14 June 2003

In Defence of my People

As a white, bourgeois male, I’m seldom given the opportunity to really feel persecuted. Even the subject of this rant doesn’t really affect me directly. I weigh nine-and-a-half stone, am six feet tall and when I exhale, I resemble a rib-cage on stilts. Being a boy, this is not such a problem, I eat heartily and don’t exercise excessively. Were I a girl, this could, as of recently, be problematic, and I hope here to explain why. I shall come clean early on. I like thin women. Last year, I was in love with a particularly slim woman, I prefer Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe and I am no more ashamed of my tastes than I am of the early-90’s grunge bubble I inhabit.

Celebrity Body (if ever there was a superficial magazine…) was recently quoted as saying “skinny is out, curves are in”. I don’t know whether this means that thin women will no longer be available for purchase in High Street stores or not. Oddly though, male tastes appear to have remained the same, neither my preferences nor those of my friends have changed to accommodate this important style announcement. For some reason, the fashion/celebrity gossip/general bitchiness industry is desperately trying to push our tastes towards the larger lady. They make little attempt to conceal it. A recent survey concluded that 73% of men preferred women to be ‘curvy, the right weight for their height’ to ‘skinny, bordering on underweight’. Had the options been ‘Svelte, the right weight for their height’ and ‘chunky, bordering on overweight’, I can imagine the results may have tipped a different way. And despite this statistic, thin women still adorn the covers of FHM, GQ and all the other pseudo-misogynistic lad-mags.

But why such backlash against my fast-metabolism sisters? Why are the tabloid and fashion press trying to push the ‘curvy’ woman onto the cat-walk? (Incidentally, I have met thin women with unimaginably beautiful curves). Could it be the rapid increase of eating disorders? Does Vogue suddenly feel guilty for its portrayal of so much skinny beauty and the harm this is allegedly causing? Is the fashion press then making up for this by trying to reduce the anorexia it has caused. In fact, women’s general insecurity about weight is probably a reason for this obsession with skinny women – what better way to make a garment look slimming (and therefore a desirable purchase) that putting it on somebody slim?

De Beauvoir argued that women are marginalised because they are seen as ‘the Other’, a supplement to men, who are seen as the neutral as well as the masculine side of the scale, the feminine an add-on like the fashion pull-out of the Daily Telegraph. This seems an apt explanation of why women bitch about each other and develop eating disorders far more than men do. Instead of defining themselves as cricketers, poets or airline pilots, women far more frequently define themselves simply as women. Therefore, their competition is not over who has the best golf handicap or can play the most Megadeth solos, but who looks the prettiest and most feminine. Of course, with half the world as competitors, this competition can become harsh, hence vindictiveness and insecurity about weight.

Eating disorders I sympathise strongly with. It is often claimed (and ignored) that anorexia is a way in which people cope with extreme stress, insecurity or pressure – since they cannot control their lives, they control their diets. Having myself, due to emotional distress, gone for periods eating very little, I find there is something strangely comforting about running on empty, a feeling of mind over matter and independence. It is clear how, combined with continual stress and low self-esteem, this state could easily become addictive. However, many people also forget that compulsive eating can be as serious a problem as anorexia.

Taking this into account, the fashion and tabloid press’ backlash against slimmer concepts of beauty and sudden championing of sizes 16+ seems less admirable. A continually shifting concept of unattainable beauty can only be worse than a stable one, and I fear that this anti-thin backlash is attacking the symptoms, not the cause and will only make eating disorders worse. At best insecurity about weight will simply be replaced by insecurity about breast-size or lack of ‘curves’ and anorexia will be replaced by other disorders such as compulsive eating (making yourself sick is out, cutting your arms is all the rage this season). I can see no more obvious culprit for these problems than the judgmental attitudes associated with fashion. Yes, fashion is based on criticising appearances, and restricted to clothes and hairstyles there is no serious problem with that, but I find it perverse and fascistic that a human body as well as a style can go out of fashion. This is an industry and surrounding set of publications preoccupied with conformity to a narrow, unattainable ideal of physical appearance and pillorying those who fail to follow it. It seems grossly hypocritical for this industry to put blame for eating disorders onto any shoulders but its own, but to scapegoat thin women based solely on their shape is ridiculous.

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