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Banishing the F-word is a worthy goal indeed

Recently I listened open-mouthed to a radio chat show where a man was arguing that overweight children should simply be told they are fat, and helped to do something about it.

Pussyfooting around the issue, he said, did them no favours.

Anyone who has ever been plumper than nature designed - and surely that accounts for most of us at some point? - will shudder at the idea of having the F-word levelled at us when we are already feeling gross, squeezed into too-tight jeans, or nervously eyeing last year's party dress knowing that, like a speak-your-weight machine, it is now a public enemy, not a friend.

Being taunted for one's weight or looks is cruel enough. Men are not immune to this, but as women of my generation were taught, fat is predominantly a feminist issue. Fear of it keeps women safely in their place, fretting and dieting instead of living. Even the healthiest, it seems, are not immune. That Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington has been pilloried for her appearance is staggering, given that her athletic physique and prowess have won her medals. Even more disturbing, though, is her admission that she would "never say never" to considering plastic surgery, having always wished to be pretty.

Clearly the way women view themselves is almost as savage as any insults they endure. Maybe it's even more destructive, since their inner soundtrack forms a surround-sound loop, endlessly repeated and never erased.

Raise a cheer, then, for equalities minister Jo Swinson's bold new announcement that she intends to tackle the negative language women and children use about their bodies. Finally, a fact every schoolchild knows, is being officially recognised: words can hurt as much as sticks and stones. So, to help women think better of themselves and begin to focus on health rather than adipose pounds, Swinson is as keen to banish descriptions such as bingo wings, cankles and muffin tops as the crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks that help create them.

It's an ambitious plan, and if it succeeds Swinson will have eradicated a source of untold misery the way Edward Jenner got rid of smallpox. For me, that would make her a heroine on a par with Emmeline Pankhurst. Because as every woman knows, feeling heavy or unattractive blights everything, from work, school and social life to happiness and health. And Swinson is quite right to target self-denigration rather than junk food or greed, because overeating is usually a symptom rather than a cause of those extra inches.

Of course, the culprit can be nothing more sinister than boredom, or being chained to one's desk and craving something to help pass the time (which temptation I succumbed to, around the second paragraph). Often, though, the root is far deeper, and more engrained. Its source is not lack of willpower, but a lifetime's brainwashing.

In the past few decades, society has changed radically, and with it perceptions and expectations of women. Take just one example. In 1960, a middle-aged mother of three did not feel the need to compete with her daughter-in-law for slimness or stylish clothes. Today, though, we are meant to look not just good but forever young, from the day we buy our first lipstick until we are wheeled into the care home.

Jibes about skeletal celebrities whose cellulite has been spied by a telefoto lens show how unrealistic and unforgiving attitudes have become. No wonder, then, that I do not know one woman who is pleased with the way she looks. Skinny friends are just as likely to refer to their flab or flaws as those who are going up a dress size every year. Intelligence, social status or wealth have little to do with it either. Hating how we look has become a way of life, the esperanto of womankind across the western world. Any girl brave - or crazy - enough to say she likes her appearance risks an avalanche of abuse. That, and being written up by zoologists as an entirely new species.

As Swinson makes clear, we women urgently need to change the way we think and speak. Accustomed as we are to be self-critical rather than self-confident, this won't be easy. It will take time. It will also require an entirely new vocabulary, one where the only F-word allowable is fit, in every sense.

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Fashion

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