“Dear Readers, today I ate cake…”

Women are dieting themselves out of existence, but how has it become an acceptable norm? Jean Morley believes that certain media outlets must share a proportion of the blame.

“Sunday 1 January: 129 lbs. (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5424.”

This is not, dear readers, the results of a recent medical or indeed my post-festive shopping list, these are the opening lines of Bridget Jones Diary. Much of the adoration of Helen Fielding’s novel revolves around the fact that it’s “just so believable”. Even the New York Times Book Review took off its sceptical spectacles for a moment, reviewing the book in 1998. “James Joyce it may not be”, it conceded, “but show me the woman to whom this sort of stream-of-consciousness, self-assessing mental clutter is unfamiliar, and I’ll show you the person who will not think Bridget Jones’s Diary is both completely hilarious and spot on.”

Excuse me? While it may seem bizarre to pick an argument with a newspaper review published nearly 12 years ago, I’m still a vicious opponent of the “Bridget Jones effect”. Reading the review online last week, the quote epitomised a cultural phenomenon that has been bothering me since my early teens. Somehow, in the last decade, female self-purgation has become not only a truth reflected by media outlets, but one which is laughed at and glorified too. “Hilarious” and “spot on” are two words typical of our treatment of a troubled female psyche, a mindset gesturing far more towards female body dysmorphic disorder than a healthy participation in everyday life.
Bridget Jones, the size twelve woman who monitors every calorific bite is the hidden author of our glossy magazines. Celebrities and mere mortals are interviewed in hushed confessional tones and, in a growing trend, invited to mathematically deduce their everyday intake. A most crass example, although I’m sure there are more, is the ‘What I ate today’ column in Now Magazine. The tagline that “former Atomic Kitten, 25, admits to skipping breakfast and guzzling tea” reels in readers, perched as they are on the edge of their scales. “Calories 1, 519” says the token nutritionist at the end of column, with the gravity of a state coroner delivering their report. “I’d suggest ditching the champagne and the mozzarella (which is packed with fat) and having fromage frais with the berries instead of cream.”
Maybe it’s unfair to blame magazine editors for women’s attitudes. They have copies to sell and fit female bodies are marketable. A friend of mine, a recent intern in an advertising agency, always stresses the idea of media-as-mirror. If readers are turned on by the rampant of excesses of hysterical womanhood, sell it to them at less than €1.95. Can we really apply harsh ethical standards to the magazines rating the week’s best-dressed? Given their founding principle as momentary diversion in the hairdressers, should we be analysing their alliterating articles at all?
Yes. The press doesn’t just print our opinions; it sanctifies and vilifies certain attitudes as well. The process of printing and circulating words immortalises them. It gives them an authority beyond the tinkle of everyday chat. And words are constantly moulded by the worlds of print and type. In a time when people’s greetings sound more like Facebook status updates, when we ‘poke’ and ‘tweet’ at strangers more than we wave, the terminology of popular media negotiates our behaviour. It would have been ludicrous to complain about ‘carb overloads’, ‘food comas’ and ‘total binges’ a generation or two ago, but we’re fast becoming numb to such guilt-ridden expressions. If the mock-shameful testimonies of brightest stars tell us anything it’s that all women are bound to self-hatred, together.
During the course of one’s entire education, certain words and expressions stick in the brain. First year of English in college left me with the title of a book. The Madwoman in the Attic is a wonderfully-named tome famous for a few controversial feminist arguments on 19th century fiction.
Although much of the main arguments have evacuated my brain, I can’t forget its commentary on the female body. In much Victorian literature, female characters are transient, feeble souls. Much like the kind of period drama heroines gracing our screens, these women melt on moors with the forecast of rain. Through writing women as weak and diminishing in body , male writers could simultaneously write female characters out of the culture of the time.
Could we see a similar motion at work in our magazines and Sunday supplements? By convincing us that food-anxieties are standard and more or less endorsing the will to starve, the media is writing women away. It’s time to exorcise Bridget Jones from our pages. Let’s make that our New Year’s resolution for 2010.