#Fem11 Pt 1: Endangered Bodies
November 13, 2011 10 Comments
Yesterday I went to my first feminist conference, Fem 11 (organised by UK Feminista / Kat Banyard) and this is the first of a couple of posts about it. I’m separating them out because they tackle different issues.
The first seminar of the day, I actually wanted to go into the End Violence Against Women discussion, but I was late, and that was full so I went downstairs and dived into the nearest room. When I saw it was the ditching dieting/bodies related one (run by Endangered Species), I was a bit disappointed because it was probably the one I was interested in the least. How wrong I was!
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really listen much to the opening statements but more to the views of the people who were in the audience. The women organising the event spoke a little about the dieting industry – worth billions – and how the culture of dieting is totally damaging. They explained that the BMI system of ‘measuring obesity’ is flawed, that individual bodies need different amounts to sustain themselves. Under the BMI system, Brad Pitt and George Clooney would be classed as obese – yet they are seen as the most desirable men in the world! They then asked people to think about some questions, among these lines:
- What does a diet mean to you?
- What did you think would happen when you started dieting?
- Can you remember a carefree time of eating?
- Do you think you will feel at peace with your body?
There was another question, and they were probably better worded than that but that sets the scene well enough. Obviously, I am well aware that other women are conscious about their bodies, but “other women” has always been an abstract concept to me. It has always been an unreachable, unimaginable group of ‘other women’, so I’ve always felt like secretly it is just me that suffers from body confidence issues. But it’s hard to remain that way when there are hundreds of women – and men – in a room together, nodding in sad agreement, each with their own startingly similar story.
It started out quite general, but as the discussion went on, people started mentioning things that I had honest-to-God thought were just problems with me as an individual. There are a few people who ‘stood out’ to me, but actually I wish I could tell you everything that was said by the audience because it was all so heartbreakingly true.
One woman talked about her dieting cycle: She had been dieting for most of her life, and she’d tried every diet going. Basically, dieting and losing weight became and obsession that took over her life.
One lady in the audience said she had just arrived in the UK, and that she has never felt so much pressure to look a certain way in her life! She said that she felt sorry for women in the western world because they can’t escape the pressure.
A woman of 43 said that she’d been dieting since she was 19, and that she assumed that when she hit her forties she would feel at peace with her body. She admitted she wasn’t sure she ever actually would.
At one point, school teacher and councillor, Rania Khan, said she knew a pupil who was saving up for surgery. The girl was 14.
A young woman, in response to the “What did you think would happen when you started dieting?” (may have been “what did you want to happen”) question, said: I wanted people to leave me the hell alone. She spoke about how other people assume they have the right to talk to you about your body, and tell you what you’re doing wrong.
A couple of people said something so relevant to me I almost cried. One woman said that she grew up in a house where her mother hated her body, and her sister hated her body, and she had never felt anything but hatred for the way she looked, because she didn’t know any different. This is exactly the situation I’m in. I have never known anything but hatred for myself. I have always been aware of food and what it does to my appearance/body, ever since I can remember. I remember being put on small diets when I was young. I remember my mum struggling to lose weight; I remember my sister struggling with an eating disorder. I remember counting calories, weighing food out, feeling guilty every time I ate. I still do. The over-consciousness of food has made me not really appreciate it as much. Every time I eat, it feels like a reminder of how bad a person I am for not being thin; of how greedy I am because I can’t not eat for days; how little will-power I have. I have a bad relationship with food, a really bad one. But I don’t know how to break the cycle because it is so ingrained in everything I do.
One girl said that she tried hard to intellectualise it, but she struggled to really take to heart that everyone is beautiful regardless of their size or their shape. A slim woman stood up and said: I have a fast metabolism and I’ve always been thin, but people even say to me “What are you going to do when you have a baby? What will you do when you inevitably put weight on?”… So even thinner women suffer from body fascism and negative assumptions.
The key thing here is that weight-consciousness is literally inescapable for women. It’s only when you really think about it that you realise it is such a massive issue. If you lose weight, as another woman pointed out, people compliment you – “You look lovely! Have you lost weight?” – being thinner makes you more beautiful. You question if you looked bad before, because suddenly dropping a few pounds makes you more desirable.
I probably have more to say on the subject but I needed to write about something that is a big part of my life, and say thank you to all the women in that seminar. Thank you, for making me feel that I’m not alone. Thank you for your brutal honesty. I didn’t contribute myself but I sat on the sidelines close to tears for most of it. Your words resonated with me and I just hope that some day we will live in a society that judges people on personality, not weight. To end with the (probably misquoted) words of a 14 year old girl in the seminar: “I try to tell my friends that they are beautiful, because they are. I try to tell them that they shouldn’t worry, because I don’t judge them on their weight. I judge them by how nice a person they are.”