Posts Tagged ‘fat’
I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about being attractive. I started in my teens, from the position of believing myself to be grotesque and repulsive, as most people do. I spent a while trying to learn to be less repulsive from my peers, who had their own strategies, from sex to self-harm, and settled for a while on religiously following magazine beauty tips. I soon stopped, because they were obviously stupid, and often contradictory.
I got older. I felt less grotesque. I learned how to be attractive from conversations and observation of friends, a method which promotes constant comparison. Like anyone faced with a situation they can’t control, but really need to, I created achievable goals. If I keep my eyebrows plucked, my hair styled, my legs, armpits and pubis shaved, my face made up, and my clothes flattering, I’ll be attractive. When that failed, I relied on inherent, if transitory qualities. As long as I’m under 30, I’ll be attractive. That sort of thing.
At some point in the last few years, all of the things I used to do to ensure I was attractive fell by the wayside. Shaving is a faff. Wearing foundation gives me spots. Daily washing and styling uses up valuable sleeping time. I’m not willing to pay the heating bills that sexy nighties cause. In fact, I’m not even willing to stump up for a new silk nighty at this juncture. Some of my university friends are turning thirty this year.
A strange thing has happened. I haven’t got less attractive.
While I’ve been distracted by other things, like earning a living and writing a novel, I’ve forgotten to compare myself to other people. Suddenly, now I’m not noticing the miniscule differences, I can see how attractive most of my friends are. The ones who value grooming, the ones who rarely shower, the ones who’ve lost weight, gained weight, not bought a new outfit in a year, the ones in porn and the ones who hide behind laptops and screen personas. I’m not delusional, I don’t suddenly believe that we’re all equally beautiful and special, but I do note that we make an attractive group, me and my friends. . I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen year old self. I wouldn’t tell her that it’s ok, she’s attractive after all. I’d tell her that being attractive isn’t half as hard as everyone makes out.
It would be nice to think that this is the result of some kind of inherent, immutable beauty shining though. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Beauty is something that catches your attention when you aren’t expecting it, you can notice it when no one else has. You know beautiful things about your partner that no one else does. It can make you interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily make you attractive.
When we talk about attractiveness in ways that affect us personally, like who to spend your life with, it operates a lot like beauty, and it’s mostly dependent on personal taste. In superficial interactions, though, personal taste doesn’t come into it so much. In these, attractiveness is a category, and you can assess it in a glance. The category of attractive woman is what the men at the library are reacting to when they say mildly flirtatious things, what the shop assistant reacts to when she suggests a particular dress, what makes people glance at my boyfriend to decide whether he belongs next to me. It’s what divides me from the overweight girl in the baggy clothes when men look around the room at dancing. They don’t seek beauty, they don’t search my face for evidence that I’m their deepest desire. They look just long enough to determine where I belong in the order of things. That doesn’t mean the overweight girl isn’t beautiful, and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t turn some of the men on. When they approach her, though, they do it differently to how they approach me. When they watch her dance, they do it less openly, and when they thank her, there’s a very slightly different tone. I bet she doesn’t get asked why she doesn’t bring her boyfriend along as often as I do, but that’ just speculation.
Now that I’ve noticed this (yes, you might say that it took me long enough), I’m horrified to notice the ways my categorisation is, and is not, in my control. I’m almost in the category by default because I’m under forty (yes, I moved the goalposts), have an acceptable BMI, and no visible impairment. I suspect that being white helps, too, if only because in a mostly white culture, it doesn’t carry interpretive questions or baggage. The biggest factor under my own control is probably my weight, but even here I have a natural advantage in my height, which allows me to get podgier than a short person before anyone notices. After that it’s mostly a case of not doing things: not getting lots of piercings or tattoos, not wearing crazily colours stripy things, getting dreadlocks, hanging spikes and metal from my clothes. I’d have to put some effort in. Just not caring enough to shave or dress prettily wouldn’t cut it.
I ought to be reassured to discover how easy it is to be attractive. Mostly, though, I’m looking at the rules of the club, and wondering why I wanted in.
I’m sat on a train opposite a nun. Not one of those wishy-washy nuns who wear ordinary clothes and do voluntary work, but a real, honest to God nun with a black and white wimple, a brown habit and a bit of knotted rope hanging from her waist, which, combined with the windbreaker, makes her look like a nun ready for the high seas. She’s just crossed herself, opened a leather-bound Bible and settled in for the journey, so I thought this would be a good time for me to talk about pole dancing. To you, not to her, because I don’t want to cause a serious incident on the East Coast Mainline.
Last week I had my first pole dancing class. If you have been reading this blog, you will know that until recently I had attributed my dislike of pole dancing and associated activities (lap dancing, over-zealous waxing, etc) to feminist principles, considering that it reduces women to sexual objects, and not very interesting sexual objects at that. Then I got to thinking that, since I enthusiastically support burlesque, which is, ultimately, stripping out of old-fashioned outfits to the music of yesteryear, I am being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. If I’m going to reject something on aesthetic grounds, I should have some experience of it. Standing at the back of a room in a Soho lesbian bar, glimpsing the odd elbow through gaps in the crowd as two women performed on stage probably isn’t enough. So, I decided, I would experience pole dancing for myself. I’ll be the first to know if I feel degraded.
The class I chose was on a Sunday evening. I don’t know what the nun would say about pole dancing on the Sabbath, I’d better not ask. I sent off an email to book a place, and received a confirmation entirely in text speak. My worst prejudices were conformed; there was a lot of lolling. Either she was an hysterically giggly woman, or her relationship with the English language was verging on abusive.
Nevertheless, I turned up at the village hall, ready to take pole dancing for a spin. We were herded into a room with two poles, and everyone wriggled out of their outer layers. Suddenly I was the only fully clothed woman in the room, self conscious in my stretchy trousers and vest top as others flaunted flesh beneath their hot pants.
I don’t want to step on anyone’s dreams, but it has to be admitted that certain items of clothing look much better on some body types than others. I’m not bitter about this because it works both ways. Corset on a skinny girl: What’s the point? Corset on me? If you’re lucky, one day I’ll show you pictures. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever go for a latex cat suit, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, and you’d have to pay me to get into that nun’s habit. There are those who disagree with me. This girl is proud of her skinny jeans, and good luck to her. It is a personal opinion, and one which I would not visit on anybody else, that hot pants look best on the slender. A couple of years ago, say, at the end of my last cycling holiday, I could have pulled them off. Currently, I think it would be best to reserve the sight of my upper thighs for those who already know and like me.
I didn’t have time to give other women’s thighs much thought, though, because we were beginning with some aerobics and stretches to warm up. This is when my second bout of body-consciousness kicked in, as we were invited to circle our arms like energetic windmills, giving me the opportunity to wow the crowd with repeated glimpses of my under-arm hair. As I’ve written before, I refuse to believe that hair, on women, is automatically disgusting. In fact, only yesterday I was chatted up by a man who specifically asked if I shaved and noticeably redoubled his efforts at seduction when I said I didn’t (he also said he’d like to watch me pee, however, so I’m not sure he’s a representative sample). In the context of the pole dancing class, though, I was troubled. If any of the women were challenging beauty norms, they were doing it very subtly. Most of them were wearing make-up. Two of them sported genetically unlikely combinations of blonde hair and tanned skin. Nails were painted and in some cases artificially extended with acrylic tips. Hair was straightened, skin buffed.
I flailed my arms around a few times, then, in my discomfort, managed to draw even more attention to myself by accidentally whacking someone stood nearby. Not the best beginning.
We divided into two groups, five people to a pole. I found myself with four women, including the two with the anomalous colouring. I would guess that all of them were younger than me. My sense of being huge, grotesque, even, persisted. Everything about these girls, from their boyish hips to their pink iPods, seemed designed to minimise their presence. “Why did you decide to join?” asked the girl next to me. I summarised the wilfulness of my main character and my fear that I disguise prejudice as feminism, then asked, “why did you start?” “I just thought it would be a laugh,” she replied.
The lesson began. The tutor demonstrated a move and we attempted to imitate her in turn. The other four, being more seasoned pole dancers, did a much more impressive job than me. They managed recognisable versions, at least. I, on the other hand, spent a few seconds dangling from the pole, legs dangling redundantly, before my hands slipped down and my feet met the laminate. I did it again, and again, and again. Each time I slunk away to the back of the queue, cursing my height, my weight, my lack of pneumatised bones, all of which made lifting my body difficult. “Very good,” the teacher opined a few times, rather unconvincingly. “It really wasn’t!” I eventually retorted. “My first lesson,” she replied, “I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground.” I felt a bit better after that.
Now and again we were distracted by a particularly impressive move being executed by a member of the more advanced group on the other pole. For the most part, though, I fell into the rhythm of watch, queue, dangle, and queue again. As the others span and swung, made mistakes, gained bruises, complimented, encouraged and ribbed one another, something strange happened. I don’t know whether it was the cheesy music playing in the background (which seemed to have no influence on the rhythm of the dancing) or the consistent good humour of my group, but somehow the lesson became fun.
I can understand why women pole dance. I can understand that the approval of men is an attractive factor. Merely mentioning that I was going to write this post, while queuing outside a television studio on Upper Ground, caused a middle aged man to turn from his wife and say to me “pole dancing? I’m listening now!” I also understand that there are other factors. I’m going to go back, and my primary reason is a hatred of failure. I want to know that I have the strength, skill and ability to perform moves which the weaker-looking women managed with ease.
Can pole dancing be feminist? I’m still undecided. The class did not have the seedy tone which I had associated with pole dancing due to its association with strip clubs. Even as we ground against the pole, the atmosphere entirely lacked sexual charge. The naturalisation of artificial gender roles was very noticeable, from artificial nails to cutesy pink accessories, but it seems more likely that women who buy pink iPods take up pole dancing than that pole dancing encourages the purchase of pink iPods. The forces which shape feminine identity are a big tangle, and I don’t think pole dancing is completely blameless. When I’ve unknotted it somewhat, I’ll let you know.
Arguments over the size of models bore me. Art has never represented the real world accurately, even during the periods when all the artists spent their spare time in coffee shops discussing mimesis and realism. So surely it comes as no surprise that film stars are more beautiful than the average person, singers are better at dancing, models are skinnier. All that the debate over the skinniness of models tells me is that we have accepted the influence of the fashion industry on real people, and that weight is what we choose to measure.
I don’t read magazines. If I’m going to be sat in a waiting room I bring a book, not because I have a phobia of being confronted with a size zero model, but because I am uninterested in your opinion on the best mascara and I already know how to please my man in bed. Who does read them? The leading woman’s magazine, Glamour, has a readership of 579,761, less than one percent of the British public, hardly a great social force.
There was a time when I read women’s magazines avidly. As a teenager I devoured the make-up tips longing for the money to purchase the goods and the opportunities to wear them. I memorised how to be good in bed before I’d even been in bed with a boy. I read all the dieting tips and went through a brief phase of refusing to eat.
Reading magazines and refusing to eat were related, but not causally. We were on the verge of womanhood, but we didn’t know how to make the transition. We knew that there were rules, things you did and didn’t do, but no one would tell us what they were. Our mothers were either past it or standing in our way, because we knew that lipstick and miniskirts were part of the new code, and they wouldn’t let us out in them. We knew that the most popular girl was doing it best, but she was only one step ahead of the rest of us. So we bought Just Seventeen and More (which was raunchier in those days), paraded it through the school, read it and learned how to be women. Fortunately, as I got older I found other sources of information and other models of womanhood.
Magazines aren’t representative, they are aspirational. Their buyers don’t want a mirror, they want a construction manual with shiny pictures of the thing they are building. Selling instructions on how to be different is predicated on the individual not being good enough to start with. Exploiting insecurities is business.
Even if we do assume that we can destroy the primary aim of magazines and have them depict the real world, rather than an idealised one, which areas do we focus on to represent? I would go for race and gender, myself. But we could worry about the height of models, short people are scarce. As are Goths, hook noses and bitten fingernails. And you know what, you don’t see many people with a strong interest in woodwork in magazines nowadays. Lots of shoes and handbags, no woodwork.
Why don’t we worry about any of those things? Well, no one with an interest in woodwork has ever told me of suffering caused by their invisibility in magazines. Race and gender have serious, measurable implications in terms of racism and sexism which affect people’s lives. (Good article on racism in education this week). The lack of woodworkers has fewer repercussions.
And weight? Fat people suffer. People in the middle suffer, otherwise I’m sure that I would have continued munching without a thought throughout my teenage years. But I’m not sure that’s got much to do with magazines. I often suffer at the hands of people who have never looked at a women’s magazine in their lives.
I was out dancing last week. I was wearing a new dress for the second time, a dress chosen with exceeding care, analysed for breathability, washability and modesty. Not to put too fine a point on it, I sweat when I dance, and my clothes have to deal with it. Also, I don’t want to be shoving my cleavage into men’s faces, they might get the wrong idea. I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it made me look ugly, but, frankly it was plain black dress. I was surprised when a man asked me “have you lost weight or is it the black?” which was, even on its own terms, an ambiguous compliment. I gave an honest answer of “I don’t know.” I hadn’t been trying to lose weight. He responded with an attempt at humour. He did a little impression of me flicking my hair and simpering “Oh, I don’t know.” All I could think was “what a dick.”
One man’s lack of social skills aside, I think it says something that people are so certain that telling a woman she appears thinner than the last time you saw her is a compliment that they imagine a positive response even when they don’t get one. Other people seem to be more aware of my fluctuations in weight than I am, primarily so that they can tell me I’m looking good when I get skinny. The only exceptions are my very closest friends, who, after a particularly stressful time which resulted in me dropping two dress sizes, told me that I looked like Sonia from ‘Crime and Punishment’. Thanks, girls!
Browsing on the subject today, I came across this article. A woman attempts to show the world how silly it is to be skinny by starving herself. As she lost weight, she says “It made me realise how many people comment on thinness all the time. As a society, we’re obsessed by it. You walk into a room, and your friends rush over to tell you how thin you are. [...] I was constantly complimented on my weight loss, as if it was some sort of achievement.”
It’s absolutely true, and, as she observes, the approval can be a little addictive. I think the compliments are based in assumptions about what women want, rather than personal opinion, though. It is inconceivable that a woman wouldn’t want to lose weight, so it is a good, all-purpose compliment to tell her she has.
The problem with both Porter’s article and arguments for more representative models is that the hegemony of the beauty ideal remains intact. Even the focus on weight remains. It works on the idea that we all want to look like models, so they should make it a bit easier for the ordinary woman by making themselves a bit more like us. Frankly, they can look as good as they want, it’s their job, but it is not mine, so I will worry about other things.
If there is one thing my adventures in dating, in international travel and multiculturalism, and in the fetish community have taught me, it is that there are any number of ways of being beautiful. Since I am not an ornament in your home, I’m not your lover or your kinky play-partner, I don’t have to take account of your vision of beauty. I have no shortage of invitations to become any of those things. With that in mind, perhaps we could lay off holding every specimen of the human race to our personal standards. I usually fancy shortish, curvy girls with dark hair. When I meet such people, or even meet tall, skinny blondes, I usually refrain from vocally making a comparison to my ideal, mostly because they have absolutely no reason to care what I like. Next time I’m in company, it would be nice if others would do me the same courtesy. From a wolf-whistle to a compliment or an insult, it is all the same thing: my proximity to your ideal of beauty isn’t an achievement, it’s an accident, and it is really no business of mine.
We all have our naughty moments. We believe things wholeheartedly, but now and again we allow ourselves a moment of abandonment. For me, it is usually a little window in which I don’t try to be understanding. A few seconds in which I think that the author of this article should stop complaining and cease stuffing his face at MacDonald’s. A minute, while cornered by a woman telling me about her childhood trauma, when I believe that she should, at age sixty, deal with her issues in her own time. Then I feel bad, because it must be awful to be overweight in a society obsessed with slimness, and because I had a happy, shiny childhood, and still manage to bore people with my troubles. At other times, the slipups are entirely personal. I don’t worry so much about those. My inner feminist is coping quite well with the spanking (or would be, if I were getting any).
Last week, however, I discovered a prejudice I didn’t know I had. I was out dancing. As a spectacle, dance encourages you to look at other people’s bodies with admiration, attraction, envy, surprise or repulsion. Dancers don’t mind you staring. Some of them wear eye-catching spangly outfits. Some must consume a huge quantity of calories to do that much exercise and maintain that much weight. Now and again I endure stabs of envy, when, for example, a petite girl is picked up, swung through the air and returned to the ground. I’m five foot ten, no one is ever going to do that with me. Mostly, though, I spend my time wishing I was a better dancer, and owned a pair of sparkly dancing shoes, rather than considering waist to hip ratios.
A couple of nights ago, as I digging in myself for the courage to ask someone to dance, a beginner breezed up to the nearest man and swept him onto the floor. She was tall, she was blonde, and she had the body of a fashion model. “If I looked like that,” I thought, “I would have the confidence to ask men to dance, too.” I had conveniently forgotten my previous post on annoyance about people dancing with me because of my looks.
I didn’t stop there, though. My jealousy grew. “She looks like a boy, anyway, all lanky, with angles and hard edges. Straight men don’t want that. Real women have hips and breasts. I have damn fine breasts.”
With the exception of the fact that I have damn fine breasts, the above is codswallop. She was a real woman, evidenced by her existence. The definitions of femininity and feminine attractiveness are not immutable, they vary from culture to culture; no version of ‘woman’ is any more valid than another. Fortunately, while the fashion world, Hollywood and women’s magazines have a standardised version of beauty, real people are more idiosyncratic. Some would pass me over for a skinny, hipless blonde, and some would prefer a short, obese woman with full lips, or a woman with red hair, or tattoos, or the ability to play the clarinet. I think that’s great.
So why am I threatened by skinny blondes and not short, fat, redheaded clarinettists? Presumably because the skinny blondes are on the front of porn sites, film posters and music videos. Is it important? Well, yes, actually. Our cultural beliefs about beauty tend to reinforce inequalities of race, class and gender. Why did it used to be fashionable to be pale? Because only the wealthy could avoid working outside. Why is it now fashionable to be tanned? Because only the wealthy can afford foreign holidays. Why are we so obsessed by the blonde? Dare I say that it has something to do with the fact that most blondes are white?
Every time we find beauty and attractiveness where culture tells us it shouldn’t be, we challenge oppressive power structures just a little bit. Because I’m not one of the skinny blondes at the top of the artificial tree, that feels pretty good to me. But what if I was?
I’m no stranger to privilege. I went to a private school. I’m middle class, I’m white. I know that these things gave me advantages, but it still upsets me when people hold them against me. They were not choices I made, but facts of my life. You don’t have to tell me that I might not have got good grades if I’d attended the local comprehensive, but what do you want me to do? Hand my education back? I’ve rarely had to struggle against racism. Sorry.
Skinny blondes, with the exception of peroxide-abusing dieters, didn’t choose their genes. They might get advantages because they fit a mainstream model of beauty. They might get more of the disadvantages I’ve pointed out, in the form of constant sexual attention. The system’s a bad one, but they didn’t create it. So one of these days I’m going to do something really radical. I’m going to make a grand political statement, and date a skinny blonde.
Other people’s New Years resolutions are inherently boring. My friends are going to exercise, lose weight, eat better, work shorter hours and achieve more at work. None of them is quite sure how. We all know that thousands of gym memberships will be taken out this January by those my father and his girlfriend snidely call “the minkies”, and that those same minkies will be notably absent from gyms in July. I can’t help thinking that if you’ve munched your way through Christmas, stuffing your bloated body with roast meats, mince pies, cakes and chocolates, your virtuous January resolve is not built upon the sure foundations of health and discipline so much as the sand of guilt and horror at the grotesque wobble of your thighs. If you want a supermodel figure, why did you indulge yourself through December, making the task in January so much more difficult?
That said, I’m doing it, too. My resolutions for this year:
To get back down to a size ten.
Not to buy anything that I could make for myself within a sensible timeframe.
To sleep with interesting, good looking people.
One of my friends responded “it’s meant to be a resolution, not a life plan” but it is no less achievable, I think, than many lists. If it works, I will be writing about being beautiful, resourceful and having great sex. Don’t you hate me already?