It’s around this time of year that the familiar, creeping pressure to diet becomes most prevalent. Overindulgence at Christmas combined with the endless barrage of weight loss ads and celebrity DVDs are a potent mixture, and one that can often lead to a pretty powerful feeling of self hatred. Don’t get me wrong, women’s bodies are under scrutiny all year round, but it’s in January that the “new you!” discourse becomes strongest. Just this week I’ve seen articles on “transformative” and “life changing” diets, and about 45,000 adverts for WeightWatchers and DietChef.
What we’ve become used to seeing is “slim”. Slim women who used to be fat are the favourite of tabloids, but any kind of slim woman is okay. The right amount of curve on your bum, the right kind of flat stomach, the right sized boobs and you’re set. Make sure you’re not too thin, though, or you’ll be described as “emaciated”, or aspersions will be cast about the state of your personal life - only totally stressed, ill people are skinny, right? You basically have to look like Jessica Rabbit - although Kelly Brook, the closest thing we have to a human equivalent, has been dismissed as being “chubby” in the past, so even that’s not quite enough.
I started going to the gym about six months ago in an effort to train myself for a 10k run I’m doing for Rape Crisis (obligatory sponsorship link here). It was around this time I started looking on fitness and health blogs for inspiration and tips; after all, I’d done no real exercise for years, and I didn’t want to get it wrong or lose my motivation. I found hundreds of blogs, Tumblrs and Pinterest boards full of motivational imagery, pictures of strong girls in bikinis, and meal plans; it turned out that my new, idle hobby was a big subculture.
At first, I thought it was great. It felt empowering to be given messages of strength rather than fragility, and it was so far away from the usual image of female “perfection” the media served up that I couldn’t see any harm in it. “Hey!”, I thought, “I’m not being told I have to starve myself!”. It was a novelty, as a woman, to feel like that. But the more I read, the more I realised that I’d been duped. It turned out that, while I didn’t have to eat baby food for two weeks or only drink juice for the rest of my life, I did have to go to the gym every day, cut out all sugar and be able to bench my own body weight. Oh.
Around the time I was becoming more critical of these images, Maria Kang, a mother of three, started obnoxiously asking fat women “what’s your excuse?” (Daily Mail link). Jennifer Lawrence described her workout routine for the Hunger Games as being focused on “being fit and strong, not thin and underfed”, and claimed she would “never starve herself for a role”. Is it just me, or is this sounding a little like body shaming? Being strong was no longer a lifestyle choice - it was yet another impossible mould.
It wasn’t just celebrities getting in on the act; as I looked further into the world of fitness and health blogs, I felt more and more pressure to adhere to certain standards. These women would never sit and eat a packet of HobNobs in one go! They have beautiful houses (which I don’t), eat meticulously prepared, nutritionally balanced meals (guess what - I don’t do that either), and all look like Jillian Michaels (no points for guessing that I DEFINITELY DON’T). Every time I ate junk food or skipped a gym session I felt more than the vague sense of guilt that comes from bailing on a commitment; I hated myself, and I hated my body.
The Internet is a bit of a funhouse mirror; it might reflect things, but it also distorts them. I’m fully aware that the bloggers, yoga obsessives and fitness mad mums aren’t perfect, and their lives are probably just as full of chaos and disorder as mine. And do strong women look great? Fuck yes. But when one body shape is used as a tool to attack women, there’s a problem. And, while I’m still going to the gym and training for my run, I’m no longer comparing myself to any other type of woman. Being myself is good enough.