ve largely been spared from the media onslaught of uniformly thin bodies that assails their white counterparts. Black women were excluded from mainstream media for decades so they didn’t feel compelled to conform to an unattainable body shape.
But as the Washington Post article also makes clear, a woman’s attitude towards her appearance is also hugely influenced by the culture in which she grows up. Many of the women quoted describe how the fuller figure was extolled by family members and admired by men in their cultures. I agree that our culture and our home and school environments have a huge role to play in the way we look at our bodies.
In Brazil, for example, where I lived for three years, women spend hours in the gym trying to enlarge and shape their bottoms with muscle tone because Brazilians place great value on an ample ‘bunda’ (that’s ‘bottom’ in Portuguese). Some women will even go as far as having implants in their bottoms to create a more curvaceous backside. Can you imagine a British woman going under the knife to increase the size of her derriere? But cross the border to Argentina, particularly to the capital Buenos Aires, and women are starving themselves to conform to a beauty ideal – in that culture, petite and skinny are best. (I should note at this point that these are generalisations and ones based purely on my own experience. Not all Argentinians have anorexic tendencies and not all Brazilian women desire to have a large bottom. As a further caveat, newspaper surveys are not scientific research papers.)
My rather broad conclusion to all these musings is that the media and our environment and culture play a huge part in the way we view our bodies. I do think the media (a word I’ll use loosely to encompass advertising, pop videos, movies and the fashion industry), to a certain extent, breeds body dissatisfaction and negative thinking about the way we look. Eating disorders, however, are much more complex and generally have very deep, entwined roots, although they can be exacerbated by unattainable beauty ideals.
But the extent to which the media is to blame for rising levels of body dissatisfaction is a fascinating argument and one that will be debated at greater length at the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre this weekend. I’ll be on a panel on Saturday from 4:30 – 5:30 pm discussing Body Politics, including size and age, and there are some amazing events throughout Saturday, as well as on Friday and Sunday. I’m very excited – the festival looks fabulous.