Three weeks ago, I texted a close friend, who I knew would forgive the temporary betrayal of my feminist ideals, and complained about the fact that I weighed exactly the same as I did after returning from gorging myself on pasta and beer in Europe five months ago. I knew it shouldn’t have mattered – I am strong, healthy, and can use my body to do almost whatever I will it to. I’m the one who constantly documents the fat-shaming comments uttered around me and banks them up to relay at the dinner table, where we all guffaw at their inanity but despair at their inherent harm and how they reduce a woman’s value to a figure on bathroom scales. Shielded from common view, however, is a deep-seated desire to morph into something that weighs ten kilos less than I do now. So entrenched is the message that thin = good that I secretly think my life will irrevocably change if I shrink myself to the size I used to be – I’ll be able to find jeans that fit my calves and my thighs; I’ll be able to look at a photo of myself without zooming in on my stomach rolls or my double chin; I’ll be brave enough to wear a pair of bathers in public; I’ll be able to return to Malaysia without being greeted by the usual jibes: “You’ve put on a bit of weight, haven’t you?”
That I strive to champion body positivity in every facet of my life, encourage my friends to rewire their thinking when they bemoan their weight, and rail against the pervading sentiment in my corporate work environment where the thin ideal is elevated above all else (just the other day, I overheard someone saying she was glad she was pregnant because it meant she could finally eat spaghetti Bolognese for lunch without feeling guilty) means naught when I turn to the mirror. I still think I’m fat, and I still think it’s because of a failure on my part to resist, to control, to withstand, to take up less space.
Loving one’s body is a radical political act, particularly when you’re a woman whose body doesn’t adhere to the circumscribed conventions of beauty. In her podcast Women of the Hour, Lena Dunham pays tribute to her body, a body that’s been widely derided as being “fat and hideous”:
The weird thing is: I love my body. I really do … I love my tiny breasts and my puffy nipples. I love my potbelly, which I often rub when I’m falling asleep like it’s a genie’s lamp. I love my wide pale thighs and my dimpled knees and I even love the way my ass spreads over the toilet seat. I just do. I fall asleep in this body, I wake up in this body, I live the life of my dreams in this body.
Clementine Ford devotes many paragraphs in her feminist manifesto Fight Like a Girl to the idea of self-love, but I’ve dog-eared this passage for when I feel like I did three weeks ago:
Write down a list of all the things that you’re good at and all the things you enjoy doing. When you’re feeling down or insecure about yourself, take that list out and remember that your body is a good body.
By subverting the moral supremacy of the word ‘good’ when used to describe women’s bodies and conduct, Ford wrests control away from a society that polices women’s behaviour and places it firmly in the hands of women who can do as they fucking want – unapologetically and purposefully.
This sense of defiance characterises much of Fight Like a Girl, which unfolds in a loose chronological manner. Charting her path from childhood to impending motherhood, Ford views her formative experiences through a feminist lens, after she started identifying as one in her university days.
Ford’s childhood eating disorder could only have happened in a society that refuses to notice anything remiss when a young girl loses weight at an alarmingly rapid pace; such is the pedestal that a skinny body, attained by any means, occupies. Her first accidental brush with masturbation taught her how valuable that experience was in a world that prizes men’s whims and caprices above all else. Her two abortions and anxiety about becoming a mother run counter to the widespread propagation of the ‘Ideal Woman’ stereotype.
Even when Ford isn’t speaking from a personal place, she is resoundingly effective – though much of it may be familiar to people who are acquainted with Ford’s work. Much of the book is dedicated to analysing why women capitulate to the system, situating domestic violence and sexual assault within a society that views women as expendable, and discussing what men’s place in feminism should be (lead from the back, if at all).
Through Ford’s deconstruction of the world around her, well-worn pieces of advice such as ‘pretend you’re full before you actually are’ (someone once told me to drink a bottle of water before any meal to suppress my appetite) and ‘dress for your shape’ (recalling the harmful, misguided attempts of fashion gurus such as Trinny and Susannah whom I grew up idolising) assume a particular insidiousness. What these pieces of advice really mean is: don’t break the rules and you will earn a place at the table.
Ford impels us to re-examine each and every facet of our lives, where we’re more likely than not to find a trace of the ingrained patriarchal attitudes that continue to subjugate women. She effectively locates these traces in seemingly innocuous, everyday products, such as shampoos that decree every type of hair as unmanageable and moisturisers that proclaim that you simply have to buy them if you’re a person who cares about your skin. As women, we are constantly told that we are lacking in some fundamental way.
I still remember the look of utter disdain on a Kiehl’s salesperson’s face when I contravened women’s beauty laws. I was twenty and had mistakenly confessed to her that I’d never used a toner or cleanser, and that I’d be most grateful if she could help me ascertain which ones suited my skin. Too preoccupied with lecturing me about the damage I was inflicting on my skin, the salesperson didn’t notice my gradually drooping shoulders. I still don’t use toner or cleanser, because, as is the right of men the world over, I simply don’t care enough.
Opposition to the feminist ideals Ford espouses may be thought to reside in the darkest corners of the internet or the old boys’ club at work. Yet erroneous views about the plight of men come from the unlikeliest of places.
Having dinner a few months ago, an old friend and I butted heads over who were the predominant perpetrators of domestic violence. Armed with nothing more than a “gut feeling”, my friend proclaimed that men constitute fifty per cent of domestic violence victims and we haven’t heard from all of them because they “don’t speak up”. Despite the number of women who themselves don’t speak up, the fact that women have and continue to face death as a result of domestic violence, and that domestic violence is the number one killer of women under forty-five, my friend remained unconvinced. That she was a graduate who routinely advocated for the welfare of refugees didn’t render her immune from the misinformation that we see constantly from internet trolls.
I left that dinner feeling thoroughly spent and close to tears. Books such as Fight Like a Girl give me a vocabulary through which to navigate my disquiet at such ill-informed views that further perpetuate the misconceptions that abound about the mistreatment of women.
As Ford says, if you’re not angry about the state of the world and how it continues to oppress women, you’re not paying enough attention. And anger can be an incredibly powerful tool.
Akin to a glossary of ‘helpful feminist texts that every girl needs in their lives’, Ford arms readers with an arsenal of pop culture weapons to dismantle the unyielding notions perpetuated by the patriarchy. Contemporary TV shows that break new ground in their representation of female friendship such as Broad City, Parks and Recreation, and Jessica Jones are mentioned alongside the revolutionary 1938 play Gas Light, films such as Beaches and Made in Dagenham, and American blogger Rebecca Bink’s photographs that inverted the Women Against Feminism movement in 2014.
In a book that makes no mention of heavyweight feminist thinkers such as Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer or Betty Friedan and doesn’t situate itself in the canon of feminist literature—Ford has said that she is “shamefully ill-read when it comes to feminist academia”—the inclusion of more recent pop culture references is interesting in itself. It bears testament to Ford’s rise as a widely read online op-ed feminist writer, where she talks to a broad audience and occupies the same space as other feminists such as Laurie Penny and Caitlin Moran, with all three of them eschewing academia for a more journalistic style. While Ford’s writing has and will continue to raise the consciousness of many young girls and those unfamiliar with the tenets of feminism, readers looking for a more theoretical framework to explain the patriarchal structures within which we live won’t find it in Fight Like a Girl.
With moments of stark clarity abounding in the book, however, it is more than a Feminism 101 text – it is an impassioned call to action and it is an effective one at that. Maybe the fact that this book exists for young girls now is proof that you don’t have to reach the age of twenty-one, as I was when I first became properly acquainted with feminism, before you stop saying things like “she was asking for it” and “having a female boss is the worst”.
In that way, Fight Like a Girl will embolden a generation of girls who won’t have to battle so hard to unlearn their internalised misogyny, because they’ll simply start fighting it at a younger age.
Sonia Nair is a freelance writer and critic who has been published in The Big Issue, Australian Book Review and Books&Publishing. She tweets at @son_nair and blogs about how she never follows her food intolerances at www.whateverfloatsyourbloat.com.