THE CRIMINIALISATION OF FAT: WHY I STARTED FAT GIRL <3

Although a relatively confident girl, I spent most of my adolescence terrified of fat. Getting fat, feeling fat, being fat, it was the benchmark by which I determined my self-worth. Fat was ugly, shameful, uncomfortable, taboo and as a teen girl growing up in London, quite frankly, I was not supposed to be fat. I was supposed to be petite and soft, svelte and pretty, and these aren’t associated with fatness. It was only when my therapist gave me Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue that I really began to explore how charged the word is. The rhetoric used around fat perpetuates a destructive diet culture, encouraging eating disorders, body image issues and self-loathing, most significantly among young women. I’ve realised fat actually has very little to do with size. I believe on a micro level fat is a felt state of being, attached to the experiencing of negative emotions. On a macro level fat is criminal, society has not only made us afraid of the substance but damns those who carry too much of it or in the wrong places.

The reality was that I was never actually fat, never overweight, never obese. I had a little pre-pubescent puppy fat but my size was never medically threatening to my life. Nevertheless an obsessive fear of fat led me to spend the time until my early twenties constantly dieting, determined to stay in control of my body size and composition. I withdrew socially, and was addicted to anxiety-inducing thoughts about what I’d eaten and how it would effect my body. Beginning therapy made me question the why in these seemingly irrational behaviours. Why become so self-destructive? Why fight against my body? Why push myself so hard? Why become obsessive and addicted? Why so afraid of fat? I began therapy when I started my degree in social anthropology. Three years later I had some answers, drawing my conclusions from psychoanalysis, political theory and economics.

 

It was simply a matter of control, I was told. My life experiences felt uncertain and messy, I was out of control, desperate to create some order. As normal, my therapist and I began with my childhood. We worked through family life, exploring my relationship to food, my body and my parents. At university, I was learning about capitalism, the performativity of the body, the distinction between sex and gender. As I deconstructed both personal and cultural relationships to fat I realised it was an expression of self which we experience like currency. The loss and gain of body weight determining self-worth, the purity of diet - detox and clean eating - deciding our social status. Fat is political, sometimes so powerful it can govern over us. While I’ve worked hard to overcome my eating and body image issues, now feeling comfortable in my skin, I believe my fear of fat will remain for as long as society is afraid of it.

I don’t know a single girl who doesn’t worry about her body shape, hasn’t at some point in her life felt the need to diet or used the term “fat” as a negative. It makes sense because in a culture allergic to unhealthiness and largeness, no one wants to be the fat girl. It troubles me that those of us who struggle, struggle in private. As with most mental illness, shame plays a fundamental role in establishing the negative self-image and destructive behaviours rife in eating disorders. Attempting to deconstruct the myths around our relationship to fat, bodies and dieting, I am beginning an online platform aiming to be provide a safe and nourishing space for us to talk openly and honestly about our anxieties. Fat Girl is for all body shapes, colours and sizes hoping that we can find clarity in the sharing of our more vulnerable experiences and empower us all to own our bodies.

This was originally posted in the Fat Girl Huff Post blog, head over there for more articles!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the former model turned psychologist using AI to help mental health

Could you explain what PsycApps is and how you developed the idea?

PsycApps is a Digital Mental Health company that is using gamification, AI and chatbots to ‘hack’ the brains reward system.

PsycApps is trying to find a way how to get people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses intrinsically motivated to stick to therapeutic digital programs. Many mental health issues include symptoms such as lack of motivation and cognitive impairment. Using gamification and studying behavioural engagement patterns to keep people motivated will be the Big Change that can better and save lives. In a fast-paced, ever changing digital world, what could be more attractive than a game that helps you fight your mental illness!?

PsycApps has partnered up with a US based game development company called Collision Studios. Collision Studios has developed a vast suite of successful apps and games such as 300, The Walking Dead and Barbie. With their help, PsycApps aims to create a game that will intrigue and captivate a large audience. We think that everybody is interested in the psychology of relationship and mental health, thus making it an easy on-boarding process for users. The idea started out as my PhD thesis and then morphed over time, the more I learned about apps, mental health tech and user behaviours.

What mental illness can PsycApps help with and how does it work?

Right now, the app is making a detour into the gaming field in order to figure out the best way to use gamification so that people stay intrinsically motivated to stick to therapeutic apps. We are teaching users psychological concepts such as generalisation and emotional bidding which they can use in everyday life, but are still extremely relevant in mental illness. The next step will be a therapeutic ant-depression game. We have anxiety and eating disorders on our radar as well. One step at a time.

Silja Litvin, Founder of PsycApps

Silja Litvin, Founder of PsycApps

As an ex-model could you talk about your relationship with your body and from your experiences what changes you feel society needs to make?

When I was scouted, I was 12 cm too big around the hips (you can weigh 500kg as long as you have your 90 cm hips), and I learned for the first time, that my body wasn’t adequate. I guess I’m still lucky I had been able to turn 18 before feeling the body pressure young girls nowadays feel around 11/12. So that’s when I started dieting, and I’m not happy to say that I tried every diet under the sun, some shady ones as well. The pressure is huge, and I was always on the ‘curvy’ side as a size 8. I didn’t develop a proper eating disorder, but after studying psychology and working with eating disorder patients at NELFT I self-diagnosed myself with anorexic thinking patterns. It’s still a struggle, and I wish humans wouldn’t do that to themselves. Society can be toxic.

What do you think AI and machine learning can do for body image or eating disorders (if anything at all)?

I wish there was an AI that would track your social media, and let you know when your consumption is attacking your confidence and mood. Studies show that anything over 20 min a day can lower self-confidence, body satisfaction and raise depression levels. If the same AI would flag which sites/pages are extra harmful, and offer antidote-insights, that would be great. I can assure you that most influencers would lose their jobs, though. We will develop a beautiful game in that direction… I can barely wait!

What is the future for AI and mental health? What is the plan for PsycApps?

Right now, AI is great for diagnostics, and it will stay that way for the next 10-15 years. Maybe we’ll be able to develop some rudimentary, low-level therapeutic bots, but not soon. I think AI will also be a great help for therapists to get feedback and help, as well.

Check out the PsycApps website for more!

Fat Girl interviews the chef who is very angry about juice diets and clean eating...

What inspired you to start Angry Chef?

I used to spend a lot of time complaining about the sort of unregulated health advice being spread by a new generation of online influencers. Although some of it was sensible in an ‘eat more vegetables’ sort of way, there was also a lot of dangerous nonsense knocking around, and I found a lot of it quite upsetting. There seemed to be a culture of demonising certain ingredients, and a lot of fear being generated about perfectly sensible food choices. There did not seem to be enough people calling out the bullshit, and after much ranting to friends and colleagues, I decided to do something about it.
 

Why do you think there is so much wrong information and pseudoscience out there?

I think we all have access to so much information these days, and much of it is completely unregulated. The way that we acquire knowledge has completely changed in the last twenty years, and often there aren’t enough checks and balances in place. Because of the amount of information available, we all have a tendency to take shortcuts to help us decide what to believe, and sometimes that can lead us down dangerous paths. We are drawn to certainty and simple messages, and often the world of science and evidence based medicine cannot provide that. Sometimes things are complicated, and so anyone selling a false message with great certainty is likely to be more compelling. This is especially true if the person selling the message is an aspirational figure, leading a glamorous life, or if they are someone who seems similar to us, or perhaps if they have some of the trappings of respectability. We will often not check the source of their advice, especially when it is something we want to believe. We need to become more critical, and perhaps look to more respected (if dull) sources of advice like the NHS, Public Health England, Cancer Research, The British Heart Foundation, or the World Health Organisation.

What do you think has caused recent interests in clean eating, detoxes and cleanses and could you explain some of the dangers of these ways of eating?

People want to achieve things effortlessly these days. They want a glamorous lifestyle, but the dream is to achieve that without ever looking like you are trying. The diet culture of the 1980s seems a little too retro and hard work for a generation with the world at their finger tips. But sadly there is still a great aspiration of thinness, especially for women, and for many people restrictive diets are a shortcut to achieving this. Detox, clean eating, cleanses, they all disguise restrictive weight loss diets under a veil of pseudoscience, pretending that brutally restrictive eating is actually being undertaken for some vague notion of wellness, or ‘getting the glow’ (whatever that means).

What do you advocate as best practice for eating?

Obviously it depends upon your situation and specific needs, but in general, try to eat as varied a diet as you can, not too much or too little, move around a bit if you can, and try not to worry too much. Guilt and shame around food can be extremely harmful, and guilt has no place in eating. Try not to feel guilty, and definitely never make anyone else feel guilty about something their choices. Try to eat lots of different vegetables, maybe a bit of fish now and again.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between 'clean eating' and body image?

That is a difficult issue. Most of the prominent ‘clean eating’ type bloggers have a particular body image, and there is often an implicit connection made between what they eat and how they look. There is a sense of ‘eat like me, look like me’ which is always troubling, especially when you learn how many eating disorder patients are following these sort of restrictive clean eating diets. But apart from in a few extreme cases the link is always implicit, and I am not wanting to criticise anyone for the way they look. I wish that there was a bit more body image diversity in the healthy eating space, but that is not the fault of any individual and I am not sure what can be done to address it. Unfortunately, society strongly equates thinness with health these days, and so the people successfully selling healthy eating messages tend to be thin, as do the models used to sell ‘healthy’ products. Anyone who diverts from this norm is likely to be ridiculed, which shows a huge ignorance of what ‘healthy’ actually means. It upsets me a great deal, but it is a tough issue to try and tackle, because it is based on fairly embedded prejudices in our society.  

Lots of people say food is just "fuel". What are your thoughts on this?

There are a lot of people who reduce food down to this, including some health campaigners and public health bodies. Food is so important, used as a signaller of status, a way of celebrating, a reinforcer of our most important social bonds, and as a source of great joy. If we want to address people’s diets, we have to take all that into account. You can’t just say to someone, ‘don’t drink that can of drink, have a glass of water instead’, because you are completely failing to understand what that drink means in their life. It might be brief moment of pleasure in a tough time, a status signaller telling the world something about them, a shared experience with friends and family. In order to improve people’s diets, we need to understand all these things, and move away from the judgemental, risk management approach. Shame and guilt are not effective at motivating people in the long term, with plenty of evidence that they make things worse, and yet most public health messages follow this approach. If we view the achievement of health as the ultimate goal of all of our eating, and we continue to view being healthy as a great moral virtue, all choices that divert from this will make us feel guilty. We need to get away from the idea of guilty pleasures or earning treats, and just focus on enjoying a rich diversity of foods. We need to educate people about how to enjoy a varied and interesting diet, and to value many different food items. It is only when the food we want to eat becomes the same as the food we should be eating that any change will be sustainable.

 

Follow Angry Chef on twitter, and visit his blog too!

Fight the Fads: The dietitian students debunking nonsense nutrition

Why did you set up the initiative in the first place?

As a group of Dietitians in training, we are attempting to Fight The Fads and debunk nutritional nonsense in the media and set the records straight with regular posts on our social media channels. Whilst we are lucky that once we graduate next year, our title ‘Dietitian’ is protected by law, the same is not true for nutritionists. We have seen a sharp rise in the popularity of wellness bloggers and self styled nutrition ‘gurus’, which is leading to confusion and inaccurate advice for people. The term Nutritionist is often taken at face value as being synonymous with an expertise on food and diet – but that is frequently far from the truth.

The advice these people give is unregulated and often plain wrong, so we decided we wanted to use our knowledge to put the right nutrition information out there – and make the term ‘Nutritionist’ a protected title to stop this conflicting, and sometimes dangerous, advice being taken as gospel.

Could you tell me about the petition? 

As the law currently stands, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist - regardless of whether they have any formal training. More worryingly, there are online courses available via the internet that claim to make you a ‘clean-eating guru’ and nutritionist in just three weeks.” We launched the government petition to legally protect use of the title ‘Nutritionist’ - to help stop the surge of online ‘wellness’ experts and bloggers pushing false and often dangerous dietary information.

What are the dangers and health rises of these fad diets? 

There has been an explosion of nutrition nonsense across social media. Even more worryingly, self-styled nutrition gurus are advocating extremely restrictive ‘clean eating’ programmes on Instagram. The problem with fad diets and restrictive eating regimes is that they are unsustainable, can lead to disordered eating and can put you at risk of certain nutritional deficiencies (unless you make suitable substitutions).

What is bad nutritional advice?

Diets that recommend cutting out entire staple food groups such as carbohydrates or dairy. These diets demonise specific food groups, create fear over food and without the incorporation of alternatives they can lead to dietary deficiencies and in extreme cases secondary diseases. Elimination diets can have a role in the management of certain diseases and with the assistance of registered dietitians can provide effective treatment.

‘Sugar-free’ alternatives that are still sugar!

Agave nectar, manuka honey, date syrup have exactly the same amount of calories per gram as common table sugar. These sugar ‘alternatives’ are often used in ‘guilt-free’ dessert recipes. The problem is when someone feels they can eat more of the ‘sugar-free’ dessert as they believe it is a better option than a dessert using normal sugar, which can result in excess calorie intake. In addition to this, these alternatives are often promoted as better than table sugar as they contain minerals. If you’re getting a lot of minerals in your diet from agave nectar, you need to reconsider your diet.

Detox diets

Based on the premise that over time toxins build up in your body, and you must periodically ‘cleanse’ your system to remove them. If toxins were really allowed to build up in your body – you would become very sick. The liver and kidneys are extremely efficient at removing toxic products, and periodic detoxes are simply not needed.

Carbohydrates make you fat

gram for gram they actually have the lowest number of calories out of all the nutrients, plus wholegrain varieties contain fibre which keeps you full for longer, meaning you are less likely to overeat. Too much of anything will make you fat. You should eat more of ‘X’ because it’s a ‘superfood’- Superfood is a marketing term, all foods have a role in the context of a healthy, balanced diet. Unsurprisingly, ‘superfoods’ usually have a much higher price tag attached too!

Sweeteners and additives are harmful

any which are present in foods have undergone vigorous testing by the Food Standards agency (FSA) and been deemed safe for human consumption in the levels which they are present. To suggest that they are harmful creates unnecessary fear over food products.

Protein supplements are essential for anyone looking to build muscle

Almost all brits consume over the recommended protein requirements each day. Unless you are an elite athlete/body builder, it is likely that a glass of milk or high protein snack (i.e a chicken sandwich) will provide you with enough protein. The body cannot store huge amount of excess protein, and as a result you excrete excess protein in urine. In other words, you will essentially pee out £s…

I avoid gluten as I’ve heard it’s bad for me

unless you have a medically diagnoses disease (i.e. celiac disease which is an autoimmune condition), there is no reason to cut gluten – a protein found in wheat – out of your diet. Wholegrain wheat products offer a whole host of nutritional benefits, and if you don’t replace wheat products with a suitable alternative, you are putting yourself at risk of certain nutritional deficiencies.

So what should we be eating?

As a rule of thumb, at mealtimes, aim to fill about a third of your plate with a variety of fruit and vegetables, about a third which starchy carbohydrates for energy (things like pasta and bread- remember that brown varieties are better) and smaller amounts from low-fat dairy (yogurt/milk/cheese) and lean protein (i.e. eggs/meat/fish). No food is bad for you, it’s just important to eat less healthy foods in moderation. Eating a wide variety of food that will give you the nutrients you need to maintain your health and feel good. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect diet’.

Keep up with Fight the Fads FacebookInstagramTwitter (@fightthefads)

Eliza Lawrence chats to us about the role of bodies in the messy world of sex

 

What inspired you to set up Was It Good For You?

I grew up in a liberal society with a liberal family and was lucky to be able to think what I wanted. Sex was something that was still very much hidden, I think it's hard being a parent and a friend. Yes, I would confide in parents and sisters but there is a reason for friendship. Those are the people you kiss on sleepovers and play with the same boy’s hair whilst your holding each others hands.

I found my friend's were a confession box, as I grew up my confessions went speeding through the box. Then going to university meeting people from all corners of the world I saw that confessions were wildly different.

I also saw a dramatic struggle to voice feelings and experiences surrounding sex.  Being naked made people feel naked, whilst others just left their lacy lingerie on; telling the stories that sounded good. A sexual bravado if you like. I wanted seconds. These people who I was falling in love (both friends, foe and lovers) were all talented, intelligent and so I saw an opportunity where people could discuss sex openly but through the guise, the tunnel, the microscope of their own weapons, creativity.

Art, poetry, film and photography often are best when they hold a magnifying glass to a depth of society. Sex IS, unfortunately a depth as we still often remain anonymous and hide when we talk about it. Wasitgoodforyou is here to display the chaos in the rubble so we can build a society that doesn’t hide and instead explores sex.

What do you think about the relationship between sex and bodies?

Sex involves a dance between two bodies, or more if that’s what your into. You are using your body and the others to glide along a ballroom bed. I think if one is confident in their body and is loving of the other, the sex is majestic. Imagine if you didn’t trust your own dance moves. Often you would look rigid and maybe even worse, you wouldn’t dance. The relationship is integral. I used to really dislike my body. Looking in the mirror I would find the worst bits. I think it takes strong self love or a passionate partner to know that you are worth every blood cell and wrinkle of the skin. I hope everyone finds that.

You talk about the messy world of sex. Why? 

The mess is that no sex is the same. Sex changes from gender, race, tradition, religion, situation, age. The list goes on. I could never know how a woman feels having sex for the first time in a tube carriage, or an anarchist lesbian does in Russia. It is so individual, so different and continually becoming so whilst we seek to become even more individual and break from tradition. I guess without making a long spiel, I seek to hear all these different stories, in order to fit the mess into a titillating puzzle.

Food and sex are often seen as metaphors of each other. What do you think about this?

Being horny is like being hungry, although I definitely have more food than sex. I think I prefer food too. The media sells food as it does sex. The British Marks and Spencer’s adverts are much like the Dior adverts. The formula is, get a sexy voice, maybe even a sexy women and make the product look good so we buy it. The food industry, especially with our savage meat production is much like one of the modelling agencies I first went into when I was young. Young, fresh women sold off because of what they look like. Just as you would get a lamb shank that was tender, lean and within its sell by date. Although I think we are doing better, the internet is a double edged sword really. There is a Utopia out there and I see glimmers with this issue and others like it promoting healthy real bodies and talent over beauty but there are still also remnants of the ‘meat market’ Margaret Atwood once wrote about.

Why do you think people are so afraid of the mess of sex/bodies?

Sex is a competitive business. It all comes from affection, and that is often hard. One often has to win over a lover out of many others and often you feel like that younger child who never gets picked for the football team. The beauty industry shows what’s appealing and if you aren’t getting any, they show ways to get it, a formula of white teeth, gym sessions and so on. So if your lonely why wouldn’t you? Self love,  knowing you're good enough and people will pick you, want you or love you. They will desire you and one-day fight with you over what neighbourhood you want to live in. …WILL HAPPEN.

What impact do you think sex/ physical contact has on our relationship to bodies?

All I can say is that when I was touched as if I was the most appealing, the most desirable, and the most wanted women in the world every hair stood on end and my body glowed. But then it can also just be from a stare and it is like wrapping a huge warm blanket around your body.

How can sex contribute to a change in our understanding and emotional experience of the body?

I think sexuality can be found before sex and it is the biggest contributor in changing understanding and emotional experiences and especially when you talk about and share these.I masturbated from a very young age. Kept it in my room. Under the covers. I felt safe there and every orgasm was a thank you to my body for keeping me standing, sleeping, eating, being. Not until I opened up about it did I know the force of my sexuality. I felt special and when others told me they did it too It was a community I was exhilarated being a part of. My body became stronger knowing others were aware pleasure could be found on your own, and a pleasure that is literally other worldly.

Visit https://wasitgoodforyou.co.uk/ to explore sex stories of mess, chaos, love, pain and first time experiences

When fat is desirable: anthropologist Rebecca Popnoe explores beauty ideals in Niger

How do you feel about your body?

I feel fine about it! Of course we all bear with us the expectations of our societies' norms - we wouldn't be human if we didn't - but that's really true for all parts of our being, isn't it? One could be a bit taller, a bit thinner, a bit smarter, a bit kinder, have a bit better memory . But even though I have spent so much time studying and thinking about the body I have never really had body "issues", I wouldn't say. (Maybe just intellectual body "issues".) I experimented with dieting as a teenager a few times, as teenager girls do, but figured out fairly quickly that I liked eating normally more. I'm normal weight and always have been; exercise regularly more or less; of course wouldn't decline the offer if a fairy godmother showed up and told me she could wave her wand and make me look like Kate Winslet, but that's just rational thinking, no?

What do bodies mean to you? 

I think that the way in which Western society THINKS that it obsesses about the body is in fact due to the fact that we somehow think bodies shouldn't really matter much, and we are bothered by the fact that they do.  But we're animals - of course our bodies - how they move, how they look, how sexually attractive they are, how youthful they look - matter.  Sometimes I think intellectuals just can't bear that something they can't fully control and that isn't their modus operandi matters so much in the real world.

As an anthropologist, how have your own experiences influenced you whilst you are in the field?  

Certainly living among a people who thought women should be as fat as possible was liberating and put things in perspective. 

What were the most shocking discoveries from the field. What were the most stark contrasts to western ideals of the body? 

Apart from fat being beautiful rather than thin (on women) it was that stretch marks were considered beautiful that was the strangest thing. Women literally wanted to have stretch marks on their arms and legs. In a historical description of fattened girls and women from Mauritania the author describes how women would run a comb over their arms and legs to make it look like they had stripy stretch marks.

What about bodily substances. How do you feel about the mechanics of the body, how do you perceive them and how did your informants?

The Arabs among whom I did fieldwork did not like blood or sexual secretions, and thought they should be wiped away and cleaned up as soon as possible. They were more ok with urine than we are in the West, I would say. Drinking sheep's urine was a traditional medical treatment. 

How has your perspective of bodies changed since your fieldwork. Do you see your own body/ other bodies on the street differently?

Well, to be honest, when I returned from Africa, the main thing that struck me about white people was that they were so ugly.  They looked so bleak and pasty and awkward and they dressed in mismatched clothes and moved so clumsily. And their bodies, whether fat or thin, weren't graceful.  It took a while for that impression to fade and for me to get used to white people's bodies again.  In addition, I think I do find more kinds of bodies attractive.  I do see bigger female bodies as attractive and sexy and sensual in a way that I don't think I did before I lived in Niger, and more readily think some women are too thin. 

Why do you think we have such extreme bodily anxiety in the West? 

We don't!  We have anxiety that we have anxieties.  In most societies women especially are very taken up with how their bodies look and are perceived. It may be expressed in different ways than in the West, but I don't think there really is a society where women especially don't care an awful lot about their body, their hair, their faces. Where they don't, it has more to do with poverty and lack of resources than with lack of a basis for cultural interest in appearance and the body.  I think what is particular, and strange, about the West, is that we think it is somehow a problem that care about our bodies!  Yet obviously what we look like matters - most societies get that and just get on with it.  I think as women came to be thought of as men's equals in the West, and with the purchasing power industrialization brought to most of us, it became annoying that we women were supposed to and able to do what men do but that our appearance still mattered more than theirs; AND we could spend lots of money on lots of products that cater to our appearance. But don't think for a minute that we spend so much more time or attention on our bodies than people who have the leisure to do in other parts of the world. 

Do you think this is increasingly the case, as countries develop or do you think it is a social fact that we have cross-culturally we have body ideals? 

All societies have bodily ideals, especially for women. We are in no way unique. We just think we are - whereas other societies have an easier time accepting this fact of life, and get it that other societies also have beauty ideals, even if they differ from their own. I think we are slowly moving back to a more "normal" state when men also wear jewelry & make-up, tattoo their bodies, use products in their hair, etc. 

Can you say something about the role of gender, and the body. In the west, beauty is overwhelmingly a female issue, and eating disorders are predominant in women. Why do you think this is the case? 

Whether we like it or not (and I'm not saying I do!) we are primates and mammals and basically our biology dictates that males of the species go after females of the species and the biological logic of sexual selection determines that women's bodies and appearance matters more.  Unfortunately that explains most of it. Then we can of course decide how much we as human with at least the illusion of free will choose to cater to those biological forces (by for example breast enhancement, tight-waisted clothes, dyeing away grey hair, covering up facial blemishes, wearing lipstick) and how much we want to live our lives that emphasize other values - and we are lucky to have that choice. The majority of us wisely take a middle road, I would say, and then we have the Dolly Partons as well as the Lena Dunhams, and they are both refreshing and fun in their different ways. 

That men's appearance is less of a "thing" is partly biologically driven, but of course in many societies men's appearance is played up as much as women's. Think, in our own history, of Tudor times when men wore earrings, codpieces, and dyed their beards.  Or the 1700's when men wore powdered wigs. Industrialisation brought a little historical "blip" when men became somberly dressed workers and women the fancifully decorated signs of a family's status, at least in the growing middle and upper classes.  I think we are slowly moving back to a more "normal" state when men also wear jewellery & make-up, tattoo their bodies, use products in their hair, etc. 

As to eating disorders, my reading of the scientific literature points strongly to them having rather little to do with our society's body ideals, and more to do with generic mental health and general demands and expectations of self-discipline on girls and women. Eating disorders exist in many places outside of the west (Kenya, Ghana, Iran) where Western body ideals don't hold.  Furthermore, all women in the West are bombarded with the same adverts and magazines and reality TV-shows, but the vast majority do not get eating disorders. Other forces are at play, and our body ideals are something of a red herring.  Eating disorders also have a large biological component - once a person stops eating enough the brain becomes "fooled" and the eating disordered behaviour is very hard to break. It doesn't have to do with some conscious longing to look like a fashion model.

 

A note on perfectionism from Fat Girl herself <3

This is me in Italy on a pizza lilo, freeing myself from the shackles of perfection.

 

I wanted to launch the platform Fat Girl because of my own eating and body image issues, and although I’ve overcome my most destructive habits, perfectionism remains a challenge for me. The site, which was supposed to launch in January, is an online platform offering girls a safe space to explore the emotional anxieties of living in a body. Unfortunately my obsession with perfection has prevented Fat Girl from going live.

Writing in the guardian, psychologist Linda Blair explains people who struggle with perfectionism “strive for flawlessness, for a perfect creation, outcome or performance. They set excessively high standards. They’re harshly critical in their evaluations both of themselves and of others”. For me, every time I feel excited about the potential to create something new, perfectionism brings up feelings of inadequacy. The fear of not being good enough leads to procrastination, intense feelings of anxiety and fundamentally stops me from achieving anything at all. While there are multiple reasons for my personal strivings for perfection, societal pressures on women are a significant contributing factor. According to a Girlguiding survey released last year, 61% of 17-21 year old girls believe they need to be perfect. Gendered stereotyping like The Little Miss Perfect narrative pressurises girls into believing they must be the best. This is in comparison to boys, who are celebrated for achieving good results rather than focusing on their skills. A common symptom of eating disorder sufferers is perfectionism, and since 89% of sufferers are female I believe this is absolutely a Fat Girl issue.

My battle with perfection was most destructive while studying for my degree. Suffering with dyslexia meant I was reading twice as slowly as my non-dyslexic peers. I internalised this disadvantage, convinced I was stupid, feeling like a total imposture at university. Overwhelmed with emotions and convinced they would never be good enough, I struggled to get texts read and essays written coherently to deadlines. By second year, I couldn’t even begin essays and decided I’d rather not turn up to an exam than risk getting a bad grade. If I wasn’t studying, how was I spending my university days? Sadly, rather than reading my academic texts, I spent my time obsessively googling the diet and exercise regimes of Victoria's Secret models! I was privileged to be attending one of the best universities in the world, and yet controlling my body size and shape was my priority. Unfortunately many girls felt the same way as me,  in the survey I mentioned above, 75% of girls felt they were judged more on their appearance than their ability, and more than half believed how they looked was the most important thing about them.

I’m ashamed to admit it has now taken me five years to complete a degree that is supposed be over in just three. I regret wasting my time obsessing about perfection in both body and mind, overwhelmed with pressures and struggling to achieve anything at all. Starting Fat Girl has encouraged me to let go of these feelings of inadequacy and loosen the shackles of perfection. Why? Because I’m not alone in my anxieties. Half of all girls feel embarrassed or ashamed about how they look and almost 60% of girls believe they should lose weight. Having experienced the pain and frustration of these issues, I am desperate to write about mental health and bodily struggle, shedding some light on these topic. And yet each time I sit down to write content for Fat Girl, the self-doubt resurfaces my mind shuts down and I think about how a new diet or workout might ease the anxiety. Admittedly I'm not completely ready to end my relationship with perfectionism, but working on Fat Girl is a positive reminder to keep trying.

The Fat Girl initiative encourages us to accept perceived flaws, recognising bodily perfectionism as an illusionary and ultimately redundant concept. I believe these imperfections are metaphoric of our wider worldly struggles, using the word “fat” as an expression of emotional mess. Fat Girl aims to unpack these messy feelings, and encourage us to accept both bodily and emotional chaos. This space will spark much needed conversation of broader emotional struggles and psychological anxieties, like perfectionism.

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post, read it here!

Helen Benigson: The artist using her own body as her site of research

 

What do you think about bodies, diet culture and our relationship to fat?

I am interested in using my body as a point of research: a space, a site, a performing mechanism. Clean living references a contemporary idea of care and nourishment, within a very specific community of privilege. Dieting is a broader concern and has to do with a performed control of the body.  I am constantly defining and redefining what fat is. Is fat only the extra thick coating of sugared layers on the body just before the layer of skin? Or is it something more? Fat adds heaviness to bodies and creates anxiety.

What do you think about exercise and working out?

I love working out and getting strong, even if it is just to listen to good music with no interruptions. I am interested in the sweat, the smell, the work out paraphernalia, the gym, the territory associated with this.

Why do you use these words "fat" "stressful" and "anxious" in your work? 

I enjoy fatness and ideas around fat, but at the same time, explore flatness in my work. Fatness and flatness is something I employ in my practice, like anxiety, as a material substance. I add more to my work and try and fatten it, but at the same time flatten it out, printing and thinning. During my PhD I became pregnant as a way of researching a transformation of my own body through a biological thickening. After I gave birth, I flattened out again. Fat can be a dirty word but it can also be rich and expressive. With weight, comes heaviness, knowingness, knowledge and time.   

Could you explain what your work aims to explore?

I am researching the performance and structuring of embodiment, intimacy and the maternal within online and virtual spaces. The Internet frames, resituates and tries to claim notions and rituals around the body, the maternal, the family, sex, exchange and I am deeply fascinated by this.

Your exhibition "Anxious, Stressful, Insomnia Fat" explores weight, the online and emotional experiences. What inspired you to use the medium of the body and weight to explore such anxieties?

My exhibition A S I F (!) (such good initials I didn’t realise before!!)  was Inspired by a recent health app purchase called “Glow” that monitors women’s bodies. The exhibition set out to interrogate the flatness prescribed by the Internet onto the body, confronting the strange continuum existing between our dematerialised, virtual lives and our ‘real-life’ selves. The exhibition at Carroll / Fletcher followed on from my exhibition and residency Weightloss Utopias at Site Gallery, Sheffield which centred on issues of weightlessness and the perception of physical mass within online space. During the residency, I staged a series of real and scripted weight-loss support groups that took place within a multi-screen video installation. These weight-loss support group members then became avatars – digitalized versions of themselves within my videos, questioning the dematerialisation of the body through coding and information. 

Your work deals intimately with the body and you feature in your work. But, how do you feel about your body since having a child for example?

Its really weird - my body did completely transform after birth and obviously during pregnancy and its hard not to put a value judgement on it. I had mastitis after having a baby which was traumatic. I have been working with this trauma in my most recent video “Blockage”. 

What interests you about how the online/ digital world affects our relationships to bodies? 

The Internet has become so normal and our technology has bled into our bodies at a rapid and frightening rate. For example, looking at your phone more than at your partner or speaking to your phone more than listening to your child. By deciphering my own body, a corporeal holding of brain, flesh, organs; secreting, smelling, beating, bleating, uploading, bleeding, as distinct to a political, cultured or technologised embodiment, I can begin to decipher what happens to my body when it is simulated on screen through coding and information presented as text, images and sound. The commercialised space it inhabits online necessitates exchange and transaction, without the visceral jelly-like smell of real life. 

See more of Helen's work on her website here