beauty

"Why my boyfriend's diet is cooler than mine."

Image: Thinkstock

When the rules are different for men and women I generally have a problem with it. Whether it’s pay, or parental leave or how much sex we’re allowed to enjoy. I’ve always been aware that the rules for men and women are different with food, and right now the rules are changing again.

My boyfriend and I are on a health kick at the moment. We make veggie smoothies together and make funny faces as we drink them. We try our best to drag ourselves out of bed and haul our wobbly bottoms onto exercise gear first thing in the morning.  We would both very much like to be thin.

He talks about this, often. He has a bit about how he loves his handsome face, but hates his weird torso. He praises certain shirts for hiding it. It is cute. When he says it, people laugh.

I do not have a bit about it. I do not joke about how the inner part of my arms seem to be on a lifelong mission to attach themselves to my breasts. Even though I can feel them striving for contact under my shirt right now.

Alyx Gorman
"I am a woman, and women on diets are not funny. Or fun."

Why not? Because I am a woman, and women on diets are not funny. Or fun. When I say something off-handedly critical about my body to all bar my closest friends, it’s as if I’ve announced ASIO are watching my every move. Like it couldn’t be true, it’s unfortunate that I’ve said it, and on the off-chance I’m right, it’s a very bad thing.

You see, women on diets are dangerous.

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We're bad feminists and bad dates. The irony of dieting is that women assume you're doing it to be sexy, which isn't okay. While men find the fact that you're doing it totally sexually distasteful. An attractive woman is one with an appetite.

It's like we all got together and agreed that we like girls who eat. Or rather we like girls who talk about being girls who eat, but don't you know... look like it.

That’s what Lauren Bans argues in her brilliant essay “Nobody Wants to be the Girl on the Diet”. She talks about how Jennifer Lawrence is adored for her constant talk of high fat food, from getting Dorito dust on her Oscars frock to really, really loving cake. And how Gwyneth Paltrow is loathed for admitting that looking like Gwyneth (especially past forty) takes work.

Bans also points out that 1 in 2 women in the US are dieters. And that, despite her protestations, Jennifer Lawrence is probably one of them.

We love J-Law for her anti-diet talk - and pillorise Gwyneth for being open about her eating.

Chiming in, Alice Robb notes the situation is not the same for blokes. We love it when Ryan Gosling says “You go to a gym and you lift a heavy thing so a muscle grows, but the only thing the muscle can actually do is to left that heavy thing… After a while they’re like pets because they don’t do anything useful. But you have to feed them and take care of them otherwise they’ll go away. I feel a bit goofy having them, to tell you the truth.”

But can you imagine any woman celebrated for her physique talking about it with the same detachment? What would happen if a Victoria’s Secret Angel said “Yeah, it’s silly that I’ve been eating nothing but steamed chicken for three weeks. But let’s face it, if you couldn’t see my wings through my thigh gap, there’d just be no point, right?”

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Here’s how the Victoria’s Secret Angels stay fit. Yes, it’s extreme.

Outrage. Horror. Sure we’re willing to hang on every word V.S. girls say about their caloric intake, but we can’t for a second let them be casual about it.

We admire it when male celebrities radically transform their bodies for movies, but when women do it? We spin into a state of crisis. "When Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman shed pounds to portray ballet dancers in Black Swan, their transformation was endlessly dissected; they were even accused of encouraging eating disorders. Both women were apologetic in interviews," Robb writes.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Of course, the expectation of female thinness still remains. We’re just not allowed to talk about it. The conversation about female bodies has lately turned to “strong is the new skinny”. So as a girl, you’re still allowed to chat about getting your butt kicked at the gym. Although you look cooler if it’s doing something that’s not traditionally girly. Girls who kick box get Under Armour campaigns. Girls who do Pilates get eye rolls.

Also, when you work out, it has to be for the right reasons. For men, 'curls get girls' is an A-OK mantra. As women, we're told we're not allowed to work out just because we want to look hot. We have to have pure hearts when we do it. We have to train for the nobility of training.

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Celebrating exercise and eschewing diet-talk ignores the fact that in Western societies where calories are abundant, there aren’t enough elliptical machines in the world to let  you to eat whatever you want, whenever you want and still look ‘fit’. Because our idea of ‘strong’ is very particular. And by particular I mean ‘strong’ looks basically the same as skinny.

Ha! If motivational fitness posters told the truth

The fact is, if you want to be a certain shape, you have to control your intake. Saying ‘no’ to a muffin takes two seconds. Burning it off takes thirty minutes. You just can’t be seen to say ‘no’ because that makes you painfully vain. Or worse, it means you’re betraying the sisterhood. Buying into the male gaze and depriving yourself so that you look the way society tells you to look.

But then if you defy the expectations and eat the damn muffin and don’t look how society tells you to look? You will be punished for that too. For instance, obese women routinely face discrimination in the work place.

Either way, what you do with the muffin is still a defining choice. And it shouldn't be. It should be a 'whatever' choice. IE: One that is not hugely consequential to your identity.

So it's okay for Ryan Gosling to joke about his diet - but not for a woman?

Once, in the not so distant past, how a woman looked was her only source of value. In some industries (and I’m not just talking about modelling) it still is.

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Only in the last few decades have we been pushing the point that women are people, not decorative vases.  Men have never been in this position, they’ve always been valued as citizens, as workers, as thinkers first - and as decorative second. Sure, we've always appreciated a handsome gentleman, but when a man loses his looks, he doesn’t lose everything. Which is why it’s cute for men to joke about needing to diet and work out. Because we assume they're not desperate about it.

But for women, there’s still peril. There’s still that niggling fear that we’re objects first, people second.  It’s like we’re trying to counteract years of cultural programming that says our bodies are the only thing that matter, by pretending that they don’t matter at all.

Paleo shmaleo – Why the diet wars are doing more harm than good

We have ‘Fat talk free week’. We celebrate not caring about our bodies. But if you want to stay healthy in the 21st century, you have to be mindful. You have to care.  We’ve still got caveman programming that encourages us to eat all of the food, all of the time. And since we’re now lucky enough to live in a time of abundance, we have to ignore that programming. We have to control ourselves.

Watching what you eat matters. Just like watching what you say and do matters. Pretending that it doesn’t is denying reality.

Yes, our standards for how a woman should look and be are still too exacting. But that’s not the only problem. Having to keep our habits hidden whether we're trying to meet those standards or not is problematic too. Hiding something makes it seem bigger than it really is.

Our messed up, hypocritical double standards about appearance and conduct when it comes to food won’t be fixed when women stop dieting. When women stop talking about dieting.

They’ll be fixed when women start dieting like men.  When we start dieting like it’s not the only thing that matters. When we can start joking about it. Because dammit, my ‘veggie smoothie’ face is just as funny as my boyfriend’s is.

And I can want to change my body for the better without that being the end of the world. Without it being my only life goal. I can be on a diet and not be defined by it.

The mantra of 'everything in moderation' should be allowed to extend to deprivation.  And if I do chose to deprive myself, for whatever reason, please don't tell me I'm not allowed to talk about it, even though my boyfriend is.  Don't deny me the small pleasure of a whinge or a joke. Don't force me into hiding. After all, if I'm not eating cake right now, words are all I've got left.

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