Sunday 21 January 2018

The new body revolution - is the myth that only skinny can be beautiful coming to an end?

A spate of gutsy memoirs are challenging the endlessly recycled myth that only the skinny can be beautiful in our celebrity-obsessed age. But will this call-to-arms make a difference

Body image: Author Lena Dunham and actress Amy Schumer.
Body image: Author Lena Dunham and actress Amy Schumer.
Fat-shaming society: Louise McSharry
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

For as long as I can remember, skinny has been in fashion. I wasn't lucky enough to live through the 1950s when, although women's appearances were still scrutinised and controlled, curves were admired and ample assets something to covet.

When I was a pre-teen, 'heroin chic' was in vogue. Celebrity eating disorders were making headlines, and it was the time when diseases like anorexia nervosa and bulimia became part of the public consciousness. As we entered the Noughties and I became a young woman, it was chic to display concave stomachs and prominent collarbones, and the size zero phenomenon had begun. Thin was in, and little has really changed since.

While pneumatic bottoms are having a moment and perfect hourglass shapes desirable, it's still not seen as "cool" to have visible body fat, a protruding stomach or wobbly bits - and if a celebrity dares to be photographed with a paunch, they're sure to be a victim of the red "circle of shame" favoured in tabloid magazines.

Those who are disparaging about overweight people often claim concern for said person's health and well-being, and it's a fact that childhood obesity has reached crisis levels, particularly in Ireland. However, one only has to look at the headlines screaming from news stands about beach bodies, getting bikini ready and blitzing the dreaded flab to see that over the years, the message that 'thin' equals 'healthy' and thus is the only way to be, has subtly crept into our consciousness - and informed our opinions of ourselves and of others almost subliminally.

Lately however, that mentality is being challenged, and it's largely thanks to the voices of women being heard. There has undoubtedly been a movement in the feminist canon in the last few years; now thought-provoking books by women are being published in abundance. There was a call to action from Caitlin Moran in her book How to be a Woman and dystopian fiction on female body image from Louise O'Neill in Only Ever Yours. And now new memoirs hitting the shelves include Louise McSharry's Fat Chance, Lindy West's Shrill, Jessica Valenti's Sex Object and Amy Schumer's The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo - all books addressing body image and issues, whatever the dress size of the author.

If book editors are correct - and let's presume they have sales figures and data backing up their commissions - women are crying out to hear about other women's relationships with themselves, and read honest accounts of what it's like to inhabit an ordinary female body in a world that's actually not one-size-fits-all. Only recently though are we finally tackling our battles with how we look in mainstream culture, and how our bodies, no matter their size and shape, make us feel.

Fat-shaming society: Louise McSharry
Fat-shaming society: Louise McSharry

But in a time when clean eating is fetishised, Instagram is littered with #fitspiration and thigh gaps, and slim bodies are still the norm in mainstream pop culture if not in real life, can we ever really have a body counter-revolution, at least in terms of self-esteem?

The clue to the content of McSharry's book is in its title, subheaded with 'My Life in Crisp Sandwiches'. The Irish broadcaster is well known due to her poignant documentary F**k Cancer chronicling her battle with lymphoma, her witty Twitter feed and her eponymous show on RTÉ 2fm. But when writing her book of essays, she didn't just want to focus on her well-documented difficult childhood or her recent illness.

"I wanted [the book] to serve a purpose," she told Ray D'Arcy on his show last weekend. "For me, my journey with body image has been really difficult, but I'm in a really good place now and I kind of feel a little bit like an evangelist. I want to help people to feel better about themselves.

"We live in a world that is absolutely cruel to fat people," she continued. "Fat people's bodies are up for discussion all the time. People feel entitled to talk about them. People feel entitled to tell you about your fat body face-to-face."

McSharry (33) believes that we live in a fat-shaming society that's hidden behind concerns about health, and that unless you're a doctor that knows the ins and outs of someone's health, concern can be misplaced. "The more and more research that is done, the more it's found that a sedentary lifestyle is at the root of health problems associated with obesity… if I'm a fat person who exercises a lot and lives a healthy lifestyle, chances are I'm no more likely than a thin person living a sedentary lifestyle to have health issues.

"The reality is, and I really believe this, a lot of people think that fat people are disgusting and should somehow be punished, shouldn't have nice clothes, and shouldn't feel good about themselves," she told D'Arcy.

And that's what McSharry and other writers are trying to change - the mentality that fat is automatically bad, thin is good and women should conform.

Similarly, American author Lindy West is all about challenging norms. In her tome Shrill, she talks about how she's always been, or at least felt, larger than everybody else. "There were people-sized people, and then there was me," she writes. "So, what do you do when you're too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can't with your body. You diet. You starve, you run until you taste blood in your throat, you count out your almonds, you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh."

West writes of not being able to shop for clothes at ordinary stores, avoiding restaurants with rickety chairs and staying home while her friends had fun in case she couldn't keep up. "I never revealed a single crush, convinced that the idea of my disgusting body as a sexual being would send people - even people who loved me - into fits of projectile vomiting (or worse, pity)."

"The 'perfect body' is a lie," writes West. "I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life, and shrink it... as a kid, I never saw anyone remotely like myself on TV... or anywhere at all in my field of vision. There simply were no young, funny, capable, strong, good fat girls."

Well, now there are - as well as funny and capable thin and chubby and tall and short girls - and our self-confidence can only be the better for it. Women like West and McSharry are speaking out full in the knowledge that there are millions of others who will think "me too" when they read their books. They know the pressure that women of any size are under to be smaller, fitter, stronger, and the shame felt when an item of clothing is too tight, or a negative comment is made about their appearance. They know we'd all be better off, mentally and physically, if we could just accept our bodies, and one another's, for what they are.

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