There’s always plenty to learn from the Daily Mail. Today’s insight (which I owe to a Twitter tipoff from @mslorriehearts) is that now that the indulgence of Xmas is over, we have to reinscribe cultural scripts of femininity. Women may have eaten food over the festive period, and this makes them flabby and overweight. At any moment their husband or boyfriend, or any man they meet in their ordinary lives, might want to sustain an erection at the mere sight of them, so it’s important to lose those extra pounds and get straight back onto the shelf as a desirable little physical commodity that red-blooded men can take down and consume whenever they fancy.
I wish I were exaggerating. The married couple pictured here, the subject of an article in the ‘Femail’ section of the Daily Mail website, are Samantha and Pascal. Pascal says that he will divorce his wife if she becomes ‘fat’. The article, allegedly written by the woman, charts a terrifically cynical course through fake sympathy to a reinscription of the rightness of excessive dieting to the point of endangering health. It reveals a lot about the ideological coding of our sexual image of women and that of children.
The Mail wants to put the story in context, so the ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ bounds of chauvinist demands on women are shown to have been exceeded in this case:
When I read in a recent survey that 42 per cent of men would be less attracted to their girlfriend if she gained half a stone, it didn’t surprise me. What did astonish me was only 5 per cent of men said they’d leave the relationship.
The appalling point here is that it is ‘reasonable’ to be less attracted to a woman if she gains weight, and that Pascal’s behaviour, soon to be documented, is unreasonable only because he belongs to a small percentage of men who would terminate a relationship on those grounds. Don’t miss the message: it’s right to stay thin because it’s reasonable for a man to be put off his sexual consumerism by an extra pound or two. In the central portion of the article we get the sympathetic note struck by the narrative of Pascal’s abusive behaviour.
So last year, my Christmas present was an exercise bike, which has been prominently positioned in our living room — should I have the urge to fat-burn. Pascal will regularly check the kilometres I’ve peddled [sic] and how quickly I’ve managed it.
As my svelte 70-year-old mother-in-law cycles 20 kilometres in under 30 minutes daily, the bar has been set rather high. At times my marriage feels akin to a fat camp.
‘Why are you eating that? You’ve just lost some weight!’ Pascal will cry, if he catches me with a Snack bar (Calories? A mere 89).
There is nowhere safe in my husband’s quest to ensure I stay slim. When I return from the supermarket, my shopping bags are inspected.
I bought a family-size chocolate bar once — and once only. It wasn’t worth the hassle. I didn’t like to tell Pascal it was part of a twin set: the other one I’d eaten on the way home.
But we are not allowed to become too maudlin. In fact, Samantha’s suffering is turned on its head in the closing section in a quite brutal redoubling of the patriarchal pressure.
Some might find his behaviour draconian, but would I prefer a husband who lets me gorge on food and gloss over my true weight?
No, because in two months time I’m turning 40 and I now weigh less than I did at 30.
This New Year, I don’t have to worry about a bonkers crash diet, an impractical detox or shuffling about in front of a DVD to whittle off the pounds, because I pay attention to my weight all year round.
I’m slim, I’m healthy and, while it pains me to admit it, it’s all thanks to my husband.
In sum the message is: ‘love your oppression!’ Because it is (we are to understand) right to want to be thin (since the only purpose of women is to be sex dolls for men, and the only sexually attractive woman is a twig-like one), actually this calculating behaviour on the part of an – of course – repugnantly ugly man is actually helpful. Akin to the self-flagellating philosophy of certain religious views which assure adherents that the deity will love the sufferer the more he or she suffers, here Pascal (playing God) is a sculptor whose blows to the human statue, while painful, are gradually making the statue perfect.
It’s an old, familiar story that women are reduced by our society – equally by men and women – to mere bodies. Men have intellect and conceive ideas in their brains; women have bodies and conceive babies in their wombs. Men may be cultivated and powerful; any woman who denies her responsibility to reproduce (which means making herself a suitable mate by obsessive prettification and dieting) is frigid, humourless, cold, despicable. That would be enough of a problem but even more disturbing is the way that this instrumental view of human beings is enacted by a conflation of the image of women with that of children.
Women, like children, are to have unblemished and hairless skin, big eyes, should giggle, submit, and be cute at all times, are believed to weep, moan, gabble, and strop more than men, and so on. Their images in films and advertising are so airbrushed that their natural skin tone disappears entirely (a process that perfects the effects of makeup but is not essentially different from the daily application). Perhaps the most remarkable expectaton, no more radical for the fact that it is barely noticed, is that both women and children should have hairless bodies. Only a couple of decades ago it was normal for Continental women to leave their armpits and legs unshaven. Now they have given into the Anglo-American model (exactly as the influence of the Anglo-American capitalist model, which is wedded to this image of the commestible woman increased its grip), and they shave like the anglophones.
Increasingly this shaving has come to extend even to the most intimate regions. A few years ago, while doing research for an academic article, I conducted a quick survey of presentations of centrefolds in Playboy magazine – not, it is fair to say, the most extreme of available porn magazines, and a fair indicator of mainstream (which is to say misogynist) views of the ideal female nude. The findings were interesting.
The pubic mound was not shown full-frontal until 1971, and it took two years before as many as half of the centrefolds showed pubic hair. Throughout the 70s and 80s it was normal for the pubic hair to be left unshaven or (as far as I can tell) only slightly trimmed. But in the mid-90s, just before the release of Britney Spears’s archetypal schoolgirl fantasy song, ‘…Baby One More Time’, a tremendous change took place. The incidence of extensive pubic shaving vastly increased. In 2001 Playboy published its first completely shaven pubic mound, and that style of presentation gradually increased thereafter until by 2006, 6 of the 10 public mounds that were visible in centrefold images were completely shaven.
Adult women, like adult men, have hair on their bodies. If they eat healthy balanced meals three times a day, perhaps enjoying a few units of alcohol with their dinner, snacking occasionally and so on, they might also have deposits of fat, rolls of skin – an adult human shape, in fact. Only when the facts of age are abstracted away by makeup, airbrushed photography, and increasingly intimate shaving, do women start to resemble children, whose unwrinkled faces, svelte – because swiftly growing – bodies and the rest are as natural to their stage in life as wibbly bits and sprouting hair are to the life-stage of an adult woman.
It should be a matter of enormous concern that the near-exact mapping of sexiness in adult women onto the appearance of children is accepted as a mainstream view in our society, and that even when – like Samantha in today’s Daily Mail article exemplifies – women intensely feel the burden of trying to manufacture an impossible image, we are to invoke the reliable old ideological shorthand of a woman’s ‘natural duty’ to be slim, attractive, and therefore properly female, to show how the suffering is part of the joy of being a woman who can be loved by a man.
Where is there to go now that the ideal of the adult genitals has been redrawn in the prepubescent form? Cosmetic double mastectomies? Broken and reformed, thinner hips? As so often, it is worth reading the Daily Mail from time to time, just so that we can reflect on the hideousness of the ideological commitments we all – men and women – make every day.