Sizing up sizing down, Rosemary McLeod

Stuff It! A Wicked Approach to Dieting
Sarah-Kate Lynch
Harper Collins, $19.95
ISBN 1 86950258 2

One day, who knows? We may live in a world in which women are not obsessed by their weight. The time may come, even, when large breasts and bottoms are considered perfectly acceptable, and when individual variation in appearance may be thought of as quirkily interesting. However, best not to hold your breath and wait.

Wiser to avoid the mirror and the scales, remaining quietly screwed up but hopeful. And best, surely to keep reading the endless useful books put out by other women to help you struggle on in your worthless existence. Sarah-Kate Lynch is the author of Stuff It! A Wicked Approach to Dieting. It’s an irreverent title, which is odd, because the book is actually quite reverent about things most women hold dear, notably the joy of being slim, and how it qualifies women to feel good about themselves. Conversely, it underlines the horror of being overweight, and how wrong any woman is to persist with it. All of which is revealed in a jolly, rumbustious, almost risqué way, such as only a large woman would ever attempt. (Thin women don’t have to try to be amusing. They don’t need a personality.) I suspect this jolly tone is probably why thin women have given the book generous reviews, rather than questioning its underlying premise. That, and the pleasing personality of its author.

Ms Lynch is a journalist, broadcaster, and former editor of The New Zealand Women’s Weekly. She is also a large woman. In her mind, apparently, those statements belong the other way round in order of importance. On the cover of her book she appears to be a woman of perfectly normal proportions, and confident enough to wear orange.

Confused? Of course you are. You’re not used to the world of the media, and women’s magazines. Indeed, Ms Lynch herself reveals that she never had any doubts of her ability to edit the Weekly; her only problem was that she was aware she was overweight. What would these two things have to do with each other? A lot, as it turns out.

The cruellest example of Ms Lynch’s predicament, at the height of her career, is neatly illustrated at the moment by Liz Tilberis, the Englishwoman who is now based in New York as editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Ms Tilberis is, then, the sworn circulation rival to the redoubtable Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue. As fashion publications go, theirs -have always been pretty well neck-and-neck. But Ms Wintour has always had one outstanding advantage: she is as thin as a stick.

When we’re talking thin here, we’re talking THIN. Thin so that her flesh drapes a little on her frame, as flesh will When a Woman gets older and loses muscle tone. Thin so that the bones in her face stand out under her pixie-ish bob. Thin so that she can wear a size 8.

You need to know that to wear a size 8 is the only legitimate aim for any woman who takes herself seriously in the late 20th century. It is the size, say, of a pre-pubescent girl who’s never been allowed carbohydrates. It is the size of catwalk fashion models who are six feet tall and call themselves FAT.

Ms Tilberis – how can one put this with enough emphasis? – was a size 12 when she took over at Harper’s Bazaar.

Ms Tilberis was pretty, and blonde, and bright, and savvy, but SHE WAS A SIZE 12. It showed, too. She had flesh on her bones, and the hint of a double chin when she was photographed from unkind angles. She looked as if she ATE. I leave you to contemplate the awfulness of this. However, something good happened. Ms Tilberis got ovarian cancer, and what with the stress, the sickness, the chemotherapy – the weight rolled off her. She is now a size 8, and everyone is delighted for her. SHE IS THE SAME SIZE AS ANNA WTNTOUR! She may have a terminal illness, but my God is she chic! The Weekly, of course, is not Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue. But it IS a women’s magazine, and its editor is required to have a public profile. Indeed, in Ms Lynch’s day she was required to star in the sort of humiliating and trivialising television advertisements you’d assume could only be invented by misogynist teenage gay men.

She had to pretend in these ads to have a relationship with a young male assistant called Jeremy whom she would either eye up in a lascivious manner, or put down in a “hilarious” fashion, all the while dressed in pretty pastel colours so she would look “friendly” – and huge.

Does Ms Lynch question the awfulness of the very idea of these ads? A little, in hindsight. But mostly she laments how awful she LOOKED. Throughout this friendly little book, which reads as if it was written in a fortnight, Ms Lynch deals at length with how she feels about eating, how she’s tried not to enjoy it, and how exercise helps. All of which will be familiar territory to most women who are not a size 8. But – so what?

Forget the book’s title, which is a misnomer. Think, rather, of how great it would be if this were the last book to emphasize that weight matters more than brains. (I mean, do we see Metro editor and TV performer Bill Ralston bleating on about the horrors .of acne scarring?) But sad to say, it won’t be. And the interesting story locked somewhere inside, the story of how and why women are afraid to succeed, has yet to be told.

Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington journalist and columnist.

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Posted in Health, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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