Lucy Mangan: “Why fat is still a feminist issue”

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Lucy Mangan
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“I still give at least a fleeting consideration to every single mouthful of food I put in my mouth,” says Lucy Mangan

Most of my feminist outlook on life comes from my childhood. My father genuinely believed his daughters could and should do anything they want. And my mother still does exactly that. Even when she really, really shouldn’t – because what she wants is to run her household in a, shall we say, dictatorial way. Growing up in this environment, you absorb the idea of equality down to your very bones.

But there were three formative books, too. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which gave voice to the frustrations of Fifties women limited to domestic life and wondering why it wasn’t enough, when they had always been told it was. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which unpicked how a woman’s worth is bound up in how attractive she is judged to be. And Susie Orbach’s Fat Is A Feminist Issue, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Although “celebrating” is perhaps not quite the right word. Orbach’s book was – is – an anti-diet book, about women’s problematic relationship with food and fatness. It suggested how we can work against a world that tells women that desire and indulgence are bad and the fleshly evidence of such is even worse. She thought, she said in a recent piece, that by analysing and writing about the problem it would be solved. Four decades on we need take only the briefest of glances up from our summer salads to know that it hasn’t quite worked out like that.

“I still give at least a fleeting consideration to every single mouthful of food I put in my mouth”

I, along with most – perhaps all – of the women I know still give at least a fleeting consideration to every single mouthful of food I put in my mouth. A brief calculation of how much I’ve already had that day or week, whether the spoonful is worth the calories, and whether it’s really true that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. So constant a companion is this process that I barely even notice it any more. My favourite outfit is always the one that makes me look thinnest. The people I envy most are those who are naturally slim or who have the discipline to keep to lean protein and vegetables while I plump – literally – for carbs every time.

This is ridiculous, of course. I am proud of none of this. But I also know that my wounds are from the very thinnest end of the wedge of disordered thinking about food that is driven into us all. Earlier this year, for example, it was found that one in three UK women don’t go for their smear tests because they are ashamed of their bodies. 

Diseases like anorexia are on the increase and appearing in younger and younger girls (and in boys too). Cosmetic procedures such as labioplasty, to ‘improve’ the appearance of normal, functional vulvas, are on the rise. Diets masquerade as lifestyle choices that add a veneer of respectability to cutting out different food groups.

We have to speak about these things. We have to recognise that though we have made many gains over the years – The Feminine Mystique, for example, while still relevant in many ways, also has the aura of a historical document as the workplace, contraception and ways of raising children have changed beyond all recognition – some problems still need to be constantly articulated, externalised and attacked. Our relationship with our bodies is one of them. We should be able to eat, drink, sate our desires and treat ourselves without a second thought. No part of our value to ourselves or society should be knit up in how well we service notions of female denial. We should be greedy for that day.

Images: Unsplash, Benjamin Wong, Eaters Collective