on body image and the rediscovery of feminism

at 11:13

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

So I'm approaching an important milestone: in 20 days' time I will have been a single girl for one whole year (I obsessively celebrate anniversaries of even the most mundane things, go with it). Now, the ex Mr. TheOdd, while a generally all around bitchin guy (seriously, as drinking buddy material: awesome. As a boyfriend: not so much) was.. how shall we put it: a bit of a chauvinist... actually he was a lot of a chauvinist. He was also one of those freaks who actually exercised for fun, and not the "going running with friends, swimming for relaxation and because my amazingly cute bathing suit makes me look like a bond girl it's high necked with a zip up back and I love it and must wear it at every possible opportunity now what the hell was I talking about again" way but in the "I will lift pound upon pound of steel every single day just to make my naturally wiry physique just that bit more bulgey" kind of a way. He also perpetuated my desire to eat incredibly unhealthily (note: strawberry liquorice and sherbert - not a meal) and that combined with his constant non-understanding about my food issues unintentionally prevented me from making a full recovery from my borderline disorder (Hi, I'm Alex. I used to be dangerously underweight).

So what's the point of all this, and what the hell does it have to do with the title of this post? Well, wade through several more paragraphs of my rambling and I'll tell ya.

I stopped being dangerously thin when I hit about 14. I made halting steps, started eating what normal people would class as "food" and filled out. A bit. No longer scrawny but I was definitely slim, while maintaining one hell of an hourglass figure.

I started eating properly this year. I can actually name the date: it was March 24th. Like most things, it was started by a boy (or maybe I should say "geezer", right 'bama?).

The upshot of this is that now I eat everything in sight; foods that would have made me gag previously are now part of my Sunday morning ritual, I take bites out of things without inspecting them first, I don't hover over someone cooking me food and wrinkle my nose up in disgust when they list the ingredients. I no longer take two bites and then push the of my food around my plate, carefully sculpting it until it looks like an entire meal has been eaten.

I also don't weigh 8 1/2 stone any more, that's 119lbs to those who aren't British. I don't think, in all honesty that I'd want to be that small again - I went down to 112 for a while, around my second break up with the ex Mr. TheOdd (due to a month of vodka replacing food and dancing replacing sleep) and I looked dreadful. People started telling me I'd lost weight with concern in their eyes rather than admiration. But since then I've steadily gained weight taking me to where I am now.

All 5'2" of me, weighing in at 140lbs.

Now personally, I don't think I look that bad, although (in my head) I could stand to be a good 10lbs lighter, if I remained this size forever I'd be far from pissed off. I'm still a UK size 10 (that's a US size 6) but in my head I'll always be "spiritually" super skinny. Although academically I know that many people would kill for my curves I still have that niggling voice in the back of my head telling me I don't look like I "should do". No matter how much I slim down (and I will be half-heartedly attempting to in the coming month or so) I am not built to look like an athletic, long legged skinny chick and a mental makeover is required as well as a physical one. However, due to my past relationship with food, and the fact that in times of stress I slip into highly disordered eating patterns (three meals per day of take-out, or four days of not eating at all) I am very aware that I have to be incredibly vigilant whenever I start any kind of eating plan to make sure I don't slip over the edge.

So this, coupled with my pre-existing interest in the topic led me to reading "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body" written by Courtney E. Martin, one of the regular bloggers over at feministing. The book is well worth a read, if you're interested in the issue. The author is young, and that reflects in her writing style. It's by no means a definitive account and the social methodology is somewhat lacking in places but she's writing from the heart about a subject that's close to her own experience, as a reader you can see what she's trying to do and I really applaud that.

The book also had a surprising effect on me, it rekindled my desire to immerse myself in a pet topic.

I was raised with Feminist beliefs but, due to to my public girl's school education followed by a slightly overpowering ex boyfriend as well as the British college mentality of "don't do or say anything to massively alienate yourself from anyone" (we don't do political activism, it's not our way. The kids who stage demonstrations are generally regarded as a little bit weird and are best avoided), I slowly but surely buried them under a jokey facade of "oh, I've never seen it happening, it's not that important" and bought in to the myths and the rhetoric ("I don't believe in Feminism, I believe in equal rights" which I now consider to be an incredibly damaging sentence). Over the last few months I've been re-educating myself. Reconnecting with my Mother on the subject, having some illuminating conversations with surprising people (the most laid back of my school friends, and generally the most easy going woman that I know looking at me with fire in her eyes and stating that she didn't know "how anyone, in good conscience, could possibly say they aren't a Feminist." I found myself nodding, after all it's just that the majority of my peers don't understand the definition any more) and, probably most importantly for me, reading the literature. It's a scary thing to identify myself with a label like this, and six months ago the idea of "identifying" myself as anything would have been alien to me, the culture I grew up in and the current climate doesn't have a particularly nice view of people who label themselves as anything at all. You can't be just "a person with beliefs" you have to instantly lose your sense of humour, become crusading and have no other interests or past-times. Even those with a particular political alignment are viewed as slightly ab-normal.... but I'm going to ignore this. In fact: I'm reverting. Back to my teenage self who actually cared about things and could muster up more than a disenfranchised "meh" when faced with something she should care about.

But where to start? I have the tendency to become over involved in things, I try to learn everything there is to know about any subject that I am interested in and often become completely overwhelmed with the details. Sometimes the task will be so daunting that I don't even bother to start, missing out, I'm sure, on so very much. So I have to pick an angle, choose a niche that I can fully explore, become comfortable in and then use as a launch pad into other areas.

Because of my past experiences, recent reading material, continuing reading of Jezebel and new and shiny subscription to BUST magazine I've chosen to stick with what I know and go for body image, portrayal of women in the media, obsessions with food... basically this is a warning that I'm going to be fucking insufferable on the subject from now on.

So that's where I stand. It feels good to have something, even something small, to believe in again.

As far as my own personal philosophy concerning my upcoming mini attempt at weight loss goes: I've informed both my flatmate and my Mother what I'm doing. Both are highly (and painfully) familiar with my eating patterns and neither one will fail to call me on my shit should I start being stupid about it (this may seem melodramatic but a couple of months ago I suddenly realised I'd spent the previous two weeks existing on less than 500 calories a day... yeah not healthy and my body wasn't best pleased either. Still karmically it got it's revenge as I then spent 8 weeks completely paranoid that I was pregnant and that every test on the face of the earth was wrong). I'm not doing much: just cutting out alcohol for a month, cutting back on sugar and no longer eating a (couple of) Krispy Kreme doughnut(s) on my way home from work. So actually just being a little bit healthier.

So yeah.


TK said...

I've always been of the opinion that dieting should be about how you feel, not how you look. If you feel unhealthy, maybe you should go on a diet. If you feel good, chances are you look good too. Of course, that's easy for a guy to say, since we don't face the same societal pressures about weight that women do.

But for the record, 5'2" and 140lbs... I don't see that as a big deal. If you wanna lose a few pounds, feel free. But just be careful, OK? Skinny is... kinda gross.

Anonymous said...

Good for you Alex. Eating healthy(er) is so so important to both your physical and mental well-being. So again: good on ya.

As for being a feminist:


(Bust rocks.)

Manny said...

Great post Alex. It's been a struggle to help my youngest daughter maintain a healthy body image. Her older sister is blessed with a high metabolism and can fibd clothes easily. She, however, is a bit on the "husky" side, but she's 10 so she still has a bit of baby fat. She is a beautiful little girl, whip smart and hilarious, but still thinks she is "fat". It's improved a lot, but there are days...Again, great post.

Anonymous said...

Laws, body image and weight been the dyspeptic gorilla squatting on my shoulders for years.I grew up being a "big girl" and all the fun that comes with that label.

A few years ago I decided fuckitall, I wanted to see if I could really buckle down and lose weight (oddly inspired by Charlize Theron's weight gain for "Monster"). After four months on Weight Watchers, I lost 40 lbs and got a wee bit obsessive with food; there was a period where I was afraid of food. I was living on coffee, gum, and diet Coke. A trip to New Orleans helped me get over that nonsense.

Anyway, bon chance on being good to your body. Maintaining a healthy relationship with food is something I work at every day, especially since I don't have scads of time to make salads and such. Plus the house is still full of Christmas yummies.

Feminism is an odd thing for me. Like that antagonistic friend you love to hang out with, but after a while she gets on your nerves.

Gloria Steinem once wrote a piece about how women tend to become more conservation in their college years. Read in my women's studies class, so very long ago.

BUST is fab.

Anonymous said...

...women tend to become more CONSERVATIVE...

I am a fucking moron.

girl with curious hair said...

Good for you, Alex. I'm roughly the same height/weight as you right now, and am finally accepting that whatever I do from here on out is for my health--to hell with unsolicited opinions about my appearance (even when they are my own, cultivated over many years to hate every curve of my VERY curvy body).

As for feminism, like Boo said, BRING IT!

Alex the Odd said...

TK: Thanks, I will indeed be careful. I don't think I'd be allowed to get too skinny anyways: I'd be kidnapped by my step-dad and force fed pasta.

Boo: Yep, it's all about the mental wellbeing at the moment. I'm feeling healthier already without the booze and sugar in my system.

Manny: It's good to hear that you're concerned about it even now. I hope she realises that whip-smartness will get her a hell of a lot further in life than being able to fit into skinny jeans.

Manda: I think part of this is also proving to myself that I can do something if I set my mind to it. I continually reinforce my belief that I have zero willpower. I'd quite like to prove myself wrong!

GWCH: I completely agree, which is why the scales went in the attic last week... this is pretty much going to be a judge of how much better I feel health wise.

Thanks everyone for the positive words, they mean a lot :)

Kolby said...

All the best on your little journey, Alex. As one girl who used to be excruciatingly thin and now has a difficult time learning how to be healthy again to another, I'm right there with ya. I too have begun eating healthier (mainly replacing junk food with fruits & vegetables), and I'm hoping that somehow I'll find the motivation to actually get a little exercise. One day at a time, though, right?

Like TK said, as long as you're feeling good inside, you're on the right track.