By Sarah Meuleman

Recently published in NRC Handelsblad (NL) and De Standaard (BE)

Trendwatchers predict: this year the nineties heroin chic look à la Kate Moss is back with a vengeance. Kim Kardashian has brought her plastic surgeons up to speed, and Kate Moss’ daughter strutted the runway even thinner than her mom in her heroin chic heydays. In 2023, we’ll get to mirror ourselves again to women in fabulous clothes, emaciated and with sunken cheeks, looking cross and bored to death. I look back in horror and fear.

A number on a scale. A clothing size. Countless women have decided 2023 is going to be the year they will finally lose weight. Again. This year for real. Studies of women’s eating behaviour all show the same: about three quarters (three quarters, yes) of all women are struggling with their bodies and thinking about losing weight. A preoccupation that leads to a worrisome, disturbed relationship with food.

We diet on and off, think of meals in terms of “sinning” and “rewarding”, we hate the scales. Thin women, fat women; ironically, it doesn’t make any difference. Literally, ‘every body’ finds something to criticize, a reason to be dissatisfied. Whether we’re concerned about ten kilos or fivehundred grams, the effect is the same: a dormant stress, lingering feelings of hurt, fear, shame and guilt. The idea that our body isn’t “right” or “up to standard”, the nagging conviction that something needs to change. Of course, there are women with serious weight problems or slim women who will not gain an ounce, even if they tried. This essay isn’t about them.

This is about your neighbor, your boss, your sister, your best friend. About Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Lady Gaga, Lady Di. About how women are so very different, but affected by the same lie. An phenomenon that has become so normalized in our Western society that it is considered innocent, self-evident and even socially desirable.

The post-war Western ideal of the female body can be summarized in three words: less is more. Trimmer, slimmer, thinner, please. After a brief commercially driven uptick in plus size commercials, we’re back where we left off. The smooth return of heroin chic betrays the body positive movement of recent years has been nothing but a thin veneer, a sticking-plaster on an open wound.

One in four women engages in calorie intake, dieting, pills, fasting, laxatives or vomiting. Imagine a table in a restaurant where four women are sitting: three of them are not just enjoying themselves, but also dubbing, fighting, counting calories. They allow their self-image and self-esteem to be determined by a number. Many women spend a lifetime counting calories without ever losing the weight they want to lose, having lost so much along the way. And the odd thing is they don’t get angry about all the time and energy diet culture steals from them. The, er, balance is never really drawn up.

Anyone who thinks that curvy singers like Beyoncé have a positive effect on the new generation is sadly mistaken. During the pandemic, the number of girls with eating disorders has grown at an alarming rate. There are plenty of hashtags on TikTok that promote unhealthy weight loss with names like #thinspo or #whatieatinaday. The weight doctrine begins earlier and earlier, ten-year-olds are already dieting and when my daughter told me that someone taught her how to put a finger down your throat, I was livid. Then, I felt powerless and decided to write this piece.

Weight is a tricky subject because it can easily be dismissed as “trivial”. It seems like a luxury, a rich country frat. There are numerous more serious and important things going on: the environment is destroyed, the world is on fire and you worry about body weight?

I would like to bounce that sentence back. Read it again, not as a critique on this piece, but as a critique by this piece. Then, the question suddenly becomes a lot harder to answer because the obsession of the contemporary Western woman with her weight is highly irrational.

The promise that obtaining an “ideal weight” will bring eternal bliss and happiness is a fairy tale that almost every woman believes in. An obvious manifestation of the value women place on their weight is the the high school reunion. A recent study looked at the criteria by which women judge each other, and when they viewed their former classmates as leading a “successful” life. The results? The most envied classmates weren’t those with the impressive careers or the highest social positions (as is still the case with men), but the women who were… thin.

For most women a successful life is a slender life. Sad to hear, perhaps, but another inconvenient truth. The shimmer of slim seems irresistible. It’s almost a religion. Or, as heroin chic mama Kate Moss once said: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

And we’re back to heroin. Karl Marx characterized religion as the opium of the people and a major obstacle to revolution. I’d like to argue that today, diets, clothing sizes and target weights are the opium of women. An addiction fueled and maintained by an economy in which she participates both as a consumer, and as a provider. Entire economic sectors are founded on and depend on her uncertainty about her body weight. Everything from magazines to low-carb bread exist merely to facilitate her addiction. It’s all very expensive, but hey, she is ready to spend!

The preoccupation of women with weight is no longer a choice but an inevitable, overwhelming doctrine that has penetrated deep into the veins of Western society. Each day, women are constantly beckoned, prodded, harassed by the weight doctrine: from the billboards at the station to the magazines on the train, from conversations with colleagues at lunch to Netflix in the evening. Everywhere, we hear that urging whisper: be thin, be slim, then you’re doing great! Inside every chubby woman is a slender princess yearning to be freed —another dreadful lie. Because you’re worth it! But you’re only really worth something if you live up to perfection. And who manages that?

Perfection may sound unattainable, but the sneaky thing about the weight doctrine is that it is presented as totally within reach. The path to slender looks perfectly paved: there are recipes, rules, numbers, calorie charts. In that sense, the doctrine resembles those old-fashioned claw machines at the funfair. You see the watch, look at the grippers and before you know it you’re sliding another coin in the machine.

After so many years under the weight doctrine, we are not only addicted to the watch, but also to the game itself. Addicted to the addiction. Played by the claws. Because a firm doctrine provides comfort, a sense of purpose, and an easy, forthright distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Despite the fact that the addiction is compelling, even oppressive, it offers us something to hold on to. The future is clear, one thing we know for sure: we’ll always hunger for more.

The effect the weight doctrine has on women is comparable to opium: narcotic, paralyzing. A disturbed relationship with food makes women weaker. In a most literal sense: food is energy. Women who eat less or diet, deny themselves nutrients, building materials, a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals. During a period of dieting, they won’t function at the top of their strength. Of course, I don’t promote unhealthy eating habits. Ironically enough, the temptation of eating fatty and sugary foods is disproportionately great precisely because of the addiction.

The weight doctrine also weakens us on a more abstract level: those who invest time in thinking about weight (however short or long, however consciously or casually), who put thoughts into counting calories and worry about waistlines, can’t use that time for other, constructive, truly meaningful things. The weight doctrine creates brain trash. Piles and piles of smelly trash. Weight thoughts are downright rubbish for any sane brain. And, really, such a waste.

If we dare to zoom out and look at the consequences of the weight doctrine on a societal scale, women are grossly selling ourselves short. By adhering to the weight doctrine, we agree to underperform not only as individuals, but also as a group. We compare ourselves to a “perfect” female body weight far below the healthy, scientifically determined BMI. Why? Are we afraid to succeed? There’s something sour, rather cynical about this: in recent decades women have gained much influence and power, yet three out of four women want nothing more than to make themselves “slighter” than they are. As if we somehow have to compensate for that newly claimed space…

Quitting the weight doctrine will be hard. It’s difficult to quit something we never consciously embraced. The weight doctrine has become an intricate part of countless moments, rituals and aspects of our daily lives. How do we let it go? It’s complicated – maybe even unimaginable. The doctrine has, as it were, become one with our bodies, our self-images, our selves.

Generations of women have been raised by mothers who followed and “taught” the doctrine. Don’t fool yourselves, our daughters are very much aware that mom is worrying about her body. That mom is on a diet – the umpteenth. That mom has a scale in the bathroom that makes her sad. In other words, without wanting to, we help the doctrine flourish and we, suffering the doctrine ourselves, are ready to indoctrinate the next generation.

Perhaps we are afraid of the unknown. What if? What if we decide to call it quits today? What if we refuse to play the weight game, dump our scales with the trash tomorrow, decide to focus on more fun and meaningful things? Don’t we owe it to our daughters? Wouldn’t it be nice if they grow up without the suffocating, paralyzing effects of a doctrine that keeps us smaller than we ought to be?

After all, if we do take stock, we can only conclude that the costs of this addiction far outweigh the benefits – whatever mama Moss believes. To hell with heroin chic! I wish 2023 an abundance of chic heroines who believe with their heart, their soul and their entire body they should never be anything less than they are right now.