Samantha Brick, Fat Is Not Failure

I am currently caught in a shame spiral. Why? Because I’m contributing to the hit count of the Mail Online. They’re devious bastards whose website is designed to pull in both the Muslim-haters who agree with everything Peter Hitchens says and the earnest, possibly masochistic liberals who can’t quite believe what they’re reading. I know that this is what they do and yet I’ve still fallen into their trap. Bugger.

This time, I’ve been ensnared by the section dedicated especially for people like me (aka women): Femail. Femail, I am certain, is an anti-feminist plot designed to show the world that if you give women a voice they will only use it to bitch about each other and talk about shoes. Once the UK has been convinced that women are all either conniving bitches or vacuous airheads with little more capacity for intellectual thought than one of those life-size sex dolls, they will take away our right to vote. No columnist has been more successful in promoting this view than Samantha Brick, whose column “There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful” from last April had a similar effect on the British public to a drop of blood in a tank of sharks. It’s been a year since Ms Brick was publicly ridiculed for this vain and horrendously anti-feminist piece of writing and apparently the Mail feels that the woman has escaped being bad-mouthed so much that she trends on Twitter for long enough. Her most recent piece for the insidious tabloid is certainly aiming for the same amount of controversy, as it is titled: “Joan Collins is right. Any woman who wants to stay beautiful (like me!) needs to diet every day of her life”. Christ.

It begins like this: “When my husband and I invited friends to dinner, I knew they'd want to bring something along as a contribution to the evening and made a point of saying that wasn't necessary. So when one friend arrived and thrust a hefty box of chocolates into my hands, I rewarded her with ice-cold contempt rather than the grateful smile she was clearly expecting.” What a shame that your manners aren’t as beautiful as your face, Samantha. She then goes on to describe the way that she threw the “very expensive box of hand-made French chocolates” into the bin, having covered them in coffee dregs, and proudly proclaims that she has been on a diet since she was 12 years old. Why? Because men like thin women, therefore being fat is a mark of failure. Plus-size singer-songwriter Adele has probably tricked you into believing she was a talented and successful artist with her highest-selling album of the 21st century and 9 Grammy awards, so thank God Samantha Brick is here to remind us that this is all irrelevant due to her weight.

While the article was clearly trying to praise the merits of being slim, it read more like the horror stories about eating disorders I used to read in teen magazines like Bliss or Sugar. Brick describes being so desperate to fit into a size 8 that she lived off of Marmite toast for a year and went through a phase of eating packets of Polo mints instead of meals. She cites Wallis Simpson’s demonstrably untrue cliché that “you can never be too rich or too thin”, something that I would like to see her say to the parent of a child with anorexia. Fainting from hunger and dieting so hard she doesn’t have the energy to work are worth it, apparently, because she looked good and was asked out on lots of dates. For the majority of people, being a functioning human being is a priority over increasing the number of men who come onto you in bars. Far from making me determined to maintain a thin figure, Brick’s documentation of her horrifying eating habits made me want to go out and eat a few dozen cream cakes. See! Femail just encourages unhealthy eating habits in young, impressionable women.

The icing on the (soon to be thrown away, untouched) cake was the disparaging attitude Brick displays towards overweight woman. “As I see it,” she proclaims, “there is nothing in life that signifies failure better than fat.” Forget misery, loneliness or poverty; what you really need to be avoiding, ladies, is a muffin top. You could be a racist crack addict who likes to spend their spare time stamping on newborn puppies and you’d still be more worthy of Samantha Brick’s respect than someone who wears a size 20.

I’m not going to delve too far into the subject of whether it’s possible to be overweight and healthy because it’s been covered before and I’m not a nutritionist. What I do firmly believe, however, is that a person’s health is their business and nobody else’s, except perhaps their doctor. It’s certainly not the business of judgemental people on the street whose self-esteem is so fragile that they spend their time seeking out people that they can deem inferior just for a quick flash of ego. I’d rather not be deemed a failure in life because of that time I scarfed down an entire large Domino’s pizza and couldn’t fit into my jeans for three days.

While taking care of one’s body and making healthy lifestyle choices is something I think we all agree should be encouraged, making yourself miserable in order to cling on to a socially constructed ideal of beauty is far from healthy. It also feels like an exercise in futility. Samantha is right when she says that we live in a society where thin is attractive but she forgets to mention the importance that society also puts on youth. For every Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon in the world, there are thousands of beautiful women who are deemed “past it” now that they’ve dared to succumb to age and develop a few wrinkles. The ageing process is unavoidable and irreversible which means that, chances are, we’ll all eventually stop being considered attractive. Life is finite. We all die of something. Isn’t it a bit pointless to spend a large portion of that limited time making yourself ill and unhappy just to maintain beauty that you’re going to lose anyway? Wouldn’t our energy be put to better use cultivating something that will last us until we finally shuffle off this mortal coil, like knowledge, skills or even, God forbid, a pleasing personality? Joan Collins may be “still attractive and in demand” in the eyes of some but Judi Dench has 11 BAFTAs, 2 Golden Globes, an Oscar and 7 Laurence Olivier Awards and is still starring in box office smashes and selling out West End theatres at the age of 78. Her success is down to hard work and talent, not obsessing over her appearance.

Is it anti-feminist to take pride in your appearance? Of course not. Most of us feel good when we look good. As much as I’d like to claim that I’m above vanity, I just feel that little bit happier about myself after I’ve spent 2 hours getting ready for a night out than when I crawl into a 9am seminar with still-wet hair and eyes so small I resemble a shrew. However, Brick isn’t just confessing to a little vanity; she’s deeming fat women useless and invaluable. We should be looking good for ourselves, not because a paper with a history of supporting Nazis has told us that this is the only way we can bring anything of value to the world. Samantha Brick is not vile because she thinks she is beautiful, or even because she goes to such unhealthy measures to stay thin, but because she is determined to write off women (just women; men are allowed to be fat and successful, obviously) as complete failures for no reason other than the fact that they’ve done something with their bodies that she disapproves of.

And yet, despite everything this woman having said being at best laughable and at worst dangerous, I can’t help but feel sorry for Samantha Brick. For starters, she seems to have married a complete and total arsehole. After Samantha went up to a size 14 (the horror!) while suffering from depression, the reader is informed that her delightful husband was able to motivate her to losing weight again by promising to dump her if she got fat. (As a side note, a photo of her husband is included in the article and he is far from slim himself.) Someone who has consistently gone out with men who have encouraged her unhealthy obsession with being thin and even shamed her for “slipping up” is not going to be in the best position to change her views on the matter. 

We all knew a kid at school who constantly made fun of the people who got high grades because they were struggling to pass, or who called people ugly because they were insecure about their own looks. Samantha Brick is this child grown up, sniping at the overweight because picking on what she perceives as a flaw validates the self-denial on which she’s based her adult life. She sees women who have successful careers, stable families and buzzing social lives and feels inferior, so she searches for a bulge over the waistband or a bingo wing in order to find some reason, any reason, that she call these happy people who have achieved their aims in life failures. Yes, she is awful, but she’s also pitiable. I can probably list a hundred reasons to despise the Daily Mail and the fact that they’ve actually got me feeling sorry for Samantha Brick is near the top.

Is what Samantha Brick is saying odious? Absolutely, but the woman is clearly in need of help and giving her distorted worldview a platform is just the kind of irresponsible journalism that the Mail relies on to keep people flocking to its website. We should all be condemning this article and the appalling message it’s sending out, but attacking the author’s looks in an attempt to bring her down a peg feel rather futile and unnecessary. I can’t help but feel that if my self-esteem and marriage were reliant on how thin I was, I’d look at all the happy people who can eat a bit of chocolate now and then without caring if they gain a pound or two, and feel bitterly envious as well.