Wednesday 10 June 2009

Perfect slaves?

There's been a rash of horrible articles recently, along with some great ones, about dieting, body image, self-harm and eating disorders. I can't look away from this stuff, especially not when I'm physically ill and my own body is just not behaving. Five years after I was hospitalised for anorexia as a 17-year-old, I still have to keep an eye on the way I'm eating: when my appetite goes, as it has now as a result of the deathflu, I can't just sip milkshakes and grumble like a normal overgrown student; instead, I have to battle it out between the little voice which wants to take the opportunity to avoid food for a few days, to lose some of that hated flab from my hips and tummy, and the other voice that doesn't trust me to eat properly on any day. On days like these, forcing a sandwich that I can't taste into my gland-swollen face, the whole tricky business of actually giving a damn about myself is hard enough already without being bombarded on all sides by images of thinnness, 'beauty' and trauma.

I've written about this many times before. This article at The F Word in 2007 and this article for the Guardian in March this year explain just what depresses me so much about the constant saturation of news and comment about women's weight and body image in the information market over the past few years, particularly its pretence at 'concern' for our 'wellbeing'. Come off it. If mainstream media outlets really wanted us to feel better about ourselves they would commission fewer young female journalists to starve themselves as part of 'professional investigations into the mindset of thin'. Liz Jones' latest Daily Fail offering is as horrendous as it is heartbreaking, and makes me want to throw up in so many more ways than one.

I've just been watching Meera Syal's documentary about self-harm, in which she asks, amongst other things, why Asian women in particular are so very high-acheiving and yet so desperately unhappy - being the group statistically most likely both to graduate with high honours and to deliberately hurt their bodies. And now I can't stop thinking, about femininity, perfectionism, and what it is to be young and a woman today.

Perfectionism just doesn't cover it. Most women I know who are around my age are, to some extent, perfectionists. Why would we not be? We're told from the word dot that perfection is the only thing we can and should expect from ourselves, and that if we don't have the perfect body, the perfect face, the perfect hairdo, perfect exam results, a perfect job, a perfect boyfriend, perfect clothes, perfect friends and the perfect family - heaven forfend that we're gay, disAbled, tall, short, overweight, less than bright, non-white, poor or in any way average - then we've failed, utterly and totally failed, and we are worthless as human beings and as women. Furthermore, we are reminded at every stage that we are in constant competition with every other young man and woman in our peer group for a finite set of life's prizes. Perfectionism is no longer an infrequent personality trait: it is an universal standard for living.

Me, I'm susceptible. I'm frightened of failure; more frightened of personal and professional failure than I can possibly explain or even understand. Part of this is because I've already had, for my own twisted understanding of the term, to accept failure on a physical level: I chose to recover from anorexia, and to live, and in order to be functional I now need to eat. I weigh almost nine stone; I have fat on my upper arms and the beginnings of cellulite on my bottom; I have d-cup breasts, which I despise, and a tummy which no amount of sit-ups will flatten. People tell me that's not failure: but look around. Look at the news; look at any magazine or billboard you care to glance at. Thin is part of our lexicon for modern living. I'm not, and will never again be, thin: I have failed as a person, on one level at least.

If you think that's stupid, you're right. If you think that that's a trivial and appalling thing for someone as clever and as lucky as me to waste time worrying about, then you're right. But I'm not unusual in being subsceptible to perfectionism and control-freakery: I just happen, in the past, to have been dangerously more successful at it than most. Actually, this is something that most young women understand. The will to push yourself and the impetus to damage yourself are very close cousins, and they are deeply, politically enmeshed in the culture we have created for ourselves.

Poor Liz Jones. What's so upsetting is that she knows perfectly well what her own illness means, for her and for so many other women, anorexic, bulimic, dieting or merely obsessing over the size of their thighs like good little consumers:

Making us think about what we ate today and what we will eat tomorrow is a great way of ensuring women don’t have the energy to succeed. We don’t need ‘gender pay audits’ – to be announced tomorrow in the Equalities Bill – to find out why on earth women are paid less than men. (Liz Jones, Daily Mail, April 2009)

Young women today are brought up knowing exactly how much they stand to lose every second of every day; we are raised in panic and competition; no wonder we attempt to violently and cruelly control our messy selves, to inch ourselves into small, safe worlds of pain.

Yes, it's fucking political. I'm sorry, but it's fucking political, and it IS relevant, and it is urgent. I'm not just talking here about girls like me who are crazy enough to take the hurt and the horror right the way down. I'm talking about everyone: we all, to some extent, have to fight the urge to hurt ourselves, to work ourselves into the ground, to force ourselves towards perfection. Right now I've been an invalid for almost three days and I'm practically clawing at my bedroom walls with worry at the work I haven't done, the bits of my house I haven't cleaned, the inches I might be putting on that seem somehow to symbolise all the rest of it, all of that awful wanting, needing, longing. How sweet it would be to never be hungry again: never to have to hunger for life, for love, for achievement, for happiness, for the hundred little daily human longings that are too brief and too quickly grieved to even be named.

My whole life, all I've ever wanted has been for someone to tell me that I'm fine just the way I am. By the time people started saying it, it was already much too late: and besides, didn't every advert, every exam score, every magazine and tv show and book and film and friend and teacher prove them wrong? Nothing about us, as young women, is 'fine just the way it is'. Nothing about us can just be let be, to grow naturally and imperfectly into its whole self.

I make tea obsessively and drink it compulsively. Along with the cigarettes, it's the one little addiction I allow myself: imperfection, creeping in round the edges, staining my teeth, soiling my health and reminding me how gloriously unfinished and fragile and wild we are as humans. Perfection as anathema is awfully hard to hang onto, especially for women. I might still be a little feverish. But I'm trying my hardest to reject perfection. Not just to accept that I can't have it: to actively reject it, to refuse it, to stand and say that I will not serve. I refuse to serve a vanishing feminine mythos that keeps us all, one way or another, in chains. So I will: I will refuse to serve. Ask me how many calories there are in a mars bar and you can bet your life I'll pretend not to know.


  1. @Penny -- well I hope you get better soon.

    Perfection is generally a nonsense. However I recognise that many women worry about it a lot.

    I'm not sure how each individual should overcome it. But I realised that society isn't perfect and will never be perfect so I shouldn't give a damn.

  2. Excellent article Penny. Very insightful. I've heard some similar things from other women (including one girl who I had an arguement with over your burlesque article. She does amateur burlesque dancer and alternative model, so it was bound to happen ;-) ).

    I've seen what you've said above in a number of women I know. Some are successful, some are unsuccessful. Some I've gotten along with, some I've fallen out with. It's the breaks I guess. It's also something I try to work against though. Big business cannot be trusted, and a healthy level of contempt is needed when dealing with things like the morals of society.

    Having said that, I have to admit that while a lot of this attention is heaped upon women, a number of us guys would like a bit more attention and a bit more encouragement to look good and not have the lion's share of the emphasis placed on women. It'll help whip some into shape, and can mean I can get better clothes at the shops (as an example of one of these benefits). Don't take this the wrong way though as it's not meant to be a criticism, merely a point I wish to make in the hopes of bringing both sexes to greater unity.

  3. On the contrary leonatos I think it's an excellent point to make. Noone benefits from the pressure of perfectionism that is placed on women: I think a lot of men feel marginalised by what seems like the only way to get 'attention' these days. I think for men the only way to reclaim some of that power is to reclaim the gaze with even greater gusto.

  4. 'I weigh almost nine stone; I have fat on my upper arms and the beginnings of cellulite on my bottom; I have d-cup breasts, which I despise, and a tummy which no amount of sit-ups will flatten. People tell me that's not failure: but look around. Look at the news; look at any magazine or billboard you care to glance at. Thin is part of our lexicon for modern living. I'm not, and will never again be, thin: I have failed as a person, on one level at least.'

    Shit, I could have written that... btw, why doesn't your blog allow copy and pasting of bits?

  5. Too much information, a little more action

  6. Why do people blame society and/or others for their own faults and weaknesses?

    People blame tobacco companies for giving them cancer... people blame confectionery and fast food companies for their obesity... people blame breweries for their alcoholism and cirrhosis... people blame the models, actors and fashion industry for their anorexia... and so on... and so on.

    The truth of the matter is you don't have to smoke, overeat, drink or pay any attention to other people's definition of beauty. To become an individual of self-determination the first step surely must be to accept responsibility for your lot?

  7. Stop bleating about subjective judgements about your physical attractiveness, Penny Red, and live your life. The world is gravid with sense and sensation. Experience it!

  8. You know Penny I can tell that you really want to stpp bleating about your physical attractiveness but your mind just wont allow it. It spins it, it spins, it spins it and it spins it. Oh stop stop stop! Try pretending you're John Travolta in Night Fever Night Fever and strut your stuff as you walk along.

    When it comes to careers and personal failures what a pile of trollop. The people who have devoted their lives to a career are often the biggest failures because they haven't quite worked out that there is more fun things to do with their time on Earth. And shit are they boring.

    Now strut.

  9. Great article - as usual. I used to suffer from anorexia myself. I know a lot of articles out there can make me feel even more miserable - but there are some good ones too - I like Natasha Kuler-von-der-Luhe's 'Bad Taste', and many other independent writings on the subject, but the majority of mainstream articles on anorexia and 'perfectionism' make me feel even worse.

    Thanks for a great post x

  10. 280 calories in a mars bar last time I looked. More the better if one of your many imperfections is being distance runner.

    One of the perspective on the world I don't get, but that makes it all the more interesting.

  11. "The will to push yourself and the impetus to damage yourself are very close cousins, and they are deeply, politically enmeshed in the culture we have created for ourselves."

    This spoke to me. I like you, LP. I often disagree with the finer points of things you've written, but I enjoy reading them. Get rid of deathflu soon.

  12. Good article, although when I read that something made you "want to throw up in so many more ways than one"...well, I wondered. Then I imagined, and I imagined, and I shuddered.

    Also, Marius: first off, the reason people 'blame' social actors for producing their problems is that those social actors are to blame. There's plenty of evidence that people's actions owe a lot to their environment and to their situation. What you're basically saying is "to become an individual of self-determination, surely the first step is to ignore all of our evidence about how human animals actually work".

    Secondly, how fucking dense do you have to be to read an article about perfectionism and self-hatred and how people beat themselves up over every little failure, and then tell someone "you need to blame yourself more"?

  13. In fact, this was so good that I blogged about it.

    A little note to the commenters here (some won't need this reminder). Laurie is a FEMINIST. What we FEMINISTS want is to be LISTENED TO.

    So STFU with your 'helpful' suggestions already!

    I know we haven't spoken since I first met you, really, Laurie. You are a star though, and I will look out for you wherever I can. Sometimes, as Doris Lessing showed in The Golden Notebook, the only way to move forward is by falling apart first.

    Good luck, and if you ever want to talk or meet - you still have my number!

  14. Yawn. I'm tired of hearing about fat fuckers who feel 'pressurised' into slimming.

    What about us skinny folks who *no* *matter* *how* *hard* *we* *try* can't put on weight?? I can tell you that sucks big time.

    But this year, FINALLY, I've managed to add 1.5 stone by:

    (1) Eating a macdonalds every day (1000 calories).
    (2) Drinking "crash weight gain" milkshakes daily (1500 calories).
    (3) Being in my 30s so metabolism has slowed slightly.

    And now I feel and look awesome - try it sometime! I'm gonna write a diet book.

    ps Mars bars? Pah! - I'd consume more calories unwrapping than I'd replace by eating ...

  15. Col Bloodnokk (ex MI5)11 June 2009 at 16:10

    What's all this with skinny gals in the Fashion eh ?
    Something to do with sexually ambivalent types who work there I'd warrant.

    Prefer a fuller figure filly meself.

    Col Bloodnokk

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  17. Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt11 June 2009 at 19:53

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. Penny: Glad to see you agree with me on that. There is quite an imbalance in the media attention of the sexes that has to be addressed.

    I'm just aware that you've said time and time again that feminism is not about lowering the status of or taking spotlight from men as a lot of people complain about. And on the net, I find a generous bit of courtesy can defuse a possibly messy situation. It helps prevent a lot of problems on the internet

  19. Could be worse, could be pigflu.

    (ps, was that a skunk anansie I noticed back there?)

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  21. leonatos wrote: "I've heard some similar things from other women (including one girl who I had an arguement with over your burlesque article. She does amateur burlesque dancer ... so it was bound to happen ;-) )."

    I know the ";-)" bit means to take this with a pinch of salt, but once again I feel the need to say that amateur burlesque has helped my self-image.

  22. I don't know why I felt the need to point out that amateur burlesque has helped me. It has, but I wonder why I am feeling the need to defend it. I don't see why I have been put in a position of needing to defend a hobby I enjoy.

  23. Vanilla Rose: What I meant was that I should have been able to predict her response as it was fairly predictable. She made some long winded comments about Penny's article and my own post and she rarely comments on my LJ these days. I was strongly tempted to point to those that agree with me. I'm not trying to put you or anyone in a position to defend something, I'm merely retelling my own experiences.

  24. You have d-cup breasts and your pissed off?

  25. Oh god, where did those nasty links come from at the bottom? Lone Voice? I wonder why that is?

  26. Vanilla Rose - perhaps because it's ethically dubious? Just because something is a hobby that some people enjoy doesn't make it ok, as I'm sure you'll agree.

  27. Ethically dubious? Dandelion, I agree that fox hunting is an ethically dubious hobby (to say the least). Nor, as a vegan, would I endorse shooting (except clay "pigeons") or angling. However, most hobbies are not in the same league. I do not understand your objection to burlesque. I would be very pleased, however, if you would explain your objections.

  28. Good analogy, VR. What do you reckon to smoking? In private?

  29. I am not keen on smoking. One of my grandfathers died of lung cancer. Of course, I cannot speculate on what might have happened if he'd not smoked, or had stopped smoking when it became clear it was unhealthy, but I suspect he would have lived longer.

    However, individuals do have a right to make bad decisions about their own lives. I am not against taxing tobacco, I am keen on there being help for smokers to quit, but I suppose you could say I am reluctantly "pro the choice to smoke in private".

    I suspect this is going somewhere ...

  30. PS My new burlesque routine is hopefully making its public debut on Saturday. Fingers crossed!

  31. No sh*t, Sherlock. Hoist by your own petard :-)

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  33. There are no hoists, lifts or wires involved. Merely a chain and two masks. (Google "mask chain beauty hand crawl moon beast" and the song should come up. I'm doing the one by the original singer/songwriter, not a cover version.)

    And yes, I do understand the expression "hoist by one's own petard". I just don't see why you think it applies to me. I don't quite see why you are addressing me as Sherlock. It seems somewhat sarcastic and slightly rude. If you have anything to say about burlesque, please just spit it out instead of going on about smoking.

  34. *Taps open-toed velvet shoe and wonders if conversation is over.*

  35. @ directionlessbones

    I think you are being rather disingenuous and are probably in real life more than a little nuts. I find it extraordinary that your method of attack in respect to my comment was to distort and paraphrase my words before loosely attempting to attribute the resulting tissue of lies to me in proxy as it were. Your actions and reasoning are reminiscent of a child and I suspect you are probably very inexperienced in the ways of the world. As you well know my suggestion was merely that individuals, by which I mean self-determined adults, should shoulder responsibility for their behaviour and the consequences that spring causally from what they do and what they choose to believe.

    Using your own puerile didactic let me reinterpret the inner meaning of your own comment. In your world were a thug to jump out of his car and drag and elderly motorist out of his vehicle before bludgeoning that frail and helpless gentleman into unconsciousness, because he was frustrated by the pensioner's slow driving speed, the thug would not be guilty of a vicious assault but the victim of an attack of "road rage"; as a consequence said thug could not be held responsible for his cowardly actions since he was not compos mentis at the time of the attack.

    In your there could be no real concept of good or evil, right or wrong, truth or falsehood. Men and women would not be responsible for anything they did driven as they were by a plethora of unconscious forces welling up from the black pool of their nature and nurture.

    This is such arrant Bullshit!

    Grow up directionlessbones...

    ... as soon as possible!

  36. Laurie Penny,

    this is my first time reading your blog and I'm really enjoying it! Reading your post made me a bit sad, so I'd like to tell you what helped for me.

    To me, my body is like a car. I used to not do much with it and it wasn't very healthy either. It was like a showroom car - not using much fuel, not being able to feel the breeze on its windscreen, the only gleam came from intense artificial light. Was it to be destined for a life of showrooms or adventures?

    So my family moved to this place, where everything was far. I had to WALK, BIKE to go to places. I needed fuel, to stop me feeling faint. So I ate. I was grateful for my new body, especially my new powerful legs. I received ambiguous comments from so-called elders on how much 'fuller' my face looked, how I had gained weight. I just smiled and shrugged. At the end of the day, it wasn't their business.

    My body is for me, not for them, nor the potential suitors they recommend (yes, they have a marriage-complex as well). It takes me places, places where my heart and mind can appreciate, learn new things and meet exciting people. Eating delicious things also warms my heart. Many of the delicious things I eat, was made by someone’s loving hands and heart. I believe I’m at my most approachable when I’m eating because I smile whilst I chew (delicious things) and get a twinkle in my eye as someone approaching me is missing out, har har. Who says my heart is perfect?

    This is just my experience but I hope you find a way where you can love your body as much as I do mine and learn to avoid being a dictated perfect, just as you had learned to not be politically apathetic.

    Big, big self-love from Gentian and her Body


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