Skinny By Any Means: Why Are Women Told To Starve Themselves?

Is there anything worse than food poisoning? Quite possibly, yes, but when you’re in the throes of its horrors it is difficult to imagine a nastier state.  Fortunately for me, I’m finally crawling out from under the food poisoning rock, which began explosively on Sunday night and left me in a weak, aching heap for two days. Being too sick to eat however has its high points, as my friends (tongue-in-cheek) pointed out: you lose weight! And that’s good, right?

Norma was going to eat the damn sandwich, enjoy the damn sandwich & she didn't give a twopenny hoop what anyone else thought about it!

Well , of course it isn’t. The fact that I was sick negates surely any ‘benefits’, at least to my mind, but the idea that ‘skinny by any means is a worthy pursuit’ persists culturally. How many times a day do we see headlines screeching about the latest fad diet or exercise regime or miracle supplement? How many times are celebrities – who have the finances and time to overindulge their physiques -used to exemplify the perfect body? Too many, I suspect, too many even for the most sane woman not to find herself goaded into thinking, at least for a moment or two, ‘wow, I really should skip dinner/ run  for three miles a day/ go on that diet where you eat nothing but cabbage soup.’

‘Skinny by any means’ ideal is not just silly, it is dangerous. Fad diets might might help you lose weight in the short term but study after study shows the weight lost is inevitably put back on, not forgetting the nutritional and metabolic problems some of these diets cause. Extreme exercise without proper training and warming/up down is not a recipe for fitness but one for injury and defeat. None of this is a road map to health but that doesn’t stop the media churning out images and messages to the contrary. After all, if people accepted the simple, scientifically proven facts of eating less, doing more and consuming a varied diet high in fruit and veg and low in processed foods, well, who’d buy the diet books? And where would we be then?

Part of me reluctantly acknowledges there are people who would elect to have food poisoning if it meant they lost a few pounds, just like folk who mess around with laxatives, eat nothing but popcorn for weeks or exist in a haze of cigarettes and coffee (or worse) to make sure they stay on the right side of thin. In this zany world of ours, we reward women for basically starving themselves and chastise those who don’t. Honestly, if you asked me which was sicker: food poisoning or our culture, I know which one I’d chose. Sadly, it isn’t the one you cure by resting up and taking plenty of fluids. Oh ladies and gentlemen, if only it were that simple.

Skinny Versus Curvy: Why Women Can Never Win

Ladies: it’s time to put down those sparkly shoes and pick up your shields, for the battle of the body types rages on and you’ve simply got to choose a size, sorry, side. No, no – no dithering. You’re either one or the other and before you starting rambling on about ‘healthy body image’ just shut it. ‘Healthy body image’ doesn’t whip up a media frenzy the way ‘skinny versus curvy’ does, so you can park that notion, thank you very much.

Discover a Lovelier You (Woman Alive, 1972)

What’s it going to be, women folk: the skinny tribe of supermodels and disordered eaters or the curvy tribe of so-called normal women and celebrities who can’t hack diet pills anymore? Hey – why the long faces at my ridiculous over-simplification of female body types? Are you seriously suggesting that women’s bodies cannot be categorized as one of two things? Of course you are… and you are absolutely right.

As any well-adjusted person knows, women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes, most of which do not fit neatly into the ideals of skinny and curvy that are hammered home by the media and fashion industry. However, given the prevalence of these images and messages in our lives, it is little wonder that so many otherwise sane and smart women succumb and begin to compare themselves – often unfairly – to one of the two standards of female shape on offer.

To see how hopeless and crushing such comparisons are, take a moment to consider how ‘skinny’ and ‘curvy’ are treated in the media. Let’s start by taking a look at the thin side of things: skinny women are on the one hand lauded for achieving what we are led to believe is the cultural ideal of ‘thinness’ but their triumph (such as it is) is short lived. Speculation about eating disorders invariably follows, along with demands to know diet and exercise secrets, coupled with tremendous pressure to remain skinny. Extremely thin women – regardless of whether this is their natural, healthy state or not – are treated as freakishly asexual and lacking in femininity, a notion that is as difficult to pin down as a piece of fluff in a blizzard.

Meanwhile, curvy women are cheered on for railing in the face of the tyranny of skinny but lo, the bubble isn’t long for bursting. While they are applauded for being real women with real bodies, the ads for underwear etc. to constrict and camouflage the very curves we’re supposed to be celebrating are never too far away. That’s not forgetting preachy features on diets and exercise regimes, not to mention the yards of press celebrities locked in ‘weight loss battles’ receive. If ‘curvy’ is so wonderful, why are women who identify themselves as such sold such conflicting, utterly rubbish messages?

Food glorious food: Discover a Lovelier You (Woman Alive, 1972)

Just as women cannot be skinny in peace, neither can they be curvy in peace. She, whatever her size, can never win. This suits those who profit from insecurities down to the ground, a point made very well last week by Plus Model Magazine in their article entitled: ‘Plus Size Bodies, What is Wrong with Them Anyway?’ which featured a shocking comparison between a plus sized model and a typically thin fashion model.

The crux of the issue is how women’s bodies are treated as public property, as ‘things’ to be consumed, improved and judged. Off the top of their head, does anyone know the size of the average British male? Probably not but more than likely, you do know that the average British woman is a size 14 or larger. You are also far more likely to see or hear women’s bodies being reduced to dehumanised ‘bits’ – breasts, hips, thighs, bums, legs – than men’s. Women’s bodies – the very physical fabric of their being – are something we all have an opinion on, whether we are entitled to or not.

The saddest part of the ‘skinny versus curvy’ debate is how often it misses the fundamental issue of good health. The best size for anyone is the one they are most healthy at and only your doctor can advise you about that. What’s the point in being a size 8 when you are shaving years off your life smoking fags to stave off your appetite? What’s the point in lying to yourself about being curvy if you are in fact dangerously overweight and hurting the very heart that sustains you? Isn’t it time we turned our backs on the silly ideas of ‘skinny’ and ‘curvy’ and sought out something kinder, healthier and better for our souls, our bodies and our minds? Ladies, never mind being worth it; we deserve nothing less.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post. Images from Mod As Hell on Flickr, under Creative Commons licencing.