After three decades, I have decided that I might have a normal relationship with my body, although it all depends on how you define “normal”. If you mean “non-neurotic”, then no, I do not have a normal relationship with my body – even if I’d say that I’m happier in my own skin now than I’ve been at any time since the great fall of adolescence. I exercise, I eat well, and I’m proud of what my body can accomplish now rather than appalled by its failure to match up to arbitrary aesthetic standards.
I have cool legs that can carry me 13.1 miles in under two hours now – rather than grotesque, stubby meat sticks that have failed to belong to a six-foot supermodel. But I still think about the way I look an awful lot. The idea of living in a state of happy unconcern about the shape of my thighs is utterly, utterly alien. And this is, clearly, absurd. If I could somehow do an audit of my mental activity over the last 20 years, it’s depressingly likely that I’d discover I’ve spent more time thinking “am I fat?” than I have thinking about, say, how the economy works.
In fact I know I’ve thought more about my legs than I have about the economy, because I could give you an exact account of every possible criticism that could be made of my legs, and all I could tell you about the economy is, “Er, it’s fucked, isn’t it?” This is obviously not a good or productive use of my brain. But I don’t think it’s unusual enough to be called abnormal: lots of people – and in particular, lots of women – live in bitter disappointment with their physical form.
We live in a culture where the female form is picked over incessantly. National newspapers (not just the Mail, but mostly the Mail) have pretty much the same ridiculous priorities as I do: you’ll find more meticulous scrutiny of women’s bodies in the press than you will of the financial system. (I naively thought it was enough to be worried about my tits and arse, until I came across the Mail and realised it’s possible to cause mass public offence with a saggy knee.)
I can’t pretend that this body angst lives only in the office of Paul Dacre, though: it’s in me too, and horribly I know I’m in the process of passing it on to my own daughter. I never criticise the way she looks, and she’s an an active, happy child. But she’s seen me at the mirror, inspecting my profile and patting querulously at the unsatisfactory bits, and I’ve seen her imitating me – playing at having my neuroses like she’d play at going shopping or making dinner. It’s just another part of the adult world that she’s learning to belong to.