‘The idea of shrinking is hereditary’ – Rupi Kaur.
For me it’s exactly that. Shrinking myself is a behaviour I learned from my mother. From growing up watching her front room workouts, and I’ll-start-on-Monday diets. It’s a behaviour I learned from the magazines left lying around the house, that I’d cut up to collage and instead admire the stick thin limbs of catwalk models. It’s a language I learned from the soaps I was brought up on. The adults I was brought up by. The books I read too young. Somehow, calorie counting was a rite of passage. It meant I was a grown up.
So Kaur’s poem hit me hard. Hit me because I, like countless other young women, wasted so many of my teenage years trying to shrink myself. Trying to avoid taking up space because I didn’t think I had a right to it. Trying to, ultimately, disappear. I tried to become invisible by starving myself, by standing up on a bus even when there were seats left to take. By staying silent in lessons, and truanting from school.
Asking whether the patriarchy was at the root of my teenage anxieties, or whether my anxiety simply manifested itself in a gendered way is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. It was an ecosystem of self-hatred and I was the feast; utterly consumed.
There are a thousand articles that start with the same story. It’s curious that even now we know just how damaging the desire to be thinner is, the message still pervades. We are still told day after day, advert after advert that we need to shrink ourselves. That we need to be less.
To keep all the money and all the power in one male-dominated place, the patriarchy needs us small and silent. So it sells us images of bone thin girls and it sells us the idea that if we try this one thing, buy this one product, we’ll be that much closer to good enough. And we fall for it. Of course we do. They throw millions at this shit. It’s even leaked into the medical profession. Not-thin has become tantamount to being sick. Doctors tell us we’re overweight, even though we exercise our arses off and are toned to high heaven. A nurse sneers at my size 8 sister and tells her to cut back. How can we argue with this? How many women would have gone home from either of these appointments and cried? I know I would have. My confidence knocked with one fell swoop.
Let’s face it, it’s genius. What a way to keep the status quo. What a way to weaken the opposition. Because, how can we fight back if we’re running on empty? How can we function in the workplace if we’re seeing stars from lack of food. How can we speak out about what’s right and wrong, if secretly we hate every last ounce of flesh we’re standing in? How can we unite and fight if we’re racked with jealousy and secretly we’re tearing ourselves apart?
My weakness lately is when I hear other people talking about their diets. It’s all very well throwing out the scales, and ordering in the pizza but when I hear other people saying how much they’ve lost this week, I miss that thrill. I feel guilty for being bone idle and even more, I feel out of the loop. That world used to be mine. But of course, I’m mentally healthier on the outside looking in.
It’s a hard one, and I’m no more enlightened than the rest of us. I’ve relearned a language. Forged a new lens to look at my body through. I don’t weigh myself anymore because it becomes an obsession. I don’t diet any more because it becomes a competition. But I still look at my body from time to time and wish it was better. It’s hard to break the habit of a lifetime. One thing is different though, even if I do slip, I know now I have a right to unapologetically take up space. I know I have a right to put my opinions out in the world, and not feel guilty about it. And I know I need to do more of it; we all do.
We need to stop shrinking, unfurl our wings and broaden our horizons. Outspread the manspreaders. Get on your soap box. Be like my sister who only calorie counts to see what new levels of greed she can achieve in one day. Be loud, be big, be bold, and don’t be afraid to inhabit your space. It belongs to you. Your presence isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a blessing. Own it.
The poem in the photograph is from Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey.