Wednesday, 27 July 2011

New Developments in the Airbrushing Debate

If her Twitter feed is anything to go by, today MP Jo Swinson has been dashing around madly like the proverbial headless chicken between various radio and television appearances, justifying her decision to ban two ridiculously airbrushed adverts.

The ads feature Julia Roberts (43) and Christy Turlington (42) looking like 12 year old cartoons. The photographs (if they can technically still be termed as such) were used to promote some sort of pseudo-scientific cosmetic guff which promised to emulate a similarly ‘youthful glow’. Which is a lie, obviously. Because real people aren’t animated.

More outrageous than the disturbing lack of truth used by the advertisers in this case, is the more general philosophy that attractiveness necessitates youthfulness. That, in fact, Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington, both utterly gorgeous as their real life, 3 dimensional selves, required any airbrushing to begin with.

The message being given to women throughout the World is, to paraphrase, this:

“Over 16? Then you are TOO OLD to be considered attractive by ANYONE. Look! Even one of the World’s highest paid film stars Julia Roberts has to be airbrushed in order for us to deign to look at her face.

Her fame, wealth and talent don’t make her successful. Oh no, it’s her lack of pores and ‘youthful glow’ which really set her ahead of the pack. Why don’t you try and turn back the clock too? You won’t look like this picture, but you should at least try to sort your self out YOU OLD TROUT”.

Today, James O’Brien of LBC fame suggested that the public are too shrewd, too aware of the issues at stake, just generally ‘too intelligent’ to be affected by airbrushing. He even went so far as to brand Jo’s campaign ‘patronising’ and claimed that ‘real people’ have no interest in banning unrealistic advertising.

Where were all the people who email me every day to talk about how advertising bashes their self-esteem? Where were all the body confidence campaigners? Where were all the thousands of people who have written their Body Gossip stories? Not listening to LBC, presumably.

To suggest that the effect of unrealistic beauty paradigms has anything whatsoever to do with intelligence is so reductive it would be laughable, were it not for the fact that so many LBC listeners appeared to be so flattered by the idea that their lack of interest in the subject gave them super human cleverness, they phoned-in to tell London all about it.

Pictures speak to us on a level which isn’t logical. They provoke an emotional reaction, deep in the recesses of our subconscious mind. You can tell yourself as much as you like that what you’re witnessing is the work of technology, but, somewhere buried within the confines of your brain there is a tiny person screeching “Waaaaaah! Why don’t I look like that?”. You could be Albert frickin’ Einstein and this would, I am afraid, still be the case.

James argued that images which bear no resemblance to the original subject are nothing new: The Mona Lisa, he reasoned, was probably exaggerated to look more attractive than she was in real life. Photographs of Marylin Monroe were carefully vetted so that she was only ever presented at her most aesthetically pleasing. Well, yes. But throughout history there has never been a time when the public have so much access to plastic surgery – In the 1950s the average person knew they could never look like Marylin, so they didn’t try.

And why shouldn’t we all be undergoing life-threatening cosmetic procedures, injecting poison into out foreheads, weaving other people's (or, more often horses’) hair onto our heads in our never-ending quest to approximate a photo of someone who doesn’t look like that in real life anyway?

………..Because it’s a waste of time. Imagine if you just looked like the best version of YOU. A lick of paint on the old fizzog, maybe. An outfit that flattered your frame (or even just reflected how you were feeling that day)……Imagine if this was all it took for you to feel fantastic about yourself. Imagine all the other things you’d get done.

And I rest my case.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Can you be Fat and Happy?

Tonight, I shall be featuring on the Radio 5 Live Midnight debate, tackling this very question, on behalf of my campaign Body Gossip.

I’m fairly certain that, in the eyes of the dear old Beeb, I’m fighting the fat corner. As a ‘plus size model’, the expectation of the media is invariably that I’ll launch into any weight related debate enthusiastically denying any potential benefits to being thin and maintaining that curviness is the way forward.

I’m sorry to disappoint in this regard. I have never, ever in my lifetime been heard to utter the phrase “real woman”, in relation to myself or, indeed, anyone else. After all, last time I checked, slender women weren’t a figment of my imagination.

I’m a little bit chubby (and not afraid to say it). Not fat, but definitely not thin either. I’m fortunate enough to be an hourglass shape and a couple of excess pounds therefore flatter my frame. I’m under no illusions that by BMI standards (and what a load of bollocks that is, incidentally) I am overweight. But the pace of my hectic life and my propensity towards walking absolutely everywhere, dancing vigorously and often and….erm….other physically strenuous activities means that I’m in tip top condition.

This wasn’t always the case, as we know. I don’t wish to harp on incessantly about my eating disorder a) because it’s been firmly relegated to my past and b) because it’s boring and self-indulgent but, lest we forget, I have been considerably thinner and momentously more miserable.

Neither am I going to attempt to pretend that settling into my natural and healthy body shape required no effort whatsoever. The path to self-acceptance was paved with obstacles. But, eventually, I concluded that endless analysis of perceived flaws was a ginormic waste of my time. After all, there is Body Gossip to run and life to be lived. And, all things considered, I haven’t done too badly in the lottery of looks. Perhaps in an ideal world I’d have a slightly flatter stomach, slightly slimmer thighs and fuller, more lustrous locks (like in a shampoo advert….where the effect is created using hair extension….oh, wait), but I could look like Les Dawson in a bad wig so I’d rather count my numerous physical blessings instead.

Frankly, I applaud anyone who is content with their body in today’s madly over-critical social climate. The question, in reality, should be “Can you be happy at any size?”. Plastic surgery is readily available and socially acceptable. Gym memberships are practically mandatory. Billion dollar industries subsist entirely on our body dissatisfaction and desire to sculpt our physical selves to some imagined will.

And how do we define happiness in the first place? After months of the tiredness, lack of concentration, constant hunger pangs and feelings of misery/vague obsessiveness which invariably accompany a strict diet, we might claim to be ‘happy’ that we’ve dropped a dress size – but at what cost to our more general happiness?

The issue has made headlines because of the reported stories of Pauline Quirk and Body Gossip ambassador Natalie Cassidy, both of whom have lost weight recently and are claiming to be happier as a result.

I do not know Pauline. All I will say in regard to her is that I have lain awake at night imagining all her loose skin.

Natalie, however, has worked with Body Gossip since it’s inception in 2006. I have spent time with her at a size 10,a size 16 and at every size in between and I can honestly say it makes very little difference to the overall impression one has of her as a person. Natalie is ferociously bright, infectiously bubbly, immediately warm and likeable and extremely pretty. The existence or not of a stone here or there is of no consequence whatsoever to these attributes.

However, I’m prepared to concede that she may be happier. And that’s wonderful. For her. But why is this news? Why do we think that Natalie’s weight loss journey has any bearing on our own lives and bodies?

Everyone has a natural weight at which they feel and look ‘right’. It took me ages to work out that mine was somewhere between a size 14 and 16. Surely, that couldn’t be the case, I told myself, when every magazine, billboard, television programme, advertisement and, crucially, OTHER WOMAN I encountered was telling me I should strive for the elusive size 8?

Of course, size 8, healthy people do exist. My Body Gossip Co-Captain Ruth Rogers is one of them. She eats when she is hungry. She stops when she is full. She exercises, in moderation, every day. And she looks bloody gorgeous.

So, yep, you guessed it, I’m going to whop out that persistently used phrase ‘spectrum of beauty' AGAIN Make it your mantra, blog devotees.

Is it possible to be fat and happy? Yes, of course it is, if that is your natural body shape and you have accepted that to be the case. Is it possible to be thin and happy? Ditto.

One thing is for certain – Being healthy in body and mind is the most stress-free path to genuine happiness.

Tune in to Radio 5 Live tonight at Midnight to hear me talking about these issues, using my mouth.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Amy Winehouse - The Legacy

Yesterday, the country was rocked by the sad news of Amy Winehouse’s death, aged just 27.

I should preface this blog by saying that I loved her. Even in her most obviously drug-addled of states in public appearances I found her witty and charming. Her music spawned an entirely new genre and a generation of copycats. And she somehow represented the spirit of North London in a way I can’t quite define and which had nothing to do with her addiction to narcotics.

Having said that, I’m finding the public reaction to her death concerning, for a number of reasons:

In the blue corner are people trying to attach some sort of spiritual significance to her passing by pointing out that Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Kurt Kobain also died aged 27.

A lot of people die aged 27 and the danger here is that, just like the others mentioned in that list, the death of Amy, rather than serving as a chilling reminder of the dangers of drug addiction, is somehow going to promote the idea that drugs are ‘cool’.

In the red corner we have the somewhat spurious moral outrage of a group of people who inexplicably think it’s inappropriate to mourn Amy’s death, because of the recent tragedies in Norway. I can’t quite fathom the logic of attempting to establish a connection between these two completely unrelated incidents. It is possible to be concerned about two things at once, for most humans. It’s not like one detracts from the other.

Apparently, according to some, Amy ‘chose’ to die. This completely misunderstands the nature of addiction. In a sense, our more general perception of Amy, as fuelled by the media, is to blame. Because every time we saw her falling out of a club at 3am we made a joke of it and assumed she was having a lovely time. We didn’t see someone who was desperately in need of intervention.

The attitudes of the red corner brigade shows a disturbing lack of compassion. And the blue corner brigade show a wilful misinterpretation of the facts.

Let’s remember Amy as a remarkable songstress and let her death be a reminder that even the young, rich, famous and talented are not invincible.

Antidepressants - My Two Penneth

Disordered eating makes you depressed. This is an unfortunate fact.

The brain is a muscle just like any other and malnutrition has a detrimental effect on the chemical balance within it. Couple this with the relentless, nagging internal critic which is an eating disorder and it’s enough to make anyone plunge into a state of depression.

It’s chicken and egg, for many. (Incidentally, and completely unrelated-ly - I was watching an Attenborough documentary the other day and apparently scientist boffins have discovered that the egg, did, in fact, come first. It naturally evolved, from a stone or something (I got distracted at this point, so the scientific validity of stone part is highly questionable). Anyway. The point is, it’s not longer appropriate to use the phrase ‘chicken and egg’. Shouldn’t have done that. Sorry. Won’t do it again).

When I was bulimic, I genuinely couldn’t work out if I was depressed because I had an eating disorder, or if I had an eating disorder because I was depressed. This was because, at the time, I didn’t understand the true nature of depression. Yes, in retrospect, the binge-purge cycle was a poignant symbolic exercise - a way for me to deal with difficult emotions. But there’s a huge difference between feeling sad and being medically depressed.

Depression isn’t a direct response to an event – In fact, often depressed people have to try and make the landscape of their life fit their feelings. We live in a society where it’s not really acceptable to admit that you’re desperately blue for no real reason at all, so we pick an incident from our past at random, and blame that for how we’re feeling.

The act of making myself sick, many times a day, every day, for several years, rendered me in a constant state of depression. Of that I am in little doubt. But depression wasn’t the causal factor and what I really needed to do was to conquer my eating disorder.

So, when my doctor offered me anti-depressants before my recovery back in 2006, they had exactly the effect you might expect – None whatsoever.

GPs have an average of 6 minutes per patient. Which is fine if you have a broken leg. For mental health issues, however, it’s woefully inadequate. It’s not fair to place the blame at the door of the nation’s doctors. They have deadlines to meet and boxes to tick and are constrained by the structure and red tape and general bureaucracy of the NHS.

However, it’s given rise to the dangerous temptation for doctors to throw antidepressants at any problem. Patients are being prescribed antidepressants for anything from hot flushes to insomnia. It’s regarded as a ‘quick fix’. Well, ‘quick’ it may be, but it doesn’t appear to be ‘fixing’ anything.

Here are a few facts about antidepressants:

• They only work in 30% of cases.

• They are not designed for long-term use but have also been shown not to have a long-term effect (i.e. when you stop taking them you’ll be just as depressed as you were before).

• They have been shown to increase the chances of suicide. Yes, that’s right. Suicidal people are being given drugs which increase the chance of them killing themselves.

That’s why I was delighted to be approached by a journalist who asked me about my experiences of having taken antidepressants for an article she was writing. I told her in no uncertain terms – What I needed was active intervention and some form of intensive mind-based therapy. What I got was 2 weeks off work, a prescription for antidepressants and an 18 month wait for (what transpired to be) a laughably inept counsellor.

I was then contacted again and told that the journalist had chosen to print a story from someone who was in favour of antidepressants, but not mine. Why? We can only conjecture. But this blog is my antidote to that little piece of injustice.

Eating disorders are, by their very nature, shrouded in secrecy. The culture of prescribing antidepressants is only serving to further silence sufferers and to sweep their issues under the proverbial carpet.

Monday, 11 July 2011

What Is Beauty?

I’ve subscribed to Cosmopolitan since I was 16. Throughout the years, we’ve evolved together, nurturing a similar ‘you go, girl’ style mentality when it comes to love, careers, sex and fashion. Cosmo broadly reflects my personality. I was never cool enough for Vogue, or vacuous enough for [*insert your generic monthly glossy here*], or quite sensible and brooding enough for Psychologies. But I am fun-loving, and vivacious and, to quote my Body Gossip co-Captain Ruth ‘formidable’.

Over the years, Cosmo has provided me with valuable life advice. Probably the choicest nugget of wisdom was “remember your eyebrows are sisters, not twins” (which saved me from the misery and shame of plucking my brows into obscurity trying to match them exactly). I also distinctly remember inviting a red faced and flustered male university lecturer I quite fancied to stroke my fake fur bolero (not a euphemism), which I’d worn to class aged 18 after Cosmo instructed me that men are suckers for tactile fabrics.

The article which will always stay with me, though, was one which I read aged 21. It said that women can always be categorized in one of three ways – pretty, sexy and beautiful.

I immediately allied myself in the sexy camp. With my Amazonian frame, red hair, ridiculous bosom and mixed race heritage, I’ve never been quite conventional, dainty and symmetrical enough to be ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ I’d always assumed was something to be reserved for the Kate Mosses of this World. I therefore reasoned that I must be sexy by default.

Recently, though, I thought about this in more depth. Pretty is easy enough to identify (Gwenyth Paltrow, Thandie Newton, Katherine Heigl). Sexy is also glaringly obvious (Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, Beyonce). Yet all of the women I’ve just named are also indisputably beautiful. Well, I say indisputably, if the old adage ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is to be believed, then even that’s not a foregone conclusion.

This led me to further musing about the nature of beauty and how very complex it is. Paradigms of beauty are constantly changing, hence the journey from Marylin Monroe to Size 0. Yet the fact that Marylin Monroe still remains an icon of eternal beauty proves that some beauty paradigms are timeless. Then there’s the veritable myriad which is inner beauty. And I don’t mean this in some kitsch, new age philosophy style way either. When someone has inner beauty you can literally see it in their face. They might not be conventionally attractive but they just look lovely in a way that’s impossible to define and yet totally apparent to everyone that encounters them.

I started to think about my closest female friends:

Belma – 6 foot tall. Size 10-12. Annoyingly model-like physique. High cheekbones. Big Green eyes. Glossy hair she attributes to a love of raw foods (she genuinely loves raw food. It doesn’t make her gag or anything). Looks good in anything from skinny jeans to maxi dresses.

But here is the thing about Belma. She’s undoubtedly classically beautiful. But she’s most beautiful when she laughs. Real, teeth and gums bared, head-thrown-back, no control over her limb-muscles cackling.

Ruth (co-Captain of Body Gossip) – Slender, pale, elfin, cropped hair, funky. Sort of woman that can throw on a man’s shirt and pull it off with utter aplomb. Rarely seen in skirts, never seen in heels.

Now, here’s the thing about Ruth – She shouldn’t be attractive. Everything about the modern beauty paradigm (long hair, fake bosoms, tan, short skirt, sky high heels) tells us that she shouldn’t. But she bloody is. She’s beautiful. And not just because she’s a legend – It’s not even a personality thing. She just works it with her unique, funky self (and I’ve seen men reduced to quivering wrecks as a result thereof).

Karla (my Radio Wife) – Statuesque, almost regal. Black. Muscular without having to try. Amazing legs, epic arse. Unique style (once she wore black and white brogues with pop-socks, a corduroy knee length skirt and a velvet jacket. On me this would like idiotic. On her it looked magnificent).

Again, Karla’s definitely beautiful. She’s the sort of girl who has the confidence to wear odd earrings (one stud one dangly sometimes). She’s also got a marvellously expressive face (for someone with no wrinkles at all) – being able to convey derision, delight, contempt, boredom or joy with the single flick of an eyebrow or the merest of movements in her large, sparkling eyes.

So, here’s what I conclude. Some women are pretty. Some women are sexy. But (sorry Cosmo) they’re all beautiful, and they’re beautiful for the reasons they least expect.