Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Body Gossip: The Triumph of Talent over T*ts!

“So what do you do, then?”

It should be a simple question to respond to and yet I still haven’t found a brief sentence which encapsulates what it is exactly that I “do”. In this instance, the query has been posed by a middle aged cabby, who is only asking to make polite conversation as he drives me to the train station, which makes it all the more awkward. I mumble something about helping people with eating disorders. He gives a typically simplistic summary of what he understands anorexia to be: “That’s when you think you’re a lot bigger that what you are, so you don’t eat, isn’t it?”. In these situations, I’m always torn between my desire to enlighten and my desire to not hop straight on my oh-so-inevitable soap box and scare this poor, unsuspecting man to death (particularly not while he is driving).

I’ve had this conversation what seems like a thousand times, with a thousand different people, most of whom have been men in the 40s and 50s who believe that eating disorders are the remit of vain and disillusioned teenage girls. It’s hardly their fault that they think this way, the eating disordered mind is an impenetrable maze of illogical nonsense to anyone who hasn’t had first-hand experience of it, or isn’t a mind-expert. The problem is that the same conclusion is always drawn: That women starve themselves under the misguided notion that it’ll make them more attractive to men.

This isn’t just reductive, it’s wrong. Perhaps, up until the age of about, let’s say, 16, when you live your life vicariously through the characters in Hollyoaks and all the boys you know think lolly-pop headed pop-stars are a paradigm of gorgeousness, you might buy into the thin = attractive fantasy. But take the time to ask any bloke you know who isn’t blinded by media stereotypes and adolescent stupidity what he finds sexy and you’ll find his answers rarely have anything to do with size. Nice eyes/smile will invariably top the list, along with the old chestnut – sense of humour (loosely translated as laughing at his jokes). Press them for more specific detail, and you’ll find there are as many variations on what men consider attractive as there are men. Thank goodness, otherwise there would be an awful lot of us out there ready to explode with sexual frustration.

Whilst some men prefer petite and slender and others prefer robust and curvaceous, they all (with the exception of a few nutters who shouldn’t be considered for dating and general merriment anyway) want us to be healthy and happy.

I think most women are aware of this, but it’s an unfortunate fact that most of us simply don’t care. Yes, lads, your opinion isn’t as important to us as you might think - Which is why when you cheerfully tell us that “men like something to grab hold of, anyway”, we don’t immediately skip home and gleefully throw away all our Ryvitas and exercise DVDs. Same goes for boobs jobs and fake tans - Men have made it abundantly clear they aren't fans - And yet this does nothing to diminish their popularity amongst women.

Women want to be thin because of what thinness has come to represent: Wealth, power, popularity, fame – Lifestyle. Extreme skinniness is perceived to be reserved for celebrities, and in a society where 60% of 12 year old girls want to be a celebrity, it naturally follows that they will also want to be thin. This warped logic haunts us all the way into our adulthoods. Think of all the women you know who are putting their life on hold until they reach an elusive “perfect” weight – It’s because they don’t feel they deserve to achieve until they fit an aesthetic which matches the success they crave. And while the celebrity machine is churning out one talentless, emaciated human clothes hanger after another and showcasing the wildly disproportionate amounts of adoration and money which are thrown at them, women everywhere will continue to try and emulate that look.

Ruth Rogers, the brilliant, incredibly talented and thoroughly lovely woman who founded Body Gossip, was once told she’d have to lose weight to make it as an actress. She is, and always has been, a slender and healthy 5 ft 8 and a size 10. Fortunately, she is now starring in the critically acclaimed and hugely successful War Horse in the West End, which is a metaphorical two-fingers to whichever morons tried to make her buy into that belief. One of the aims of Body Gossip is to get real bodies into the public eye – To give real people the voice they deserve and to get real talent recognized. We desperately need to heed this message.

Until we start valuing talent, intelligence and compassion over washboard abs and pneumatic curves, the average girl could have a million men bellowing “you’re gorgeous!!” at her and still feel like an inadequate failure. That’s the reality right now for women in today’s society – but it can change – go to www.bodygossip.org.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Monday Morning Rant

I had what can only be described as a magnificent Sunday yesterday. It started with three sausages and finished watching Eddie Izzard: Marathon Man on TV with an almost unbearably cute puppy fast-asleep on my right leg. In between my Mum and I drank copious amounts of Chablis and put the world to rights.

Yes, sometimes I eat sausages and drink alcohol. Shocking I know. However yesterday was Mother’s Day and if you can’t get squiffy with your Mum and eat anything she proffers in your direction on Mothering Sunday then just when can you? However, 6 days out of 7 I’m happily munching on at least 5 fruit and veg’s per day and walking absolutely everywhere.

As such, despite being a size 16 and, I have no doubt, technically “obese” according to the evil BMI charts of wrongness (not that I would ever submit myself to be judged by such criteria), I can confidently assert that I’m a better role model for young women than any of Girls Aloud. This opinion was backed up today by the Daily Mail Online, who seem to have momentarily (and rather refreshingly) spared us all their usual penchant for unforgiving body fascism and deigned to concede that, just perhaps, Nadine Coyle and Cheryl Cole might be a tad too thin (although I did notice they couldn’t resist mentioning the “obesity crisis” once. Old habits die hard).

I need to clarify my stance – Since during my recent visit to a high school in Walsall, I stated that I did not particularly think Cheryl Cole was anything to aspire to and was greeted by gasps of disbelief and 16 year old girls frantically fanning themselves and swooning with shock left, right and centre (almost. Although, interestingly, at the University everyone agreed with me so I suppose CC worship might just be a fleeting right-of-passage style phase all young women are currently destined to go through). To be absolutely clear: I do not hate Cheryl Cole. I don’t hate any of Girls Aloud band members, particularly (I reserve that strength of emotion for people who deserve something more than my nonchalance). What I object to are the unseen external forces they have clearly been subjected to which have forced them to conform to the “never too rich or skinny” prototype. I hate what they represent. They are, without a shadow of a doubt bad role models, but this isn’t necessarily their fault.

Liz Jones, the Mail Online journo was absolutely right when she said “alongside No. 1 singles and sell-out concerts comes responsibility” however, it’s the industry generally which needs to acknowledge that responsibility not these poor, shrinking, malnourished girls who are merely pawns in a much larger, more sinister machine.

Furthermore, pointing the finger at any celebrity and accusing them of perpetuating anorexia is not only reductive, it’s willfully missing the point – We cannot keep placing sticking plasters over something which is a much wider issue in a society which has its priorities all wrong. After all, if we didn’t heap such utterly disproportionate amounts of adulation, wealth and fame on people whose talents are limited to miming and being a human coat hanger, then would it really matter how thin they were?

In my capacity as a Body Confidence campaigner working with young people, I’ve noticed that girls want to be thin, not because they equate thinness with beauty, but because they see it as a fast track to all the success, wealth and love that they crave. In a climate where many of them come from broken homes and even more are destined to be unemployed, even if they do achieve the qualifications which they are told are the be-all-and-end-all, who can blame them for searching for a more instantly gratuitous track to everything they have been missing?

Performers usually crave fame because they are emotionally unstable to begin with, for whatever reason – It might be a cliché but it’s also usually true. Most creative people will admit that their talent was born out of some sort of personal tragedy, usually in their childhood, which left them feeling undervalued – “Applause fills the hole in my soul” as Krusty the Clown said on The Simpsons. People who feel invisible, insecure, unappreciated and unlovable also tend to be prime candidates for eating disorders. The two things go hand in hand. Rather than berating celebrities for something which is their natural tendency why don’t we 1) give them the help they need and 2) stop looking to them for diet and lifestyle tips? After all, they are singers, models, WAGs and IT girls, not nutrition, style or fitness experts. When we relegate our entertainers to the correct pecking order, in the scheme of life (i.e. below, rather than above, Nobel peace prize winners, scientists, philosophers, scholars, soldiers, nurses etc), young people will stop trying to emulate them. Simples.

To read the Daily Mail article click: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1257927/Girls-Aloud-Britains-successful-girl-band--suddenly-skinniest-too.html#ixzz0iEzCXk7t

On the delightful, sun-filled train journey to the picturesque little village which is home to my parents, I saw a woman who absolutely fascinated me.

She must have been in her 70s, with a wizened little face and an extremely frail frame, although she was nicely dressed in a waist cinching number and court shoes. Either her hairdresser was a magician, or she was wearing a wig – A voluminous, shiny affair, with a high crown and cascading ringlets in various colours falling to just below her shoulders. Think Dot Cotton with Dolly Parton’s barnet. Luckily, I was wearing sunglasses, which allowed me to feed my fascination by staring at her like David Attenborough observing a beetle for the best part of the 15 minute journey.

I guessed that she had been very attractive back in her heyday and that she had learned the art of makeup artistry in the 1960s, failing to adapt it since. I watched as she applied a heavy, very pale foundation, several layers of black and grey eye-shadow and heavy handedly began lining her lips with a neural shade. The result was horrific, in a kind of can’t-tear-my-eyes-away type way. This, I thought to myself, is what happens when women refuse to acknowledge the ageing process.

The prevailing social attitude of “youth = beauty” is symptomatic of exactly the same phenomenon which encourages young women so starve themselves right back to child-like proportions. Projects like Body Gossip are working to introduce more diversity into the beauty spectrum – but that isn’t limited to body shapes, it also extends to races and ages we aren’t used to seeing in the public eye. That’s why my delight at the above Daily Mail article was somewhat tarnished when I subsequently clicked on this one:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1257962/The-future-face-40-Botox-fillers-high-tech-face-creams-mean-Big-Four-0-doesnt-look-like-used-to.html

Friday, 12 March 2010

Brumantics (Adventures in the West Midlands)

This month, my quest to mould the young minds of Britain took me to the West Midlands, home of Jasper Carrot and Kerrang Radio (which was enough to make me warm to the place).

My experience of Birmingham up until that point had been limited to two distinct and different situations – Seeing the grim edifices of grey buildings speeding by as a passenger in my mother’s car on my way to Aberystwyth University (with all my worldly possessions in the boot) and partying with my friend, let’s call her Melissa (a glamour model who often wears outfits which appear to be made entirely of cling-film). I’d experienced Birmingham as a city which looks bleak on the surface, but whose façade hides a thriving, thrusting culture of night life – gigs, clubs, after-clubs, after-the-after clubs – Melissa and I had been known to perplex her then-boyfriend by staying out in Brum for the best part of 60 hours (I suspect the cling-film mini-dresses played some role in the various invitations to underground establishments).

In short, I had no idea what West Midland inhabitants under the age of 18 who were awake during the day and slept at night would be like, but on Wednesday 9th March I took the campaign to a local secondary school and found out. Turns out, they’re pretty much like all the other students I’ve encountered on my UK tour – Bright, sweet, but lacking in self esteem.

The more of the country’s young people I encounter, the more I realise I am right when I assert that lack of body confidence is a country-wide phenomenon. A fundamental lack of confidence which manifests itself in negative body image does not discriminate by location, class, race or gender. When I see what Mark would call “the light bulbs going off” i.e. my audience relating to what I am saying about how we all feel as though we aren’t good enough most of the time, half of me is relieved and the other is full of dismay on their behalf – I’m yet to meet a young person who is nonchalant about their body.

On Thursday I was lucky enough to visit Birmingham University and meet the fantastically beautiful, personable and dynamic Women’s Officer, Esther Akinnuwah, who had invited me there. Call me easily impressed, but I loved the Brum Uni S.U. From the outside it has an archaic kind of grandeur, but there’s a bit in the centre which reminds me of the inside of a space shuttle (not that I’ve ever been in one, you understand) and is a hive of activity, housing a little shop and a Subway (place where they make sandwiches as opposed to underground train system – Now that would be impressive).

Everyone has a “mental age” and I’m pretty sure that I stopped maturing emotionally at University. I haven’t really changed essentially since then, other than my penchant for drinking wine that costs more than £2 a bottle (not much more, mind) and the fact that I’ll no longer subject my mini-skirt clad bare legs to temperatures below 20 degrees c (how we ever walked along the seafront clad in the skimpiest of garb battling gale force winds and torrential rain, midwinter, and simultaneously managing to eat a kebab I shall never know). There is something tangible in the air at Universities – It’s an enthusiasm, a thirst for knowledge (not just academic knowledge, but just for knowing stuff about people, about life) – It’s full of people who haven’t yet had all their spirit squished out of them by the realities of adult life. I bloody love it.

I realised on the train coming home why they call it “luggage” – It’s indicative of all the energy you’re going to expend having to “lug” it around. The noise I made when my bottom finally hit my familiar sofa back home was undeniably sexual (a bit like when Monica takes “the” agonizingly painful boots off in Friends). Again, I’m cream crackered but, again, it was well worth the trip.

Thanks, Brum, for having me.

Also this week: The Herts & Essex Observer were kind enough to print a piece on my recent trip to Bishop’s Stortford High (accompanied by a photo of me doing something a little peculiar with my right hand – It’s a sort of Sybil Fawlty saying “oooh I know” style gesture), Body Gossip launched an official web page for the education campaign (hurrah! Go to www.bodygossip.org/schools) and an article I wrote in January for Hub Magazine hit the shelves. To see the online version, go to http://www.hubmagazine-sw.co.uk/src/HUB_Spring_2010.html and cyber-flick to page 10.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Body Gossip's Newest Recruits

Giving an accurate first impression of who you are when presenting yourself in an intimate setting is nothing compared with the task of crafting your stage persona. Take it from someone who winged it and consistently got it very, very wrong.

During my time as my singer-songwriter alterego Mis-Dee, my concern lay entirely with how on earth I was going to hit the correct notes when my throat had been damaged irreparably by the constant scratching of fingers nails, or a toothbrush, or a biro. As far as the parts when it was required of me to speak between songs, I simply thought it was enough to be “me but more”.

Unfortunately, “me but more” didn’t portray herself as particularly nice. My friends actively disliked Mis-Dee and Mis-Dee’s friends were people I disliked as soon as I dismounted the stage. Natasha can be a little sarcastic. Mis-Dee was harsh and sometimes verged on cruel. Natasha is proud of her curves. Mis-Dee gave the impression of vanity. Natasha tends to mask difficult or nerve-wracking situations with humour. Mis-Dee made people believe she didn’t give a shit.

The problem was, of course, that it wasn’t Mis-Dee reading the critics’ comments, it was me. Having to read that I was “fat” and “up myself” and had “no humility” took a heavy emotional toll. Especially as these observations were at the expense of anyone even referring to the notes and harmonies I had laboured so hard to perfect.

The music industry is not an environment someone with an eating disorder should ever be subjected to, when healthier people than I was have been reduced to shadows of themselves by the harsh scrutiny to which their bodies were subjected. I could never have been accepted by the media, or by society as Mis-Dee, especially as I couldn’t accept myself.

I do miss some aspects of the music industry, however. As dedicated as I am to the work I do now, there are days when I yearn for the tangible excitement of a live gig, or to be surrounded by people who really understand music, because they live and breathe it, they create it, they are part of it and it is part of them. That’s why I was so happy to be offered the position of music journalist for brand-spanking new magazine Evolve (dedicated to plus-size fashion and whose tag line is “Be Proud: Be You”).

Life, feeling kind, had offered me the opportunity to indulge my passion for music, without embroiling myself in my old life, or having to sacrifice my new one.

It was in this capacity that I was lucky enough to meet Divine Unity, an uber-talented trio of vocalists from London, currently performing on Sundays at Charlotte Street Blues.

I’m in awe of two things about these three ladies – Firstly, their amazing vocal prowess (see my review in Catch-a-Vibe online magazine on 16th March for a more in-depth review) and secondly, their ability to be exactly the same both on and off stage. They are somehow able to convey all their innate loveliness, enthusiasm and contentment in their own skins in their stage personas, an art which I was never able to master myself.

Divine Unity are everything I like about people – they have personality and spirit without being bossy or overbearing. They are feisty but not fierce. They are lovely without being insipid. They radiate youth and health without being preppy and irritating.

They’re also a rare breed in the music industry. We are used to extremes: the insufferably pretentious or the unbearable self-deprecating. We have Lady Gaga parading around in her pants in the red corner and Leona Lewis apologizing for existing in the blue. We have Christina Aguilera ensuring that all attention is diverted from her talent to her mammarys on one hand and Katie Melua in a floor length potato sack pretending sex doesn’t exist on the other.

Divine Unity have great bodies and they wear fashion forward, funky clothes. They somehow manage to tread the wafer-thin line between being proud of your physique and prostituting it. Interviewing them off stage, they talked about self-respect and setting a good example to younger girls. It was then knew they had to become part of Body Gossip. Divine Unity represent everything Body Gossip is about – Confidence, love and respect

Fantaz-magorically, just one short week later, Body Gossip is proud and delighted to have Divine Unity on board with its campaign. Go to www.bodygossip.org/blog to read more about these remarkable ladies.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Why it's not Enough to be "In Recovery"

Ever have one of those moments where something comes out of your mouth before you can stop it and then immediately afterwards you think “why did I say that?”. I had one such moment last week whilst being interviewed live on BBC Radio Three Counties. I heard myself say: “I have been in recovery for two years”.

During the course of my research, I must have encountered the phrase “in recovery” a thousand times and that’s the only explanation I can give for my verbal slip.

The truth is, I am not “in recovery” …….. I am cured. This is an absolutely crucial distinction.

I have been “in recovery” many times during my decade long tussle with bulimia nervosa. I used CBT, counseling, psychotherapy and antidepressants and successfully managed to stop myself from bingeing and purging for periods of up to a month at a time. I was encouraged to keep food diaries and record my emotions every time I ate, to put my knife and fork down between each mouthful to slow down my eating and help me register when I was full, to present my food nicely so that it was then “a shame” to throw it up – The emphasis was exclusively on my eating habits.

The ultimate result was the day I missed all my university lectures because I spent five hours of my life sitting in my room in halls staring at a chicken bagel.

On that day, back in 2002, I’d spent ages making myself that sodding bagel. It had light mayo and paprika and carefully arranged salad vegetables. I’d toasted the bagel gently and arranged the chicken in perfectly symmetrical slices, all as per instructions. Then, I put it on the nearest approximation I had to a posh plate back in my student days (using a plate at all was quite novel for me then), with a folded piece of kitchen roll masquerading as a napkin. I’d been told not to do anything else whilst eating which might distract me from the signals of fullness my stomach was giving me (the fact that my stomach had completely lost it’s ability to produce these signals by that point was apparently not taken into consideration). So I put my laptop to one side and placed my chicken bagel on my desk and sat down.

What followed was like a Mexican stand off between two completely different characters, both resident in my poor, overwrought mind. I stared at the chicken bagel, rendered almost totally inanimate by all the turmoil in my brain.

“Natasha 1” wanted to eat the chicken bagel and to savour every mouthful, to chew slowly and taste all the different flavours and then, feeling pleasantly satisfied, to get on with her day. “Natasha 2” was screaming at me to throw the bagel away, or, if I absolutely had to have it, I’d have to vomit afterwards and, since I was going to vomit anyway, I might as well follow my chicken bagel with a packet of biscuits and a tub of icecream. About an hour into the sitting and staring, this third character popped up – I had no idea who she was, we’d never met before. “Natasha 3” was telling me to stand up and turn my back on the chicken bagel. Natasha 3 wanted me to have the willpower to walk away from this insignificant thing which was holding me captive. Natasha 3 didn’t want me to be a prisoner and she wanted me to demonstrate my freedom not by throwing the bagel in the bin but by knowing it was still there, still edible, still delicious and that I could have it any time I wanted and therefore it was ok to turn away from it.

I liked Natasha 3. I could see her argument. Unfortunately she was outnumbered two to one. I stood up and sat straight back down a few times in deference to Natasha 3’s suggestion. And then went back to my staring.

At some stage it got dark and my mind became weary of all this internal struggle. I ate the chicken bagel and then I went to the supermarket and bought some other things and ate them too and then I vomited until I burst a blood vessel in my right eye. I vomited with extra force and vigour, to punish myself for chicken bagel-gate.

When I evoke an image of what it means to be “in recovery”, I picture myself sitting staring at a chicken bagel. For those five hours I didn’t binge and I didn’t purge. Technically, I wasn’t bulimic that day (if you discount what happened in the night time). Yet still there was this huge internal struggle, still food was an all-encompassing obsession and I still hated myself for wanting the bagel and for not being able to eat it in the way I thought I should.

The phrase “in recovery” implies that the issue is still present, that fighting it will be a daily struggle and that it’s an ongoing and lengthy process. It suggests that, whilst the behaviour might change, the emotions will remain. For anyone who suffers from an eating disorder, this is an unspeakably depressing prospect and yet it is a myth which continues to be perpetuated by many traditional eating disorder therapies.

That’s why at Winning Minds we take the focus away from food. We help our clients to rediscover who they are and break free from the shackles of their eating disorder by shedding the identity of their issue.

Whilst writing this blog I became aware of a slight rumbling in my stomach. I went to the fridge and retrieved two plums. I ate those two plums and they were delicious. Now I don’t feel hungry any more and can continue with my day. That is what it means to be cured.