Why is it so offensive to say we love our bodies?
Polly Vernon and Bryony Gordon ask why actively saying you like your own body can make you a target for haters
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
Some years ago, I wrote an article that wouldn't die. One that made me the target of hate mail, hate blogs and earned me a reputation as a woman of dubious intent and sketchy ethics.
What could it possibly be, this career-defining, trouble-generating, hate-inciting piece of work? Why me writing about being thin of course!
It was a personal story and included: a brief history of my weight (I'd spent my adult life as a slim-but-not-thin UK size 10, or, maybe 12); aged 30, I'd lost a stone-and-a-half through stress, when the stress abated, I decided I liked my then size 6-8 body, and maintained it with a diet of fewer carbs and more sashimi, steak sans frites, Pilates and walking). Written with the provocative headline: 'Admit It, You Hate Me Because I'm Thin', it was meant as a joke. I mean, I was thin; but I didn't take it, or myself, terribly seriously. But then all hell started to break loose.
I was accused of all sorts, from being anorexic to provoking anorexia to exhibiting such extraordinary levels of smugness I couldn't be allowed to live. I was accused of betraying women with my thinness. Next came the death threats; someone FaceBooked about wanting to push me downstairs and 'break my skinny back'.
It was weird, exhausting and exposing. Inevitably, I wondered if I really was, as my critics claimed, insensitive, cruel, ignorant, dangerous, fattist, anti-woman, and (last, but by no means least) smug.
I went on feeling this, until almost exactly this time last year, when the brilliant writer (and my friend) Bryony Gordon wrote a column about being fat. It was entitled 'OK, so I'm fat. But I'm also happier and healthier than ever'. In it, Bryony talked about a lifetime miserably attempting to control her weight and how after giving birth, she had joyously not lost the weight she gained,
And then I watched as a wave of abuse broke over her, just as it had broken over me a decade earlier. Bryony and I speculated over whether these were, in fact, the same people, cutting and pasting the same on-line comments. I admitted (guiltily) that her berating was making me feel better about my berating.
'I'd always thought it was a specific thing about being skinny... But that's not what was going on, is it?' 'No,' Bryony said. 'I think the crime we both committed, was saying we like our bodies. It's not something we're allowed to say.'
I thought about all this while writing my new book, Hot Feminist. The problem of how women are supposed to think and feel and - crucially - talk about their bodies, takes up an entire chapter. For millennia, women have been cast as the fairer sex, as the aspect of the species whose first duty is to look alluring and bag a husband, while men get on with the important business of running the world. For the last five decades, the feminist movement has attempted to disrupt this belief - admirably and with some success. Yet it's my experience that these ostensibly polarised perspectives can prove as prescriptive, damning and judgemental as each other.
When they collide, they leave women feeling we have no way forward - and they leave us feeling shame. Shame because we don't look like Victoria's Secrets models followed swiftly by a huge dollop of feminist shame, because we allowed ourselves to feel the initial shame about not looking like Victoria's Secrets models.
The quasi-feminist view on the acceptable way women should talk about our bodies now encourages us on a journey away from abject self-loathing, toward enlightened acceptance. Yet it isn't entirely cool with us saying that we are already there. That - like Bryony and me - we do actively like our own bodies.
While the new 'style has no size' campaign being launched by Evans next month claims to celebrate women of all sizes, the fact this was the slogan they used during its curvy catwalk show at last year's London Fashion Week makes me feel the subliminal message here is size acceptance can only happen when you are overweight.
See also the outpouring of feminist rage over the 'Are You Beach Body Ready?' Protein World advertising campaign of earlier this month; Renee Somerfield, the model featured, became the target for much misdirected anger; her weight, her health, her mental health and her lifestyle, were all questioned, criticised, lampooned, in one of the first recorded widespread incidences of 'bikini body shaming'.
It is in defiance of all these conventions that I called my book Hot Feminist. Encouraging women - fat, thin, whatever - to self-identify as hot is central to my manifesto, though heaven knows, I had to overcome a huge amount of anxiety to go through with it. (I am now bracing myself for the almost-inevitable onslaught of a million male - and possibly female - voices, decrying my alleged hotness.)
Since writing that first piece about my body I am 12 years older, 12 years dimplier - but I'm still thin. And I am still happy with my body. Not because it's thin, precisely, but because it's mine. Because I choose it; because I see it right, with diet and exercise, and it responds to that. This doesn't mean, for one moment, that I think everyone should look like me. I just think more women should be happy to say they're happy with their bodies - even those of us whose bodies do happen to comply with societal ideals.
I know how dangerous it is to say that out loud. But I'm doing it, anyway. I'm doing it because there's power in it. I'm beginning to wonder if being openly, publicly happy with your body, might be the ultimate feminist act.
'Hot Feminist' is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £9.79, is out now
Bryony Gordon: 'People hate me because I love my Mum Bod...'
Whenever I write about being happier now I am heavier, I am immediately attacked for being a drain on the health service/a let-down to my husband/not as physically attractive as I was when I was slim and sad and bulimic.
All of this I can deal with - I am thick-skinned (ha ha) - but what always gets me down is when people have a go at me for being anti-thin, and a bad role model to other females. This gets me down, because I am not anti-thin - I am simply anti-me-being-thin. And I don't see why being happy in your own skin is somehow the sign of being a bad role model.
That sort of assumes that reading about a slightly overweight lass who stopped throwing up her food and started eating properly when she became pregnant might suddenly send you skidaddling to McDonald's by way of the sweet shop. I mean, it's complete cobblers.
My accidental journey to plus size was in part a reaction against my own childhood role models - in particular my completely hot (and thin) mother who has never, ever once said anything positive about the way she looks, probably because positive women are often mistaken for arrogant women.
But when I got pregnant with my daughter I decided to love my body, and loving it just happened to make it a bit chunky. Now everyone loves a Dad Bod, isn't it about time we learnt to love a Mum Bod, too?
Here's something else: just because I am now a size 16/18 instead of a size 10, that doesn't mean I've stopped caring about the way I look.
As the Evans campaign says 'STYLE HAS NO SIZE'; I still like to get dressed up, it is rare to see me without a smearing of extremely red lipstick, and just last week I spent three hours in the hairdresser getting my roots done.
Putting on weight does not make you ugly and depressed any more than losing it makes you a control-freak on the verge of anorexia. Why is this so difficult for people to grasp?
I first met Polly 13 years ago. Since then she has got thinner and I have got larger but this hasn't changed our friendship one jot. Because while it is convenient to put us in to different camps, the truth is that Polly and I are exactly the same, really: we like the way we look, we're comfortable in our own skin. It's just a shame that not everyone is okay with that too.