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lip-readings : the weight-loss resolution

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At our recent Lip-readings event in Canberra on January 24, SBS Press Gallery Producer/Reporter Shalailah Medhora gave the following speech on the complex issue of weight loss and women. Told with her unique voice, her talk painted a frighteningly realistic picture of the body image issues that plague so many women – and we’re excited to share it in full here.

A survey taken by insurer Medibank late last year shows that losing weight and exercising more were the top goals for 2014.

That doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve made those goals myself, more than once. In fact, New Year’s morning wouldn’t be the same without half-heartedly rummaging through my fridge, separating the “good” foods from the “bad” foods, and convincing myself that the resolution doesn’t start till all the soft cheese and dark chocolate has been consumed, because after all, there are starving children in Africa, and throwing out perfectly good food should be a crime.

So the fact that people vow to make these changes in their life is neither new nor shocking. But what I find interesting is the slow blending of terms. Weight loss and increased fitness are not the same thing, though increasingly, they are being sold as synonymous. Especially by an industry and culture that sells an ideal.

“Thin” and “fit” don’t mean the same thing. For example, Serena Williams is the very picture of physical health. The top of her game, there aren’t many people who wouldn’t quietly wet themselves at the thought of facing her killer serve. But her image, that of an Amazonian black woman, is nowhere near as marketable as some of her younger, thinner, whiter contemporaries.

Australians spend $800 million a year on weight-loss, and it makes me wonder: what came first? Society’s obsession with thinness, or an industry that pushes it?

There’s no doubt that women cop this body pressure more than men – though it’s increasing with men too.

I’d like to share a story with you to highlight my point. I’ve been mulling over it since it happened a few months ago, alternately fuming and contemplating. I don’t know why it upset me so much, but it just does.

My friend Kate and I were walking through Civic one Saturday. It was hot; we were wearing shorts. A car full of young men pull up next to us. One, who couldn’t have been more than 19, yells out the window to us: “You! You’re attractive!”

Now, as far as car heckles go, this one was pretty tame, and Kate and I had a chuckle and kept walking. Our young friend, however, wouldn’t let it go, and kept shouting at us “you’re attractive!” After the third time, I turned around and retorted, “well you’re not.”

Without missing a beat, he replied: “I don’t have to be; I’m a boy”.

This stayed with me for a long time.

As a woman, society doesn’t care about my achievements and experiences. It doesn’t care that I have two degrees, have travelled to every continent on Earth, or that I have an innate talent for double entendre. It doesn’t care that I can cook a mean curry, or that I’m generally well-liked.

All that matters is whether or not I have a bikini-ready body, and, more importantly, whether I’ll show it to you.

I think I feel this double-standard more because of the industry I’m in. I don’t look like the other girls on TV – there’s no denying that. I’m lucky enough to work for an employer that cares about my journalist ability, rather than how I look, and for that I’m thankful. Not all female reporters can say the same thing. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune or oblivious to the pressures women in the public eye face when it comes to body image.

Part of this, of course, is the lack of (for want of a better description): curvy role models.

Every now and then a bigger, fleshier celebrity takes showbiz by storm. While she may be lauded for her figure, she inevitably always faces questions and criticisms over her weight.

The very funny American actress and comedian, Mindy Kaling, who is best known for her role in the US version of The Office, put it best. While she is fending off well-intentioned, though ultimately offensive questions about how she maintains her self-esteem as a curvy, brown actress in an industry of white stick figures, her fellow actresses are being asked about their work.

It seems no sooner is an actress or model applauded for her curves, and for representing the “real woman”, that she goes and loses weight.

I have more examples than I can fit into a ten-minute speech, so here are some examples: model Sophie Dahl, Ugly Betty actress America Ferrara, and 90s starlet Janeane Garofalo – who once famously described her weight as “political”.

Academy Award-winning actress and American Idol contestant, Jennifer Hudson, lost more than 35 kilos using a Weight Watchers program. She reportedly said that she’s prouder of her weight loss than she is of her Oscar.

Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Ms Hudson, a talented singer and thespian, is prouder of the fact that she fits into a pre-prescribed ideal of feminine beauty, than she is of the fact that she received one of the highest honours an actor can get. Of course, Ms Hudson could have been referring to the health benefit of her new figure. But she didn’t say she was proud of being healthy. She said she was proud of being thin.

I’m not saying that the obsession with physical beauty is exclusive to Western cultures. The desire to be attractive and net a good mate is universal – from sub-Saharan Africa to war-torn Syria.

The extent to which we take it in places like Australia, is the problem. It’s pretty hard to be concerned about having a few stray hairs in parts of your body not readily visible to Joe Public when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, or whether your house will make it through the next round of mortar attacks. Twitter has a name for this  – the aptly titled “First World Problems”.

That brings me back to my original point, about the merging of “thinness” and “fitness”. There’s an $800 million industry telling us we need to be lithe and hair-free, and we’ll gladly part with our hard-earned cash on crazy schemes like the lemon detox diet (most recently revealed as the world’s dodgiest diet), and the Brazilian Butt Lift DVD. (I don’t have the imagination to make something like that up – it actually exists!)

There are perfectly healthy Serena Williams-shaped women out there resolving to get skinny, when there’s absolutely no healthy reason for them to do so.

Perhaps our resolutions for 2015 should be to call out this ridiculous behaviour, rather than perpetuating an industry that stakes its very existence on making us feel bad about ourselves.

Shalailah Medhora is Producer/ Reporter with SBS at the Press Gallery. A politics junkie, she enjoys working in the capital and seeing how politics affects people’s day-to-day life. She doesn’t just report on politics, often covering social issues and arts and culture.

Before making the move to Canberra, Shalailah worked in both online and radio news at SBS in Sydney. She’s passionate about community radio, and volunteered as a producer and presenter at two Sydney radio stations throughout her youth.

Image: Mason Bryant

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