I have something to confess. I prefer the company of guys to girls. Despite being female, I just find interactions with other girls awkward. It’s ridiculous, and I know it. I’ve encountered hundreds of intriguing women in my lifetime and yet I would still describe myself as a tomboy; a girl who is, at heart, more comfortable being around men. I wonder if this has something to do with the subconscious insecurity I sense in both myself and in other girls my age. A fear about being not-quite-good-enough that I perceive, both within my own mind, and reflected in the faces of all the girls with whom I interact.
This perpetual anxiety over female competition is partly responsible for the fact that I currently live in an entirely male dominated household. What has struck me more than anything else about living with boys is the way they talk about women – perfectly ordinary girls, perhaps a size 12 or 14, are labelled by my otherwise lovely pals, as ‘fat.’ Now I’m not saying I live in a house full of misogynistic John McCririck-types, in fact perhaps the most unsettling thing that I’ve encountered is the realization that these perceptions are not in any way unique.
Advertising messes with our heads. Girls constantly feel the need to starve themselves in order to appear attractive. Such is life. And yet, I am still perplexed by the prevalence of this growing phenomenon amongst our generation, and in particular what this sinister trend indicates about the way in which women continue to be seen in our society.
Feeling more beach ball than beach babe? Try Activia with its cultures of Bifidus Notrealius. Feel guilty every time you eat? Buy Philadelphia Slendips, they have absolutely no nutritional content whatsoever, so you won’t have to worry about being a fat pig. Dangerous public representations of the female body are not limited to runway models and top-shelf seedy sex mags. More and more today, we see a trend in advertising aimed exclusively at women; images of perfect bodies, blemish-free, hair-free, fat-free, all inconvenient truths airbrushed away. This is a trend that is characterized by the idea that perfection is an attainable standard, and those who fail to reach this standard are, in some way, failed women. This predatory trend capitalises on making women feel bad about themselves, and, by hell, it’s certainly paying off. Annual profit from the weight-loss market reached £11.2 billion in 2007, and is set to rise even further as the obsession with super-skinny continues to pervade our cultural consciousness.
At this point we have to ask ourselves, is this what generations of women before us fought and even died for? So that we could spend our days with our eyes on the scales, and our fingers down our throats? One has to question how far the struggle for women’s rights has come, or receded, when over 40% of girls under 16 declare that their greatest ambition in life is to look like Cheryl Cole, when 8 of every 10 girls in England feel their appearance is in some way ‘unacceptable’, when 1.6 million British girls are at any given time suffering from an eating disorder, and when 17,000 women every year are dying to be skinny.
Sitting in the library I explain to the girl next to me that I am writing about eating disorders. She pauses for a moment and then tells me about a spell last year when she somehow got it into her head that she was too fat. After resolving to go on a diet, she ended up getting carried away. By the end she was living on a few tablespoons of rice a day. I can hardly believe what I am hearing. A couple of her friends had tried the same thing and made themselves infertile. I don’t know what to say. I feel saddened and appalled by what she has just told me. Though, looking back at the foil from the KitKat I’ve just devoured, I also feel slightly guilty. After all, she did look slim and attractive.
The truth is that we don’t need to be throwing up or abstaining from food altogether for this to be a problem. My roommate last year was carted off to rehab after over three years of desperately struggling with bulimia. I experimented for a couple of months but decided that fasting most certainly wasn’t my thing after passing out at a particularly inopportune moment during a job interview. I consider myself very lucky that I do not have an eating disorder. Although, that is not to say that I do not have a disordered attitude towards eating. I monitor what I eat religiously. I go for broccoli morning, noon and night. If I’m hungry I’ll stick to muesli or low fat health food bars. A jogger in LA told me that drinking green tea makes you slimmer so I drink that stuff as if it were the elixir of life; hell, if the real elixir contained more than 300 calories I’d probably stay the fuck away.
And this is the real crux of the issue. I’m not trying to suggest that every girl and her auntie is slowly dying a horrible death right before our very eyes, but what I am saying is that, consciously or not, a great many young women are engaged in an ongoing, everyday battle with themselves over what they eat. And the terrible truth of the matter is this: as long as the portrayal of females in the media, and the perceptions of society in general, remain the same, it is a battle that many of us, sadly, will not win.