“Half-starved women can’t have no life in them any more than a half-starved dog.”

Cushion by John Adler

“Nothing Tastes As Good As Skinny Feels!” – is the chirpy statement that you can now find adorning t-shirts, cushions and sundry other objects. Unfortunately they seem to be missing their target audience, so I’d suggest better results if this slogan were printed on the inside of the toilet bowl. That way you can keep focused whilst you’re vomming and not get distracted by the taste of your own stomach-lining. Perhaps it could also be on dialysis machines and other hospital equipment, so that your loved-ones can remember that, systematic organ failure or no, being skinny sure does feel great!

I don’t want to crass and blase about this, or in any way attack slimmer girls, or girls with eating-disorders of body-issues. But it’s easy for us average-sized ladies to feel so defensive of our weight, so attacked from all sides day-by-day with an onslaught of imagery and perceptions about how we should look, that any girl a couple of sizes thinner than us is suddenly – surely – days away from hospitalisation. Can’t we just….be? Be healthy, be the way we’re supposed to be, be accepted?

This backlash can be just as damaging and hurtful for slimmer girls as it is for larger ladies. There are many girls who are naturally thin and would love to be able to put on some weight and be curvy. There are others that are held up as role-models for curvier girls and can never get out from under it, like Sophie Dahl. And take the gorgeous Christina Hendricks, for instance: what words come to mind when you see a photos of her? Voluptuous, curvaceous, all-woman, real-woman. But let’s stop there – how is she any realer than a slim girl? I like the word slim – it implies healthy, petite – there is nothing wrong with slim. But skinny? Skinny is…pointed. Skinny is rib-cage poking through and veiny hands that are always just a little pink, a little cold-looking. There are many girls who struggle to gain weight, who are naturally thinner. The difference is this is how their bodies are supposed to be, and are by-and-large as healthy as anyone else.

I’ve had to go back and edit this post as I realised I’d written the line “us normal-sized girls”. What exactly is that? Where are the parameters or normal and abnormal here?The point is that your natural weight, the weight you should be will feel great. But the rising floodwaters of fashion, culture, and advertising are telling us that we should always strive for skinny, strive to be thinner.

Magazines, newspapers, film and tv needs to start taking seriously the responsibility it has to portray women as varied in size, shape and colour. The “it was a mistake” excuse Grazia gave when it “accidentally” photoshopped the already slim Kate walking down the aisle with Prince William this summer, making her ridiculously (and it seemed, impossibly) skinny on its front cover was a gross failure in this responsibility. Intentional or not, magazines like Grazia should be ultra-aware of what kind of message they are giving out to their readers. I don’t believe, I have to add, that magazines like this and the culture they represent, have much bearing on eating-disorders themselves. These seem to be borne more of deep-rooted issues and attempts to take control of a life. What I’m talking about is more the day-to-day misery of the average woman, who spends so much of her life desperate to look like somebody, anybody else.

The curvy Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks, meanwhile is treated by magazines and newspapers as some strange anomaly – a larger woman who is still sexy? How can this be?! Every interview is about her size, about her weight, her body-issues. Type her name in to google and it will automatically supply you with the options “Christina Hendricks weight”, “Christina Hendricks measurements”, “Christina Hendricks size”. She is a victim of her own voluptuousness. And I’ll hold up my hands and admit that that’s what I want to hear her talking about, because for the many of us who think cake actually tastes better than skinny she is one tiny speck of light in a depressing and hopeless night sky blanketed with a multitude of famous women poking and puking and popping pills to achieve the perfect weight.

Image from here

And yes, Christina Hendricks is now promoting Vivien Westwood’s new line, but what other designer would touch her with a barge pole? Westwood is mad and brilliant and has always made clothes that don’t conform to the body-shapes of fashion, but the entire fashion industry, from the catwalk to the high-street, makes clothes to look good on skinny models. And no matter how well we know our own bodies, no matter how many despairing hours we spend in front of the mirror, poking and prodding and wishing that somehow by will alone we could shave of just a little here, a little there, well, we still go the changing rooms hoping that somehow this piece of clothing will make us look like the girls in the pictures.

But of course it doesn’t. Fashion is made for coat-hanger girls, girls with no boobs, girls with no hips. Do you want to know what the fashion industry ideal has become, for a model? This is what fashion designs hold as the perfect woman -the Venus de Milo of the 21st century:

You can’t really make out a body shape there can you? So here’s another photo, of the same model:

Image from here

Yep. This is Andrej Pejic, the hottest model on the catwalk when it comes to womenswear. You might think this model is so skinny that there’s nary a boob in sight. It’s better than the alternative, at least, because the perfect vision of feminine beauty that we should, according to the fashion designers, all be aspiring to is, well, a man.

Now I have nothing against men wearing women’s clothing – it’s a free world, who am I to say who should wear what (and besides, why should we women have all the fun?) But when designers make clothes for a body shape like this, well, I’d say womankind is pretty much buggered. We might as well just stop running this race, sit down here in the middle of the road and eat some nice carbohydrates and give it up, because there’s no way we’re going to win.

This depresses me. Hugely. I’ve been lucky never to have struggled massively with my weight, nor to feel so pushed that I’ve taken steps down the sad and unhealthy path of an eating disorder. I don’t read fashion magazines any more. I count myself lucky, as one of the ones who can see it all clearly. And yet….it’s always there, pervasive and insidiously sliding into the darkest, most insecure corners of my mind, or heart, that little voice. That little slithering voice that whispers words like fat and frumpy and ugly. Somewhere there’s the thought that I’d be happier, that things would all work out for me, that everything would just be better if only I were thinner.

Frankly I’ve no idea where this voice comes from. I couldn’t care less about advertising featuring skinny girls, all awkward angles and splayed limbs, about movie stars or models. I don’t aspire to be like Kate Moss or Victoria Beckham. But what’s frightening is that this view of skinny girls as ideals of beauty is so pervasive that it can enter our subconscious like a poisonous little bit of grit, going unnoticed until a muddy pearl of self-loathing and destructiveness grows up around it. And then it’s just too late.

We certainly seem to have reached an extreme in the 21st century, although it is easy to imagine that women from others eras were allowed to do as they please and never spared a thought for their weight. There’s so much been said about the size of Marilyn Monroe, and the classic ’50s hourglass look. There’s no denying that curves were definitely an ideal in the 1950s, but I recently read an article claiming that Marilyn was actually a petite size 8. Anyone who’s watched her sashay along the train platform in Some Like It Hot, like “jello on springs”, can say that a size 8 she aint. But I don’t believe her body-shape is any more healthy an alternative for us to aim for, as extreme as it seemed in difference between boobs waist and hips. Marilyn certainly seemed to have been born with this shape so it was natural and healthy for her, but many more in the 50s wore waist-cinchers and waspie corsets to achieve that look. A little less extreme, certainly than the s-shaped corsets of the Edwardian era, or the heroin-chic of today, but there was never a golden-age of body image for women. It’s easy to put on the rose-tinted glasses and imagine a time and a place where women were accepted as they were, and frolicked about unashamed of their wobbly bits, or lack thereof.

The sad truth is that body-image has always been prescribed and forced on us- largely by society, but by a society that’s rules, and ideals, have always overwhelmingly been decided by men. This is a whole other topic that I don’t want to get into here, but my point is that there were probably a group of 15th century Italian women standing around Boticelli’s Birth of Venus lamenting the fact that they looked so different to her. Marilyn spent her life battling with her weight, and as much as she holds a special place in my heart, she could never be said to have been emotionally and mentally stable with her body-image or sense of self. It just seems sad that for so many of us our sense of self-worth is so intrinsically linked to that of our body-image.

Image from http://marilynmonroes.blogspot.com/

As for me, I have good days and bad days – or perhaps, good months and bad months. There are times when I cannot stand the sight of myself in the mirror, and there are others – luckily far outnumbering the negative – when I just enjoy food too much. When I just can’t help but crave fudge and sherbet flying-saucers and jaffa cakes and crisps and pasta and sticky toffee puddings and pancakes (mmm….pancakes). I know I could be thinner. But I know that I’m not unhealthy. I am not obese. My weight is not endangering myself and my relationship with food, whilst tumultuous at times, has never been self-destructive. And I am so, so very grateful for this.

So, sorry Christina Hendricks: I’m going to keep reading those articles where you’re asked about your body-image, because it’s nice to be reminded that there are women out there who are curvy and healthy – but also funny, intelligent, talented, caring and passionate and so very much more than their bodies alone. It’s a reminder that women come in all shapes and sizes and can be successful, and are happy, as long as they are the shape they’re supposed to be.

***

Check out the gorgeous Body Gossip who are doing great work promoting a healthy body-image for women, and also work with schools to discuss issues with teenage girls. We need more of this if anything is ever going to change!

The quote I’ve used as a title here is by Mae West from Movie Classic, April 1934. Read more about her attitude to being skinny here, thanks to @FashionHistoria

2 thoughts on ““Half-starved women can’t have no life in them any more than a half-starved dog.”

  1. Lady Cherry

    Fabulous article. I have always struggled with my weight as well, and although at times l am content with my lot, l mostly am just about to join a side wagon, or have just fallen off one. I totally agree that this is ideal body image is being forced upon us, and an hour glass figure is no more achievable than a heroin chic one.

    Reply

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