Enough is enough. It's time for women to break the cycle of body anxiety, say three female writers. And here's how…
‘I’d like my nieces to see me happy with myself, even if I’m faking it.’
Sara Pascoe is an award-winning stand-up comedian and writer who has starred on Live At The Apollo, QI and 8 Out Of 10 Cats.
When I was a child, my mother was young and looking for love. She exercised obsessively, drank Slim Fast and stood in front of mirrors berating her body. I always thought her stunning and told her so. “You’re not fat, you’ve got MASSIVE boobies,” I tried to reassure her. But then I began to look very much like her. I inherited a body shape that I’d heard repeatedly denigrated. Now I stand in front of mirrors in a similar way (half-naked and weeping) and sometimes I wonder if I would be more confident – if I would care less – if she had.
I don’t know how to break the cycle, but I want to try. Because hating our bodies takes time, energy and focus away from our work and pleasure. Think of us, all 51 per cent of the population, crouching in bathrooms, pummelling our bum cheeks like imbeciles, when we should be taking over this crazy world and stopping all the wars. I am so lucky to be healthy and alive, how stupid it is to have tantrums about how I look in a bikini.
I don’t blame my mother, or any mother. But I’d like my nieces to see me happy with myself, even if I’m faking it. I compliment their actions, activities, minds and behaviours rather than their (cute, cute, CUTE) outfits. The great thing about small children is that they do not give a fuck. Imagine if a shade of that remained with them into adulthood. If it never occurred to them to diet, or cut out foods. If their generation was like “remember the olden days when women were calorie-counting idiots?”
When I started writing my book, I enrolled on a course for body confidence. A burlesque performer with a degree in psychology would teach a small group of us to love our bodies. “This will be great for research,” I told myself (which was a lie). I was going because I wanted to stop hating my body. When you are a great liar like me, deceiving yourself is easy. “#firstworldproblems,” I would say sarcastically if I was planning to go on a course like this for myself, “Maybe I can take a class in vapid self-obsession afterwards.”
So I received an email telling me to attend the first class in my sexiest outfit. “The outfit you feel sexiest in,” they clarified, in case I was so busy feeling sexy in an outfit that I hadn’t heard the first time. If I was in possession of such an outfit or feelings I would clearly not need confidence classes. And I wouldn’t feel like such a total failure of a feminist. You’re right, of course I didn’t go.
‘The world needs strong, compassionate, clever women to save it. Anything that distracts us from that task should be our united enemy.’
Animal: The Autobiography Of A Female Body is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99).
‘Girls grow up with the thought that women are pure and almost hairless’
Cherry Healey is a television presenter, famous for her BBC documentaries about food, relationships and the body.
You might think at the age of 35, I’d already know exactly what being a woman means, but it’s taken this long to really come to grips with the huge difference between what women are meant to be and what we really are
Writing Letters To My Fanny was a cathartic journey for me. A love letter to my body after years of punishing it with diets, Spanx and waxing. I wanted to demystify the female body. From what we name our fanny, noo-noo or love tunnel, to how much we really masturbate, period sex or the politics of fingering, I wanted to explore what it’s really like to inhabit the female body, without the gloss.
Boys grow up with masturbation jokes, they share stories, swap magazines and tease each other with ease – it’s just an accepted part of their early sexual life. Wanking, wet dreams, hard-ons in inappropriate moments – all fair game. Women’s anatomies are dark, hidden places, with sexual functions that are rarely discussed with such frankness. They are mythologised, romanticised or eroticised in absurd ways.
Have you ever seen a film where the female love interest has to deal with period sex, or the real problem of post-sex fluid management? Where the man politely fetches a flannel for the woman, so she can shove it in between her legs in case his donation comes out? I’d have loved a heads-up on this. It’s highly vexing if you’re on your way to work afterwards and gravity does its thing when there are no public facilities.
The first myth little girls grow up with is that women are perfectly clean, pure, almost hairless and most certainly do not want to touch themselves. The fanny is right in front of us and yet, for many women, it’s a foreign land that we do not know our way around and just visit occasionally for a dirty weekend. We’re told women don’t have sex drives to match men and the subsequent shame we feel as girls when we realise that, in fact, they do and great sex and masturbation feels amazing (free, without risks and less calorific than eating cake), is overwhelming.
When I was younger, I looked around for any sign that another girl or woman might also enjoy the delights of “me time” and found I was seemingly alone. Real women never talked about it, so the message I got loud and clear is that women do not, and should not, wank or even want to wank.
When I did see it depicted, it was nothing like the real thing. Most real women do not – I’m pretty confident in saying – put on lacy underwear before they do it. We do it while we’re in our favourite tracksuit bottoms that should have gone in the wash a week ago. We do not arch our backs or stroke our décolletage. We are fully engaged in something delicious that is just for us – we don’t care what we look like.
I’m 35 and I still don’t know how to give myself a multiple orgasm. I would struggle to draw a detailed picture of the biological make-up of my love tunnel. And I have only recently learned that female ejaculation really exists. It’s like having the elusive Nando’s Black card and never getting to go there. What a waste.
Joyfully, though, the solution is in all of our hands. We need to be as open and honest with each other about our bodies and sexuality as we can: laugh about it, tease each other and gradually break down the myths, so that we start to realise we’re all made up of fluid and desire, and that doesn’t make us any less feminine at all. Because being a real woman sometimes requires the odd flannel.
‘Women’s bodies are policed so aggressively that girls develop eating disorders before they’re ten’
Lindy West is a columnist and outspoken feminist activist. She writes for The Guardian, GQ magazine and her own blog.
Pretty much every day for the past five years, and intermittently before that, at least one stranger seeks me out to call me some version of “fat bitch”. Mostly online, though I’ve also been yelled at on the street, insulted from moving cars, shamed in department stores. Usually the delivery is more subtle and harder to prove to the sceptical: a glance, a smirk, a noticeable lack of service and care. Being harassed because of my body is such a common part of my life that I’m always surprised when other people find it surprising. You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle to inform you you’re too fat to rape? Weird. Because that’s my normal. At no point am I allowed to forget my body is wrong.
Women’s bodies are policed so aggressively that girls develop eating disorders before they’re ten; mothers are told that breastfeeding their children is obscene; we still blame rape on women’s clothing choices and bodies rather than rapists. American comedian Amy Schumer drew ire in April when she objected to being included in a list of plus-size stars on the cover of a women’s magazine. “Plus-size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and an 8,” Schumer wrote on Instagram, “[They] put me in their plus-size-only issue without asking or letting me know and it doesn’t feel right to me. Young girls seeing my body type thinking that is plus size?”
Though Schumer’s message was a body-positive one (“There’s nothing wrong with being plus-size,” she wrote), many plus-size bloggers and activists found her rejection of the “plus-size” label insulting, particularly in light of the fact that Schumer frequently characterises herself as fat for laughs in her stand-up. While Schumer is happy to mine the struggles of fat people for punchlines, she does not have to take those struggles home with her.
As she acknowledges, she isn’t, in fact, plus-size. She doesn’t have to shop in specialty stores, purchase two seats on an airplane, worry about size discrimination in job interviews, face higher conviction rates from biased juries, be told by her government and her community that her body is a scourge to be eradicated, or make certain that she never leaves the house without bike shorts on so her inner thighs don’t turn to beef tartare. By contrast, fat is not an identity that fat people can take on and off at will. It shapes every moment of every day of our real lives.
This is where “body positivity” stumbles. All people – especially women – struggle with body-image issues. It is hard to have a body. Bodies break down – they ache, they leak, they embarrass us, they kill us. Bodies tell other people how to think about us – disabled bodies, black bodies, fat bodies, female bodies, trans bodies. They all come with a coterie of stereotypes that flatten our humanity into a formless mass, making it easy to ignore and mistreat us. Bodies pit us against one another – we rank each other and are cruel to those “below” us on the ladder. My teenage stepdaughters are tall and slender, and even they’ve felt the venomous flick of “fat” used as a weapon. But, like Schumer, they don’t have to weather that sting while also coping with life in a fat body.
To fold fat people’s oppression into the umbrella of “body positivity” is to erase the truth of what it means to be plus-size. I want acceptance and self-love for all bodies, but it’s always been fat women at the helm of that movement.
I’ve been writing about my fat body for six years now, and I’m tired of being tough. So I actually appreciate Schumer reminding me we still have work to do – there’s still room to move the world in some beautiful and necessary ways; my body still has a purpose.
Shrill is published by Quercus (£16.99)
This article was originally published in May 2016.