Sunday, 21 February 2010

Reply to Lisa Hilton "So What If I'm Skinny?" - Saturday Times 13th February 2010

For someone who repeatedly makes a point of branding herself a “feminist” and insisiting that she has more intelligence than to entertain thoughts of low self esteem because she will never fit the supermodel aesthetic, Lisa Hilton aint half stupid.

After reading her ludicrously entitled “so what if I’m skinny?” (so what indeed)– A 2,000 word manifesto of hatred, railing pointlessly against all the overweight people who delusionally believe that eating disorders are a problem more worthy of note than obesity, I hardly know where to begin. I will, however, make some attempt to address her wilful misunderstanding of the facts, not because I believe for one second that she wasn’t trying to be deliberately inflammatory, but because people who have not had or treated eating disorders should not be allowed to write about them, as this piece so aptfully demonstrates.

Hilton’s opinions seem to hinge crucially on the idea that people are overweight because they have been terrified by the media into not having an eating disoder. As if we think “I simply must by a bucket of KFC, otherwise I might, God forbid, become anorexic”...... And then she has the audacity to accuse people who don’t realise they will never look like your average celeb of being “stupid”.

She makes a comparison between models and jockeys, both of whom regularly starve themselves for long periods, take duiretics and laxatives and make themselves vomit because their career hinges on it, and asks why we are not insisting on the use of bigger horse riders? I can answer that one for your straight away, love. It’s because 8 out of 10 teenagers between the ages of 11 and 19 do not want to be jockeys. No, they want desperately to emulate one of the two Kate’s – Moss or Price. It’s because we do not heap disproportionate adulation and wealth on jockeys, we understand that their talents are limited to the equine. We do not have jockeys in glossy magazines offering us diet and lifestyle tips. We do not allow jockeys to design our clothes and fragrances. I have yet to glance at a que of revellers outside a London nightclub and see 90% of the young women dressed like jockeys. Need I continue?

Predictably, the obesity stats come out to play – Yes, we are all getting fatter and of this we are all painfully aware, thanks. Apparently, the fact that the chasm is growing ever wider between the average woman and her catwalk counterpart is not because models are getting thinner, it’s because we are getting fatter. I’d argue that it’s both. When Kate Moss first came on the scene in the 90s, she was considered shockingly skinny. Now, she would barely register as thin – Size 6 became the new 8, 4 the new 6, 2 the new 4, until models of 6 foot were aspiring to be a size 00 and, in 2007, 5 prominent high fashion models died of complications associated with malnutrition and starvation. Models are, undoubtedly getting thinner. And whether or not we might deign to agree with the fact that the non-modelling populus are becoming larger, the fact is that models are there to showcase the clothes that we will ultimately buy in the high street and, as such, should be more representative of what real people actually look like.

What Hilton fails to recognise is that obesity, of the type which results from overeating, is symptomatic of the exact same core factors as anorexic or bulimia. Lack of regard for one’s long-term health, lack of education and low self esteem. Hilton seems to be labouring under the misconception that overweight people are unaware of their state –As if they haven’t been instilled with feelings of self hatred and guilt by their peers and the incessant media coverage which will, ironically, probaly have them reaching for the biscuit tin. She fails to see the bigger picture, she, just like our government, is concerned only with symptoms, not causes.

As someone with first hand experience of an eating disorder, and who has discussed the issue, not only with other sufferers, but with 11-21 year olds throughout the UK, I have come to the conclusion that most disordered eating and lack of body confidence (resulting in anorexia, bulimia, negative body image, body dysmorphia, compulsive eating and, yes, obesity) can be traced back to three common factors. These are:

1. The patient’s private emotional history, which often involves bullying, turbulence and/or abuse.
2. Addiction/Habit – A seemingly inpenitrable cycle of bingeing and/or purging or starvation.
3. Peer and Media Pressure to fit a certain aesthetic, which is inextricably linked with how we measure success.

Hilton argues that it is overly simplistic to put eating disorders down solely to unrealistic role models and what she terms “vanity” and she is of course right, but dismissing it altogether as a contributing factor is just as irresponsible.

At school, young people develop the idea that, if they are not academically bright, the only other way to achieve success is to fit the celebrity or model mould, and they’ll go to whatever dangerous lengths necessary to achieve this. Far from Hilton’s assertion that a “couple of years” of starving onesself is a small price to pay for success – At these crucial stages of development it can have a disasterous effect on long-term health. Osteroporosis and lack of fertility are just two of the things young people are inflicting upon themselves, but apparently that’s ok, because according to Hilton that is the feminist and empowering way to go about things.

Far from being delusional or “vain”, these girls are simply victims of their own unconscious mind. Bombarded from every angle with messages, advertising and images specifically designed to make them feel insecure, they have taken on programming in their much larger unconscious minds (which accounts for 91%, whilst the conscious mind is only 9%), which constantly tells them that thinness is the fast track to happiness. Suggesting that we can dismiss this powerful programme of insecurity with the 9% which tells us we don’t have the build, time, resources or cash to look like a catwalk model or a celebrity is like telling someone to “snap out” of an eating disorder. The fact that the majority of women feel as though they are not good enough and that they need desperately to make their bodies fit an implausible mould does not make them stupid and it does not mean they are not feminists, it simply means that their self-esteem has been pummelled in a very calculating way since the day they were born. Similarly, overeating is often caused by feelings of inadequacy arising from the exact same phenomenon, or from being made to feel like you are single handedly responsible for all evil in society because you do not conform to the “ideal” BMI.

The problem is, naturally, the fact that we worship celebrities at all, when they’ve done little to deserve it. As Ricky Gervais recently pointed out, those toiling 16 hours a day in a lab somewhere trying to find a cure for cancer are anonymous, and yet we hold up those whose job it is to traipse up and down a catwalk or lip synch badly to their own, creatively questionable songs (not that I’m referring to anyone’s recent BRIT awards performance, specifically, you understand), as heroes. However, this won’t change any time soon. We have to work within the parameters of how the world works if we want to provoke change and, for the moment, our responsbility is to ensure that perceived health is the new black, when it comes to the fashion and media industries.

I did have to chuckle when Hilton, who is self-righteously proud of her athletic build, states that her not having the “discipline” to be an anorexic, is probably the reason why she was never a model. As if being tall and thin are the only criteria it takes to enter the professon. My assertion that models shouldnt automatically be role models is in no way designed to detract from the fact that modelling requires skill and is a craft. You could be six foot and a size 8, but if you dont have the right shape and walk around like a Russian shot putter with a water infection, then you’re just not model material. A model’s job is to make clothes look good, simple as that, which he or she does with a combination of grace, deportment and the ability to be photogenic. These are not qualities which are restricted to the realm of size 0. As Hilton herself points out, beauty comes in all sorts of guises, and a size 12, 14 or, dare I say it, 16 person can possess the necessary qualities for modelling. In particular, the ability to convey a potent message or a specific emotion through a lens is crucial. I would therefore suggest that the reason Hilton never entered the high fashion sphere has less to do with her inability to starve herself and more with the fact that in the photo which accompanied this article, which was clearly designed to make her look thoughtful, intelligent and defiant, she looks more as if she is about to let one rip.

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