Friday, 30 December 2011

New Year: New You?

I detest Christmas parties in suburbia. I really do. But I have friends and family who live there and so to them I must go. I hate them primarily because I don’t feel I have anything of value to add to the prevailing themes of conversation. This isn’t because I have particularly low self-esteem, before you start conjecturing. It’s because at Christmas parties, everyone talks about their boyfriends, girlfriends, children/babies, plans to redecorate and cars they’re thinking of buying and my life is, fortuitously, bereft of all of these things. I have a bloody interesting career to chat about, but no one wants to talk about anything remotely work-related over a minced pie and mulled wine. They just want to ask me why I’m not married yet and if it's because I’m a secret lesbian.

To avoid a Mr Darcy-esque party demeanour (i.e. standing, mute and sulkishly in a corner somewhere casting aspersions on everyone’s dancing abilities), I’ve honed my ability to seek out the person in the room who looks like they might be interested in discussing body image. See, blog readers, really I’m always at work. Devoted to collecting the nation’s opinions - Some potentially different, new and interesting perspectives on the body confidence issues of the day.

Accept, of course, Christmas isn’t an ideal time to gain any sort of sensible perspective on the subject. From anyone. In winter, absolutely everyone loses their minds and confuses their poor, unsuspecting bodies. People who can usually be relied upon for unrelenting logic and profound sociological commentary become slaves to the whims of the season and start spouting clich├ęd old crap. December is a month to gorge – To indulge in all the forbidden delights we associate with celebration. Wine is quaffed, meals are four times their usual size and the tin of Quality Street is never far from our eager, grasping fingers.

But that’s ok, because we know our resultant expanding waistlines can be whipped back to their former svelte selves come January – The month of discipline, the month to eschew all pleasure, the month when we become an idealised version of our former, gluttonous selves.

For those of us who have a more long-standing, less Christmas-specific body bugbear, January presents the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Yes, we decide, this will finally be the year we actually use our gym membership, or lose that pesky weight, or save up for a long-hankered-after cosmetic procedure, or learn how to wear pure white without spilling bolognaise sauce down ourselves. We begin to fantasise about a future in which we are a leaner, more poised, cooler, more attractive, more popular version of ourselves.

But it’s all bollocks. And deep down, you know it.

I could wax lyrical at this juncture about how the one thing we’ll never truly escape is ourselves. I could go a little spiritual on your asses. But instead I’ll resort to good old fashioned empiricism. I’ll look at the evidence.

Every single year, millions of people throughout the Western World resolve to mould their bodies into a different, more aesthetically pleasing form, convinced that this will guarantee them the fulfilment and happiness they so desperately crave. And yet, come September, the majority less resemble the idealised version of perfection they believe they should emulate and are considerably more depressed as a result.

We’re trapped on an endless binge/purge carousel, bombarded with conflicting messages telling us to indulge one moment and to deprive ourselves the next. On and on we run, on an endless treadmill to absolutely nowhere, slaves to the billion pound industries that depend on our greed and our consequent guilt.

Well, I’m getting off. I’m tired of running. It’s exhausting, futile and bloody irritating. There are enough tangible and worthwhile things to hope for in this World, without being blinded by the neon lights of an entirely false and synthetic hope being rammed down my throat by the hands of the advertising industry. There are far more productive activities I could be engaged in than calculating the calories in a low fat fromage frais.

This New Year, I’ve pledged to change my attitude, not my body. I’ll resolve not to change a physical thing, and spend the time that saves me doing something I can really be proud of, and that might actually make me a little more happy.

At Body Gossip, we’re hoping you’ll do the same. We’re calling you to arms: This year, change your attitude, not your body. Tell us what you WON’T be changing by tweeting us at @_BodyGossip.

During the evenings of January 2nd and 3rd, I’ll be on Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio London respectively, telling that nation EXACTLY what I think about New Years’ Resolutions. For details on how, when and why to tune in, follow me on Twitter @BodyGossipTash.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Racism and the Beauty Debate

Beyonce. Halle Berry. Leona Lewis. Barack Obama. What do all these people have in common? Answer: They are all mixed race. By which I mean that one of their parents can be broadly termed as ‘Caucasian’ and the other as ‘Black’. Because of course there are many ways to be mixed race and most of would discover that we are to a degree, if we took the trouble to trace our heritage.

Recently, I was in an East London all girls’ school. I asked any students who could name something they didn’t like about their bodies to put their hands up. One young woman raised her hand and said “I don’t like my skin, Miss”. The shock must have registered on my face. At an age where acne reigns, this girl had one of the most beautifully smooth, radiant skin types I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness first hand. “Errr, why?” I asked.

“Well” she said “you would probably look at me and think I’m mixed race”.( I confess I probably would have done.) “But I’m not” she continued “and I wouldn’t want people to think I am”.

However understanding and tolerant you believe you are as a teacher, there are certain statements which will inevitably get your heckles up. I have a complicated racial heritage and I have two younger brothers who are mixed race in the more literal sense of the word (same mother, different father, grew up together, the word ‘half’ doesn’t feature in our vocabulary). I took a deep breath and asked her why it should be so terrible to be confused with a mixed race person.

If I’d met this young lady on a social occasion, her statement would have induced a lengthy rant from me vis a vie her apparent intolerance of mixed race people. However, on this occasion, I’m so glad I took the time to probe further. Turns out she was bullied for being lighter skinned when she first started school (which is comprised mainly of black and Asian students) because of some ill-conceived notion that all mixed race girls are ‘loose’.

It’s relatively simple to figure out how this totally unfounded reputation came about. You very rarely see a dark skinned black woman held up in the mainstream media as being beautiful, and even if she is it’s with certain concessions (she will usually have poker straight hair, for example). As a result, lighter skinned and mixed race women, who happen to conform to our current beauty paradigms, have induced the kind of envy which only a well-placed rumour can quash. It’s the same reason all conventionally beautiful woman have constraints placed upon them by their peers, to some extent. It’s also the same reason why mixed race men are often automatically assessed as “gay” (oh, the stories my brothers could regale you with on this score. It’s ALMOST as if their insane good looks made other men jealous and feel the need to spread hearsay that would put women off and take them out of the competition).

There are two issues here, in my opinion. The first harkens back to, yes, I’m sorry folks, but that thing I’ve been banging on about since I founded Gossip School in 2008- The Spectrum of Beauty. If we saw a greater variety of races in the public eye, everyone could (rightly) feel beautiful, and no one would feel the need to sooth their jealousy by throwing racial slanders about their lighter skinned counterparts into the rumour mill. This really shouldn’t be difficult. I could name you a dozen breathtakingly beautiful dark skinned black women in my immediate circle of friends. Seriously, Vogue, call me – I’ll pass along their details.

The second issue might make me a little unpopular, but I feel strongly that someone needs to say it. Mixed race people need to embrace both sides of their heritage. They are not black. Neither are they white. The “first black woman to win an Oscar” (Halle Berry) was mixed race. The “first black President” is mixed race. The “first black female artist to cross into the mainstream charts” was mixed race (Etta James). We should allow mixed race people to be proud of who they are and the entirety of where they come from. In terms of the beauty debate, mixed race women should be allowed to take their place in the spectrum of beauty, alongside woman who have darker and indeed lighter skins.

Ethnic diversity is given lip service in the world of beauty and fashion as it is, without mixed race women being thrown into the same category as black women and the powers that be thinking “oh, that’s ok, we’ve ticked our racial equality box for this season”. All races, in their natural state, deserve a place in our notion of what beauty means.

Of course, by the year 3,000 we’ll all be mixed race, scientists predict, and this whole debate, thank goodness, will be utterly defunct. Until then, however uncomfortable it might be to address, we need to realise the detrimental affect our narrow ideals of beauty are having on society, and that in the beauty and fashion worlds, racism certainly hasn’t gone away.