Not exactly a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”—so far the autumn has been full of wind and rain (as I write, the biggest storm in a decade—christened St. Jude—is bearing down on the U.K.). But I’ve had a lively few weeks travelling around the UK, filming the new series of Supersize vs Superskinny, and doing the rounds of the Literary Festivals.
The atmosphere at each festival is distinctive, and the towns are different too—this is what our small island calls the North-South divide. The affluent spa town of Cheltenham, nestled on the edge of the Cotswolds down in the south-west, feels like another world to the northern industrial city of Sheffield. The fact that they’re barely a few hours apart—that you could cross our entire country in a single day—seems crazy when you consider the vast, unpopulated distances in America. I remember driving across Wyoming for eight hours without seeing anything but mountains and prairie.
I’ve always loved travelling by rail (particularly since flying got so stressful). Each train journey is just long enough to run through my notes for each book talk, and try to catch a few minutes of shut-eye. It’s enjoyable but tiring, meeting strangers and living out of a suitcase. I don’t know how musicians survive on those never-ending world tours, a blur of planes, hotel rooms, new places and faces.
At the Cheltenham Literature Festival I’m on a panel alongside Lionel Shriver, an author I admire very much. Our event, entitled Body Image, takes place on a sparkling Sunday morning in Cheltenham’s Imperial Square. The town is buzzing with media types and the literary cognoscenti. “It’s a full house,” the organiser beams at us in the green room beforehand—fortunately I’m too busy staring at the writer Ian Rankin and the actress Emma Thompson to get nervous.
Shriver, who grew up in North Carolina but now lives in London, won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. She’s fiercely intelligent and cool as hell, wearing a leather jacket and cowboy boots. Her new novel, Big Brother, was sadly inspired by the morbid obesity and subsequent death of her own brother.
It turns out to be a varied debate, covering issues from anorexia, to obsession with celebrity and the media, extreme dieting, the growth in male eating disorders, internet anonymity and more. A propos of body image, Shriver relates the dispiriting experience of promoting Big Brother, in which every interviewer focused on her appearance, her personal life, and her unusual exercise routine. Both in the U.S. and the U.K. the hacks rehash the same prurient details, that she runs 9 or 10 miles a day, that she does 500 star jumps (or jumping jacks as she calls them), her single nocturnal meal, and other irrelevant quirks.
An interview with a high-profile woman reliably hones in on the superficialities: how she's ageing, what she's wearing, what she eats, what shape she's in.
“When you’re talking to a journalist, it’s easy to forget that you’re potentially talking to millions,” Shriver explains. “I’m a naturally confiding person; when someone asks me about my exercise regime I don’t feel I have anything to hide.”
Shriver is spot on—an interview with a high-profile woman reliably hones in on the superficialities: how she’s ageing, what she’s wearing, what she eats, what shape she’s in. No matter what their personal achievements, musical, sporting, political or scientific, we’re given the intimate details of their domestic set-up, whether they have children—and if not, WHY not—and who they’re married to or divorced from, ‘blissfully happy’ or ‘unlucky in love’. We don’t do this with famous men. When a male writer gives an interview, it’s about the new book, not their body or what they order for breakfast.
Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with human interest—I’m curious about the routines of well-known writers too—but with women, it eclipses their work. And it’s not just writers: in every area of modern life, women are judged by their appearance rather than their attainments.
As Shriver herself pointed out in a New York Times interview this summer: “I can see how the fact that I eat one meal a day is eye-catching for a journalist, but you know, David Petraeus eats one meal a day, and nobody says that’s a really disturbed relationship to food. The assumption with David Petraeus is, Oh, that’s a military man. In women the assumption is you’re some kind of neurotic.”
Back at the festival, the final audience question comes from a man: "So when it comes to body image, is there any cause for optimism?" I’m not sure. As the definition of female beauty becomes more homogeneous (blonder hair, bouncy breasts, slim thighs) you have to wonder where it will all end. The fixation with thin and the taboo of natural ageing show no sign of abating: models are getting skinnier and cosmetic surgery more extreme. We don’t know the long-term outcomes of these procedures: what will faces, repeatedly injected with Botulinum Toxin, look like at the age of 80?
On the train home, I think about something Lionel Shriver said: “We tell our friends, I’m happy to see you.” She’s right—we enjoy seeing our friends because of who they are, not how they look. We don’t expect them to have perfect skin or flawless figures, nor do we dislike them if they succumb to the odd wrinkle or grey hair. We’re happy to see them because we like being with them; because they’re our friends. Let’s smash up the mirrors and silence the inner critic: let’s start to value our own company, not our bodies, just as we do our friends.