Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
Bums, Boobs and Clever Old Fat
Once upon a time a woman was reading a magazine that was aimed at making women feel bad about themselves so that they would buy stuff. It was called You’re Fat! magazine. The woman enjoyed the bright coloured pictures of the publication and the familiar sting of hating herself. And then, across the page, there was a QUIZ! ‘What body shape are you?’ The woman answered the questions in her fine, calorie-counting mind and the answers revealed that she was apple-shaped. Shaped like an APPLE. Suddenly everything made sense: the fact she always rolled off bus seats and couldn’t hold pens. No wonder she couldn’t get a husband. Sure, some guys liked her stem and leaf, but all of her boyfriends had found that ash-like grassy patch on her bottom gross. And all women have been shaped like fruit ever since, except hourglass women, they are the happiest women of all as they are filled entirely with sand.
When I started writing this 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 want to stop hating my body because it is so time-consuming and because it makes me so sad sometimes. I get angry at myself about how lucky I am to be healthy and alive and how stupid it is to cry about how you look in a bikini. I also find the idea of any kind of journey towards self-acceptance utterly repulsive. ‘#firstworldproblems,’ I would say sarcastically if I was planning to go on a course like this for myself, ‘maybe you can take a class in vapid self-obsession afterwards.’ So here I’d cleverly solved the conundrum, pretending my incentive wasn’t my own body confidence but the other women on the course – I could write about them and learn things. When you are a great liar like me, deceiving yourself is easy.
To make sense of the statement ‘Hating my body is time-consuming’ I could describe a simple process like ‘getting dressed’ or ‘preparing to leave the house’ and demonstrate how much of my daily thought is squandered on hiding my stomach – but I don’t want you to know. I am very embarrassed about how I feel. I’m ashamed that I care about what I look like and I’ve been aiming since childhood for invisibility. I could never be small enough; my ideal body shape is disembodied voice, radio. And it’s a secret. I haven’t talked to friends about my body since I was a teenager and I don’t confide in my family. My insecurity is more than weakness – I consider it a personality defect. I have always believed it makes me a bad person, a vain, shallow waste of humanity. With all of the awful, terrible things that happen in the world, how dare I spend all my time thinking about my bottom? I have the luxury of being one of the few fortunate women on the planet who are safe and sheltered and fed and watered, and I have the audacity to be unhappy. The only thing I hate more than my bum is my preoccupation with it. A cycle of self-hate: I hate my body and I hate me because I hate my body. And seeing all this written down, it is CRAZY that I don’t think of my body as ‘me’ but as something that my ‘self’ is trapped inside.
Any concern with appearance is a time tax. Conditioning, colouring, scrubbing, plucking and shopping. Apparently Albert Einstein had loads of suits but they were all exactly the same so he never had to think about what to wear.* He went on to use that saved brainpower to do something very brilliant like invent the car.
It’s scary how much of my inner monologue is consumed by debating food choices, berating myself for what I’ve recently eaten and promising I’ll do better. Plus the hours in front of the mirror, prodding, sobbing, trying everything on and deciding not to leave the house. My weight has stopped me doing things, has kept me from parties and dinners and award ceremonies because the stress of attempting to look ‘nice’ has beaten me.
I don’t know if the fact that my job involves people looking at me makes it worse. Comedians put themselves down a lot; it’s an easy source of comedy. At my early gigs I had material about how physically disgusting I was and how I couldn’t get a boyfriend or whatever. And then I saw another woman do the same kind of thing – a brilliant and beautiful comedian who I really respect – and seeing it from the outside, I realised the effects; we were apologising for ourselves while reinforcing to all of the women in the audience that we were fat and it did matter. And I decided never to do it again. I would never again write a joke about not being good enough because of my appearance. Now I imitate arrogance instead, but in the nervy few moments before every show I wish I had worn something more flattering and fret that someone will heckle me about my weight. No one ever has. My enemy is internal.
When I was fourteen, my best friend Hayley and I would get dressed together at her house before going out. We often planned what we would change as soon as we could afford plastic surgery. I’d get big boobs and a small nose, she would get liposuction and a six-pack like Peter Andre’s. Hayley always told me to do make-up first, get dressed second, because hiding how ugly your face was would make you feel better about your body. I have to get dressed on my own now, but I live with my boyfriend so sometimes he comes in and his face, his facial expression, when I am freaking out and throwing things and being hysterical – he stands there pale and big-eyed and baffled about how this can happen to a grown-up, intelligent woman who just popped into the bedroom to put some trousers on to go to Sainsbury’s. ‘I’M SORRY,’ I yell at him, like yelling ever improved a situation, like an apology ever meant more by being louder and aggressively intoned. He looks scared and I get angrier. A logical me observes from a distance, knowing I’m being completely mad, but can’t do anything about it. I’m on irrational and unpleasant autopilot. I don’t look in mirrors when I am out of the house because it is too dangerous. My reflection in a shop window can cause me to go home. The memory of a great gig is ruined if I am emailed photographs that were taken.
Since early adolescence I’ve been ridiculous, but now I had this course. I didn’t hope to be fixed, but the act of booking it, paying for it, turning up there, would be the beginning. The undoing of nearly thirty years of constant inner negativity. I was going to listen to the other women’s feelings about themselves, their journey, and I was going to tell them they were beautiful and mean it and see them start to feel it. And I, I would start to feel it too. I could never love myself, no way, but if I could get to a neutral position of not caring, well, imagine what I could do with all the time and thoughts I’d reclaim; I would do more charity work, breastfeed the poor, reinvent the car – a better car, one that’s made of balloons and pops if you hit any animals or people – I couldn’t wait to be more productive!
‘Thank you for enrolling in your chosen class: Self Esteem and Body Confidence,’ said the confirmation email. ‘For the first session, please bring an outfit that makes you feel really sexy.’ There was then a list of suggestions; hot pants, mini-skirt, high heels, suspenders, catsuit etc. I cried for a while imagining how great it must be if you have an outfit that makes you feel sexy.
I hope you understand why I didn’t go.
Broadly speaking, there are many differences between men and women. These differences will never be universal, never true for every single person, and there will always be a larger variance within a gender than between the genders. That is a confusing sentence so I’ll reword it more simply. Take height. Here is the broad stroke: men are taller than women. But this is not universal, because loads and loads of women are taller than loads and loads of men. Also the height difference between the world’s tallest man and the world’s shortest man is much more than the difference between the average height of men and women – comprendos? On average, as well as being shorter, women are fatter than men. Woohoo for us, the rolypoly tiny guys. On average we’re composed of twenty-seven per cent fat while the typical stringy manthing is only fourteen per cent. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, nothing about the body’s composition is an accident. We are perfectly built; any flaws about our ancestors’ persons were thrown into the bin of natural selection. Our doubled body fat means something. Either fat was imperative to our individual survival OR it was sexually selected OR, da da da da da DA, both.
If we were to slip down the hill of time and hang out with the humans of forty thousand years ago we’d find they were physiologically the same as us. If you’d been born then, you would be you – there would be differences in socialisation, you wouldn’t have as many shoes, but your brain and body would be identical. Pre-farming, with no domesticated animals or reliable crops, you and your family would have foraged and hunted about for the things you liked to eat/anything edible you could find. The calories contained in the food you ate would likely be burned off during your endeavours to find more food. Rooting, scouting and scavenging would have been your main exercise and the majority of your waking hours would be spent locating the sustenance needed to keep you alive. In any country of the world, in any era of human existence up until the last hundred years, a slow metabolism was beneficial. Storing energy as fat is an insurance policy for the lean times – a long winter, a drought, any time when food is scarce. The skinny, too-fast-metabolismed women of prehistory perished. We can cry for them later.
For post-adolescent women, fat on the body is an announcement. It proves that they are great at finding food and, even better, that they have plenty of energy saved up ready to feed their children. Males who preferred fatter females were rewarded throughout our evolution with a higher survival rate for their offspring. A woman with a surplus of stored fat can utilise that energy even at times of starvation. It is broken down when she needs to breastfeed her babies, so the enriched milk nourishes her children through their most vulnerable years. This incredibly sensitive and reactive storage system saved and enabled our lives. Men have evolved to store only enough fat for themselves – you’re wriggling round with a family’s worth. And I’ve been idiotic in despising something I should’ve been worshipping.
We have to learn more about fat. The word is poisoned by negative connotations: greed, bad health and abnormality. I’ve considered my fat as a visual punishment, a toxin. And it’s not, it’s a magnificent organ with the worst PR team in history. Fat is our energy source, our batteries – fatteries? Hmm, yes, fatteries. It’s our fillable hamster cheeks. Our fattery cells are storing processed calories, condensed into lipids and waiting there until we need them. If you are an average woman (I certainly don’t think of you that way) and I kidnapped and starved you for an experiment (I’m a terrible friend), you could survive for around two months. THANKS, FAT, FOR SAVING YOUR LIFE.
Every single cell of your fat is amazing. It’s not some numb luggage, it’s alive and a vital part of your endocrine system. Adipose tissue (or fat) releases a hormone called leptin which travels via your blood to your hypothalamus and lets your brain know how much you’re carrying. If you’ve got enough your brain will inhibit appetite; if you need more the hormone ghrelin will be produced, which encourages hunger. That conversation is going on constantly as your body regulates itself to maintain a perfect balance, a shape and size that will keep you at your strongest and healthiest, ready for the longest trek or the harshest winter.
Fat also produces oestrogen. Your lovely lady sex hormone is largely provided by ovaries, but supplemented by kindly fat cells. Being super-skinny means a bit less oestrogen, which might result in irregular periods in younger women and a more difficult menopause for older ones. The residual oestrogen from fat is why plump ladies age a bit better and their skin seems a little smoother. And not all fat is the same. During adolescence girls can gain between ten and twenty kilos of adipose tissue. It is mainly located on the bum and upper thighs and is composed of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. This is the exact same stuff that adverts for butter substitutes are always telling us is ‘good fat’. Well, good is an understatement, mate. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat is a large component of the human brain. The adolescent female body is storing it up ready for any children that will come later. When she breastfeeds, the omega-3 polyunsaturated fat around her hips will be used to fortify her milk and build her baby’s most important organ. How can I have been allowed to hate my wobbly thighs when there were brains in there all along? BRAINS! Minds. The things that compose sonnets and invent balloon cars. Our massive brains are about sixty per cent fat, by far the fattiest organ in our body – without fat there would be no thought.
You are correct, that does deserve a ‘Congratulations, fat’ trumpet:
Here’s another thing to consider. If you were living forty thousand years ago your only impression of what you looked like would have been from looking down. You could see your hands and wiggling fingers; your arms up to the shoulder if you turned your head; your belly, hairy pudenda, your legs heading off towards the floor with little feet down there in the distance. But no matter how much you craned your head round you could not find your bottom. You could feel it with your hands, squeeze it, you’d know it was comfy for sitting on. You could look at other people’s bottoms but you couldn’t accurately compare your own to theirs. I assume back then I’d have been bowling about assuming my derrière was as delicious as the nicest ones I saw, and with no mirror to prove otherwise, how happy I’d have been. I’d have patted my own cheeks and thought, ‘Yes, that’s about right,’ and continued feeling fabulous. During our species’s entire evolution we would never have seen ourselves reflected clearly. Our assessment of self-worth and status would have been drawn from the behaviours of others around us. We were completely unable to scrutinise certain aspects of our physicality until some bastard invented metal-backed glass two thousand years ago. Our modern silver-backed mirrors have only existed for two hundred years, and this is relevant because they affect our self-confidence. Psychological studies consistently demonstrate that looking in the mirror makes us feel worse about ourselves. For people with body dysmorphic disorder just twenty-five seconds of mirror-gazing can produce anxiety and stress, and for healthy confident people ten minutes can lead to distress and becoming more self-critical. The less we look in the mirror, the happier we could be with our appearance. In fact one study found that women who were blind and couldn’t look at themselves were more satisfied with their appearance and dieted less than sighted women. Any mirrorstaring sessions are doing us harm.
Until I started researching for this book I’d always assumed that concern about the aesthetics of our bodies was a modern insanity – but it’s actually an evolved behaviour that recent inventions are sending into overdrive. We are predisposed; the reason I care about the shape of my hips and the pertness of my buttocks is that they tell tales about my worth as a breeding partner. The safety and security of my female ancestors would have been partly determined by their shape. Their value and status within their tribe was connected to their health, youth and fertility. The same is true for all mammals on this planet, yet none of them evolved consciousness of it. None of them invented the mirror and developed enough awareness of self to stand in front of it fretting.
Our male ancestors made conscious and subconscious choices about who to mate with and some of those selections were more successful (in reproductive terms) than others. A penchant for women too weak to bear children, too old, too narrow-hipped, led to a dead end for those genes. What remains worked. There have been tons of studies on what makes women attractive; you’ll be aware of oft-quoted ‘ideal’ female body measurements. Out-in-out, boobs-waist-hips. It seems not to be a woman’s size that matters so much as her proportions. When they’ve tested male and female preferences for women’s bodies they reliably define ‘perfection’ as a ratio of around 0.7 between breasts and waist and again between waist and hips; the classic ‘hourglass’ shape lauded by magazines. Whether six foot or four and a half, whether eight stone or fifteen, it is these proportions that mark a woman as a wonderful beauty. Interestingly (well I thought so anyway), when men and women are asked to draw the ideal female body the ratio stays much the same but men generally draw a fleshier, wider woman. Heterosexual men have an inbuilt appreciation for female body fat that is not reflected by the tastes of modern women – what does this mean? Is it because our female ancestors bred with men whose body fat percentage was half of ours, so they assume the same is ideal for us? Are heterosexual women seeking to be like the men they want to attract? Or is our obsession with youth idealising tiny female frames?
The small waist, flat stomach thing is related to youth. Remember that until recently, almost any sexually active woman would be pregnant every few years so her stomach would show the effects of childbearing and her waist would widen gradually throughout her life. A 0.7 ratio is nature’s way of indicating fertility; the widened hips and breast fat acquired in adolescence alongside the flat, smooth belly of the un-impregnated. It’s a body that says ‘I’m ready and able’. Even more incredibly, this indication of fertility is not a deception. It appears that women with a desirable waist–hip ratio do conceive more easily than those with thicker waists or slimmer hips. The hormones that have sculpted their physique are the exact same ones necessary for baby-making, lucky bitches. And so male humans are driven to seek curves exactly as their glow worm equivalents are drawn to light.
And this is how women lose twice. Once in being looked at and once in the looking. Women’s bodies are compartmentalised. Those feelings you’ve had since childhood, of being sized up like a prize marrow, being assessed and weighed and eaten up by eyes, are real. The psychologist Sarah Gervais conducted studies in which people looked at photographs of men and women, some of which were digitally enhanced. She found that when there was a woman in the picture the eyes of both genders focused on breasts, waist and genitals. Gervais also tested participants’ memories and found both men and women were more likely to recall a woman’s breasts than her face. Participants of both genders appeared to view men as whole and women in pieces. It’s awful, but it makes sense. In a way it’s reassuring – you’re not mad or imagining things, everyone is looking at you all of the time (especially if you’re young). And you’re looking at women too. Why? Don’t shout all at once; yes please, Clara, you’ve got your hand up nicely:
Is it because we all secretly fancy each other?
Clara, that’s a good theory, and of course some of this eyeballing is sexual in nature – women are attracted to each other occasionally or exclusively – but that doesn’t explain all of it. Shelley?
Is it because we hate each other and view each other as competition?
Erm, that’s nearly right. We don’t hate each other, but we are aware of each other. Sometimes unknowingly aware, if that makes sense – for hundreds of thousands of years before clothing and farming and capitalism, our bodies were almost all we had. We might have had a few tools or that day’s food, but no other external signals of status. And status is extremely important to all animals, it relates directly to your power and safety, your resources and comfort. Human beings have evolved to be hyper-aware of their personal position in any group, and to find our place we assess each other. That’s why women look at each other’s skin, hair and body shape. And that’s why our self-esteem is connected to our body image, because instinctually we connect being attractive with high status, protection, usefulness and power. When we feel physically inferior to the women around us it can be very difficult to feel happy and sane. Our big fat brains cannot help compartmentalising other women and visually dissecting ourselves because we assess our bodies like a product we’re selling and it’s been that way for millennia.
Let’s have a little remember about the modern world now: it’s not just mirrors we’re surrounded by but billboard advertising, television and cinema, pornography in every household and magazines in every supermarket. Women women women, undressed women, lingerie-clad women, smooth-contoured sex-faced women, busty, luscious, flat-stomached women, glowing, poreless, young, unwrinkled women. Photoshopped women, digitally enhanced women, fifty foot high, staring right at you, aggressively threatening women. How you coping with that, ape lady?
Both men and women have their attention caught by attractive women, so attractive women are used to catch our attention. In advertising, that attention means money, with the wonderful bonus that making women feel insecure makes them spend even more money. Especially on all the crap that’s supposed to make us look better or hide imperfections. Looking at pictures of semi-clad models makes all women’s self-esteem plummet – scientists have tested it. Even model types downgrade their own attractiveness after viewing the kind of photos you’d find in any women’s magazine. But we know that, right? I know not to buy glossy-paged rubbish that’s going to make me feel inadequate, but what about all the stuff I can’t ignore? What about when they plaster my environment with images that I can’t escape?
I’m not stupid, I know if you’re selling a body lotion or some tiny lacy knickers then a long-legged beauty is the ideal canvas and even if I cry myself to sleep with jealous rage at least the advert makes sense. But, BUT so often it DOESN’T. Like there’s this charity, okay, and they’re working to highlight the depletion of the world’s oceans. And every year they create a celebrity campaign and every year the campaign is naked women holding dead fish. The photos make it on to the front page of the newspapers and the accompanying article is always: here is a naked famous woman, she is holding a fish. The publicity is fuelled by nudity, and there is quite a lot of publicity because for a couple of days the papers all have licence to put naked women on the front as this is actually about a really important issue which is – sorry, I thought I saw a nipple, what were you saying?
This fish campaign fascinates me. The photographs are very arresting, existing somewhere between porn and comedy, the airbrushed glamour of the well-groomed, stripped human horribly undermined by the shiny-scaled corpse obscuring boobs and fanny. Last year on a train I saw twenty Helena Bonham Carters topless astride fish, and I tore them all out and took them home. I felt ashamed for her, discarded as she was all over the Northern line. I felt patronised on behalf of all human beings. ‘Even charities are exploiting nudity now, even the good guys … none of us are expected to engage with anything any more unless it’s scrawled on or next to bared flesh,’ I ranted to John when I got home. ‘Let’s have a look,’ he joked, so I went for a quick cry in the bathroom, watching in the mirror to see how my face looked when I was disappointed with the media.
I feel affronted by female nudity; sometimes I feel attacked by it. On a bad day I’ll count how many women in their under wear I see on posters on my way to work, but what am I supposed to do with that information? I might mention it when I arrive at my gig, moan on and on about it if I’m with someone, but there’s no catharsis. Bombardment, that’s the word that I would use, I am BOMBARDED. Once on an escalator at Oxford Circus station, I passed by fifty-six women in their pants, sleepily cunning and looking through me. Fifty-six against one, that’s bullying. And I hate myself for my inability to ignore them. Posters for burger restaurants or shiny Jeeps blur into the background of my journey but not the women. I hate the meat industry and I loathe cars (sorry Einstein) but they don’t sadden and dismay me like a Wonderbra ad.
Of course I don’t blame the stupid sea charity, this is how the world works and I understand their position; stats on declining fish populations, descriptions of water pollution and insufficient governmental regulation do not make it to the front page on their own. Beautiful women do. Only women do. Because we were built to like looking at women more than absolutely anything else. But doesn’t the use of nudity undermine the importance of the message? Since when has a woman with no top on been taken more seriously? We don’t pop our bras off before important meetings. From my experience, we tend to feel more pressure to cover up when we want to be listened to because we know our body is distracting, which is another shit thing. We should be able to go to work and church and round the town centre wearing whatever we bloody like but we’re too accustomed to the assumptions and reactions caused by our bared skin to be truly free. When baring does take place it is brave and raunchy, it has to be owned. I am thinking of Jodie Marsh wearing two belts as a top – look that up if you’ve never seen her – she embodies this. Any kind of serious underdressing is a visible act of defiance and acknowledgement. When girls go out in tiny skirts or in their bras the message is loud and what they’re always saying is ‘I know you’re looking – so look then.’
Anyway, these are thoughts I’m thinking now after years of noticing and reflecting. When I was a child, posters were just posters, magazines were mere magazines, not PROPAGANDA OF THE PATRIARCHY. But I started feeling fat very young. It was the ultimate insulting adjective at primary school. Cheryl and I called each other fat all the time. My mum would stand in front of the mirror and call herself fat; we’d call her fat too if we were arguing. There is a picture of me at about eleven, I am up a tree, very high up actually because I’m amazing at everything. Someone came over to take a photograph and I asked them not to but they did. I am doing Princess Diana face, shy and ashamed, because I knew I looked fat in my stripy leggings and I didn’t want anyone to look and the camera embarrassed me. The girl in the photo is so skinny. At every age I have felt revolting but when I look at pictures of past me I can’t believe the slim young woman I was can have felt like that. I’ve tried to think, ‘Future you will look back and think that about you now,’ and that did not help, it merely made me realise I’m only going to get fatter and older until I die.
I was fourteen when I realised I had cellulite. I had been given a red-and-white gingham bikini. There was a girl at school who wore a see-through swimming costume, you could see her bum crack and her nipples when it was wet, and I wanted to check my suit wasn’t similarly flawed. I wore it in the bath and then bent over in front of a mirror, only to find I had leg cancer all down the back of both legs. I checked the bath for wicker matting, I moved the curtains in case the dappling was a trick of the light. How could I have been walking around looking like this? From waist to knee (these were the heady days before the big C found my arms and stomach) I was lumpy bumpy broken. ‘Orange-peel skin’, More magazine and Just Seventeen would call it, but oranges are delicious and purposeful and my thighs were porridgy idiots letting me down. I couldn’t afford any kind of anti-cellulite cream so I didn’t buy any. I read an article about how Pamela Anderson massaged her bum and thighs on the toilet for up to two hours a day to keep cellulite at bay, so I tried that for three minutes before giving up and lightly carving ‘FAT’ on my thigh with a razor blade instead.
(Step behind the curtain for a sec. When I handed in a first draft of the book to Julian, my editor, the above line was focused upon as being, I dunno, I guess harsh? Or a bit shocking – which really surprised me. ‘Julian, have you never met a teenage girl?’ I shrugged off his concern. I explained to him that girls between twelve and twenty spend a great deal of their time hurting their bodies in different ways. He suggested this was not normal, while I thought it was. Everyone I know hurt themselves a bit. Tried it out. Had low points and recovered. Julian then very rightly pointed out that I would have to be responsible in case any young women were reading this and might be influenced or incited – and that is a very good reason not to be flippant about what he referred to as ‘self-harm’ but I called ‘something girls do sometimes’. But it is serious. If I think of a young woman currently feeling alone and self-loathing enough to put a razor on her skin in such a way – even to write a complimentary word – I would do anything I could to stop it. I wish I was friends with all the teenage girls in the world because I could cuddle you all and tell you how much better life gets, how much more reasonable and bearable. And that you are never to blame for the pain that you feel and that’s why hurting yourself is an injustice. Also, exercise helps: have an angry run or swim, ache a bit that way. And talk to people you know and trust or to strangers who understand and are trained. Big hugs and back we go. Xxx)
I always believed that cellulite was caused by toxins because THAT IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN TOLD, repeatedly, by journalists and copywriters. Cellulite is caused by alcohol and chocolate and coffee and cat videos and joy, they said; deny yourself, avoid all pleasures or you get the thighs you deserve. Turns out they’re liars and it’s actually hormones. Oestrogen, insulin, noradrenaline and thyroid hormones all affect how fat cells are connected to each other. With oestrogen it can result in some cells bulging out of their little clusters, giving the bumpy-rump look we know and despise. So two-hour rubs aren’t gonna help you unless they can erase your genetic predispositions, and any time you see some ointment advertising itself as an ‘orange-peel’ antidote, ask the man at Superdrug: ‘REALLY? Does this fifteen-quid cream that is probably tested on animals actually get absorbed inside my body to restructure my hormonal interplay and destroy my fat deposits which, BY THE WAY, are future possible babies’ brains, MATE?’
They make so much money off us, you know, so much cash leeched via our self-hatred. Billions a year spent on useless pointless crap. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, I don’t think The Man has meetings with other The Mans where they plan how to do this but … there is complicity. Think of us, fifty-one per cent of the population all crouching in bathrooms, pummelling our bum cheeks like imbeciles, when we should be taking over this crazy world and stopping all the wars.
BUT IT’S SO HARD NOT TO CARE. Or rather, I find it hard not to care.
When I was little my mum would stand in front of the mirror, maybe she was getting dressed or into the bath. She would ask me if she had small boobs, she would ask me if she was fat. I thought she was beautiful, with massive tits, and I always told her that for as long as I can remember. What I struggle with now is that it’s a body I inherited. The tops of my arms became my mother’s at the end of my twenties. My breasts, when they finally arrived, were equally small. ‘I don’t mind the size,’ she would say, ‘but you ruined them.’ I was the first baby and a big one and I stretched all her stomach skin and drank all her pertness and I always regretted it. I took her body when she was still a teenager, and I scarred her. My father was unravaged so he could leave and seduce other women without my marks of ownership on him. As a child I felt guilty when I was told I looked like my dad, that I reminded my mum of him, but now my face is all my mum’s – I am now the age she was when I was fifteen. My smile, eyes, voice, phrasing, thighs, bum, arms and boob disappointment are all inherited. And when I hate my body I feel guilty of matricide. And I wonder how much of this I learned by imitation. And even wondering that, I feel bad for blaming her.
My friend Katherine† has a daughter who is currently six. We were all in Australia for work, and after breakfast one day I called myself a pig. ‘I’m a piggy, I don’t know when to stop,’ I said to no one as we walked to the lift. And Katherine asked me, so sweetly and rightly, not to say things like that in front of children: ‘You teach them it’s wrong to like food.’
Of course, OF COURSE we perpetuate a cycle with what we say in front of children, and of course we reinforce what we believe when we allow each other to call ourselves fat and ugly. So we’ve got these three routes of attack – the people around us, the messages of culture (people not around us but able to affect us), and then the inbuilt propensity to care. And it is different for women and it is emotional. When men and women were shown digitally altered images of themselves in an MRI, only the women’s brains showed engagement of the pre-frontal cortex and parahippocampal area. This included the amygdala which is crucial to our emotional functioning. So the female response was emotional while the male counterpart was visual and spatial. Seeing a fatter image of themselves was felt by women, but only seen by men.
This means something. It restricts how we live our lives. The connection between our body image and our happiness isn’t superficial. Seventy per cent of American women were found to believe that being thinner would make them happier – seventy per cent isn’t a small problem in a varied society, it’s an epidemic. And it affects more than just mealtimes. It influences the choices we make, our energy, our confidence. It’s physically restraining – you can’t rule the world when you’re feeble from starving yourself.
I’ve eaten variations of a constrained diet since I was fourteen. I have seriously starved myself for two periods in my life and have only stopped skipping meals since I became vegan and gained a different type of control. Veganism helped me break a guilt cycle, and now I eat much more and I reflect on my fainty, light-headed earlier incarnations with much self-sympathy. Both my big starves were heart-related. After breaking up with Colin, I didn’t feel hungry very often. It was like a switch went off. But whenever I did feel hungry I’d imagine him having sex with his new girlfriend and it would go away. On a ‘good day’ I would eat two green apples and drink two Diet Cokes. A ‘bad day’ would mean a sandwich and maybe alcohol. I got skinny. I could afford to buy clothes from Bay Trading with the dinner money I was saving, because the clothes in my new size were all reduced to clear. A teacher at sixth form stopped me in the corridor and asked me what had happened. She told me to ‘go eat a burger’ and I sulked off after telling her I was vegetarian, but I felt amazing because she’d noticed. I checked myself for symptoms of anorexia – I wanted hairy arms; when you had the hair, you knew you’d made it. I joined a dance class but I had to stop going because I fainted every week; I pretended to be embarrassed but I was proud. I had one friend Hayley who could make herself sick, but I couldn’t, and a different friend Hayley (the one who wanted Peter Andre abs) who told me about laxatives you could shoplift from Boots. I took Chocolax because I can’t swallow pills. Chocolax you could eat and it just tasted like the worst thing you’ve ever eaten. That’s when my mum started to notice because the bathroom always smelled so bad. I didn’t care that I stank. I was sewagey, like a drain full of the dead. My stomach went concave and I got obsessed by the comparative bulbousness of my arse. I was the saddest I’ve ever been, and yet I was euphoric on skinniness. I looked at myself constantly. I was my own project, I was my own work of art and I owned myself for the first time.
My second starve was after another break-up. His name was Steve, he smelled smoky and had a concave chest. He was so clever about science and, he warned me, incapable of love. I spent months with him, eroded by how much I loved him and how he cringed whenever I said so. He was a comedian, so when we split I started stand-up, partly as an exercise in combating grief with creativity but mostly as a revenge move. I wanted to understand why he couldn’t focus on me properly; why gigs I’d thought he’d done fine at would follow him and bother him for days; I wanted to know where his mind went when I was talking, because afterwards he never remembered anything I’d said. AND I wanted to be more successful than him, and now I am more successful than him and WHAT IS THE POINT of being on television if it doesn’t make your exes want to get back with you? Maybe when I get that Oscar.
So this was 2007, I started stand-up, I started swimming and I stopped eating. I wouldn’t let myself eat anything until evening. Sometimes I would let myself drink calories rather than eating them, get pissed on a large glass of wine and go on stage happy with forgetting. The only time I didn’t think about Steve was when I was on stage talking about him. I had to teach myself to swim, because I was scared of getting my head wet since a school trip when I was nine – they took us to Hainault forest for a week, and midway through marched us across fields to a communal shower. This was the term after we’d finished our project on the Holocaust. My teacher ordered me to get undressed as I begged her not to gas us. I have been traumatised by a Nazi/water death certainty ever since, but now I was twenty-six and I was forcing myself to put my head under and provoking myself up and down the pool. I whacked and slapped at the lengths with my arms until I felt too weak to hate and then I allowed myself to get out. There was another woman who went every day and I watched her shrink and wondered what pain she was escaping. I looked out for her at gigs but she doesn’t seem to have found the obliteration of stand-up. She also never learned to put her head under.
My new stand-up friends didn’t know my real size. Tania once said I was ‘naturally tiny’, ha ha ha ha. Lou hugged me after a gig and said, ‘I didn’t realise you were going to be so bony!’ and I replied, ‘I’ve put on so much weight recently,’ which wasn’t true but it felt it. After months I saw Steve at a rehearsal for something. I took a chocolate brownie out of my bag to eat in front of him so he would know I was fine. He said he was worried about me and it was the best day of my life, but I crashed when he left and didn’t kiss me or need me and it didn’t feel like he was very worried. I had to move out from Katie’s house – I lived with my best friend and her mum, and Katie saw, I couldn’t deceive her. She knew the food in my cupboards, she witnessed my new drinking habits and the state I came back in. I said I wasn’t on a diet, and I wasn’t. It wasn’t a diet, I wanted to die. Every time she tried to talk to me about it I avoided her more, until she cried and said I hurt her when I hurt myself, and so I left. It is very difficult to accept any claim of love or affection when you are in a hole of worthlessness. You can’t trust anyone who tells you are beautiful or lovable or even ‘fine’. And that is how the person who loved me best became my secret enemy for many years.
Both the phases I describe above were a few months of what would be called ‘disordered eating’. Everyone I know has eaten in a disordered way sometimes. I assume this is a normal part of the modern western woman’s experience. It’s a side effect, isn’t it? Of the constant availability of food, our mother’s attitude to food, the daily information about what’s healthy and what should be avoided, and the images – acres of tits and ass to cross on every journey, and a lady’s heart full of feelings sometimes can’t cope with it all.
Anorexia is an eating disorder, but should be considered separately from disordered eating. Most people are familiar with anorexia and will have seen pictures of emaciated bodies with protruding bones, but the disease itself is not well understood. It could be perceived as a step further than a strict diet, a more extreme, committed version, but it’s a much more complicated disease. While it might be triggered by emotional stress or media images just like disordered eating, anorexia is far more compulsive. Most doctors would now agree it is a pre-existing condition, a propensity that some people (mostly women) have that can be activated by environmental events or conditions. Anorexia is not a diet, it is a topsy-turvy existence where food and sustenance become ‘bad’. Whereas people who are dieting or suffering from disordered eating are denying themselves something that they want, anorexics are protecting themselves from something they believe will do them harm. Does that make sense? It’s why anorexia is so difficult to treat – it mutates what the body most needs into an enemy.
Anorexia nervosa was recognised as a condition in the nineteenth century, in 1873 to be exact. By Sir William Gull of all people, do you know him? He was one of Queen Victoria’s doctors and was posthumously accused of being Jack the Ripper by many theorists and a film with Johnny Depp. But just to keep this in perspective, every single person alive in 1888 has been posthumously‡ suspected of the murders, including Victoria herself, so let’s not go ringing the Daily Mail with ‘Jack the Ripper Invented Anorexia’ just yet.
It’s easy to believe that anorexia is a modern affliction, a response to our visual and terrible culture, but its origins predate that. Catholic girls in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are recorded as starving themselves to death and have since been sainted for their endeavours. Apparently Mary Queen of Scots displayed symptoms. Early records in many cultures describe purges or self-imposed famines: ancient Roman women punished their bodies by refusing food and old Chinese and Persian manuscripts describe the ailments of eating disorders. Because anorexia frequently manifests during adolescence psychologists surmise that it could be a denial of sexuality: a wish to remain a girl rather than transitioning into womanhood. I’ve read evolutionary psychologists’ claims that eating disorders could be a response to stress, useful as a way of freezing fertility. Because starvation stops ovulation, eating disorders could be a subconscious way of avoiding pregnancy during dangerous times. Nature’s brake pedal gone haywire in modernity.
More recent research links anorexia to autism. Some claim that anorexics don’t empathise effectively with themselves and that there are similar obsessive behaviours in both groups. There is an interesting theory that there could be a genetic disposition for autism which tends to be expressed differently depending on gender, but there’s a lot more research needed in this area – I can’t tell you that it is proven fact. I’ll just reiterate how complicated this disease is, how irrational it can appear to family members and loved ones who can’t comprehend what a sufferer is experiencing and why they won’t just eat. Why they can’t believe that they are not fat. But imagine if everyone around you suddenly started telling you the sky was green – ‘It’s green, it’s green, it’s green,’ everyone would say, and you would stop trusting them, you’d be suspicious or you’d feel mad or you’d want to agree with them but how can you distrust your own senses when they are all you have to decipher the world? Your eyes would tell you the sky is blue and that would be your only reality and no amount of conversation could change that.
There is certainly something inbuilt that makes girls more susceptible than boys to eating disorders, something that predates the billboards and pornography. But there is also clear evidence that such conditions are exacerbated by the messages of our media. In the 1990s there was a study in Fiji – a society of people who had no access to television and who celebrated bigger women, really big, more than curvy, robust. ‘You’ve gained weight’ was a Fijian compliment. Bigger brides were rewarded with bigger dowries and there were even fattening camps to feed up teenage girls. And then TV arrived and within three years the number of girls with symptoms of bulimia rose from three to fifteen per cent, with fifty per cent of girls now describing themselves as ‘too fat’. The male Fijians continued to have the same pre-television ideals of beauty for men and women, but the women’s changed, and changed quickly.
What seems obvious to me is that we’ve evolved to be aware of our bodies and those of the women around us but have no protection against the effects of mirrors and images, exactly as male glow worms evolved to be drawn to light but are unable to discern between electric bulbs and real females. Evolution couldn’t predict our synthetic environment. My forty-thousand-year-old brain cannot defend itself from women on screens, pages and billboards. While intellectually I can discern between fictional and actual, my instincts react to all of those women as real, real tribe members, real ideals, real local women that I can’t compete with. If I lived in a regular tribe there would be twenty women older and twenty women younger than me and all at different stages of pregnancy or lactation and I would have a middling sense of security and confidence. Instead I am in a tribe of millions and on every surface I lay my eyes I see falsified female perfection. My Homo sapiens life should contain five or six goddesses, not thousands, hundreds of thousands, and my conscious brain can’t protect me – I know about Photoshop, make-up, lighting, Spanx, botox, chicken fillets, liposculpture, I know Barbie couldn’t give birth because of her dimensions, I know TopShop mannequins are only vaguely human-shaped and that cartoons are drawn to satisfy the fetishes of fantasy, but still. I am crushed.
So I would say I have two types of fat, good and bad. Right places and wrong places. There is the fat I dislike and think I have too much of (all that body below bra), and there are two places where I do not have enough. Or rather, I have the correct amount of fat but it’s wrongly distributed. Time to meet my boobs.
SARA’s boobs enter.
Hey guys. Should I address you together or as individuals?
Well, we are usually considered as a unit, even though there are two of us, and we are different—
I am bigger and more optimistic—
Right’s right, I’m a bit depressed. And more sensitive.
So you’re twins, but non-identical – like my mum and Aunty Juliet?
Okay, so how is our relationship? Is it healthy?
Your main job is moving us around. You help us get from A to B, pop us in a crop top so we don’t get too tired—
You don’t need a proper bra.
We know. And that’s fine with us, but you—
SARA (not fine)
It’s fine. Honestly, I’m used to it.
You wish we were bigger—
I’m okay about it now.
We swell up when you are due on and you like us more.
Um, ONE of you does—
From under the table, a booming voice.
YOU THINK I AM TOO BIG AND THEY ARE TOO SMALL!
SARA (to BOTTOM)
This is not your interview, butt out – THAT IS NOT A PUN. Stop picking on me, I don’t want to be defined by any of you—
SARA grabs her boobs and bum and leaves the cafe. Everyone claps because she is trying so hard to deal with her issues and if that can’t be applauded, what can?
I read something a man wrote (I’m very open-minded) about women’s bodies. He was a bit obsessed with the idea that evolution had disabled us with the impracticality of our breasts. ‘Can’t run naked without pain,’ he kept repeating; ‘their breasts make running nude very uncomfortable,’ he’d interrupt himself. LET US WEAR SPORTS BRAS THEN, let us wear sports bras even in your imagination, writer man. Despite my uneasiness at the book’s constant conjuring of undressed joggers, I do acknowledge his point. In pre-civilised times, before nylon and Lycra, women evolved unnecessary appendages on their chests that would make hunting and escape far more difficult for us than for boobless men.
Yes, you heard me right, ‘unnecessary appendages’. The year-round chest fat that adult women have is not needed for milk production and bigger boobs do not mean (as I would’ve presumed) that you can make or hold more milk. All female mammals have nipples, all female mammals feed their young via lactation and none of them have surrounding fat deposits the size of ours. That’s why they can sprint about happily without clothes on.
So why is this, please, nature?
If you look in an anthropology book from the 1970s, it will tell you that breasts developed as a result of human beings walking upright – which doesn’t answer our question, which was why? And then Desmond Morris or one of his peers would come in to tell you:
To emulate the buttocks.
Are you insane?
No. You know how breasts look like buttocks—
Not in any way.
Yeah they do, this is science. So anyway, the buttocks were the main sexy area—
Because we had sex from behind.
We did not—
Human beings did, so men liked looking at bottoms. They found bottoms arousing, associated them with sex—
Uh-huh, and then once we were walking about, four million years ago or whatever, we started having sex face to face—
Why was that?
Logistics? Politeness? Anyway, then the bloke needed something to look at, and so women grew breasts.
We grew them so that men could like them?
Yes. For sure.
And where is the evidence?
The evidence is that men like breasts.
So men§ find breasts sexually exciting, so women must have grown them so that the men could be sexually excited?
Now you get it! Yes!
Isn’t that what they call a circular argument?
DESMOND shrugs and runs back to the 1970s. He doesn’t need a sports bra.
Because of their non-essential nature, the obvious conclusion is that breasts are a sexually selected trait, like peacocks’ tails. But it’s an unsatisfactory answer and it feels unfeminist to accept it. There are other theories, like the claim that changes in the shape of our faces millions of years ago meant that babies found it too difficult to latch on to a flat chest. Other apes and most mammals have snouty faces that can feed easily from fatless nipples – maybe as our faces got flatter our breasts had to get pointier? The aquatic ape theory (the little-credited claim that we lived in water for part of our evolution) argued that breasts needed to dangle down a bit so that a mother could feed a babe in arms while standing up in water or crouching on a rock.
Remember that every other mammal’s young can suckle while the mother lies about or gets on with her business. Not so human babies, who need their heads supported and cannot hold on like our ape cousins. So it’s probably truest to say that breasts came to exist via a combination of natural and sexual selection. The fat deposits on a chest enable survival in lean times just as they do elsewhere on the body. Our ancestors may have looked to breast size for endurance, pertness for an honest indication of youth, and symmetry for an honest indication of health.
The most fascinating thing I found out is that when a woman breastfeeds her child, her brain releases oxytocin, that gorgeous hormone which promotes bonding. This makes perfect evolutionary sense – women need to be well loved up with their babies to put up with all the annoying stuff they do. Many women really enjoy breastfeeding and recognise it as an emotional communion between them and their child. And babies’ brains also release oxytocin when their stomach is stretched by milk during feeds, so that love is building in both directions – it is so amazingly clever. But guess what? When a non-lactating woman has her breasts sucked, touched and stimulated her brain also releases oxytocin. The result is that she will feel lovely and warm towards the sex partner who is paying her boobs lots of attention; she will feel more attached to him or her. What this means is that something that evolved for better mother–child bonding has been hijacked to promote monogamy and pair bonding. So there’s an argument that the males who were most fascinated or obsessed with breasts would have touched and caressed them more during mating, which would have resulted in stronger pair ties. More parental input via that cohesive partnership then increased the odds of the infant’s survival and so strengthened the genetic propensity for breast fetishisation in future generations. A fun hundred thousand years later and we end up with boobs on every billboard – thanks nature!
For our pre-civilised ancestors, the exposed breasts of a woman would have been a quick and easy way of assessing exactly where she was in her life. Uncovered and unbra-ed they announce a history of our body, our nutrition and our fertility. Perhaps that’s why we are so sensitive to what our breasts say about us. That’s why we want them to fib, to tell a better story. We want them to tell everyone we’re younger and fitter than we are. We want to be well represented – and that leads us to disguise and adapt our breasts, to lift them, pad them and alter the shape of our silhouette. Or have surgery and amend them permanently.
Obviously some women have breast surgery because they have suffered cancer or pain and some women need reconstruction to their breasts after illness or dysfunction. But other women, physically healthy women, choose to have their breasts operated on because they don’t like the way they look. When these operations first became widely available, in the 1990s, over ninety per cent of the women who requested them were recorded as having ‘psychological difficulties’ or ‘psychiatric issues’. That’s because back then, wanting to be sliced open to have a globule of plastic or saline shoved inside was absolute madness. But the odd thing is that the statistic is now inverted, and over ninety per cent of people who want boob jobs are recorded as being entirely sane, because who wouldn’t want to improve their rubbish tits when there are options available? When something’s common enough it can’t be mad any more; we just upgrade our definition of sanity to include unnecessary and painful surgical procedures. Except I still think it is baffling and crazy – I think it’s a terrifying sign of how toxic the world has become, and yet I feel incorrect and intolerant in my anger towards it. The lone troglodyte ruining the parade by refusing to admire the emperor’s new boobs.
In Essex, where I’m from, breast enlargement is relatively common. I reckon one in five women I know have had a boob job. And people are super-relaxed about it. Like repainting a house or something, these operations are viewed as a decorative tweak. When a young lady from Basildon or Romford announces, ‘I’m getting them done,’ she is greeted with reactions ranging from nonchalance to congratulations. Her family and friends will giggle or check they’ll be allowed a squeeze to test realism and they’ll be accepting. Breast enlargements are discussed as a sensible corrective: ‘Oops, did God forget to give you boobies? Let’s have a whip round.’ No one stands on a table and says, ‘YOU WANT YOUR HEAD CHECK ED, MATE, DON’T YOU DARE HURT YOURSELF LIK E THIS, I’M GOING TO SHOUT AND SHOUT UNTIL YOU REALISE THAT YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE YOU,’ except me. I’m no longer welcome in that fine county and it’s my own fault for being judgey and preachy.
When I was sixteen one of my aunts had an appointment in Harley Street and I went too in an attempt to change her mind. I was exceptionally opinionated as a teenager, never afraid to rant and ruin a birthday party or cinema trip. I was moralistic and ‘right on’ and had very few friends. Growing older is helping me to become empathetic to other people and their reasons for making choices. I used to think there was a definitive right and wrong and that only I knew what they were and so I should be DICTATOR OF THE WORLD! Now I realise that we all have our own subjective realities that affect our decisions and that it wouldn’t be fair if I was in charge of everyone. Unless I was elected.
Harley Street is superficially attractive (ironically). It snakes off from the top end of Regent Street, so you walk along thinking you’ve run out of shops and only have houses to look at until you reach Regent’s Park. But Harley Street is FULL of secret shops where you can buy cheeks, noses, lips, thinness and wrinklelessness, they just don’t display that stuff in the window. But they should as it would probably put people off to see all the bits and pieces hanging up, pre-embodied. So we were in the waiting room and I was quiet. It was here that I’d planned to berate my aunt for what she was doing, using clever arguments about how she was an idiot and everyone at her work would notice. But the waiting room wasn’t empty as I’d planned, but busy with everybody chatting, full of excitement and apprehension. I stared at wood-panelled walls as people began to cross-pollinate, introduce themselves and ask ‘What you here for then?’ and then ‘HA HA HA,’ they would laugh, because it sounded like they were in prison or something. People laugh at nothing to put each other at ease. It’s a social sign of reassurance that everything is okay. This is very handy for a professional comedian because even at an awful gig you can probably get the audience to pity-laugh in some embarrassed, encouraging way. Then you come off stage and say ‘NAILED THAT’ really confidently and everyone believes you and you get to go on Live at the Apollo. Twice.
It must have been Implants Day at the clinic because all the women were there for the same operation in a variety of sizes. They were intoxicated by the proximity of their lumpy goal, and each shared her back story unguardedly, encouraging and praising each other, while I pretended I wasn’t listening and judged them.
There was a woman who was getting hers ‘done’ on the NHS. Everyone said she was so lucky, getting freebies. People were asking how, wondering aloud if they should have tried that. Freeboobs said it wasn’t luck but that she couldn’t afford to pay, so she’d had to go to the doctor loads of times and cry and cry and say she was depressed. Then she’d gone to a psychiatrist and said that she would kill herself if she didn’t get them. She had to get the doctors to agree she was mentally unstable and couldn’t function until she got this operation; that was the only way to get the NHS to buy them for you. But of course she WASN’T REALLY CRAZY, she added, she’d just cheated the system. I would have argued that pretending to be crazy is pretty crazy and she should stop bragging about it. It seemed unfair to me that she would be getting the same surgeon as these other women who were paying thousands of pounds, although maybe her NHS implants would be shoddier? Crude and unsophisticated, like when you got NHS glasses in the olden days.
At the time I was still wearing a thickly padded bra every day, and when I went out at night I wore two, one on top of the other. I let boys feel them up when I was getting off with them, believing that the padding was passing for real body, trusting they couldn’t tell the difference. This kind of amateur tryst would happen in classy nightclubs in Romford. I was sixteen, so would only go to over-twenty-ones nights because on over-eighteens nights everyone was about twelve. All the kids there were from local schools, and my pulling technique was to go up to a guy and accuse him of being gay until he got off with me. I’d let him pummel my cottony sponge boobs for about three minutes and then walk away, stealing his drink as I went. He’d assume it had been cleared by a bartender while we were snogging. I didn’t feel anything sexual about these encounters, just the achievement of proving I wasn’t repulsive plus getting a drink without having any money.
I wore a padded bra every single day and night from the age of fourteen until I was thirty-one. Giving up padding was my New Year’s resolution. I had known for ages that wearing a stuffed bra was a form of hiding my real body. I realised I was walking around with two lies on my chest: ‘Wanna squeeze my tits? They’re in the washing basket.’ And that’s ages ago now, I should be used to my new honesty but I still feel insecure without padding, and I have to fight the urge to fake it. Especially if I am on TV or something; who would know? I’d just look like I had a slightly fuller bust, no harm would be done … except. I think that is where the harm is done. If all small-breasted women are wearing padded bras and look bigger, then the teenage girls with small breasts feel they are alone in their small-boobedness. They aren’t offered a vista of unenhanced, bottom-heavy, perfectly contented three-dimensional women to combat the pneumatically proportioned two-dimensional ones in the media. The young women are duped and begin to pad and enhance and the cycle continues. It only stops if we accept ourselves. We are all responsible for a little slice, whether we want to be or not.
I used to be so outraged with friends and relatives who had enlargement surgery. I believed that when a woman felt her figure was insufficient or incorrect she should be FURIOUS with the culture that generated those feelings, not change her body. Sara circa 2010 would tell you that when a woman got implants she crossed over, she ceased to be a victim and became part of the problem: ‘She walks around with her enhanced measurements and increases the pressure on women around her to conform,’ I would bellow. ‘The more women who get breast enlargements the more difficult it becomes to be flat-chested!’ I would rant at you and you’d notice how my nostrils flared and how inflexible I was and make a mental note not to take me to the cinema again. I am an idiot for my anger and I regret it, and I’ve had to learn that women telling other women what to do is not feminism.
For ages I was very anti the topless Page 3 girls in the Sun. Through my teens I was uncomfortable about it although I couldn’t articulate why. I felt embarrassed when I saw pictures on the wall of the garage that fixed my mum’s car, or left discarded on the District line. Boys at school would occasionally rip that page out and shove it in my face, a hilarious form of intimidation. You had to act very disgusted when this occurred as it was a homophobic version of the ‘buttercup under the chin’ test and anything less than nauseous horror proved you were a lesbian. When I was eighteen my boyfriend Mark had an obsession with glamour models. He thought my rage at him was down to jealousy of their curvy perfection but it was more than that, I didn’t want them objectified. Not because I wasn’t good enough but because all women are too good. If this was how some women were looked at, if we accepted that, then all women were commercialised, compartmentalised – for sale, you know. Mark would argue that these models were being well paid and were ambitious business women in control of their lives and then we’d sit silently, unable to understand each other.
So I thought the ‘No More Page 3’ petition that started in 2013 was brilliant. It was a focused, targeted attack on one instance of objectification in our society, and getting rid of it seemed achievable and symbolic. But as the campaign gained momentum I became aware of criticisms, people saying that this was an example of feminists attempting to control and oppress other women. That we live in the western world, no one is coerced to become a Page 3 model, they do this by choice and feminism should be liberating women, not limiting their choices or taking away their livelihood. I agreed with this, of course, and sat silently once again, thinking that the whole issue was an unsolvable problem … until I did solve it in a dream. I dreamed that we made Page 3 like jury duty. So suddenly every woman over the age of eighteen became eligible, and all that happened was you got a letter one day and it said:
Please come to the Sun offices at 9 tomorrow morning. Bring some snazzy pants and a pithy quote about Syria.
So you would have to go, and you would have to do it. Because if Page 3 represented the whole spectrum of what it looks like to be a woman, it wouldn’t be objectification any more, it would just be nudity. It wouldn’t be dangerous any more as Page 3 would portray all the different kinds of breasts: there would be small ones, saggy ones, different-sized ones, hairy ones. And straight men would still like it, cos it’s still boobies. And the other difference would be in the model’s face. Currently the facial expression they all have is ‘coquettish’, an expression that says, ‘Oh, you just found me in the garden, and I don’t have a top on, and you shouldn’t really be looking cos you’re my best friend’s dad!’ It’s permissive. But now with our new system the model would be a fifty-two-year-old dinner lady, aghast and horrified at what they’re going to say at work the next day and staring straight down the lens knowing exactly what you’re doing … so Page 3 might just die out on its own, people might just lose interest with no one having to oppress anyone. And we can still give the Page 3 ladies all their wages and anything else they want and make sure they know that it’s not them or their beauty or their decisions we’re attacking. Maybe we could keep them in a donkey sanctuary so they can run around with their breasts flowing in the wind, safe from prying eyes? Or not, if they don’t like that idea. So if you know Rupert Murdoch or can hack his email, let me know as I would love to get the ball rolling on this ASAP. I saw how having a dream launched Martin Luther King’s career and think this could be really big for me. And also for society and donkey sanctuaries etc., we’ll all benefit!
Back in the waiting room, one of the women had a huge folder with her. She was very confident and assured as she talked through all the research she had done. ‘It’s vital, it’s vital,’ she kept repeating as people asked questions like she was Jeeves. Every plastic leaf of her folder contained a diagram or article she’d printed off the internet. She knew about incision areas, nipple placement, silicone versus vegetable oil,¶ round versus teardrop, under muscle versus over muscle, and everyone listened to her respectfully: ‘You’ve got to research, ladies; it’s your body here!’ This was 1997, so cosmetic surgery was not yet as prevalent as it is now. Recently I worked at a fundraiser for a breast cancer charity|| and I met a cosmetic surgeon and she** was telling me stories of how flippantly some people approach their operations. She gave me an example of getting a phone call on 20 December from a woman wanting breast enlargements. The receptionist had explained that they couldn’t do the operation until January, because otherwise the appointment to check recovery would have to be during the holidays when the clinic was closed. ‘But I need it now, I need it before then,’ the woman kept saying, and so the surgeon was brought to the phone to find out what the emergency was, and it turned out the woman had bought a dress for New Year’s Eve which was ‘too big up top’ and she wanted implants so it would fit her properly. I look back on Folder Lady and her keen research more fondly now.
The spooky truth is how little is known about the dangers of breast implants. A medicine would go through about twenty years of testing before getting official approval to show that it’s probably safe for humans. Implants were not studied until doctors were already performing operations. In fact, all women who get their breasts enlarged are part of an ongoing experiment that could be called ‘What happens when you do this to breasts?’ It’s been trial and error ever since the first op; they’ve used substances that are poisonous and have migrated around the body, like vegetable and soy oil, they’ve used substandard and industrial-grade silicone, PIP implants were found to have a one-in-six chance of exploding, all implants make it more difficult to screen for breast cancer and can interfere with breastfeeding and/or reduce breast sensitivity, and that’s only the success stories. That’s without the awful reports of operations gone wrong, the unqualified butchers, the backstreet conmen and the deaths they’ve caused.
I read this horrible account of Japanese prostitutes after the Second World War injecting military silicone directly into their breasts before becoming, as you’d imagine, horrifically sick. Their story felt symbolic for me of the brutality of self-hatred and what we are willing to undertake because of it. Those women sought enlarged breasts because they could earn more money when selling sex. The white-coated, handsomely bricked facade of Harley Street disguises similar desperation in other women, normalises it. If breast enlargement is advertised on the tube, talked about nonchalantly in newspaper columns and on chat shows, we are all complicit in making it an understandable response to body issues. We continue a culture where women who don’t depend on men wanting sex with them for income behave as if they do.
Want to know a disturbing statistic? You know I said that all women who have boob jobs are unwittingly part of an ongoing study; well, lots of studies are conducted using their data – health complications afterwards, further cosmetic procedures, etc. And a meta-analysis of all these studies found that women who’ve had breast enlargements are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t. We need to think about that. About why this is happening, about the vulnerabilities of the women who choose cosmetic surgery and the normalisation of such choices. When they asked cosmetic surgeons about this rise in suicides they didn’t understand: ‘they were happy with their operations,’ they said; ‘she didn’t show signs of depression.’ But someone who wants to have their body cut open, to pay for it, is already self-harming. Carving criticism on their body. The expense and clever doctors persuading us surgery is more reasonable than razor work in your own bathroom. Psychologists are now paying attention to this suicide increase, asking whether it could be a result of surgery or a predisposition in those who seek it. But the whole thing feels too casual to me. I wonder if a pill or tablet that made you three times more likely to kill yourself would get approval from government departments?
We know that our body means something, that we can never be invisible. We will naturally be concerned with our body shape. A little vanity is built in. But the way in which human beings communicate with each other has dramatically changed in the last century. For the bulk of our evolution female body fat was valued for health and aesthetics. Look at the Stone Age ‘Venus’ figurines, images of women with chunky drumstick limbs and round bulging bellies from twenty thousand years ago. Walk round any art gallery and notice that the women considered beautiful in all eras of human creation had dappled thighs and undulating stomachs. Skinniness is a new fashion. It reflects obsession with youth, a suggestion of pre-adolescence when a female’s fertility can be dominated. It implies vulnerability, feebleness and fragility. The attractiveness of such traits is of no benefit to women’s lives.
What I find most troubling is the recent expectation for sudden weight loss after pregnancy. It’s perverse that the finest compliment given to a woman who has just made a person is that she looks like she hasn’t. Magazines and websites and newspapers all trill about the speed with which famous women regain their figures, high-fiving anyone who has erased signs of the life they made and is ready to be found attractive again, to be prospective. The extra fat of post-pregnancy is not a fashion faux pas, it is stored energy for keeping a baby alive. We need to start congratulating the generously flabby for the healthy lives they are enabling rather than expecting them to burn it off on a treadmill. Here for me is our ironic position – women’s bodies being scrutinised after making babies because our whole species is programmed to assess women’s potential to make babies. Even though loads of us don’t have children, or haven’t yet, our reproductive capability underwrites every day of our post-adolescent lives. Let us think more about this as we jiggle on to wombs.
* Easier for him though cos he had curly hair, which makes your head seem bigger, which makes your body look smaller. That’s general relativity.
† Katherine Ryan is an immensely brilliant comedian who you are probably already familiar with and jealous that I know her. You should be jealous: she is the most composed and strong person I have ever met. And generous and compassionate and sensitive. A hero. And her daughter called their cat ‘Sara Pascoe’ and I get so happy whenever I remember there is a little male cat with my full name.
‡ I recently learned to pronounce this word and am celebrating by using it twice in one paragraph.
§ Heterosexual men, obvs.
¶ Using vegetable oil in boobs is now illegal, fact fans.
|| Because I’m a grown lady baby Jesus.
** I’ve made this surgeon a woman even though in real life she was a man haha!