Bottoms up, sister!

I LOVE The Vicar of Dibley and Dawn French’s vicar, Geraldine Granger. But after most episodes, my stomach hurts – figuratively, that is. Which may be better than the literal way the vicar’s must feel. Because at some point in each episode of the show, Geraldine does some serious eating: a freezer’s worth of icecream, a cupboard full of chocolate bars, an entire Yule Log. That sort of thing.

I know that as a feminist I’m meant to feel liberated by the vicar’s eating. Because – and here I quote French’s own website – underlying French’s comedy sketches about her ``chocaholism‘’ and her weight is a ``message for all of us to read. Dawn French is fat. And beautiful. And proud.’’

French believes, the website goes on, that being big is ``something to celebrate rather than be ashamed of‘’. Indeed, French has launched her own clothing shops that provide ``beautiful clothes’’ for big girls, and she has posed nude for Esquire magazine in a bid to create ``modern images‘’ of women where ``big means beautiful’’.

I support French’s contention that big women can be beautiful, and should be proud. I believe ``society‘’ and ``the media’’ should get off the backs of all women – be they Calista Flockhart or Camryn Manheim – about their body size. But is that really the message the vicar delivers?

To some degree, yes. Geraldine is not just her crammed cream buns, and ironically it is when she is not eating that the ``fat is beautiful’’ message comes through loud and clear. The vicar is clearly happy with and proud of her body.

But when the vicar begins eating, all bets are off. This is not because I’m squeamish about fat people eating – yes I know they had to get fat somehow – but because of the way and the reasons why the vicar eats. She eats compulsively, sometimes in a highly stylised or ritualised manner, usually when she isn’t hungry and as a way of expressing – or it is repressing? – her feelings.

When anorexics and bulimics do this, we label it a disease and try, often fruitlessly, to treat it. We understand eating in this way is a symptom of these women’s unhappiness: a sign of anger and powerlessness turned in against the self. Yet when the vicar eats an entire display-sized freezer full of Haagen Daz as a sop for her broken heart, we laugh. When she proceeds on to the avalanche of Crunchies stored under the sink with a resigned ``I suppose I better start on these then‘’, we enthuse, ``right on sister!’’

It’s easy to see how we got so confused. Big ``role models‘’ for women are in short supply. French not only accepts this position enthusiastically, she uses her social and financial clout to expose the consumerist evils of the diet industry and the bias against fat women that riddles our society. She rightly lambasts the entertainment industry for pigeonholing fat women by insisting all roles have to have ``big’’ in the job description.

French and her characters challenge the stigma about women eating at all in public, little less eating fattening things and lots of them – and we love her for it.

Yet in our adoration, we have ignored the fact that some of Geraldine’s attitudes and behaviors around food cross the line. We wouldn’t cheer so briskly if, after downing the last chocolate bar, the vicar made a brisk joke about toothbrush handles and headed for the toilet. But does wolfing down food – despite being full and as a salve for emotional pain – display any less confusion about the relationship between eating and emotion than wolfing it up?

Research tells us that most women who are compulsive eaters aren’t happy. Food runs their lives and they feel out of control. Women deserve the freedom to be whatever size they want and to have a healthy relationship with food. The model French provides in the vicar takes us only half way.