Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes Are All a Size Zero

This is an article I wrote for a zine called Fatty. I would like to precede it with the disclaimer that I am not talking about people who are unhealthily overweight, and I am certainly not making a comment about eating disorders which are another thing entirely. This is just about stupid women. Enjoy.

There has been a peculiar spell cast over Western society. Not the good sort like your kind, fat, fairy Godmother might cast. It bears more the mark of your archetypal scrawny witch. It’s a powerful spell that infiltrates women’s minds, men’s trousers, our purses, our time, our conversations and many, many miles of tedious print on the pages of glossy magazines.

I work in primary schools – an environment almost entirely populated by females. In every staff room I walk into I hear the conversational evidence of this spell’s effects. There are unspoken, unbroken rules about what you may eat, your attitude to it and how you may talk about it. There is a strict script in which women must agree that calorific or fatty foods are ‘naughty’ or ‘wicked’. A tacit assumption that any pleasure derived from eating must be paid for with guilt. And an apparently unshakeable rule that all women MUST be thinner than they currently are, regardless of their shape, size or weight, and with absolutely no connection whatsoever with their level of health. I hear conversations governed by these rules replicated over and over in every school I visit. Each word of it drips with socially constructed, oppressive lies that have been repeated so many times in so many ways that it has become accepted as Unquestionable Truth.

The last time I was in a school staff room at lunch time, I was invited to join in with one of these scripts with a woman I hadn’t met before. She was the dance teacher and she was eating a low fat yoghurt. I refused to follow the script at every opportunity. The conversation went as follows:

Dance Teacher: “I’m trying to eat this slowly but it’s so difficult.”

Me: “Why are you trying to eat it slowly?”

DT: “So I don’t eat as much!”

Note her surprise that I didn’t already know one of the Universal Laws of Eating for Women.

Me: OK.

No, I am not going to say “What are you talking about! You don’t need to lose weight, you’re so skinny!” because (a.) this would mean I believed it was a compliment to call someone skinny (b.) I would be stating the eye-bleedingly obvious to completely deaf ears rendering the statement pointless (c.) it is a very core conversational rule and therefore I must break it and (d.) because it would trigger the inevitable cyclical exchange “No, I’m not skinny you are!” followed by “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re the thin one here!” followed by very slight variations of the same until one of us dies.

DT: “I keep trying to eat less but I just keep getting hungry.

Me: “I guess that’s your body telling you that you’ve burned some energy and it needs replacing.”

DT: “But I haven’t burned any energy!”

I say nothing, thinking that this strikes me as extremely unlikely given that her job title dictates that she has spent the morning dancing and attempting to keep control of 30 or so small children.

DT: “It was awful last week, my husband gave me a whole box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day.”

I know I am expected to agree that this experience is worthy of the word “awful”, but I will not concede. Instead I say the logically more appropriate:

“How lovely of him.”

DT: “It was terrible though, they were these really rich, delicious truffle things. I ate loads of them.”

Again, I am aware that I am required to declare that something “rich” and “delicious” is lamentable and that she is to be pitied above all women. Instead I venture the controversial:

“They sound gorgeous, lucky you.”

She gives up at this point because it’s clear to her that I don’t understand The Rules, not to mention the fact that as we are speaking, I am stuffing my face with normal food at normal speed, without apologising or self flagellating.

As the Emperor in the fairy tale parades around as a naked imbecile, the crowds congratulate his apparel so many times that even they become convinced that there are enviable fabrics and stitches in front of them. As women nod and agree with each other that these are The Rules, they forget that there may be another way of looking at themselves. They are voluntarily living in a prison where the door isn’t even locked.

1 comment:

Kevin Hargaden said...

This is a brilliant post that I am sharing with everyone today. Thanks!