Authors: Emma Woolf
Even the least girly and most cynical among us notices the difference between “them” and us; how perfect they are and how imperfect we are. Really, how are we supposed to feel about ourselves, when we are human, with the natural sag of skin or the stretch marks of pregnancy, maybe a touch of cellulite on our thighs, all pasty from the British winter?
Even my bookish boyfriend lingers on the photographs of beautiful women in magazines, turns the page more slowly when there's a pretty actressâof course he does, it's a natural response. As an enlightened feminist, I hesitate to admit this, but it hurts. You want to say, “They don't really look like that,” or “That's airbrushing,” but of course that would be ridiculous. I'm sure Tom doesn't compare my flawed body to their sublime perfection; really, he loves me for who I am. But still, these are the digitally enhanced expectations of femaleness that boys and men see all around them. What a let down our naked bodies must be.
Even outside the unreal world of celebrity, where appearance is everything, the same thing is happening to high-profile women in the media. Look at the broadcasters, look at the female reporters. The
presenter Miriam O'Reilly was controversially sacked from the BBC in 2011 for being too old: she was fifty-three. (Of course I should add that she successfully sued for age discrimination, and is now back on the BBC.) There are still intelligent older women out there with gravitasâAnna Ford, Joan Bakewell, Kate Adieâbut they themselves have spoken about the pressure to hold onto their positions. And I've noticed that they appear more often on radio than television these days.
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Is this a feminist issue? Of course it is. Yes, there's pressure on men to smarten up their act, but nothing like the same degree. Look at
Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Marr, or Kenneth Clark. None of them is a work of artâyou might even say they are succumbing to the ravages of timeâand yet they are held in high regard for their intellect and experience. Look at Boris Johnson, our philandering, shambolic mayor of London. He makes a virtue of his scruffy appearance, all schoolboy hair and crumpled shirts, and women find it charming. I myself find Boris quite sexy. Mature male actors, broadcasters, and politicians can be overweight and graying, whereas women are over the hill at forty-fiveâor is it thirty-five these days? And why
Bruce Forsyth, in his eighties, hosting
Strictly Come Dancing
with the ex-model Tess Daly, who is half his age? Or more to the point, why isn't he hosting the show with a cohost in her eighties?
As a woman in her early thirties, I find it difficult. No woman can escape the pressure not to be frumpy or overweight, never to age (and how much harder must it be for teenage girls these days). Women are judged on their looks, men are not: that's why the personal is political.
There are countless examples of the objectification, the sexismâsometimes close to hatredâof women and their bodies. Recently, while researching an article for
magazine, I asked a few female friends in their fifties and sixties what kind of journalism they wanted to read, what they were interested in and concerned about. The answer came back:
getting old and getting fat
As well as the media's obsession over weight, the latest thing is pregnancy scrutiny: whether the baby bump is too large or too small or just right. To me, this is an extension of the same old sexism: a judgmental attitude about women's bodies and shape. A recent interview with Mariah Carey opened with the male journalist commenting, “She's much larger in real life than in her airbrushed album shot” (he neglected to mention that the singer was pregnant with twins). There's the idiotic requirement
to look glamorous (in five-inch heels) well into the final trimester; then the stern assessment of how quickly women lose their baby weight. “I just snapped back into shape” is what we hear from underwear models, back on the catwalk modeling bikinis three weeks after giving birth (with no pain relief, at home, in the bath). For weeks before the 2011 Royal Wedding, the media gleefully reproduced images of the “shrinking” Kate Middleton, feigning concern and speculating on a possible eating disorder, although no such scrutiny was given to the premature hair loss of her future husband. There were numerous web pages devoted to the question
Is Kate Middleton Anorexic?
The daily, casual sexism is so pervasive that we've gotten used to itâwe've internalized the message that our value is bound up with our attractiveness. The message is clear: women's appearance is fair game, whereas men's doesn't really matter.
Jennifer Aniston, in her early forties, is regularly portrayed as a sad singleton, unable to keep the same man for very long, her bikini figure closely measured on her “lonely dog walks” along Santa Monica beach. (Maybe she's just walking the dog!) Meanwhile George Clooney, a good ten years older, is seen as a carefree bachelor. And when it comes to youth and beauty, women are caught in a catch-22. If they have cosmetic surgery they are ridiculedâthe procedures are shocking and the results often horrendous.
But wait, surely cosmetic surgery empowers women? It gives them the breasts or the nose or the thighs they always dreamed of, right? No. It's not about reshaping or refining, it's violence dressed up as choice. Why are these women paying thousands of dollars to men in white coats to have their noses broken, their cheekbones sawn down, their jaws clamped and stomachs stapled, their eyelids sliced and hairlines lifted? Have you seen the bleeding and the bruising, have you read about the fluid loss,
the skin ulceration and infection, the nerve paralysis? I don't think there's anything sadder than those stretched, painful, frozen expressions. Scalpels and Botoxâcutting and poison. How did it get so bad for women?
The fact is, women aren't having cosmetic surgery to stay beautiful. As Naomi Wolf wrote in
The Beauty Myth
more than twenty years ago, many women who undergo surgery are fighting to stay loved, relevant, employed, admired; they're fighting against time running out. If they simply age naturally, don't diet or dye their hair, we feel they've “let themselves go.” But if they continue to dress youthfully we feel they're “trying too hard” or brand them as “slappers.” Poor Madonna, who has dared to be in her fifties. In order not to look like a woman in her sixth decade of life she exercises furiously, and is sniggered at by trashy magazines for having overly muscular arms and boytoy lovers. When Demi Moore's marriage to Ashton Kutcher, fifteen years her junior, recently broke down, the media reaction was almost gleeful. Of course, it was what they had been waiting for all along: how long could a forty-eight-year-old woman expect to keep a thirty-three-year-old man? As allegations of his infidelity emerged, the Internet was flooded with images of Demi looking gaunt and unhappyâand extremely thin.
Sometimes you want to say: just leave them alone. Then again, it's mostly women who buy these magazines, and women who write the editorials and online comments and gossip columns, so you could say we're our own worst enemies. There is already plenty of ageism and sexism out thereâwhy do we add to the body hatred?
* * *
To me, the woman who exemplifies the modern female conundrum is Victoria Beckham. Don't laughâI find myself weirdly fascinated by Posh Spice! She's a few years older than I am, and the Spice Girls were the hottest group when I was a teenager in the 1990s. I remember Victoria then, plumper than she is now and smiling in a miniskirt, getting engaged to David Beckham. I watched as she lost weight, got pregnantâthose ridiculous wedding costumes (the start of the
wedding industry)âhad another baby, and another, getting thinner year by year.
What is Victoria so famous for? As she herself admits, she can't sing in tuneâand I have no clue how much of her eponymous fashion line she designs herself. I don't know if I admire her or identify with her, or if I'm just curious. I can't remember a time when she wasn't in
magazine, or a time without the constant media updates on her weight loss, weight gain, weight anything. There were the unfortunate breast enlargements, the allegations of David Beckham's affairs. And yet she's still going. I don't care if she never smiles for the paparazzi (would you?), and I think she's genuinely pretty. I like the fact that she and David are still married and seem to be happy together; I like the fact that they're always out with their children.
Most of all, I'm fascinated by the pregnancies. She recently gave birth to her fourth baby: how does she do it? I'm the same height and weight as Posh. I know that every woman's reproductive system is different, but let me tell youâyou're unlikely to ovulate naturally at that weight. I don't understand how she can conceive and carry a baby. How is that possible? (
Masses of fertility drugs and a large dollop of IVF
is what one doctor-friend told meâalthough of course that's just his opinion.) Faced with the necessity to gain weight in order to have a baby, I feel envious at her Earth Mother act; more than that I feel inadequate and frustrated. How
come Posh gets to stay thin and elegant, when normal women have to have a certain level of body fat?
Speaking of fat, Victoria's eating habits are a particular source of media frenzy: there's an entire industry devoted to it. Apparently she'll only eat fish and steamed vegetables; apparently she's eating only pineapple now; apparently she takes a small set of scales into restaurants and weighs her food; apparently she cuts each portion in half and sends the other half back to the kitchen. Who knows whether it's fact or entirely media fictionâbut the messages about food, body shape, and diet are certainly very confusing.
A photographer ex-boyfriend of mine once told me that the most lucrative paparazzi shots are those either up a woman's skirtâthe so-called “money shot” (when she's getting out of the car, or falling out of a nightclub)âor a female celebrity eating. “It's really good if she's not wearing knickers, and even better if she's eating a hamburger.”
* * *
Basically, when it comes to women, both aging and eating are somehow shameful. That sounds extreme, but it's true. And if you can't age and you can't eat, living is rather difficult. More than forty years after Germaine Greer published
The Female Eunuch
, a woman's worth is still very often measured by how she looks rather than by what she does. Just this morning I read a profile in
of Christine Lagarde, the recently elected head of the International Monetary Fund; it focused more on her sex appeal, piercing blue eyes, and long legs than it did on her powerful new role. Lagarde is in her early fifties and likes designer clothesâso what? It doesn't seem to matter if men have wrinkles or gray hairâthink Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford. We don't care how old they are, or scrutinize their thighs for signs
of cellulite, or juxtapose pictures of them with and without beer bellies on the beach.
Most of all, we don't gasp over pictures of famous men tucking into their food. This obsession with what women really eat is exemplified by the recent phenomenon of DIPE. DIPE is an acronym (coined in Hollywood) that stands for “Documented Instance of Public Eating.” It's actually pretty funny: in any interview with a high-profile actress or model, DIPE is the emphasis on her large and healthy appetiteâthe way the interviewer spends the first paragraph describing the huge plate of pasta or bacon sandwich she orders. In a weird inversion, after years of being ladylike and terrified of appearing greedy in public, the image of the ravenous woman wolfing down her food has now become a sexualized one. Despite wanting women to be slim, men prefer women who enjoy their food. Women on diets are such a bore. So now women have to watch their weight and yet not appear to be watching their weight. And DIPE, all this tucking into fried chicken and burgers, is code for “I'm just a normal girlâI have a really fast metabolism, a huge appetite, and a great body.” Of course it's a calculated strategy of image-crafting, and of course it depresses real women even more, because if we ate fried chicken and burgers we'd just get fatter. As my ex informed me, a hamburger shot of a pretty actress sells around the world (PenÃ©lope Cruz eats one after every Oscars ceremony).
No matter how secure you are, this is the world we inhabit today; for most women it's impossible to ignore. Of course the reasons for eating disorders are more complex and individual than this, but celebrity culture, the cosmetic surgery industry, and downright sexism cannot be ignored. Why else would this be an overwhelmingly female condition? Despite the worrying rise in male sufferersâI know men with eating disorders, and I know that the 11 percent statistic mattersâthe other 89 percent are women.
As a seventeen-year-old, when I first started reading about women's liberation, sexism and female inequality, women's bodies and hunger, work and motherhood, a whole new world opened up to me. Those feminist icons who changed my views on what it means to be a womanâGermaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Naomi Wolf, Susie Orbachâthey were angry and articulate. They wrote that “the personal is political” and I liked the sound of it. It's only now that I begin to understand it.
How ironic, then, that for all my feminist principles and independence, growing up in a family of strong women, I should end up with anorexia, this most enfeebling of conditions.
say I don't know where anorexia came from, but that's not quite correct. I know what triggered it at the age of nineteen, but what I'll never fully understand are the underlying reasons. Why would I become anorexic, for example, when my sisters and school friends didn't? Almost everyone has problems and preoccupations growing up; some people become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or self-harmâbut most don't. So why did I turn to starvation as a way of coping? It reminds me of that line in the 1980's film
The Breakfast Club
: “What's your poison?” Maybe I was genetically predisposed to getting an eating disorder, or maybe it's just a matter of temperament and circumstances, who knows? Certainly I have an addictive personalityâI've always gotten hooked on things quickly.