Thursday, 10 June 2010

To diet or not to diet?

I’m currently on a diet. Like a quarter of the population, I’m trying to lose weight. But, unlike most of my fellow dieters, I’m finding it a bit of an ethical dilemma.

Oh, give over Charlotte! Spare us the existential angst! I hear you say.

I know, I know. It doesn’t really sit comfortably with the big ethical questions of our age: should we buy clothes made by workers on poverty wages? Is animal testing justified? Should we have gone to war with Iraq?

Should Charlotte be on a diet?

But there is a fundamental mismatch between what I tell my students and how I treat myself. It’s not that I tell my students not to diet. But I do tell them that they are beautiful just as they are. And they truly are.

One of the most moving things about being a bellydance teacher is hearing so many women say that bellydance has enabled them to feel good about themselves for the first time in their lives.

We are bombarded every day with images in the media of beautiful, slender women. Photographs of even the most beautiful and seemingly perfect are airbrushed to remove ‘imperfections’. And I know, because I hear it time and time again, that many women feel truly awful about themselves as a result of judging themselves against these images.

Only a couple of days ago, two women of very different shapes (one slim, one voluptuous) confided to me that they stand at the back of class because they cannot bear to see themselves in a mirror. As I say in the sidebar on this blog, I know without any shadow of a doubt that a very large proportion of women look in the mirror and they judge themselves. They see themselves as unattractive, or fat, or just not good enough. And they live with that every day of their lives.

Yet men look at us and love us. Painters have painted voluptuous women for centuries. Ordinary men, normal men, think we are beautiful. They think we are lovely just as we are.

I’ll never forget my first student show, held in the Women’s Institute Hall in the little town near where I live. The students had only been dancing a year and were a fabulously mixed bunch of ages, shapes and sizes.  None of us could possibly have withstood the scrutiny of TV, but we went out there and danced our socks off, tummies proudly displayed, in front of 100 people.

Afterwards I was truly astounded by the responses of the men in the audience. Every single one I spoke to commented on how beautiful the women were. Several men made a point of coming over to tell me just that. We were all very ordinary women. Aged between 20 and 60 and a wide range of body types. But to the men we were really beautiful.

Even more interestingly, each woman seemed to have one person unrelated to her, who singled her out as being particularly lovely. In other words, each of us had people in that audience who thought we were really special.

A year later I took some non-dancer friends to see the Bellydance Superstars, a bellydance troupe from the US managed by music promoter, Miles Copeland. The Superstars are a well-rehearsed, highly professional troupe of slim, beautiful girls. They left my friends cold.

They said they were put off by the cookie-cutter nature of the dancers. That the array of slender bodies and perfect smiles made them feel they were watching Californian cheerleaders. And every single one said they had preferred our student show in that little WI hall. The reason? Because there, they were seeing ‘real’ women. In all their imperfect beauty.

So what’s with the diet then?

Well, I’m shooting an instructional DVD in a couple of months and the truth is that I am just as affected by media images as every woman out there. And just as self-conscious about my wobbly belly.

I fear that when I look at the DVD in the future, all I will notice is the roll of fat that always shows when I do a hip drop. And the extra belly fat that hangs over my hip belt no matter how good my posture is.

I don’t want to lose too much though. I think it’s important that people see real women on this DVD. I want them to realise that a woman in her 50s and with curves can still be a good dancer. And I hope they can identify with me as being like them: a real woman, not an unobtainable image of perfection and beauty.

But as a real woman, I also have to hold my hand up and say; I wish I were thinner! More beautiful. Just a bit more like Cheryl Cole.

Thank goodness for my husband, who never fails to tell me he loves me exactly as I am!