In my last column (‘The Invisible Hijab’), I examined the neurotic relationship Western women have with their looks and their sexual attractiveness. One of the symptoms I mentioned was the epidemic of dieting. Certainly, every woman I know is either on a diet or thinks she should be on one.
I do not know any woman, no matter what she actually looks like, who is happy with her appearance. Even those who look glorious take no pleasure in their appearance but obsess about tiny imperfections. Entire economic empires have been built catering to this neurosis. Supermarket shelves are groaning with ‘lite’ foods and 99 per cent fat free products. Fitness centres, spas, personal trainers and weight-loss clinics have sprung up everywhere and books touting the latest fad diet (Atkins, South Beach, CSIRO, etc) routinely bloat the bestseller lists.
Yet, despite all this worry and effort, women — and men — in the West, have never been so fat. Indeed, more men than women are obese or overweight, but, men’s relationship with their body and with food, while noticeably deteriorating, has not yet sunk to the depths of misery that exist for women.
Even more worrying, children are getting fatter, to the point where some are already showing symptoms of high cholesterol and thickening of the arteries before they reach puberty. Some doctors are worrying that this may be the first generation of kids who reverse the increase in longevity, and die at a younger age than their parents. An exquisite irony this, given that one of the reasons kids are getting so fat is because parents are more protective than ever, restricting their movement around the neighbourhood for fear of an imaginary danger (strangers) and so creating a real one (early death from heart disease).
Even the flight from the local public school in favour of the more distant private one has probably had an effect on this. The cost of transporting kids on buses and trains has blown out, due to the dwindling number of kids who attend a school close enough for them to walk to. Another pursuit of a better world that has back fired.
Before I proceed, I must come clean and confess my own unhealthy relationship with food and body image. I have been on a diet for about 25 years and, yet, I have never been heavier. I do not think my experience is a unique one.
Indeed, the remarkable ‘Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health’ has discovered this is the general female experience. The study asks 14,000 women in their 20s and 40s, and 12,000 in their 70s to fill in a detailed survey of their health and well being every three years. Their latest findings are that women in their 20s are now as heavy as the middle-aged women in the study were when the study started although they are still 15 years younger. We all know that what used to be called women’s vital statistics (what is that all about? vital to whom?) have increased since the 1950s. Over 60 per cent of women are now size 14 or over. We are taller, heavier, bigger breasted and fuller hipped than ever before.
Yet who are we asked to live up to?
As the average woman gets bigger, the average model gets smaller. And how does she do it? As Kate Moss has demonstrated, like our sports stars, they reach unattainable physical standards chemically. Many (perhaps most) take large quantities of recreational drugs that not only make them feel good, but as an added bonus, keep weight down.
But drugs or no drugs, unattainable standards of beauty are no capitalist conspiracy. It’s not even new.
Beauty, throughout human society, has always been that which is rare and therefore precious. Beauty is inextricably tied up with notions of prestige and status. When most people struggled to find enough to eat and worked off whatever calories they did find in fields, factories and heavy domestic labour, the standard for female beauty was luscious and fleshy. In some communities, it remains so. According to a recent report some 10-year-old girls from high-status families in Mauritius are force fed to make them fat and conform to just such a standard of beauty, despite government attempts to end the practice.
Today, when it has never been more difficult to be thin, it is entirely predictable that it would become most desirable. To be thin today a woman generally must have time and money, both perennial markers of high status; time to attend gym classes and work with a personal trainer and the money to afford them and, at the extreme end, cosmetic surgery and recreational drugs.
Healthy food is almost always more expensive and more time consuming to prepare, unhealthy food is fast, cheap and packed with calories. Walk around a high-status suburb and you will see lots of thin people, queue at the checkout in Woolies Neutral Bay and you will see trolleys packed with fruit, vegetables, organic meat and all the expensive stuff we are constantly told to eat. Walk around a low-status suburb or a regional town and you will see lots of fat people queuing at the local Woolies checkout and the trolleys will be stuffed with low-price, high-calorie food.
Having time and money are, of course, almost contradictory concepts in today’s society. People who have money are generally working longer and longer hours to get it and so, have very little time. And with our brave new world of industrial relations, this is only likely to get worse. People who have time are often lacking money. It is the lucky few who have both who have the most chance of being thin and therefore beautiful.
Understandably, given the blow out in weight gain over the last decade, we are in the grip of a moral panic about fat. Yet our efforts to do something about it seem unfocussed and feeble. Some people attempt to blame the media and suggest banning fast food ads, particularly during kids’ viewing time. The media then blames parents, trotting out the old chestnut that it is up to parents to police children’s viewing and eating habits. This is mostly trumpeted by men with stay-at-home wives who will do the policing for them, or women who don’t have kids.
Anyone who has actually struggled to feed real-life kids in the face of the relentless pressures of long working hours, television, peers, disapproval by everyone on every level about everything you do or don’t do as a parent, would never seriously put such an argument.
Governments and industry bodies run well meaning, but useless, campaigns about getting active, ignoring all the other pressures they themselves have created that make getting thinner and fitter virtually impossible for most working people and families.
I once suggested in a meeting on this topic that if food manufacturers and governments really wanted to make a difference to society’s increasing girth, they should simply send all their employees home at 5:00 pm, giving them time to both exercise and prepare a healthy meal. You can imagine the deathly silence that greeted that remark.
We seem to have become a society that has embraced the relentless pursuit of perfection in every area. We will work longer hours, we will be perfect parents, and we will be beautiful and thin and forever young. And we will do all these things at once and we will also ignore the impact one thing has on another. We will also ignore the fact that the few who reach our impossible standards are using illegal substances to do so.
And we all just keep getting madder, sadder and much, much fatter.
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