Hilary Mantel: ‘You have to experience it to know what fat is like’

hilary mantel in 1994

A particularly interesting piece I came across in The Guardian, which is an extract from Hilary Mantel’s autobiography. She talks very candidly about her size and how people perceive and judge her, based on that. In light of my own recent posts regarding dieting and weight – and general issues of body dysmorphia – I found it to be an interesting read. Mantel is now widely regarded as the pre-eminent writer of her generation, certainly in the UK (she’s won the Booker Prize twice, and more recently, the Costa).

When I was thin I had no notion of what being fat is like. When I worked in a department store, I had sold clothes to women of most sizes, so I should have known; but perhaps you have to experience the state from the inside, to understand what fat is like. When you sell clothes, you get very good at sizing people, but I had sized my customers as if they were fridge-freezers, or some other unnegotiable object, solid and with a height, width and depth. Fat is not like this. It is insidious and creepy. It is not a matter of chest-waist-hip measurement. You get fat knees, fat feet, fat in bits of you that you’d never thought of. You get in a panic, and believe in strange diets; you give up carbohydrate, then fat, then you subsist for a bit on breakfast cereal and fruit because it seems easier that way; then you find yourself weak at the fat knees, at risk of falling over in the street. You get up on winter mornings to pack ice cubes into a diet shake that tastes like some imbibed jelly, a primitive life form that will bud inside you. You throw tantrums in fat-lady shops, where the stock is grimy tat tacked together from cheap man-made fabric, choice of electric blue or cerise. You can’t get your legs into boots, or your feet into last year’s shoes.

You say, OK, then I’ll be fat. As it seems you have no choice, you generously concur. But you become a little wary of adverbs like “generously”. Of adjectives like “full-bodied”, “womanly” or “ample”. You think people are staring at you, talking about you. They probably are. One of my favourite grim sports, since I became a published writer and had people to interview me, has been to wait and see how the profiler will turn me out in print. With what adjective will they characterise the startlingly round woman on whose sofa they are lolling? “Apple-cheeked” is the sweetest. “Maternal” made me smile: well, almost.

OK, you say, it seems I can’t be thin, so I’ll be fat and make the best of it. “Fat is a Feminist Issue,” you tell yourself. Fat is not immoral. There is no link between your waistline and your ethics. But though you insist on this, in your own mind, everything tells you you’re wrong; or, let’s say, you’re going in for the form of intellectual discrimination that cuts against the perception of most of the population, who know that overweight people are lazy, undisciplined slobs. Their perception, of course, is conditioned, not natural.

Read the rest here.

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