whoever you want to be…

The way we look, the way we feel.

There have been two recent studies about women and dieting that I want to talk about.

The first was reported in Marie Claire picking up on a ‘study’ by the company Diet Chef that claimed the average woman spends 17 years of her life dieting. The study (I suspect, more accurately survey) also says that this average woman will lose her body weight more than nine times during her lifetime, and that women in the North West of the UK reported spending only four days at a time on a diet, whilst women in East Anglia can manage a whole month. Perhaps most interestingly, the average woman will diet twice a year and will lose on average 11lbs on each diet.

Without going into the statistics and how accurate this ‘study’ is, but taking it instead at face value, there are several rather troubling aspects to this. First and foremost 17 years??! Seriously? How incredibly pants is that, that women spend a quarter of their lives dieting? Trying to lose weight. Attempting to change their appearance. Being dissatisfied with their body.

Worse still, that these women are dieting successfully, but then putting all the weight back on again. It is by no means an easy feat to lose 11 lbs. It is even harder to lose that weight twice in one year. It is – we can see – frustratingly easy to gain weight.

And then, let’s say the average woman weighs 11 stone, and she is losing that weight more than nine times in her lifetime, that’s a whole 100 stone lost – and apparently gained – throughout one woman’s life. Crazy.

Of course, when I said it is no easy feat to lose 11 lbs, what I actually meant was that it isn’t easy to lose that much weight by making slight but sensible variations to your eating habits. If you are significantly overweight and know you are eating too many calories and then you embark on a radical diet that halves your calorie intake, then actually you can lose quite a lot of weight in quite a short space of time. The problem is what happens when you can’t take it any more and have to go back to eating the foods you enjoy. And then all your hard work is done for in a flash.

I know this isn’t news to anybody. Let’s move on to the other study.

This study is a proper scientific one which was reported in The Telegraph and picked up by Jezebel. It said that teenagers who were of normal size but believed they were overweight were significantly more likely to become overweight as adults. It’s a cruel sort of body dysmorphia self fulfilling prophecy. Apparently, the team in Norway found that “59 per cent of girls and 63 per cent of boys who had incorrectly perceived themselves as fat, went on to become overweight as adults.” Of special significance for women is the fact that only 31% of girls who were happy with their teenage bodies became overweight as adults.

The team felt that believing early on in life that you are overweight could lead teenagers – especially girls – to adopt poor eating habits that would lead them down the road towards obesity as they grew older.

We know now of course that our eating habits tend to become established as young children. It’s why I stopped giving my daughter a biscuit to cheer her up after she fell over. I realised I was teaching her to associate treat foods with comfort and that is something I personally know all too well can become firmly ingrained and is an extremely hard habit to break. Food and emotions constitute an enormous chapter of study which I won’t go into right at this moment.

But it would certainly seem from these reports that early dissatisfaction with the way one looks is leading young women to gain weight and then set themselves on a seemingly never ending cycle of weight loss and weight gain which is neither healthy for one’s body or one’s mental health. In future features I will hope to look at what sort of behaviours might help one to feel better about their body and to set up healthy eating lifestyles that would aim to curb this unhealthy fast and feast cycle, but today I want to question why are these young women already comparing themselves ill-favourably with their peers, and in fact psychologically fooling themselves to believe something that is not in fact the case?

It was seeing the Friday 28th September BBC Newsnight discussion on the No More Page 3 petition that finally made me join the dots. Former deputy editor for The Sun Neil Wallis said repeatedly and infuriatingly that seeing young women’s naked breasts in the newspaper was harmless. Leaving aside the worrying issues of sexualisation, these reports into women’s self image and constant desire to lose weight are arguably the best answer for precisely why it is not harmless.

Young women look for role models. They’re not looking at their mums, and they’re not looking at their peers. Their role models are presented to them by the media. Increasingly their role models are celebrities. Hopefully this year thanks to London 2012 some young women will look to several admirable sportswomen as the people they would like to emulate, but most will be looking in magazines and on TV. And increasingly those celebrity women are pictured in various states of undress.

If it’s an official shoot to accompany an interview the celebrity will be Photoshopped into a frequently male influenced unachievable approximation of physical perfection. Long slender legs, shapely hips, big tits, long neck, great skin. A Barbie doll.

If the pic is a long-lensed sneaky shot grabbed while the celeb is holidaying it will not be Photoshopped but will instead point out every natural ‘flaw’ which we are supposed to find unacceptable, nay repulsive.

And between these two extremes lay page after page of fashion features and adverts populated with people who do not by any stretch represent the physical average. The messages are hammered home into these impressionable young brains again and again and again.

Once again I know this is not news to anyone, and yet for some reason it bears repeating because here is the evidence that presenting young girls with these role models is not harmless. It is making them believe they are fat when they are not, and it is setting them on a lifetime of dieting and disappointment. 17 years of a life spent trying to change the way you look because you cannot ever accept your own physical form. It’s honestly desperately sad. And yet it would be relatively easy to stop if only we could be honest with these girls about what is normal and acceptable and desirable in the female physical form. Which is everything from super slender to candidly curvaceous. Please let’s get this right. Let’s not condemn our daughters to the dieting nightmare that we ourselves have apparently embarked upon.

About siobh1970

I am freelance journalist Siobhan O'Neill. I write a lot about catering and school dinners and associated issues like nutrition and health. You can find out more about me via my website www.siobhan-oneill.co.uk.

4 comments on “The way we look, the way we feel.

  1. captaincatholic
    October 14, 2012

    I’m about to make a comment that, I’m quite sure, most of the visitors to your ‘blog will describe as decidedly ‘un-feminist’.

    It is my backward, old fashioned, unenlightened opinion that one of the responsibilities of being male is to do everything possible to assure women — any woman who happens to be in a man’s life — that they have beautiful bodies. More than that, I believe it is a man’s responsibility to appreciate — not only the innumerably varied expressions of the material aspect of female beauty — but also to appreciate that huge world of feminine beauty that exists beneath the surface. The beauty of a woman’s soul/mind/spirit/inner self … what have you.

    Of particular importance, I believe, is the role a father has in appreciating the beauty in his daughter(s). Appreciating her beauty and making it clear to her how much he appreciates her.

    I take a number of other unpopular and controversial opinions about human behavior and experience. One opinion I have that runs contrary to basically everything folks in the USA (my own country) are taught to believe is that a person’s happiness is, in the main, a product of how other people treat them. I’m not saying I bear no responsibility for my own happiness but I am saying that, when you consider how many lives the average person affects, the impact I make on other people’s happiness is far, far greater (in total) than the impact I make on my own happiness. Conversely, the impact (in total) other people make on my happiness and well being is enormous and, of course, largely outside of my control.

    Boils down to this rather insane conviction. Women feel terrible about their bodies and, indeed, all aspects of who they are largely because men are unkind. Obviously, women are generally very generous in the way they support each other’s attempts at achieving positive self-esteem but their efforts are undercut by the tidal wave of disapproval and mean-spiritedness coming from the male half of the population. (Caveat: unless you happen to be one of the women in that tiny minority who meet the ‘standards’ of the typical male. Of course, even then you’re screwed because time (and gravity) stops for no woman.)

    From here I expect a MAJOR flaming!



  2. Siobh
    October 14, 2012

    Oh my goodness! You are just the sweetest guy ever! What a lovely sentiment and what an interesting idea about people being more affected more by others feeding their happiness than their own. I’d never thought of that. In myself I used to be someone who needed the approval of others more when I was younger and have lost that increasingly as I’ve grown older, but you are right about the impact of others on our lives.
    I don’t think the women here will give you a flaming, I think we’d like to marry you! 🙂

  3. Cathy
    October 14, 2012

    Paul, your comment is very sweet, but actually is it so important to reassure all women they have beautiful bodies?

    Isn’t it more important to accept that bodies aren’t always, and don’t have to be, beautiful – and if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to be in possession of a beautiful body that’s really quite all right?

    In relying on the aesthetic we deny the other, far more important functions of the female body.

    A body doesn’t need to be beautiful to create life, to comfort and soothe, to excite and tantalise, to sustain and appreciate pleasure.

    Does a body have to be beautiful – can’t it just be functional and praised for that?

    Beauty is such a shallow, fleeting concept. We need to teach our daughters to look beyond beauty and stop prizing it above all other values. The phrase ‘inner beauty’ is unhelpful, because it’s still relying on the superficial. Inner strength, inner compassion, inner joy – much more useful and relatable.

    Women feel terrible about their bodies because society dictates that for a woman, beauty is more important than humanity, strength, compassion, empathy, accountability, humour and graciousness.

    Men are quite happy to be ‘ugly’, as long as they are funny or interesting.

  4. Siobh
    October 15, 2012

    Hi Cathy,
    Thanks for your response. I think you’re right and beauty should not be upheld above other attributes, and yet, I think it’s naive (and by that I don’t mean that *you* are naive) to think that beauty is not going to be recognised.
    Beauty is a notion that surrounds us and we are all making judgements about it all the time. Is that flower beautiful, is that photo beautiful… we can’t help it. And there is no denying that some men and women are also beautiful. We all recognise it. But our preferences alter our perception. I might think a sunflower is the most beautiful while you prefer a rose, I know that Mr Depp is the most beautiful man in existence but you might think Brad or George are more beautiful. But we can probably agree that they are all rather nice to look at. Even as children we make judgements about beauty and I don’t suppose that stops at bodies or faces. So although perhaps an ideal, I think it’s sadly unrealistic to hope that we will not acknowledge beauty.
    What we can do is stop programming women to think only very slender bodies are beautiful and in fact that many different body shapes and sizes and colours can all be beautiful, or that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the loveliest knees compared to your mate, but maybe you have lovelier ankles or shoulders.
    It’s natural to look at other people’s bodies and compare them to our own and make judgements about what we prefer, but magazines can stop brainwashing women to think only tall, thin models have lovely bodies, and newspapers can stop telling women that the only thing men want to look at, or value in them, is their tits.

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2012 by in Bea Current, Bea Feminist, Bea Healthy, Bea Yourself and tagged , , , , , , .
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