Victorian doctors just loved hysteria, basically the idea that we women can’t help our giddy little heads from getting all muddled by those pressures with which gentlemen are better equipped to cope. Medical authorities no longer accept this diagnosis, you’ll be pleased to hear – at least they don’t around my way. It was a nice little money-spinner in the days when doctors charged; your patient wouldn’t die of it, but treatment could still continue for pretty much as long as the doctor said it needed to.

People still seem to be making money out of this idea of women living on the edge, though, paranoid and overwhelmed over the troubles of everyday life. Take your average questionnaire in a women’s magazine, for example:

‘You weigh yourself and find you have put of 3lbs since last weeks, do you:

a)      Scream and throw your scales out of the window
b)      Eat nothing for three days
c)       Stay at home and not go out for the next 3 months
d)      Kill your boyfriend

‘You find a message on your boyfriend’s phone from a woman who you’ve never heard of, do you:

a)      Dump your boyfriend
b)      Kill your boyfriend
c)       Track the woman down, kill her, then kill your boyfriend
d)      Nuke everything from orbit’

I guess that giving options such as ‘Shrug your shoulders’ or ‘I’d expect there’s some totally normal reason for this so I’d not be in the least worried’ wouldn’t make for compelling journalism.

When you look at media aimed at men and women, one massive difference is that blokes are supposed to laugh everything off – hey, you gotta laugh. But women are expected to take everything deadly seriously and as having life-changing import – hey, you can’t let anyone make a fool out of you, sister. Your man is always on the lookout for a better offer, your bodyweight is always a few pounds away from FAT, that bitch at the next desk is after your boss’s job. It’s a mean world out there, girls.

And we can’t even relax on holiday or enjoy the run up to it, as apparently we should be going on a crash diet and strenuous exercise programme to look good in our bikinis, getting everything waxed and plucked, having salon appointments to prep our skin and have fake tan applied and then buying our perfect wardrobe to impress around the pool. I never realised holidays were such hard work.

We have the rest of the year to be convinced that we look like crap as well.  ‘We’ve all had “fat” days!’ magazines chirp chummily, ‘We’ve all had times when we’ve pulled out of a night out because we think we look awful’ they say, in sisterly communion.

That this seems to be thought of as normal, and not signs of seriously unhealthy thinking, perturbs me to say the least. It tells women not to worry that they hate the way they look, or that they think they’re fat because they put on 2lb last week, as everyone does it, so it’s fine. Have you noticed that women often talk about ‘getting fat’ when they talk about putting any weight on at all, even if they look exactly the same and are still the same clothes size? Even though everyone’s weight fluctuates a bit really and it’s perfectly natural. The press doesn’t quite use this language, but it’s there by implication – especially when magazines confidently crow on cover straplines about the precise amounts of weight that high profile women have lost or gained. And this is obviously all totally accurate information, of course.

We’re supposed to feel reassured that Cheryl hates her thighs, or that Blake Lively, or one of those other glossy American girls with interchangeable surnames and first names  has fat days, whereas all that says to me is that even with all their resources and training and diet of the week, these women still don’t even like their bodies. So what hope is there for a vulnerable 14-year-old girl whose classmate has just called her fat, even though she practically vanishes sideways on, when she reads this sort of thing on a regular basis?

Speaking of vanishing sideways on, I remember, about  10 years ago, Geri Halliwell ‘flaunting her toned yoga body’, as the press would have it. Looking as though she were incapable of actually breathing in, every picture of Halliwell seemed to radiate this rictus grin of ‘Look at me! Look at how well I have done in eliminating all fat from my body! I’m happy, I really am, lalalalala!’ It was all strikingly uncomfortable viewing. Halliwell has since gone on to claim that actually, she was not all that happy at the time.

Let’s face it, we are lucky not to live in a time and place where our every womanly malady is put down to overloading our little lady brains with stuff like reading or over-enthusiastic croquet. But the media does pretty well out of selling us back the modern version – that womanhood is defined by our inability to cope sanely with our bodies, our relationships and our lives in general. Hysterical. But not very funny.

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