I have grown up in a culture of dieting and dodgy body image


FIFTYSOMETHING:BLESS ME, Father, for I have sinned. Last night I ate fish and chips at midnight; worse, Father, I took pleasure in it. Three Hail Marys and a battered Our Father isn’t going to atone for that calorific transgression; nope, this calls for a decade of tofu burgers.

I was driving home. It had been a long day. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate. I thought my arms were going to fall off. I was way beyond irritation; rage and tears beckoned. I wanted to eat the steering wheel.

So much of the chat this week has been about body image. We’ve been riffling through surveys like lovers through yellowing letters, trying to figure out where we went wrong. We want to know why young girls won’t get into swimming pools with their mates; we want to know why they hide in their bedrooms doing sit-ups. We’re frowning at our midriffs in front of mirrors and asking why our daughters are giving their dinner to the dog. And here am I, 50 bloody years of age, and I can’t eat a bag of fish and chips without feeling like I’ve drowned a puppy.

Recently I was parked in an industrial estate near Dublin airport, watching swarms of teenagers being disgorged from a nightclub that was lit up like Las Vegas; a great big neon-clad dancing queen, rocking along next to shuttered carpet warehouses and darkened toy emporiums.

The temperature in the car park was Siberian. I had a travel mug full of coffee in my frozen mitts. I’d meant to bring a rug. My reason for being there was legitimate; I wasn’t flirting with pneumonia for the heck of it. I had expected to be cold and bored; I hadn’t expected a ringside seat at a theatre of pain. The doors of the club opened and young girls hit the night air like mayflies in a hurricane. Shrieking with cold, they pulled their tiny Lycra dresses down over bare, purpling legs and goose-pimpled thighs. Stumbling forward into the wash of headlights, in heels you could abseil down, their poker-straight hair framed blue-lipped mouths and chattering teeth.

Benign parents hopped out, opened back doors and front doors, and trembling bundles of scrawny girlhood piled into their dark cars like kindling, screaming for the heating to be turned up.

Meanwhile, as America’s Next Top Model is packing the Marlboro Lights and vitamin sticks into her cabin bag and preparing to take on Britain’s Next Top Model in a titanic clash of the rib bones, an Irish manufacturer has been lauded, rightly, for making dolls that look like little girls rather than porn queens. These innovative dolls are designed to resemble the children who play with them: they have knees and tummies rather than waist-length, peroxide- blonde hair and beehive breasts in bullet bras.

I don’t know if the Irish dollies come with accessories, but the peroxide plastic gals certainly do. They have optional suspender belts and bar bells and quite possibly nipple tassles, and much as I admire the impulse to create a realistic, non-sexualised toy for girls to play with, I know which version my nine-year-old self would have craved.

We can wring our puffy hands with worry about the dissatisfaction of the nation’s daughters, we can blame the telly, we can blame airbrushed magazine images, we can rage against a Barbie culture whose vice-like grip even extends to surgery – but this obsession with image is hardly confined to our offspring. It wasn’t off the ground they licked it, as your granny would have said.

I dunno – maybe you have remained unscathed, maybe you hop out of bed every morning and greet the day with a glass of buttermilk before you go blackberry picking. Maybe you have never counted a calorie, maybe you have never wondered if bat wings can make you fly. Me, I have grown up in the full glare of a culture devoted to dieting and dodgy self-image. My brain is fried with the myriad diets and exercise regimes and innovative self-tortures that have littered the conversations I’ve had with my peers over the years. Let’s see: the caveman diet (nuts and seeds and foraging for dead partridges); the white wine and chicken diet (which has no effect whatsoever but was a perennial favourite of my mother’s); all the Ketogenic diets (weight loss in exchange for constipation, halitosis and irritability); raw veganism; sporadic fasting; liposuction.

Sod diets. Sod being bony, furry, weepy, elated, depressed, delirious or deranged. Sod self-denial. Sod this insidious little worm born of fear and vanity that tells us frailty is beautiful. I’m going back to the chipper, and if things get really out of hand, I’ll ask Barbie where she buys her bullet bras.

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