Thursday 29 January 2009


So. My whole head is pounding full of rotting green goo and it feels like someone's shoving a tiny scalpel into my larynx every time I cough. Which is fairly often. I'm home from work sick, and not for the first time I find myself trawling websites dedicated to skinny porn - the reams and reams of bollocks about dieting, eating disorders and (ugh) thinspiration out there on the web.

This is the equivalent of the recovered alcoholic's bottle of gin in the desk drawer - something between a temptation and a safety valve, a reminder that I could always go back there if things got bad enough. And oddly, one of the few times it strikes hard is when I'm really godawfully ill or exhausted, when the desire to control my leakily misbehaving body somehow seems more prescient.

I think that in my most fragile times I will never truly be free of the desire to control myself, to diminish myself - an impulse which, even for the many male sufferers from eating disorders, is always acutely feminised. The first aim is to escape gender, the second - paradoxically - to exaggerate it, by becoming the ultimate self-denying, self-diminishing, passive, body-oriented good girl, but such a very very good girl that you end up being a bad girl. Everyone I've ever met who’s been there- and that's a lot of people, you come to recognise a certain look in the eyes - in some way has elements of both, and even for me, a frantic crew-cut teen androgyne who desperately didn't want to be a 'proper' girl, there was a playful element of paradoxical rebellion in the not-eating, the excessive exercising, that pleased me. Being a real girl meant dieting, exercising, focusing on your appearance, not talking back, not shouting too loud, being submissive, caring less about your grades than how you looked. Anorexia proved to me that I could take on that game, and I could win - I could be the thinnest, the most obsessive, the sickest of all, and I could do all that and throw it all back in their faces, show them how sick it was, how wrong it all was, how it gnawed away at the very brain and bone of me.

Sasha Garwood – professional expert, former sufferer and personal friend– explains that 'any woman starving herself is simply manifesting the dictates inherent in conventional cultural concepts of acceptable femininity that she's been absorbing almost since birth and taking them to their logical extreme. There's a perverse and often defiant logic involved - to be good enough I must be thin, quiet, accommodating, not take from the world - well, I'm so much worse than everyone knows, so if I take it further than anybody else, will I be good enough? Ever?’

Did you know that in circumstances of prolonged starvation, the human brain actually shrinks? It is a fact far from universally acknowledged that dieting makes you stupid. For three years of a literature degree, I couldn't concentrate enough even to read a goddamn book, I fretted about my schoolwork to the extent of handing in meticulously checked, book-long essays about once every couple of months. Unless you've been very hungry for a long time yourself, you can't imagine what prolonged malnutrition does to your mind - never mind how obsessive you started off, you'll soon start thinking in tiny repetitive circles about everything. You’ll become anxious, tearful, constantly on edge, and this is an evolved reaction - in response to what it perceives as famine, the lizard-brain becomes hyper-focused, wanting you to stay awake searching for something, anything, to eat. Little habits, distractions - smoking, gum-chewing, booze, caffeine, uppers- become addictions. You can't sit still, you can't concentrate. You become angry, irrational, paranoid, fearful. In betweentimes, you feel hopeless – like nothing good will ever happen again. You can feel your thoughts moving more slowly, like in those dreams when you’re running through thick sludge away from some nameless terror. And all of this has nothing to do with being an actual crazy lady – these are the physiological effects of prolonged starvation.

Don’t just take my word for it. The Keys Study, also known as the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Study – carried out in 1944, it’d almost certainly be illegal now – found that a group of thirty robust, mentally well male volunteers all displayed these exact symptoms when systematically deprived of nutrition – from depression, to paranoia, to obsession with weight and appearance and hoarding behaviours, to psychosis and suicide attempts in the most extreme cases. Some of the volunteers never fully recovered from the experience.

What bites – figuratively speaking - is that millions of women, as well as some men, are putting themselves through this every day. Hating and wanting to contain your own femaleness isn’t enough – the campaign of weight against the female body across the developed and developing world actually does make us stupid, and disturbed, and obsessive, and small-minded. It’s personally and politically deadening in every sense of the world. And we’re taught to do it from an extremely early age, if not by our parents and guardians then by our classmates, by our culture. As ever, Naomi Wolf says it best:

"The ideology of semistarvation undoes feminism; what happens to women's bodies happens to our minds. If women's bodies are and have always been wrong whereas men's are right, then women are wrong and men are right. Where feminism taught woman to put higher value on ourselves, hunger teaches us how to erode our self-esteem. If a woman can be made to say, 'I hate my fat thighs,' it is a way she has been made to hate femaleness. A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but about female obedience.” (‘The Beauty Myth’, 1991).

And from Susan Bordo’s ‘Unbearable Weight’ (1993):

"female hunger-for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification- must be contained, and the public space that women be allowed to take up be circumscribed, limited... On the body of the anorexic woman such rules are grimly and deeply etched"

For me, feminism has been the hammer with which I’ve smashed my way to wellness. Forcing myself to understand my own self-worth as a person even if I didn’t really believe in it was not just a passing political fad, it was a survival skill. It was absolutely essential, if I were ever to stop being stunned and stupefied by my own terror of loss of control, my terror at the raw fact of my messy, imperfect body, that I regain the feminism I’d lost as a teenager. Make no mistake, I cut my teeth on Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan; not because anyone told me to, but because I was drawn to the power and iconoclasm of their thought. The only point in my life when I haven’t been a feminist has been in the depths of my eating disorder, when I truly hated everything that wasn’t masculine and regimented and tamed, myself most of all.

I am not suggesting that eating disorders, body obsession, dysmorphic disorders and the colossal, dulling time-wastage we are forced to put into ‘grooming’ is the very worst thing that happens to women anywhere in the world. I am not suggesting that we have it as bad as women in cultures where females are forcibly circumcised, married off young and denied education and medical treatment. But the perverse and pervasive rhetoric of thinness, personal beauty and self-control is a point on the same spectrum for women in the west. It is an enforced surrendering of personal power – shame and obedience forcibly enacted on the body in the cruellest and most insulting of ways. (Follow the link to TheFWord for more of me theorising about 'the invisible corset')


  1. The nerves of very thin women are nearer to the surface of their skin than their plump and porky sisters. Thin women are as a rule much more sexually responsive and orgasmic, which is why real men like me like them and pursue them.

    Fatties just aren't sexy.

    Most women should be on a diet.

  2. Penny Red, my love for you is so pure and platonic I am forced to decline your most welcome offer on this particular occasion.

    Consider me to be a spasmodic flicker of darkness sent by the universe to counterbalance your own peculiar brilliance and light.


  3. Clearly I will never know what you have gone through. And I do recognise your argument about the thinness 'discourse'. As I know a number of women who have been affected by it.

    But, as usual, I do have a question. My question is where does this come from and why?

    Neither traditional art nor modern pornography really revel in thinness.

    And from my experience the average male does not find skinny 'cat-walk' women attractive.

    So where does this issue arise from?

    Is anorexia and such like really the result of men forcing their idea of the 'body beautiful' on women?

  4. Rob,

    Yes, that's an important point you've raised.

    Thinness is specifically a social, and not a sexual ideal - although in recent years as thinness has become more and more fetishised, the boundaries have been more and more confused. It's about social approval, and at the extreme end it can also be about removing oneself from the game of enforced feminine sexuality.

    Eating disorders aren't something that is done by men, to women. I personally believe that the epidemic of eating disorders we've come to accept as normal in the West is something that could only happen in a patriarchal society.

    I think some posters on this blog need to understand that feminism doesn't automatically mean attacking men.

    I think it's also important for you and 'Tony' to recognise that women do do some things for reasons other than because they think it might make them more attractive to men.

  5. "I think it's also important for you and 'Tony' to recognise that women do do some things for reasons other than because they think it might make them more attractive to men."

    Penny you assume too much. My point was that I don't think this issue is just about men's perceptions of female beauty. Or about women trying to make themselves more attractive to men.

    But then maybe I've had a little too much wine tonight and made a hackneyed effort at that. Also please don't group me with men like Tony. I may be a libertarian and therefore you can write me off as just another right wing male but I'm not vulgar.

    However I would like to know what you mean by 'patriarchal' society. And what role this has to play in this issue.

  6. For what it's worth, fat-hatred seems like a well-designed and rational response by patriarchy to the gains women have made. If women can't be forced into marriage, or kept in the home when married, then methods of control must be found that can operate through the media and the individual woman's mind, rather than through the family or particular individual men.

  7. Alright, I'm going to be very careful here, because that was a startlingly candid piece (another one!) and deserves a careful response here. My response to the article itself is sympathy and complete agreement, but intellecutally the comments which followed raised my heckles.

    Thinness is specifically a social, and not a sexual ideal - although in recent years as thinness has become more and more fetishised, the boundaries have been more and more confused. It's about social approval, and at the extreme end it can also be about removing oneself from the game of enforced feminine sexuality.

    Eating disorders aren't something that is done by men, to women. I personally believe that the epidemic of eating disorders we've come to accept as normal in the West is something that could only happen in a patriarchal society.

    Now I don't really understand this. So far as I can tell men who prefer skinny women are actually pretty rare (my best friend is one of the few I know). So why would a system rigged up to make men dominate enforce a vision which they found unappealing upon women? Why would those seeking something rather more study be offered up the severely emaciated?

    I think some posters on this blog need to understand that feminism doesn't automatically mean attacking men.

    This is true, but the difficulty is that although it obviously benefitted you immensely (which I'm really glad for!) it doesn't offer a firm route forwards since it's never going to be a movement which can attack the binary properly. Being as it is bound from the name down to one side of the entirely false division.

    Ironic, really.

    I think it's also important for you and 'Tony' to recognise that women do do some things for reasons other than because they think it might make them more attractive to men.

    But there's the rub. As you've said and I'll agreed it isn't men telling women that they must get skinny, for the most part. The articles and bitching and so on largely comes from within the gender itself, making this an instance of woman-on-woman abuse. To select a rather more extreme instance it's not the men that pin down the poor girls you mention in Africa, it's not male Egyptian doctors that await them alongside the surgery table. Indeed, if you watched Tribe you'd be aware that it's often leading, vocal women who not only perform but are the fiercest advocates of the ritual's continuation.

    We should take care not to conflate these two issues, but I would suggest that it isn't a consequence of male domination that either of them occur. It's because an ideal has been established which is harmful and its enforcers are behaving as securers of social norms often do: using shame (here) and force (certain regions of Africa).

    That's not atypical, indeed it's standard, and it doesn't suggest a Patriarchy is neccessary. Indeed, I suggest that we don't really have one any more (although the binary is still going strong, it has simply altered in form and traded some misogyny for misandry, keeping itself pretty much balanced) but that's for another argument.

  8. Thanks James; and, in return, I'm going to be really careful as well in how I phrase this.

    When I say 'patriarchy,' I don't just mean men. A society in which women are undermined, cheapened and shoehorned into certain roles absolutely could not happen if you had, on one side, a gang of men imposing these conditions and, on the other side, a gang of women feebly begging to be released.

    One of the biggest problems of the women's movement has always been getting around the problem that some women do keep other women down. That doesn't mean that society is any less patriarchal. We have yet to see a situation where all the women in the country kick against their chains, and the reason you can tell that is that the chains are still there. You can bet that if all women mobilised together, we'd be unstoppable. But feminism has always been more complicated than that.

    A lot of the main battles feminism still has to fight - not all, but some - are emotional ones, battles about changing cultural behaviour, individual self-conception and ideas rather than changing legislation. The thinness meme is one example of that. I'm not suggesting that it's a massive conspiracy by some shadowy group of white men who want to keep women starving, stupid and miserable - but the effect is still the same, and it's the effect that I'm talking about here.

    I increasingly believe that we've come so far that blame-laying is a waste of time as far as feminism is concerned. I feel justified in standing up and saying that something like this is wrong and works against us, without being compelled to point the finger.

    In exactly the same way - and I'm sorry to sound like a cliche - a great, great deal of Barack Obama's writings on race are very open about the insidious problems working against POC in the US- failing education in the inner cities, lingering resentment over 'positive discrimination,' etc. But Obama can say these things, and can propose alternatives, without feeling the need to say, 'oh, and by the way - kill whitey!'

    It's not about that. It's not about who's to blame for all this any more, because in one way or another, all citizens are complicit. Hell, I'm complicit! In this instance, just for example, when I was mad I used to be one of those girls who looked down on 'fat' women, who secretly thought that women who weren't thin deserved to be (eg) overlooked for jobs, one of those girls who wandered around with a diet magazine in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, feeling liberated and superior and not seeing the shackles on my feet. I've learned my lesson now, of course.

    So let's let go of this obsession with who's to blame in this one. I think the only clear-cut cases of blame being attached to one gender are domestic violence and violence within prostitution. Anything else, blame doesn't come into it any more -and, if you notice, it's increasingly not women feminists who are concerned about blame. It's male allies and critics who want to pin down exactly who we're blaming here, and I'd venture that that's because, deep down, they're frightened that we're going to say, 'it was you! It was you all along!'

    It wasn't you, James. No more than any of us.

  9. Much as I feel horrendously outgunned getting into a semantic dispute with an English Lit. student I think that our definition of Patriarchy is perhaps the root of our problem, here.

    Because as you describe it there, yes, we unquestionably do live under a Patriarchy. But since men too are "undermined, cheapened and shoehorned into certain roles" then that would suggest we live under a Matriarchy as well.

    Which isn't a point I'd push (I imagine you'd laugh at me if I did, right? And I'd get seven kinds of scorn from every strain of feminism going save perhaps the Sarah Palin variety), but that's where we are led by the logic of that usage. It's a little like the whole "Male Privilege/Benign Sexism" dichotomy (which just doesn't exist: there's prejudice you can enjoy and prejudice you can't, but the stuff's of the same substance regardless.) but far, far more important.

    I'd further suggest that the connotations of "Patriarchy" are invariably etymological: that word consists of rule (bad stuff we want to end) and father (male figure, who's doing it). Perhaps this isn't true of all, but that's certainly what it sounds like to me. I may be atypical and if so this is all worth disregarding.

    So as long as that's the central concept (one which sort of sounds implicitly accusatory) and the name seems to make it sound like it belongs to women (which would be curious for an anti-binaryist) I think that things will be a far greater struggle than need's be. Feminism will remain something the majority women and men alike are baselessly wary of. Much as "Socialism" means a horrible cocktail of Old Labour, Militant and the Soviet Union to most people who hear it.

    Both of which are immense pities. It's less that I feel you're screaming "J'accuse!" at me and I agree entirely and vehemently with your reasoning (that post had a truly massive amount of stuff which I agree with entirely and fiercely), but I'm worried about limitation. I'm not suggesting you take up the word Matriarchy to bring in some balance, just that when you make use of its counterpart your intent and the outcome are not in lockstep.

    Could just be me, though...

    p.s. And again: glad to hear that you're better now! :) Sounds like it was a really grim phase and as someone with a mentally unstable e-friend who's been awol for almost a year now it's good to hear that people can tear through the other side (reasonably) unscathed & intact. Idk if you'll act as an example to anyone but I can hope.

  10. "We have yet to see a situation where all the women in the country kick against their chains, and the reason you can tell that is that the chains are still there. You can bet that if all women mobilised together, we'd be unstoppable."

    Now this is slightly off topic but I think it's important in relation to your thinking generally.

    About 4 years ago I was in my student bar with some friends. Now, at this stage in my life you could describe me as a 'socialist'.

    I was having an argument with one of my friends about some general topic. When I said something along the lines of what you said, but about the working class.

    My friend who was from Corby -- a ruff part of the world -- looked at me and laughed. He said 'You fucking idiot, what do you know? You've never even been to a proper council estate. How do you expect YOU will ever be able to convince the working class they need to break free from their shackles?'

    All my friends laughed at me and I felt like a fool. I felt like a fool because despite the amount of Marx, Chomsky and Foucault I had read the reality was that he was right. No one had convinced the working class of the logic of Marx and no one ever was going to.

    I put that moment down as the beginnings of end for my belief in socialism.

    I therefore ask you how you think what you put above is ever possible?

    Without force how are you going to convince all women to recognise what you do?

  11. In human experience that which is most valuable is often that which is most rare and unobtainable: precious metals, jewels, works of art and so on.

    One of the reasons fashion promotes a standard of beauty based on youth and skeletal models is precisely because that "look" is rare and unusual to the point of being freakish and abnormal.

    "If shit were valuable the poor would be born with no arseholes" (Brazilian proverb)

    My sister was anorexic for many years. She confessed that her malady had nothing to do with beauty or sexiness, with her trying to aspire to or achieve some impossible imaginary standard of physical excellence, but with control. Starving herself made her feel as if in the maelstrom of her confused and bewildering life she could at least choose what, when and whether she ate and whether she digested her repast normally or vomited it up in the bathroom. I love my sister beyond life but there was nothing I could say or do - and I would have done ANYTHING to have freed her from the chains of her illness - to distance her from this folly. She clung to her anorexia like a victim to an assassin even as the murderer's dagger skewered and twisted inside her beating heart.

    To Jane living in an ever-changing world full of unpredictabilities and uncertainties the surety of her anorexia became some sort of bedrock she anchored herself to and in a very perverse manner found somehow stabilising and comforting.

    I could never grasp or understand this fully but it broke my heart over and over and over to see one so lovely experiencing such confusion, pain and suffering. She seemed so isolated, stranded and alone, even in company, as if an invisible bell jar separated her from the rest of the world and rendered her untouchable and unreachable. She was like a blindingly brilliant but utterly solitary star lost in the bruised blackness of infinite space.

    My sister is well now and happy too I think, I hope, but the shadow of her anorexia, the "wraith" as she calls it, remains to haunt her to this day.

    Forgive me my sins Penny.

    Sometimes I cannot help but play the Devil's advocate. I would rather laugh and wax comedic than confessional. My, my how maudlin I have become.

  12. Laurie, you should lay into barbara ellen on CiF for her piece from sunday's Observer. Horible, in essence wishing eating disorders upon more men as if to redress some kind of 'balance'. Yup, men can suffer every bit as much (been there myself) so thanks in your writing for acknowledging this.

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