Thanks to a bit of shoddy journalism and a lot of intelligent friends, I’ve been having a very interesting discussion about body shape, ideals and weight with some fantastic women on Twitter (you should follow them all: @foreveramber, @evarley, @Keris, @dianeshipley, @GemmaCartwright). Although the subject started with UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone apparently – but not, on closer examination, actually – endorsing the lovely Christina Hendricks as an ‘ideal’ role model for women, it’s taken a bit of a tangential line for me.
I’ll let you catch up with it all if you’ve not been following by pointing you to Amber’s summary of the issue on The Fashion Police. I’ll wait here.
Okay, now, all reasonable people will now be agreed that:
- There is no ideal shape / weight / size. You can only eat well and do adequate / ample exercise.
- A mixture of physical role models is lovely an’ all, but role models based on achievement, rather than appearance, would be even better.
If you’re not reasonable, then good luck to you. I might publish your comments anyway.
Now for the tangential bit. Ms Featherstone went on to clarify that she did not mean what the Daily Mail said she meant, which I have no trouble believing. But she also used the term ‘stick insect’ to describe thin women, which is a bit off, from where I’m sitting. I’m happy to use the word ‘skinny’ – my husband is skinny, and looks great, thanks very much – because in my head it’s a description, not an insult. But there’s no way to read ‘stick insect’ kindly.
Yet, for the bigger woman, Featherstone used the accepted euphemism of the day: ‘curvy’. I understand that the word ‘fat’ is upsetting to many because it’s been used as an insult for so long that people have forgotten that it’s just a fact. Of course, not every person wearing a size 14 plus IS fat. Some of them are genuinely just big. Or muscular. Or so tall they wear a bigger size but are still perfectly toned. But, equally, not everyone wearing a size 14 plus is curvy. Some are straight up and down. Or, like me, they’re just a bit overweight.
Actually I’m curvy AND fat, and a UK size 14 (US10-ish). I have weight to lose, and muscles to tone. As soon as I’ve recovered from the imminent birth of my first child, I plan to start building up to doing more regular exercise cos I’m unfit and that makes me tired and fed up and there’s heart disease in my family. But when I use the word ‘fat’, people wince and look uncomfortable. They think I’m fishing for compliments, or being unnecessarily self-hating.
So, in many ways, bloggers and journalists are caught between a rock and a hard place. They feel they can be blithely rude about thin women, but even if they’re sensitive enough not to be insulting are safe using ‘thin’ or ‘slim’ or ‘slender’ because these are factual. But ‘fat’ is equally factual – in some cases – and yet it’s completely unthinkable to use it. I hesitate to use it about anyone but myself because I know how hurtful it can be; it’s taken me years to accept it because I know with what vitriol it’s usually delivered.
My compromise is to stick to ‘bigger’ as it’s still factual yet not as mealy-mouthed as ‘curvy’ ‘plus size’ / ‘out size’ (out of WHOSE size?) or ‘voluptuous’ (‘voluptuous’ is to ‘fat’ what ‘flamboyant’ used to be to ‘gay’), although there are probably times when both curvy and voluptuous are appropriate as well – just not as a description of SIZE. They could apply to very small women too. No one could realistically call Salma Hayek fat, but my Lord is she curvy.
We’ve been working so hard to reclaim one F-word (feminism, in case you were wondering), that we’ve lost another one. It’s no longer safe to describe someone as fat, even when they are. Yet it’s okay to demonise thin women and liken them to pretty unpleasant things – I kept stick insects as a child and I can assure you there’s nothing alluring about their appearance. They’re also very boring.
So what is a writer who cares about women feeling happy, confident and healthy and wants to write about these issues to do? Fly the fat banner with pride, or prevaricate around the point? I genuinely don’t know the answer.