We need to get over our fear of female flesh
- Published: 13 August 2011
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Public horror of female meat, society’s sick fascination with eating disorders, is part of a structure of patriarchal capitalist control grounded on horror of women’s physical power. Men and women alike need to confront our fear of female flesh, to risk being overwhelmed by the power of women to change society and take charge of their own lives, writes Laurie Penny.
14 August 2011
Fear and loathing
Fear of female flesh and fat is fear of female power, the sublimated power of women over birth and death and dirt and sex.
In his essay The Roots of Masculinity, therapist Tom Ryan notes that:
Most therapists have frequently heard complaints from men about fears of being dominated, controlled, swallowed up or suffocated. Underlying these fears…is a more basic fear about the disintegration of maleness. … Dave, a thirty-year old professional man, wishes his partners to be ‘firm and sharp’. There must be no hint of softness or largeness, particularly in the breasts. On occasions when Dave has seen or been with a ‘fat’ or ‘large’ woman, he experiences a sensation of being lost or enveloped by their ‘layers of flesh’
Over the course of the 20th century, escalating female emancipation has offset by a growing taboo against female corpulence – not just of women who are overweight, but of any female fat, anywhere.
Cellulite, saggy bellies, fat around the arms, natural processes which affect all female bodies, even the leanest, after puberty, are particularly loathed. Where female bodies are permitted, they must be as small and as ‘sharp’ as possible.
The threat that patriarchal birthright will be ‘swallowed up or suffocated’ by gender equality is made manifest in the fear of female fat, and that phobic response to the reality of physical femaleness has been internalized by women and men across the western world.
As soon as the female child becomes aware of her physical and spiritual self, she learns that her self is excessive, and must be contained.
It is not coincidental that contemporary media fascination with eating disordered female celebrities is explicitly set against the success of women in the public eye.
It is not enough for women such as Victoria Beckham and Angelina Jolie to be preternaturally thin; they must be seen to be suffering to be thin, to be starving themselves, so that their starvation and suffering overwhelms their personal success in the popular imagination of their personae.
Conversely, the actress Keira Knightley, whose slender frame is by all accounts a fluke of genetics, has been forced to spend a great deal of her career refuting claims that she is anorexic. In 2007 Knightley successfully sued the Daily Mail newspaper for suggesting that she had anorexia or a similar eating disorder, and had lied to the public about it.
Riot, don’t diet
Society needs to acknowledge women’s hunger. Not just our hunger for the 2,500 calories a day we need to fuel us through full and interesting lives, but our hunger for life, for love, for expansion of our horizons, our hunger for passionate politics, our hunger to take up space and to live and act out of our own flesh.
Public horror of female meat, society’s sick fascination with eating disorders, is part of a structure of patriarchal capitalist control grounded on horror of women’s physical power.
Feminine advice-manuals from Cosmopolitan to the 12th-century nuns’ handbook Ancrene Wisse have encouraged self-denial as a watchword and guiding principle, apart from in certain explicit avenues such as, variously, the January sales or the love of Jesus.
Women are still expected quite literally to deny themselves: to erase their personhood and throw over the wants of the body and the hunger of the soul for transformation.
The adventure of being fully human, however, cannot be achieved simultaneously with the denial of the self – and it is this denial of female selfhood, this denial of the dirt and ooze of female power, that feminists of all genders and stripes must resist if we are to root out the deepest lines of misogynist resistance in our societies.
Society cannot grow and develop if it continues to insist that one half of its citizens spend their energies physically and psychologically shrinking themselves.
But reclaiming the flesh is about radical surrender to female power, and this will be as hard for many women, grown used to denying and paring down their bodies and their selves, as it will be for the men who must make room for those bodies and those selves.
This strategy goes far beyond individual women leaning to love their bodies. Empowerment is about far more than physical self-confidence, whatever the cosmetic surgery industry may claim.
Perhaps the cruellest of all tricks played on women by contemporary consumerism is the tendency over the past five years for popular culture to appropriate women’s anxiety over taking up social space in order to sell them circumscribed solutions.
Even as dieting is sold as the ultimate way for women to positively transform their lives, TV programmes like Britain’s How to Look Good Naked prey on those same fear by suggesting that all women really need to feel free from the tyrannies of body fascism is a really great bra and the chance to stand on a stage and be judged approvingly by men.
When I began to eat again [after my anorexia] and started to approach a healthy weight, I was bombarded with compliments. The few friends I hadn’t managed to alienate through years of self-starvation rushed to reassure me that I was more attractive as a size eight than I had been as a size zero.
I went to bed with men who told me that they loved my curves, thinking that this was what I wanted to hear. I tried desperately hard to love my curves, too – but the real breakthrough came when I stopped defining myself merely by my dress size.
Once I started to believe that my worth as a person had nothing to do with how my body looked to other people, I began to give myself permission to take up the space I needed and claim the power I craved.
Fear of female flesh is fear of female power, and reclaiming women’s bodies must go hand in hand with reclaiming women’s power.
This cannot be achieved simply by purchasing expensive body lotion. Men and women alike need to confront our fear of female flesh, to risk being overwhelmed by the power of women to change society and take charge of their own lives.
All we need to do is acknowledge how hungry we are for that future to arrive, and take the first bite.
Laurie Penny is a British journalist, author and feminist. She writes for mainstream media including The Guardian and The Independent and has a regular blog at New Statesman. She was shortlisted for the Orwell prize for political writing in 2010.