Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Why? It’s all because of a refreshingly enlightened journalist called Jane Warren who yesterday (26th January) published a two page spread in the Daily Express which finally gave a balanced and honest view on the rising popularity of plus size models in fashion and a valuable contribution to the beauty debate.
The article began:
“They’re not overweight, they’re normal – the models who want to put curves back into clothes.”
It is centered around Crystal Renn (she of the Goddess stature) and other gorgeous “plus size” (which should be used within the confines of inverted commas, really, considering the article’s central thesis, above) models such as Kate Smith (size 16 AND in her 30s! Certainly gave me some hope of longevity in the modeling industry) and Lizzie Miller (remember her? Size 12 posing naked with a small roll of fat around her abdomen/womb area – like women are supposed to have – and it caused a general palarva last year?).
The feature made a point of including some of things which might seem obvious, but appear to have been mysteriously overlooked heretofore – How the inclusion of plus size models in the elitist sphere of high fashion after decades of “heroin chic” and “working the anorexic look” (horrifying concept, but apparently actually said to Crystal Renn) is a massive achievement and the result of more than just a flash-in-the-pan change in trends for 2010. Plus size isn’t like “nautical stripes for spring” (please PLEASE can we have something different next Spring, fashion designer people? I am utterly bored of every shop on the high street looking like Popeye’s closet come March) – It represents a significant revolution in attitudes.
Warren was also insightful enough to point out that the ultimate aim was getting VARIETY into fashion. Hurrah! I heard me, Mark Newey, the entire council and cast of Body Gossip and anyone else with a bit of foresight cry! The Daily Express have recognized that it’s not a case of “skinny –v- curvy” or of “curvy being the new skinny” – Just of “healthy being the new unhealthy” and equal representation for the entire beauty spectrum.
Yesterday evening, as I went to alight the train on which I’d been sitting, reading the article, I had a realisation: My posture had changed, I was smiling, sitting a little straighter, a little prouder. Even for someone like me, who teaches body confidence and occasionally models, seeing other women my shape and size being celebrated in the media gave me that warm inner glow that can only come from a sense of self-esteem. Today, thinking of all the other women who must have given a similar boost, and how this piece represented another victory in the beauty battle, was what put an extra spring in my step (and lessened my urge to emigrate to the tropics to escape those bone-chilling winter winds). Thank you Jane Warren.
Monday, 25 January 2010
The tantalizing image on the front cover of two voluptuous vixens promised an article about “how the curvy girl is trying to break into high fashion”. I expected an expose, detailing these women’s struggles and the reactions to them in a world devoted to worshipping a twiglet-like physique. Instead we were told that “men like a woman with a bit of meat on her bones” (no kidding) and where to buy a correctly fitting bra (yawn, Cosmo taught us that ten years ago).
In a similarly predictable and tedium-inducing way, it is hinted that this plus size revolution is merely a flash-in-the-pan and that larger ladies should get out and strut their stuff whilst it remains fashionable, which runs completely counter to the writer’s earlier argument that, whilst rail-thin has always been hailed as the epitome of beauty in high fashion, in the real world it’s curves that get you noticed.
This is all ultimately crowd-pleasing, platitude-filled tosh. In the real world, it’s confidence that gets you noticed, whatever look you happen to be working. In a typical oversimplification, the writer completely disregards the fact that these women even being allowed into the notoriously elitist sphere of high fashion represents a huge breakthrough and revolution in attitudes. It didn’t happen merely because Mark Fast got bored one day and thought “hey, why don’t I put some curves on the catwalk for a change?” – It is the result of endless campaigning, soul searching, public outrage and personal heartache (for the models involved at least) and is the first step towards getting some variety into the portrayal of beauty.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: What plus size models represent is pride and self esteem. One of the pictures shows a (guessing) size 18 girl wearing a sliver of a silver Gucci swimsuit. She has sturdy-looking thighs, a bit of a tummy and rolls of back fat. It is not a flattering photo (but then I’d defy anyone to pull off a cutaway shiny silver strapless swimsuit whilst adopting a Matrix-style motionless back-flip pose) but there is something defiant and undeniably beautiful about it. The pose conveys strength and rebelliousness and has a shock factor – It says “get ready world, for I am me, I am here and I will not apologise for my body”. That is an attitude we could all do with a little bit more of, wrongly-fitting bra or not.
So, there I was one Sunday lunchtime, in my parents’ local pub, looking pretty hot, it has to be said. My parents introduced me to an acquaintance of theirs, a jolly, robust looking man in his 60s – Tall, booming and baritone and excessively articulate. He asked if I’d had a good weekend and I told him I’d been lucky enough to see Sir Ian McKellen’s beyond fantastic performance in Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal the previous day. “Ah” he said and then he lent into me conspiratorially before asking in a tone that might as well have been accompanied by a pat on the head “and did you understand it?”
I discussed this in fits of hysterics later with my Mum (apparently I’d given him a look that could sour milk before monologuing at great length (and to everyone else’s great tedium) about the various interpretations of the play and which one I gave the most credence to, using quotes from the text. Well, he wasn’t to know I studied it for A level).
You know when someone says something to you that they think is totally obvious (and therefore have never bothered to mention before) but is a massive, life changing revelation for you? Well, this is the conversation my Mum and I had (and, you must bear in mind, I was simultaneously trying to speak and have an epiphany):
Mum: He only asked you because your look doesn’t fit your brain.
Me: What do you mean my look doesn’t fit my brain? What are you talking about?
Mum: Well, I think people might assume you’re not as clever as you are…..
Me: Hang on hang on. Are you saying I look stupid?
Mum: (panicking slightly) Well, no, not exactly. It’s just you have big boobs and long hair and….you know….. that look doesn’t really make you think of a brainy person.
Me: *raises eyebrow, sits back in chair, folds arms and looks back at Mum expectantly*
Mum: (digging herself out of hole) On the plus side, however, you have the element of surprise. Which is brilliant, because no one expects you to be able to talk about clever things, and then you can……. You do it all the time, surprise people. I just don’t think you realise it.
What struck me most was this innate assumption that if you are in any way glamorous it is to compensate for a lack of intelligence (or perhaps that women do not have enough brain space to simultaneously store the ability to apply makeup and information about the wider world). Do we, in the post-feminist era, truly still believe that beauty and intelligence are mutually exclusive?
It’s a minefield of an area, which even I cannot form a definitive opinion about – Where is the line between glaming up because it’s a way of expressing oneself and objectifying oneself before anyone else has even had the opportunity to? Like my new hero, Crystal Renn (I will not stop campaigning until her book is made compulsory reading for all teenage girls), I have always loved fashion, makeup, unashamed girly-ness, but it has never completely dominated my life. The confusion, I believe, somewhat arises out of the “Spice Girls” era, closely followed by the era of the WAG/Glamour Model, who somewhat spuriously claimed to embody “Girl Power” which was then placed under the umbrella of feminism (having very little to do with the genuine concept, as I believe Germaine Greer pointed out). Making a career out of turning oneself into an object of desire, be it by posing for a shoot for a lad’s mag or marrying a wealthy footballer, became suddenly something to aspire to.
Today, the Daily Mail Online published an article entitled “Land of the living dolls: Feminism aimed to liberate women. Instead, it's spawned a promiscuous generation who believe that their bodies are the only passport to success”, which touches on this very issue.
The women the article describes are desperate to win a shoot with Nuts Magazine by sprawling virtually naked on a bed in a nightclub. This has zilch to do with feminism, very little to do with sex and everything to do with the old chestnut: Low Self Esteem.
In my last blog I talked about young people feeling disillusioned what with unemployment, the breakdown of families and the recession and being desperate for some attention, which they might mistakenly equate with the love and respect that are so evidently missing from most of their lives. It’s my opinion that the girls the Daily Mail article describes symbolize a symptom of the very same phenomenon. Women degrade themselves simply because they crave attention and misguidedly believe that this is the only way to get it. Who knows, beneath the 3 inches of makeup, fake tan and false eyelashes there may be a highly intelligent girl, but with glamour modeling, wagging and it-girl-ing touted as the fast track to wealth, success and adoration, who can blame them for relenting, buying themselves a boob job and stripping off?
This all feeds in marvelously to the Body Gossip ethos, because ultimately, discussing real bodies and the value there can be in their spectacular and beautiful variety is empowering for women and men alike. In fact, in bringing bodies to the public attention, the ultimate aim is for us all to think about them less. This seems paradoxical - but once we all sincerely believe that we are uniquely gorgeous, it eliminates the need for validation from, in this particular instance, a hoard of drooling, drunken revelers in a nightclub. In the end, it is about creating a reality where women dress in whatever way makes them feel good about themselves, without it being a reflection on their character or intellect and where I can commune with my inner Marylin Monroe and still be expected to understand Beckett.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
Recently, I was having a conversation with an 80-something year old acquaintance who stated “young people, they have got no respect, they think they know it all”. Somewhat foolishly, when you consider my audience, I responded by articulating my theory that one cannot demand respect without giving it. “You could be right” she replied, in the sort of tone which assured me that she thought I was anything but.
Having met hundreds of UK teens during the course of my Body Confidence Campaign, admittedly with trepidation, I have not yet encountered a single one who was deliberately rude. What I have discovered is a generation of people who are, whilst wonderful as individuals, despondent, disillusioned and lacking in self esteem as a whole.
The current financial climate means that even the most well qualified of our students are not guaranteed employment which utilizes their skills, or even pays the rent. A recent study found that in an average London classroom, 60% of fathers are absent altogether, with single working mothers absent a lot of the time, struggling to provide for their children. Feeling neglected and unloved, a huge proportion of teens are seeking the financial reward and adoration they crave by pursuing a career as a C:NS (celebrity: non-specified). Their dreams are nurtured and fuelled by the Big Brother and Simon Cowell reality television empires, churning out one gormless, unsuspecting victim after another, catapulting them to dizzy heights of undeserving fame and then allowing them to be ripped to shreds by a gleeful paparazzi.
With glamour models and it girls heralded as the epitome of success, it is little wonder that young people are feeling increasingly resentful, in a plastic reality, offering little reward for hard work and no recognition for those who don’t fit a certain aesthetic. The elder generation must seem, collectively, to be a bunch of whinging, judgmental, environment destroying idiots, whose only legacy to the children of today is a constant feeling of insecurity and a hole in the Ozone layer.
And then we wonder why, with little incentive to pursue any dream which cannot unfold in front of a camera, portrayed as society’s villains and often without a stable home life, young people act up from time to time. The key, in my experience, is simply to show interest in them and to listen to their needs. With 70% of people in the UK between the ages of 11 and 19 citing their relationship with their body as their “number one worry”, 14 and 15 year olds asking their parents for plastic surgery for their birthday and 1 in 10 people under 25 having an eating disorder, the message is pretty clear: One of the issues which desperately needs to be addressed is body confidence and whatever measures are currently being taken are falling woefully short.
Having 11 GSCES, 3 A Levels, an Honors Degree in English and a Diploma in Law under my belt didn’t stop me casting aside all my potential, throwing myself head first into an eating disorder, plunging into depression and ultimately nearly ending my life. It’s therefore always been my opinion that schools have a duty to do everything they can to help students feel happy in their own skins, something which is as, if not more, crucial to their success in life as an academic education.
Luckily, when I launched by Body Confidence Campaign in August 2009, schools in Hertfordshire and Essex were enlightened enough to recognise the importance of the issue, with schools, colleges and universities all of the UK quickly following suit.
Andy Ginn, Director of Creative Academies at Gloucestershire College said of the campaign:
"The college is actively engaged with the 'every learner matters' agenda and under the framework for excellence, we're particularly proud to be associated with this extremely innovative and positive campaign. Students studying on a variety of courses such as fashion, music, hair, beauty, graphics and photography for example will be helping in the future to shape the attitudes and beliefs of our society, so in the creative academies we're fully supportive of the work of Natasha Devon (in association with Winning Minds, Body Gossip- and B-eat) in raising these issues at the first opportunity"
What Andy has shrewdly recognized, is that the campaign will not only benefit the young people of today, but that by investing time and effort into the people responsible for shaping future attitudes towards beauty, we are saving subsequent generations an awful lot of turmoil and heartache.
I devised the campaign to be more than just a lecture, which, however eye opening, represents only an hour of the student’s lives wrestling with a lifetime of indoctrination and programming - Which is why I also incorporated a confidential helpline and an online forum with a variety of causes, petitions and groups the students can become involved with. Since I began working for Winning Minds, I have been astounded by the size of the community out there who are passionately dedicated to changing the perception of beauty to promote a healthier and happier society and by working with Body Gossip, B-eat, MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too) and Evolve Magazine (to name but a few), part of my motivation is joining the dots - United, we are formidable. The forum aims to introduce the students to this community, let them know that support is available if they wish to make their own stand against prevailing attitudes and beliefs. With the helpline designed to cater for their emotional needs, the Body Confidence Campaign represents, I hope, a fully comprehensive network of support.
That is why I was particularly deflated to receive a letter today from the Department of Children, Schools and Families on behalf of Ed Balls essentially stating that the current PSHE program on the curriculum offers the scope for the effects of the media and airbrushing to be taught in schools and therefore, whilst they supported my campaign, they were not prepared to offer me any funding.
However, I cannot help but wonder, what with the massive recent media interest in and public support for my campaign and in Gok Wan’s petition to have Body Confidence classes included in the curriculum, and with the elections fast approaching, which of us is in fact missing out of the potential benefits of my attempted political alliance……?
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
On 17th January 2010, at stupid-o-clock for a “school night” (11.45pm), I was invited to debate “is curvy the new skinny?” on Eddie Nestor’s late night BBC Radio London show.
Being, as I am, of an Amazonian build, and embodying the notion of genuinely curvy (my bust and hips are 12 inches bigger than my waist), people immediately expect me to be vehemently and unapologetically in the red corner of curviness, a foot soldier for the “curvelution”. In many ways, I am, but not for the reasons you might think. To solely champion curvaceous beauty would contradict my entire stance in the debate: I applaud any image or media message which presents us with something undeniably beautiful, but not in the traditional (and very narrow) sense of the word. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing someone who conveys an unrepentant sense of pride in who they are, "flaws" and all, someone interesting-looking, not bowing to the prevailing Barbie-like beauty aesthetic.
For this very reason, I believe everyone, no matter what their natural body type, should have someone they can realistically aspire to as a style icon and I refuse to be drawn into “skinny bashing” – I have had first hand experience of how it feels to be judged purely on a visual assessment and that would be a disservice to the naturally slender, as well as an oversimplification of the matter at hand.
What fascinated me most about the recent press surrounding the plus size revolution, was not so much the phenomenon itself, which has been highly anticipated and a long time coming, but the public’s reaction to it. A divide became apparent between those who were delighted at the abundance of flesh, the highly sexual images of robustly healthy looking beauties (mainly men, unsurprisingly) and those who associated the images with hedonistic decadence, with the laziness, gluttony and the obesity epidemic which they saw as the downfall of modern society and, as such, were disgusted.
The idea that you can make generalized and sweeping judgments concerning someone’s lifestyle according to their dress size is ludicrous to begin with – Plenty of larger people exercise and eat healthily, but are simply genetically destined to be a little heavier. Similarly, I could name you 10 people in my immediate acquaintance right this second who have whippet like metabolisms that enable them to maintain a very slim frame and yet seem to spend most of their time eating carbs and sitting on their bony bottoms.
More importantly, however, this notion that obesity is the biggest strain on the NHS in this country and that Plus Size models are encouraging it must, crucially, be challenged. In fact, 70% of GP visits in this country are as a result of some sort of psychological issue and the one thing that unites anyone with a mental health issue, be it an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety, is low self esteem. By ensuring that everyone is represented in the glamorous fashion and media industries, in a World where celebrities are literally worshipped, we are actively promoting high self esteem. By showing images of women who might not be “perfect” in the prevailing sense of the word, yet still take pride in their appearance, wear beautiful clothes and encapsulate beauty, we are encouraging the public to do the same.
When people feel good about themselves, they start to want to nourish and tend to the needs of their body, they no longer feel like a waste of space, undeserving of attention and care – Yes, I’m going to be controversial and say it: Plus size models are, if anything, the SOLUTION to the obesity crisis.
If putting only very slim people in the public eye was going to make everyone thinner and/or healthier (remembering that these two things are NOT synonymous), it would have happened by now. What it has undeniably done is fuel the terrifying fire of eating disorders and body dysmorphia and lo and behold, obesity still exists. It’s my opinion that obesity (of the type which is the result of compulsive eating) is symptomatic of the same fundamental element that encourages people to starve themselves: Low Self Esteem.
If there is one thing that going into schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK as part of my body confidence campaign and being involved with Body Gossip has taught me, it is that people want a voice. The overwhelming response to the Body Gossip real body stories writing competition proved that people want their body type represented and acknowledged. They are tired of being ignored and ridiculed simply for not fitting a rigid ideal, an ideal which represents less than 1% of the population’s natural body type.
When I ask the students I teach “what is the ultimate aim of the fashion industry?” I get some very peculiar answers. Most of them seem to be under the illusion that it has something to do with art. In reality, the fashion industry is no different to any other – It is there to sell us things and so far it has done so by deliberately instilling in us a sense of shame in who we are, a shame that can only be counteracted by having the latest pair of stilettos, miracle foundation and dieting in a vain attempt to look like Kate Moss. Fashion must work on supply and demand if it is to survive and it seems that right now the public is demanding plus size. Whether or not it is tokenistic remains to be seen but, as far as I am concerned, it is a step in the right direction – To a World in which there is more than one definition of gorgeous and in which we can all feel happy in our own skins.
It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a woman and living in a culture which constantly demands superficial measures of “perfection”, that we always want what we cannot have. Ladies with lustrous, poker straight, shiny, swinging curtains of blonde hair long for a head full of raven coloured curls. Women with the slim, straight-up-and-down figure that means they can wear pretty much any style of clothing crave the curvaceous shapes of their more voluptuous counterparts, not knowing that their envy is entirely reciprocated.
As such, despite my friends insisting they were in fits of jealousy over my Amazonian frame, long legs and ridiculously proportioned bust, I always wanted the one thing my natural shape couldn’t offer me: A flat stomach. In addition to a tendency to carry excess weight around my middle, I also had invasive surgery for poloric stenosis as a baby, rendering my tummy a strange shape. So fixated became I on the elusive washboard abs, the lack thereof became all I could see when I looked in the mirror. A decade of what amounted to starvation because of excessive purging, abuse of laxatives and compulsive exercise meant my ribs and hip bones protruded aggressively and yet all I seemed to be able to focus on was a 3cm by 3cm pocket of flab, a consequence of my operation and also of all the bingeing I’d done over the years.
As I forced myself to vomit until I was dry-retching, I’d picture the concave middle I so desperately desired and then, red in the face, eyes streaming and sweating, I’d do hundreds of stomach crunches, but to no avail.
My university lectures were my only sanctuary from the insistent body insecurity that demanded my constant attention, because if there was one thing that was more important to me than being thin, it was learning. When I tried to read, I found it difficult to concentrate and the words would swim in front of my eyes because of the poor physical condition I was in, but listening to someone else expressing their passion for literature and the arts, imparting their knowledge, drawing me into their World and the World of the author or playwright and their characters (any World but mine, at that stage) was a real treat. One day, after class, a couple of my fellow students (not friends exactly but with whom I got on well enough) asked me to stay behind until everyone else had left the lecture hall.
After an age of meaningful looks being exchanged between them, one of them seemed to have been silently appointed The Spokesperson.
“We’re just checking to see if you’re ok”.
“Yes” (lie) “Why?”
“You’re so thin”.
(bizarrely pleased) “Really?”
“This isn’t a joke, Natasha. You look awful. Like you’re about to keel over. Please, please eat something”.
I walked back to my halls of residence turning their words over and over in my head, vainly trying to find an excuse to continue my denial of having a problem, but I couldn’t. I booked myself in to see my GP.
During that doctor’s appointment, it was the first time I had ever admitted to anyone, aloud and directly, that I was suffering from bulimia nervosa and it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. My word came out in a whisper, disjointed as I stuttered that I had been making myself sick and that I’d been doing it for years. Without looking up from his notes, the GP asked me to get on the scales and after weighing me, concluded that I did not qualify for treatment because I was “not underweight” and sent me on my way.
Since working for Winning Minds, I have realised that I am not alone in this. Anorexics who weigh little over 6 or 7 stone have been told that until they reach the magic “anorexic weight” (which seems, for some reason, to be 5 stone) they are not considered to require urgent attention. Any sensible person who looked at them with their eyes could see that this was not the case – they require it, they desperately need it, their lives depend upon it. Similarly, several perfectly healthy and slim friends of mine have returned from a routine check-up in tears having been told that they are “obese”.
That is why I am very pleased that on 12th January 2010 the Daily Mail Online published an article entitled “He wears medium T-shirts, walks two miles a day and lifts weights in his tea break. So why is this man officially 'obese'?” To read the article click here.
I do not know what BMI is based upon, but I strongly suspect that it was entirely fabricated by one person (who was probably very short and had very small bones and virtually no muscle) a long time ago and has been taken as gospel by the medical profession ever since. The fact that entirely healthy people are being told they must lose weight as a consequence is bad enough, but it should definitely not be a contributory factor when assessing eating disorders, and in particular bulimia nervosa.
I am, of course, aware that doctors must have some means to determine the severity of an eating disorder. May I suggest the patient’s weight before their ED began as opposed to now, how quickly they have lost weight, how long they have been indulging in dangerous behaviours and to what extent it is affecting their lives? May I also suggest looking at them, with their eyes? Just a thought.
Happy New Year! And the beauty debate has kicked off once more, even more ferociously and controversially in a new decade.
On 16th January 2010, BBC Cambridge invited me on their Drive Time show to discuss two pertinent stories emerging today.
The first is news that
The second is a summary of the recent “Curvelution” which has been happening in the fashion industry, what with British designer Mark Fast controversially using size 12 and 14 women to model his new line (which subsequently sold out in record time) during Fashion Week, American style magazine V devoting an issue to plus size glamour and the surge in popularity of Crystal Renn (whose book I am currently reading and can confirm without hyperbole that since she is incredibly intelligent, articulate and witty in addition to being undeniably gorgeous and is therefore a Goddess).
So, what conclusions did you arrive at, I hear you eagerly enquire (silently)?
The BBC article (you know, the one about bottoms) has brought into the public sphere the important issue of proportion. Ok, so they are looking at it from a physical health point of view but it’s also important psychologically. When I bring my body confidence campaign to schools and colleges, I tell the students that the most pointless thing they can do is compare their bodies with those of their peers. Yet we do it all the time, usually taking into account only weight and dress size, not making allowances for the hugely influential factors of shape, bone structure, height and proportion. We are a unique combination of an infinite number of physical variants and should therefore set our own, personalised standard for beauty.
As an ambassador for the national campaign Body Gossip and a plus size model myself, I wholeheartedly applaud the use of larger models in high fashion and it was therefore difficult for me to comprehend the backlash. Plus size models were said to encourage our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, promote obesity and encourage gluttony. The comments made online by the public revealed two distinct and dangerous misconceptions. The first is that thin is automatically synonymous with a healthy lifestyle – Thin people exercise and watch what they eat and fat people sit on the sofa all day scoffing cake. As the BBC article clearly evidences, thinner does not necessarily equal healthier. We should also take heed of the difference in people’s metabolic rates and body types. It is simply not possible to make sweeping judgments about people’s lifestyle and diet simply from making a visual assessment.
The second misconception is that there are two choices – skinny or obese, without taking into account that there is a huge spectrum of beauty in the middle. Crystal Renn is a size 16, yes. She is also nearly 6 foot tall, toned, with an hourglass shape and very little body fat and yet she is put under the “plus size” umbrella. “Plus Size” is actually anything over a
It is not a question of choosing a camp or allying yourself with a “side”. The war is not a question of “thin people” vs “fat people” but of a community dedicated to promoting health and happiness against one fixed notion of beauty which induces low self esteem in anyone who falls outside it. All people of all shapes and sizes should be given the gift of having a role model they can realistically aspire to, without jeopardizing their health.
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.
During the course of my research, I have unearthed a wealth of newspaper, magazine and online articles concerning negative body image. They report on how it’s robbing our children of the liberal abandonment and unadulterated joy that should comprise their infanthoods, how it’s dominating the waking thoughts of every
Body obsession has reached fever pitch, what with plastic surgery promising to transform our lives and celebrities sharing their diet and exercise “secrets”, we have been fooled into believing that
Even despite this, I know how difficult it is to make the decision to go public with your own, private body battle. I did a lot of soul searching before sharing my story in the press and on radio – I couldn’t anticipate the reaction I would receive. The experiences I had during my time in the music industry taught me that the public can be judgmental, body fascist and cruel. Ultimately though, I decided that if I didn’t speak up, not only was I participating actively in a conspiracy of silence but I was doing Mark Newey, who cured me, a huge disservice. I am delighted to say the responses so far have been positive and have encouraged others whose lives were being crippled by bulimia to seek help from Winning Minds.
I resolved to be as candid as I could about bulimia nervosa and it’s physical and psychological effects and in doing so my pride took, not so much a knock but a full on whack, right on the schnozz. That’s why I’ve got so much respect for Shobna Gulati. In a recent article in the Daily Mirror, she describes her body insecurities and the unhealthy relationship she shares with food.
Shobna's "Right On Sister Moment" Award goes to this statement:
"I'm not sure eating disorders are to do with wanting to be lighter. I think in my case it is to do with not wanting to be who I am".
Eating disorder awareness and treatment in many ways hinges on this crucial distinction.
Having met Shobna at Body Gossip, I was left with the impression that she was beautiful, friendly and self assured. I wouldn’t have guessed that underneath this exterior she was battling such powerful demons. I assumed she became involved with the Body Gossip campaign simply because she was a nice lady who wanted to help. She could have let the World believe that too, but she didn’t and she should be applauded for making such a courageous choice.
The overwhelming response to the Body Gossip writing competition and Shobna’s brave admission are testament to the massive extent to which negative body image is a social epidemic, affecting people from all walks of life. Finally, we have recognized it’s destructive effect and now it is our responsibility to counteract it.
Winning Minds are developing a series of pioneering workshops which can permanently transform the mindset and allow you to vanquish body image issues. Negative body image is a kind of slavery and it’s so prevalent that many of us have reconciled ourselves to the idea that it will hold us captive forever. Winning Minds gives you the opportunity to liberate yourself. Go to www.winningminds.co.uk/personal-workshops/ to find out more.
On 3rd December 2009, an article appeared in the Daily Mail which amounted to a scathing and very personal attack on the lovely Ms French for daring to be proud of her fatness.
Whilst there was perhaps some validity in the journalists’ assertion that Dawn cannot call for fat jokes to be banned when she owes a proportion of her career to them, I cannot agree that she is a “bad” role model for young women.
Dawn has carved a hugely successful niche for herself, despite not conforming to the identikit Barbie-style sociological ideal of beauty which has prevailed for so long. She has done so by being talented, witty, intelligent, caring, funny and self deprecating – qualities which I could confidently assert most of us would want to encourage in our children. She is a welcome breath of fresh air in the entertainment industry, an exception to the rule and that is why the weight of counterbalancing the current trend for thinness falls on her shoulders and she is allowed to be a little radical in her views.
In addition to the brilliantly satirical French and Saunders and her other television projects, she is a fantastic writer and has designed a range of flattering, fashionable and altogether gorgeous designs for larger women in an effort to banish the days when anyone over a size 16 was forced to hide in a sack-like smock of a thing, eschewing glamour and embracing shame.
She celebrates her size and makes no apologies for it and, let’s face it, whilst her particular shape might not be the healthiest, I don’t imagine that hoards of teenage girls are going to be looking sorrowfully at their bodies and eating thousands of cream cakes in an attempt to emulate her look every time she appears on TV, the way they vow never to let another morsel of food pass their lips every time they catch sight of Cheryl Cole or Kate Moss. Dawn’s images are not plastered all over the walls of eating disorder clinics up and down the country and her words are not repeated like mantras by those whose life’s ambition it has become to recreate her look, unlike other celebrities I could mention.
If Dawn disappeared from the public eye overnight, we would not see a steep decline in obesity rates in this country. Obesity exists. It's not ideal but it does. And saying that we do not want to see an example of obesity in the form of Dawn on our television screens is not only denying a large percentage of the population a fabulous role model but is also the adult equivalent of sticking one's fingers in one's ears and saying "la-la-la-la-la not listening".
If you choose to be overweight, or have a larger shape due to a medical condition, Dawn presents an empowering role model that inspires confidence and happiness. She demonstrates that fat and beautiful are not mutually exclusive. And for every Dawn there are a hundred bony, botoxed, plastic princesses. The fact that Dawn’s comments have caused such scandal is testament to the fact she has become so respected, against all odds. And what can we say to that other than “good for her”?
Dawn's stance is reactionary. If we were not all so obsessed with her size and let her get on with being the brilliant and talented woman she is, she would not have to defend herself with potentially offensive comments. Lest we forget, Kate Moss' recent comment – "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" was in responce to the question "what is your motto?". Her motto in LIFE. Not with particular regard to her appearance but generally. Her answer is a sad testament to the extent to which Kate's physique is the sum of her parts. I highly doubt Dawn's life motto would relate to her physical appearance in any way. She has far too many other attributes and concerns.
I am left with the question, though – What about the huge spectrum of beauty in the middle? Most of us are somewhere between Kate Moss and Dawn French and to whom do we turn for a positive and inspiring role model? One might cite Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez and whilst I applaud the manner in which they fly the flag for the curvacious, they are still far tinier than you could ever imagine in the flesh and still devote a huge and disproportionate chunk of their lives to maintaining their physique. Like the Clover advert says “it’s great in the middle” and the middle is being neglected. The middle needs to be represented and given a voice.
Please visit www.bodygossip.org and join the revolution.
Today, December 1st 2009, the Daily Mirror published new findings which suggest that anorexia and other eating disorders are genetic and I was invited to discuss this on BBC Radio Cambridge.
It’s a tempting theory, isn’t it?
As a society and as individuals it absolves us of all responsibility for the growing number of young people who are falling prey to these hideous, life consuming diseases. As an ex eating disorder sufferer, it allows me to tell myself that all the pain and heartache I subjected my family and friends to and the private torture I inflicted upon myself was all written in my DNA. As my genetic identity and not something circumstance led me to, I am not to blame, my recovery will never be permanent- Hello, my name’s Natasha and I’m a bulimic. And the bullies who taunt our young people in the school halls, the perpetrators of the emotional or physical abuse common in the histories of our eating disorder victims and the emaciated celebrities grinning gummily out at us from the covers of glossy magazines can all sleep easily at night because guess what? It’s not their fault.
What absolute codswallop.
I asked Mark for his take. He said:
"Eating disorders are a behavioural programme which someone has taken on board. It is possible for someone to mimic their parents in early life when they are particularly impressionable, between the ages of 7 and 12, which might be why eating disorders are perceived to be hereditary, but there is no genetic factor".
I’d take his point a step further and suggest that it’s irresponsible and downright dangerous to encourage the widespread belief that eating disorders are one’s genetic destiny. The work we do here at Winning Minds crucially hinges on allowing people to free themselves of the identity of their issue and reclaim themselves. As long as one defines oneself as “an anorexic in recovery” one entertains the possibility that one might relapse. And whilst that possibility is allowed to fester in the unconscious mind relapse becomes ever more inevitable.
It was as a direct result of this pseudo-scientific twaddle that Mark and I devised our unique “Shedding the Identity” workshop for ex eating disorder sufferers, which allows them to liberate themselves from the shackles of the eating disordered mindset. It should not be accepted by the medical community that it is enough to equip the patient with the rudimentary tools they require to “take each day as it comes” and send them on their way. Meanwhile the individual in question flails under the silent but stiffling pressure of negative body image and food still being their enemy. We are not born with mind based issues and neither should we have to live with them.
As a footnote to Mark’s thoughts, I’d like to add something which has been a view I (shockingly, for those who know me) have been too timid to venture in public, heretofore. It’s been accepted wisdom for years now that eating disorders are a complex psychological issue, often having its roots in childhood trauma or emotional abuse and thank goodness for that, because otherwise we’d all be told to “get over ourselves and pick up a fork”. But I wonder whether perhaps this is SO ingrained in our perception that we are blind to the increasingly prevalent, more straightforward elements involved with the issue?
Allow me to explain. As a Body Confidence Campaigner I have had the pleasure of speaking with lots of teenagers about their body image (and it is a pleasure, teenagers aren’t nearly as disrespectful and badly behaved as the media would have us believe) and I have come to realise that sometimes it is JUST about celebrity worship culture, competitive dieting and peer pressure. It is no more complex than a young person thinking their social standing and sexual attractiveness depend entirely on their looking like Victoria Beckham and their friends encouraging this deluded belief. Of course, at some stage, the calorie counting and exercising reach obsessive levels, the person in question starts to take treacherous risks with their health and by then it is no longer a question of persuading them that Victoria Beckham looks like ET in a frock because the issue has become far more integral to their mindset – It has become their identity (see above).
Whether or not it is an oversimplification to blame the deification of twig like celebs for the eating disorder epidemic, it is difficult to deny that it is a substantial contributory factor. And whilst it may be the simplest explanation, it is in many ways the hardest one to solve. When will we really take responsibility for the way our attitudes are condemning future generations to hate the feeling of being inside their own skins? We cannot continue to blame the media. The media, beauty fashion industries work on supply and demand. If we didn’t drink in airbrushed images and factsheets on the latest food fad which promise to magic us into a pair of size 8 skinny jeans in 2 weeks as through they were the elixir of life, they would not print them. It is up to us to adopt a balanced and healthy approach to our bodies. We must understand that our favourite television personality is not, in fact, a demigod and it is not realistic or productive to either attempt to emulate them in the first place, or to berate ourselves when we fall short of an “ideal” it took hours spent toiling on a treadmill, an unwavering devotion to the aesthetic which is not practical for anyone with rent to pay and a real job to hold down to maintain, not to mention an army of stylists, makeup artists, hairdressers, dieticians, beauticians, and because that’s still not enough, airbrushing, to “achieve”.
Women should cease bonding and communication using the language of self criticism. “I hate my thighs, I’m on another diet”. You never know who might be listening. Our children are susceptible to the way we think and behave, just as Mark said and by revitalizing our attitude, we can ensure their health and happiness.
The media have seemingly never been so keen to provoke a robust debate on the real beauty issue, which is fortunate for us here at Winning Minds and for Body Gossip. One would think it would be difficult to argue with the idea that we should all be happy in our own skins, but apparently there are people out there who oppose our real beauty message………
Body Gossip –v- Giles Coren – Radio 5 Live
On Saturday 21st November, 10.30pm, Ruth Rogers, founder of Body Gossip, went head to head with Giles Coren, debating the validity of Kate Moss’ recent statement – “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” (she has clearly never been to Nandos, then).
Coren is restaurant critic and columnist whose credentials to contribute on such an emotive topic are uncertain (and became increasing spurious as the debate unfolded). In essence, he suggested that the solution to this country’s obesity crisis is….ta da! Anorexia. Why didn't we think of that? He asserted that he goes for 6 or 7 days without food, that as humans we are “designed to be skinny” and that Kate Moss represents the idealised body type. “We are all fat nowadays!” he ranted in a slightly maniacal fashion, not allowing Ruth, the presenter or indeed the torrent of callers who rang in to expose his argument as the utter tosh it was, to get a word in edgeways.
Whether or not he was deliberately playing devil’s advocate for publicity purposes (one cannot help but wonder whether this was the case with Ms Moss, also) or whether his mind was so addled with the effects of his self imposed starvation that he was unable to form a coherent argument is not clear. Ruth was admirably calm in her rebuttal and pointed out that body types and shapes vary wildly and that surely the most important thing is that we are all healthy and happy, eat well and exercise in moderation.
Ruth has trawled through thousands of first hand body testimonials for Body Gossip, so can really empathise with real people who struggle with negative body image. ………People for whom Kate Moss’ statement would have exacerbated their already fragile self esteem. Yes, it would be irresponsible and downright untrue to blame Ms Moss for eating disorders and body dysmorphia but, as someone in the public eye who is aspired to by millions of women everywhere, she should think more carefully before making potentially damaging statements.
The award for the point that made me whizz around in my swivel-ly chair whilst punching the air with my fists and shouting “Yes! Right on sister!” (yes, I really did this) went to a caller who had been in recovery from anorexia for 2 ½ years. Did Coren not recognise, she asked, that compulsive eating is the result of the same root causes and emotions as other eating disorders and that therefore the “massively obese” people Coren was determined to blame and shame should be treated with the same amount of sympathy and respect? Too right.
Winning Minds Body Confidence Campaign –v- An Old Lady – James O’Brien Show, LBC
(it’s not as bad as it sounds!)
On Monday 23rd November, I was invited by LBC to kick start a debate on body image, loosely based around the fact that Cheryl Cole has a very lucrative contract to advertise shampoo but spends more than most people earn in a year on hair extensions (ludicrous but, sadly, not shocking in the present climate).
My arguments, based on my own experience, speaking with clients at Winning Minds and going into schools to discuss body image, were threefold:
1. We live in a culture of celebrity worship. In an increasingly secular society, the words and actions of celebrities are taken as gospel and people attempt to emulate them in every sense, with no regard for the surgery they have had, the help they receive from their armies of stylists and makeup artists or the fact that they have usually been airbrushed to cartoon-like proportions. In trying to reach an impossible ideal, we berate ourselves when we fall short of our goal, resulting in negative body image.
2. The pendulum of feminism has swung to a massive extreme. Whereas the original point of feminism was to ensure (quite rightly) that women could do or be whatever they wanted, based on their skills and talents and not on their gender, now women are expected to be everything to every one. We must smash the glass ceiling, be a domestic goddess, whilst always remaining glamorous and polished. We see other women who, by our own somewhat skewed criteria, look better than us and assume, wrongly, that they are automatically happier, more loved and more successful.
3. Men do not care in the slightest about the circumference of our thighs. I asked some of the 16 year old guys I teach what makes a girl attractive. They said “if she is smiling”. Never has the phrase “out of the mouths of babes” been more appropriate .
Ergo, women are their own worst enemies and of course our insecurities are perpetuated by the beauty and fashion industry to sell us things that we believe will bring us a step closer to our self-imposed ideal.
It was thrown open to the floor…..
Most callers broadly agreed with me, women phoned to speak about their own body anxieties and men called to say they wished their partners would stop moaning as it drives them bonkers and they think she is beautiful just the way she is. Some of the female callers blamed the derogatory comments of men for their self-loathing or said they dieted constantly out of fear that their husbands and boyfriends would look elsewhere.
However, one 70-something year old from
It was announced "our next caller, Christine from Saffron Walden":
"Hello James", the caller distinctly and huskily purred ….. I recognised the voice immediately…. It was my Mum!
Concerned, as I am sure you can understand, that my Mum had called in to tell Mrs Non-Comprehending 70-something to "lay off her daughter" and "come and ave a go if she thinks she's ard enough" I began teddy bear rolling on the floor with my hands pressed over my eyes repeatedly murmuring "Mum, it's not weeeerf it!" (Mark was, fortunately, busy with a client and therefore not present to witness this spectacle).
It was a huge relief to all concerned that Mum was actually compelled to ring in for much more objective reasons – Working as a style consultant for a bridal boutique, the body hang ups of their clients quite often overshadow the joy and elation that should remain unadulterated (excuse the pun) on the happiest day of their lives.
The absolute truth behind my own opinions is that, were it not for Mark Newey and his unique treatment, Neural Recoding, I would not be as self assured as I am today – My views on beauty would have been exactly the same, but I would not have been so able to “practice what I preach”. Of course I don’t think I am physically “perfect” in the traditional sense of the word but I’d rather devote my time to helping others to become happier and healthier than in the fruitless and hollow pursuit of a Barbie-like physique.
In summation I said that we should all try to make the best of ourselves and represent our own version of healthy, attainable beauty, without reference to Cheryl Cole or whoever happens to be the current media darling.
To read Ruth’s Blog, including her bid for Kate Moss to hop off the skinny bandwagon, click the link below:
As had become my custom, I had just thrown up into a plastic bag. That’s the problem with flat sharing, you can’t disappear into the bathroom after every meal and claim you’re having a bath, using the thundering of the taps to hide the sound of your retching – People get suspicious and/or irritated that you’re using all of their hot water.
I don’t know who writes television programmes, but I can tell you they have never suffered from bulimia. On TV people throw up and emerge from the experience pristine and perfectly made up. Well, I’d been bulimic for nearly ten years and I’d never mastered that particular art.
Mascara cascaded down my cheeks, my nose and eyes streamed and sweat glistened on my forehead as I lay next to my bag of vomit, trying not to hyperventilate and to slow the frantic beating of my heart. This was the same thing I’d done every single night for a decade – Ram my protesting body full of every food I could lay my hands on and then force myself to vomit until I was dry retching and my vision went blurry. Every waking thought concerned how I’d orchestrate my next binge and how I could purge it without the people around me finding out.
The irony was that of course my friends and family knew. They might not have known I was bulimic, specifically (unlike anorexia, the signs aren’t immediately obvious unless you know what you are looking for), but they certainly knew something was “up”. I was maniacally happy one minute and withdrawn and tearful the next. My behaviour was erratic and unpredictable and I said things I didn’t mean to the people I cared about most. I’d lost some of my dearest friends and frightened the ones that chose to stick by me.
At work, I’d often fall asleep at my desk, exhausted with the momentous amounts of effort it required to maintain this miserable, monotonous cycle. I was in debt. All my cash spent on food – Literally “money down the toilet”.
I’d become a recluse – bulimia was my obsession, my hobby, my only constant companion and I’d accepted it as my identity. I’d sacrificed my career, my potential, my social life, my looks, my personality and ten years of my life to it and now here I was – Laying on my bedroom floor next to a bag of sick. And that is when the thought struck me. I tried to dismiss it but it wouldn’t go away – “I’m going to have to kill myself”.-
You can’t endure these sorts of things without realising that you need help. My first trip to my GP had been 7 years previously. He’d looked slightly perplexed when I’d confessed to being bulimic – Almost as if he didn’t really understand what the word meant. He’d weighed me and said “well, you’re not underweight” ……So that was alright then, apparently. As long as he could tick me off on his little “BMI” chart that meant that I must be healthy, I couldn’t be playing dangerous games with my physical and mental health like I’d claimed.
I’d seem councillor after councillor, who wanted me to recount every experience I’d ever had from the moment I’d appeared out of my mother’s womb.
Now, I’m an intelligent girl. I knew exactly what had bought me to this point. We all have traumatic experiences and I’d chosen to express my pain with this peculiar sort of self-harm. What I didn’t know was how to stop what I’d started.
So my current GP had settled on merely prescribing me huge dosages of antidepressants and signing me off work for two weeks every time I asked for help. I spent those two weeks being sick, taking laxatives, exercising compulsively and sinking deeper into my depression.
And now I’d come to the conclusion that the only way out of the subtle daily torture was to end my life.
That was the wake up call I needed to look further a-field than the NHS and really get proactive about helping myself. I was not the person I had become and there had to be a way to claim the real me back.
I don’t believe in coincidences. A few weeks after I made the decision to get well by whatever means possible, I heard about Mark Newey and Winning Minds. I went with no clue what to expect and thinking this would be the first of many alternatives I would try to get myself better but at least I was doing something.
2 x 2 hour sessions later and my whole World had changed. It was like that bit in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her house and discovers that outside is in glorious Technicolor after a life of black and white.
The last time I made myself sick was in July 2008. I lost my eating disorder and I found myself. I am free. I am me.
To find out how I was treated go to http://www.winningminds.co.uk/eating-disorders/bulimia-treatment/