For my entire life, and presumably nearly all of hers, my mother has been on a diet. My childhood home was littered with little scraps of paper scribbled with notes like “apple – 50 cals; 2 ryvita with cottage cheese – 100 cals”. I knew that the target was to come in under 800, and even back then was good enough at arithmetic to know that if an apple counted for 50, then 800 couldn’t be very much at all. Sometimes she managed to keep it up for months at a time, and there are photos of her from those periods, wearing clothes from the skinny side of the wardrobe, smiling, but tired, haunted. Or maybe that’s my imagination at work, projecting my own hunger on to the unfamiliar, gaunt face of my post-diet mother.
My primary school teacher was pretty and plump. She chatted to my mum at the school gates about eating plans and Jane Fonda workout videos. I grew up knowing that girls were supposed to be thin, and that I was not. My sister, like my father, was long and lean and had no interest in food. My best friend, Jennie Roberts, was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and impossibly delicate and pretty: petite and fragile like a china doll. I was none of these things. I was big and clumsy and awkward. I knew that I would always be too chubby and too chunky to be cute or pretty, unlike Jennie who was admired and adored by grownups everywhere we went.
Perhaps there was a time before I felt fat and, by extension, unacceptable; but I don’t remember it. For as long as I’ve been conscious of myself, I’ve been self-conscious. Self conscious about the size of my tummy, my thighs, my bottom. At some point in my mid-teens, this – predictably, unimaginatively – gave rise to an eating disorder. I tried restricting my food intake, as I had watched my mother do, and as half my school friends were doing. Sometimes I could do it, but I usually cracked. I was envious of my anorexic friends. I coveted their bulging knuckles and protruding collarbones. I have little willpower, and I love food too much to achieve those kinds of results. The obvious solution was to expel the food I did eat. So that is what I did, and that is what I have continued to do, for the following sixteen years (and counting).
I am 32 now, and have just realized that I have lived with this eating disorder for more than half of my life. It is the ultimate dirty little secret – the thing about me that nobody knows. Not my mother, not my sister, not my partner, not my friends. I am deeply ashamed of it, and yet can’t seem to shake it. It’s not something I deal with every day. It comes and goes, as my self-esteem waxes and wanes. When my self-confidence is high – and of course by that I really mean, when my weight is low – I can go months without it ever occurring to me to make myself sick. But my body inevitably cycles between lighter and heavier phases, and in the heavier times, like now, the temptation is constantly in the background. Whatever I eat is accompanied by feelings of black guilt, and a shameful desire to purge, to get it out, to feel the acid burn in my chest and know that those moments on the lips won’t find their way to the hips.
During these periods, I am filled with feelings of self-disgust and self-loathing pretty much all of the time. This is easily exacerbated, and I have to be vigilant. I have to be careful to avoid the magazine aisle in the supermarket, because if I’m not, then before I know it I’ll have spent twenty minutes feverishly absorbing every detail of the pictures on the front of celebrity gossip magazines, berating myself for not having the footballer’s wife’s sculpted physique, consoling myself with the reality television star’s cellulite. Finding something to wear is a nightmare. When I’m at the fat end of the cycle, none of my favourite clothes fit, and I feel my jeans constricting me as my flesh bulges out of them. I go shopping to buy more clothes, and have to face the horror of the high street, with its self-hatred inducing mirrors and unavoidable images of thin, beautiful women wherever I turn.
I am a highly educated woman with a serious sounding job. I espouse feminist principles and tell my nieces that they should aspire to achieve anything a man might hope for, and I really believe it. And yet, my whole self-worth is inextricably bound up with the number on the scales, and the amount of flesh spilling over my waistband. How fat or thin I currently am entirely determines how I think and feel about myself, affects whether I feel confident and capable and sociable, or whether I feel timid, anxious and want to hide from the world. When I’m slim, I’m clever, funny, talented and competent. When I’m fat, I’m ugly, boring, stupid and inept. I avoid social interaction and hide from the world, afraid to let anyone see me in case they notice my wobbly arms and flabby belly. And this makes me feel shame too, maybe even more so than the secret puking. Shouldn’t an educated, professional woman like me know better than this? Isn’t this all a little bit, well, immature? Teenage? The reality is that little has changed since I was a teenager. Only the weight that would once have prompted me to stick my fingers down my throat in disgust is now the weight I dream of being when I’m sticking my fingers down my throat, and my knees hurt a bit more than they used to when I’m kneeling over the toilet on the bathroom floor. It’s been sixteen years. Shouldn’t I have grown out of this by now? Will this irrational self-worth by numbers ever go away? Judging by my mother’s case, probably not.
I am sharing this story with faceless strangers on the internet partly for the cathartic release of finally telling someone, but also, because some feminist conversations I have seen lately have given me pause for thought. Some of the recent discussions about the future of feminist activism have suggested that issues like body image and self-esteem are trivial and insignificant, and therefore not worthy concerns for the contemporary feminist movement, which should aim to solve more serious problems. Having the energy to fret about body-image and self-confidence is a luxury of wealthy, white middle-class women. And feminists who talk about these themes in relation to issues such as women’s magazines, the fashion industry, the lads’ mags or Page 3 demonstrate their privilege and irrelevance from most other women’s lives. Of course, to a large extent this is true. I am white, middle-class, cisgendered and incredibly fortunate in so many ways, that I can see why this might be interpreted as the privileged whinings of a spoilt, entitled brat. Why should feminists waste their time and resources campaigning about the impact of the fashion and beauty industries on middle-class women’s self-esteem, when less fortunate women are fighting much bigger concerns: domestic and sexual violence, the unequal impact of austerity, female genital mutilation?
But I think this argument is a red herring. Feminism is a big, diverse, multifaceted movement, and no one feminist person or organization can hope to address all of its problems. All any of us can do is focus on the bits that matter to us or the bits we feel we have the energy and resources to try to fix, and support others as they do the same. Feminists should focus on the big, serious issues, but they can try to fix the more trivial ones too. Feminism is not a competition between white, middle-class, privileged women and those less privileged. The relevant comparison is not between me, the cis white middle class woman with an eating disorder, and other less fortunate women. The relevant comparison, from the perspective of feminism, is between me and an equivalently situated man. I am better off than many other women who haven’t had the advantages I’ve had, and that is undoubtedly unjust. But as feminists, can’t we acknowledge that it is also unjust that I’m worse off than men who share all the other main aspects of my identity – just because I happened to be born a woman, in a world that tells women to be thin and beautiful, above all else?
I want feminism to try to analyze and solve the big, complex problems caused by the intersecting oppressions of gender, race, class, disability, age, and sexual orientation. But I also want it to have something to say about the small, seemingly trivial, everyday ways in which women are made worse off then men. The beauty industry is not the only, or the biggest, problem facing women today. But it is a problem. And I think feminism would be impoverished if we stopped talking about that.