Went back to the future last Saturday, with a trip to the old Tivoli Drive In not far from Ipswich. Drive Ins used to be THE family outing in the days before home theatres and DVDs. The Tivoli is now the home of the Rivers of Life Christian Church, which does a lot of social work in the Ipswich community, and holds free movie events every Saturday. Last Saturday the Cars movie inspired a gathering of muscle cars and street rods,.
Eva Wiseman talked to different women – including the ever present Susie Orbach. She’s the author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, which she rather fetchingly calls FiFi. Women and girls, according to the article, are more critical of their appearance than ever, even positively hating themselves, and Wiseman lines up the usual suspects, celebrities, fashion and photoshopping. But as with all things, this issue is more complicated than that, which the article acknowledges.
For most of my 65 years, I’ve never regarded my appearance very highly. In some respects, I was justified – my nose, for example, has fine Celtic proportions, but could hardly be called cute, retrousse or photogenic. It stayed that way. The only time it saw surgery was unblock one of its mighty canals, and that hurt so much I never went back.
My hips were of the sturdy persuasion, and I was on and off diets for most of my life. Sometimes I liked my body but only because it obligingly fitted into the clothes I wanted to wear.
Think girls are obsessed with diets now? In the 60s we a slew of them to choose from – the grapefruit diet, the cabbage diet (or the farting diet as it was more popularly known), the Ryvita and cottage cheese diet, the no potatoes and bread diet – this was the one that infallibly worked for me – and the PLJ diet (Pure Lemon Juice, which you drank religiously every morning). There were so many, and we were kept aware of our shortcomings by the popularity of skinny leggy models too – Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton for example.
People talk about a ‘gentler time’ when everything was so simple and girls had none of the anxieties of modern times – but honestly, who is silly enough to imagine that we didn’t obsess about our weight in the era of mini skirts? The only difference back then was that we talked about ‘my figure’ and not ‘my body’. But we talked about it, believe me, and we all learned the only way to get that slender Twiggy shape was not to eat.
Oh, and photoshopping – you’re so sure that’s a new thing? In 1539, the painter Hans Holbein presented King Henry VIII with a very flattering portrait of Anne of Cleves, so pretty that Henry contracted to marry her at once. However, when Anne turned up in person, Henry was apalled and tagged her ‘The Flanders Mare’ – Holbein had indulged in a bit of 16th Century photoshopping.
I’m thinking none of it is new really – it is in fact, old, so old that maybe it it is too entrenched to be entirely overcome by well meaning think tanks like the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR – no kidding) at the University of the West of England, or even Susie Orbach, who has been banging on about this (and staying thin) since 1978 when her book was published.
Oddly enough, the most salient point comes from a British reality TV show person, Lauren Goodger from The Only Way Is Essex, who is regularly slated in the trashy British press for her – ahem – fuller figure and the tight clothes she chooses to cover it with. There’s nothing new there, she is following in the fondly remembered tradition of other buxom British gals like Diana Dors and Barbara Windsor, but when she starts talking about her 11-year-old sister she really nails the difference between now and then. The little girl wants to look like someone ten years older – when I was her age I would have been killed for wearing lipstick, let alone sporting Prada bags. Yup, that’s a turn for the worse in women and girls and body issues – girls as young as 11, even 7, are getting sucked into it.
But I like this comment of Goodger’s – “Just because someone’s not a size 10, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”
Perhaps the hysterical skinny nitwits who have been attacking Australian TV presenter Chrissie Swann could bear that in mind before they reach for their mobile phones and twitter more nasty comments. How dare they pitch their bile at a little boy, Swann’s adorable son? And this too, is something new. Back in the day, it was only the odd comment from a nasty neighbour or workmate that might mar your day and make you reach for the diet Coke, but today these self righteous bulimics (“Look how I have to suffer to stay thin, and you get to be a celebrity even when you are so fat…”) can tweet, comment and blog about a little boy, without even a thought for his, or his mother’s, feelings. Just because you are a size 10, doesn’t give you the right to stand in judgement on those who are not.
I read this article in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, author of Antidote, a rebuttal of all those cheery self help books that are released every year. He postulates that we should embrace our failures and all that makes us stronger, and favors a more stoical view of life.
I remember an episode of the TV sitcomRosanne that made me laugh out loud (TV rarely does that). Jackie, Rosanne’s angsty sister, was packing up and moving out on yet another loser boyfriend. When she reached the bookshelf she said, “Anyone with that many self help books is obviously in trouble.” (or words to that effect) giving the impression they are the boyfriend’s books, then she asks Rosanne, “Should I take them with me, or leave ’em here?” There was a period of my life when every second book was a self help book.
Did I really believe I would find all the answers in those books? I think I did, or maybe I thought that there was one book, like the Holy Grail of self help books, that really would ‘change my life.’ The trouble with reading a lot of one genre is that after a while you start to see more clearly the ‘tropes’, the oft repeated phrases and cliches and repetitions. Then it gets meaningless.
This is actually a good thing, because you start to think for yourself, and self help books make a nice bonfire. Burkeman talks about the Stoics – to me it sounds like Buddhism, where you accept that it is your desires that make you unhappy. Clinging to a hoped for outcome, trying to change other people instead of accepting them the way they are, valuing things and possessions more than experiences – these are the ways you become trapped in Samsara, the material world, and never become enlightened, or ‘awakened’ to the truth – that everything around us is fleeting, insubstantial and impermanent and only the ‘middle way’ offers contentment.
The Secret, as the latest manifestation of extreme positivism is called, was very popular for a while, and there are still many people who swear by it. They tend to be the same kind of people who write web pages about making millions of dollars by writing emails (“I’m writing this in my pajamas in an exclusive villa in the South of France – if i can do it you can too, and for just a few hundred dollars, I can show you how.”)
The Secret holds that you can get anything you want by visualising it, down to the very last detail. This is important, because if you aren’t perfectly clear and detailed, the Universe won’t know exactly what you want and you could end up with any old thing.
Well I figured if the universe was that smart, it should know what I want – except that using the word ‘want’ is a no no because it is a ‘negative’ word, and negative words mean you are telling the universe you like being poor, or something… Actually, I always found that it was wise to expect the unexpected. If I visualised everything turning out OK, it wouldn’t, and if I feared the worst, exactly the opposite happened. Then I actually got the hang of it and realised that it didn’t matter either way,what will be will be, and I am not the centre of the universe after all, and it isn’t always about me. Quite often it’s someone else’s story, and I should just mind my own beeswax.
I think you have to get old to figure out the secret of happiness, which is a bit of a bummer. The loss of ego, the overcoming the need for perfect outcomes, and just not giving a damn about what anyone thinks of you anymore, are all great liberators. What didn’t kill you made you stronger.