Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Twiggy-v- My Mum! Another Slice of the Beauty Debate

I will remember 2009 for two reasons.

It was the year that an email I sent really quite casually, in retrospect, turned out to completely shape the course of my life. I emailed Mark Newey, who’d freed me of a life life-crippling decade long battle with bulimia nervosa about a year earlier and I’d now come to think of as a friend, with a general life update, complaining that I had been made redundant from my job in the City. He said “why don’t you come and work for me?”……..

It was also the year I launched my Body Confidence Campaign in schools. When you consider that, in August, the campaign was merely an embryo of an idea, based on my desire to prevent younger people following the same path as me and developing a potentially life threatening eating disorder, it is astounding how quickly it has gained momentum.

The campaign has given me the chance to speak to hundreds of people aged between 11 and 18 and get their vital perspective on the beauty debate. The controversial subject of airbrushing was, therefore, something that I’d always considered from a teenage perspective, my point being that airbrushing is so prevalent and normalized now that, in fact, anyone under the age of 18 cannot differentiate between an airbrushed image and a real one and conclude, understandably, that if they do not match up to this impossible standard there must be something fundamentally wrong with them.

However, December 16th 2009's headlines included a story which made me consider airbrushing from a fresh angle: An ad campaign for eye cream featuring Twiggy has been retracted because it was airbrushed to the extent that it constituted false advertising. I was asked to give my opinion on BBC Radio Essex. The pictures would have appeared in publications aimed at a more mature demographic – So, what with the rise of airbrushing occurring very obviously during their adult lifetime, shouldn’t older women know better than to compare themselves to a digitally enhanced image? And if they immediately dismiss the image as unattainable and ridiculous, does it follow that they are immune to any detrimental affect on their self esteem?

There was only one thing for it, I was going to have to ask my Mum.

The thing about my Mum is that she is stunning. I know everyone thinks their Mum is beautiful, but I’ve had my opinion verified by a plethora of independent adjudicators in the form of friends, boys I fancied at school and randoms whose jaw hits the floor when she passes them in the street. As a woman who is often defined as being “the beautiful one” it’s therefore so refreshing that Mum doesn’t feel it’s necessary to embark on a quest for never ending youth, like many of her peers. She has never had botox, fillers or any kind of invasive surgery (she just believes in a decent night cream and touché eclait) and she manages to dress in a way that I often describe as “the right side of funky”. So I was intrigued to hear her thoughts on the whole Twiggy related debacle……

Mum conceded that, yes, there was a part of her mind that looked at airbrushed images of older women and immediately recognised that they in no way pertained to reality, BUT, even in a woman such as herself, they did induce a niggling insecurity. The fact is that, however illogical, older women DO still feel an obligation to try and match up to their celebrity counterparts and what with the increasing availability and affordability of surgical procedures, many are opting to inject their faces with poison rather than give into age gracefully.

The issue is also that the young people to whom I referred earlier and who aren’t so tuned in to the subtleties of airbrushing expect middle aged women to look like airbrushed Twiggy. And hearing from your teenage son or daughter that “you’re looking a bit ropey today, Mum” isn’t going to do anything for a woman’s self esteem.

Also, what of future generations of older women? What kind of attitudes are we shaping in them? Ok, the 50 year olds of today might be able to laugh in the face of digital re-touching, but are we not creating a culture of people for whom age is the enemy of beauty and who will go to any, potentially dangerous, lengths to preserve their youth?

I often speak about a "spectrum of beauty" and how every shape and size should be represented in the media to widen our narrow ideals of attractiveness. I’d like to expand that to include a spectrum of ages. It is possible to be older and attractive – not “for your age” and not by attempting to look 20 years younger than you are – but just gorgeous in your own right. Look at Helen Mirren. Look at Joanna Lumley. They make no attempt to hide their wrinkles and yet they are resplendently fabulous and, most importantly, realistically aspirational.

With age comes wisdom, maturity, experience, humility….and wrinkles and, it’s my view that they should all be considered equally sexy.

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