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Because bodies aren’t always battlegrounds

In last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett made a confession. Despite identifying as a feminist, she hates her body, claiming it has ceased ‘to be a vessel that carts [her] around through life and has become a battleground’.

This wasn’t the deep dark dredge through the soul you might expect from confessional journalism: Cosslett conducted interviews and did her research. But neither did it attempt much in the way of detachment. Rather, it reads as an uneasy universalisation of her own experiences; the sort of ‘voice of a generation’ grandstanding for which Lena Dunham and the like are rightly flamed.

Cosslett, it transpires, has a low level eating disorder, in the sense that something has gone awry in her relationship with food. So too do the young women cited in the article: the lawyer who ‘stares at other girls’ thighs constantly’; the researcher who ‘fixates on bad foods’; the secretly bulimic student; the woman who ‘devised a diet that consisted solely of prawns, cocktail sauce and apples’.

She devotes a large part of the article to probing the diagnostic criteria – might she be a candidate for ‘OSFED’ (other specified feeding or eating disorder)? – but ultimately comes to the conclusion that the label is less important than the underlying societal malaise:

“We have gone mad… At times, I feel that I have gone mad… My full-time, unpaid job is managing my appetite, and in between that I write for the Guardian. I so want to become a refusenik and I am attempting to fight back. But I know that when this article is published… I’ll focus on the photographs, and how much I hate them. And I’ll think of all the other girls out there hating theirs – on Facebook, on Instagram, everywhere – and ask myself: how long are we going to put up with it?”

I’m about a year older than Cosslett and I suppose part of the same demographic. Her article, for the most part, just made me sad. The issues she is talking about are undeniably real: there are many thousands of 20-something women at war with their bodies, for whom food represents an antagonist and their physicality a barely tamable threat. Having once felt that way myself, I can’t say it didn’t strike a chord.

But aside from being slightly heartbreaking, the piece made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t place on first read. Later, I realised I was bristling at the idea that these attitudes were in some way normative. Normal, even. For sure, counting calories and pinching your stomach fat might be common, but are they an integral aspect of the female condition; simply part of the package that arrives giftwrapped at puberty, along with regrettable crushes and hairy toes? Cosslett seems to think so; I think emphatically not.

To begin with, why would only women hate their bodies? We all know that men and boys deal with eating disorders too. For sure, they may not suffer at quite the same rate – or with quite the same manifestations – but to view this as a female problem is simply wrong. Conflate poor body image with womanhood, and you’re alienating a significant subset of men who are stigmatised enough as it is.

Similarly, why are only women deemed susceptible to consumerist messages? As the article points out, many industries have a vested interest in promoting body dissatisfaction. Cosslett talks about the fashion and beauty industries, to which I would add sports supplements, the diet industry and anything that might feasibly be marketed as a ‘health food’.

This phenomenon is familiar to anyone with an entry-level awareness of media machinations: advertising works by whipping up needs, and then by promising solutions. But does Cosslett think that marketers only try this trick on women? Or worse, does she think that women are the only ones dumb enough to be taken in?

Beyond a vague stab at the media, Cosslett does not offer much insight into what the roots of her problem might be. In fact, at certain points she seems to be willfully deflecting from any insight:

‘There are undoubtedly those who will say that, in the midst of an obesity crisis, “skinny bitches” feeling fat is the least of society’s problems. I can sympathise with that viewpoint. It is how I feel when I speak to those who are thinner than me.’

It’s disingenuous, surely, to frame the obesity crisis as an entirely separate issue. Both occur within a society that is overrun with mixed messages around food. A society in which food has become weirdly moralised, and divorced from its function as fuel. A society in which having a piece of cake is viewed as an ethical tussle. Lots of people, not just ‘skinny bitches’, struggle to make sense of these messages, and that can absolutely manifest itself as obesity too.

Cosslett seems to see her food issues as endemic to women everywhere. But that isn’t the case for me or for many of the women I know. If, as she relates, one in 20 women does suffer from subclinical anorexia, then that leaves 19 in 20 who don’t. And presenting us all as inherently screwed – passively receptive to messages that leave men unfazed – well, surely that does us a disservice. We have long been viewed as the less rational sex and there’s nothing to be gained from presenting body hatred as some kind of universal female filter.

I feel sad for Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, and I feel sad for the girls she interviewed. I feel sad for the many, many women who are struggling with issues of this kind. But speaking as someone who has got over these issues herself, it’s a mental illness, not a statement about femaleness. Having a healthy relationship with food is possible, liberating, and actually pretty common, even within this messed-up society of ours.

So yes, Cosslett. Become a refusenik. And if you find that you can’t, please don’t pretend that your confession speaks for us all.


Categories: Mind & Body

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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