On Thursday 19th April 2012, the Government hosted the first ever national body confidence awards. Body Gossip were nominated in two categories (campaigner and education for Gossip School) and so off I trotted in my 4 inch high, hot pink, suede stilettos to Parliament (if I ever stop maintaining that it’s possible to be an advocate for inner beauty AND wear what Ruth Rogers would term ‘ridiculous shoes’ then you must shoot me, for Tash has already left the metaphorical building that is my soul and to keep me alive would be a cruelty).
There’s still a widely held misconception that body image is a ‘fluffy’ subject, fodder only for badly made, reductive prime time television shows, or the pages of weekly glossies, and not really worthy of attention from people who consider themselves to be remotely intelligent or important. The very fact that this event was taking place was testament to the gradual shift against the tide of this truly antiquated and misguided stance.
Last week, I wrote an article for the Times Educational Supplement in which I cited Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and encouraged anyone dubious about the importance of self-esteem to ‘ave a look and use their noddle’ (as one says in Essex. I may have used slightly more elegant language for the Times, however). Michael Gove (or ‘the Anti-Ken’ as I like to call him, in deference to the genius that is ‘right about everything to do with education’ Ken Robinson) has dramatically slashed PSHE budgets, cut huge swathes of vocational qualifications for teenagers and argued that we need to refocus education to ‘traditional academia’. Fortunately, I was inundated with emails from teachers seconding my opinion which, in a very small, pistachio sized nutshell, amounts to “Gove’s stance is tosh”.
Maslow’s hierarchy states that there are a number of basic human needs which need to be fulfilled before an individual can focus on anything else – in this instance before they can achieve their academic or physical potential. These include all the ones you’d expect (like food and shelter), but also include comfort, security and, crucially, confidence.
The work being undertaken by Gossip School, and other wonderful organisations like Young Body Image and Girl Guiding UK, is an acknowledgment of the fact that, if we can provide young people with a foundation of self-esteem and comfort in their own skins, they will have a much better chance of fulfilling their potential, whatever that might be. There’s nothing fluffy about that. It’s about empowering a generation.
We work with 13-18 year olds at Gossip School. It’s the time during which we take our exams, perhaps go into employment, or go to college/university, have our first romances, start to care about the outside world, form opinions on stuff and are trying to establish ourselves as a young adult. It’s a time when you need a good sense of self and the armour to tackle anything negative which might come your way, as you explore what it means to be a human and a citizen. However, I’m also more than aware that self-esteem issues span all ages.
On Thursday, the speeches given by Chair Jo Swinson focussed heavily on how lack of self-esteem is having a devastating impact on children at a younger and younger age. And of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see the impact that our insane, consumer-driven, image-focussed culture is having on a generation of adults (botox anyone?).
Somewhere along the line, fashion and glamour stopped being fun, frivolous and fabulous, and became sinister, sexist and extreme. Our bodies became a commodity, something to be whipped mercilessly into our desired whims, which aren’t even our own but based on an ever-changing arbitrary beauty ideal, dictated by multi-national corporations who line their pockets with our desperate attempts to combat our feelings of low self-worth.
We’re told we need to be attractive in order to be loved, valued and successful – The fact which stayed with me was that a significant number of young people won’t even go into school at all, if they don’t feel attractive on a given day. How can we expect teenagers to go on to solve future economic deficits, find a cure for cancer, fix the environment and combat poverty if they’re too crippled by lack of body confidence even to get out of bed?
If body image were, as some still persist in believing, a ‘fluffy’ topic, there would not be a multi-billion pound cosmetic surgery industry, people would not stick lumps of plastic under their skin, inject their faces with poison and undergo potentially life-threatening procedures in pursuit of an imagined body ideal. The time, money and energy that an ever-growing army of individuals are prepared to sacrifice in order to look different, believing that they will then feel different, is testament to the magnitude of our problem.
One only had to look around at the assembled guests at last Thursday’s event to see how body image bleeds into so many different areas – disability, racism, sexuality, feminism, education. My own experience as a self-esteem teacher bears this out. Start a conversation with a teenager about how they ‘feel fat’ or ‘no one fancies them’ and within five minutes you’re invariably into broken homes, pending unemployment stress or racial sensitivity territory.
I’m all for makeup. Anything you can wipe off/peel off/unzip or unclip at the end of the day is fine in my book. I also have two tattoos. Because, for me, tattoos are an expression of my desire not to conform, to be a little different, whereas the permanent or semi-permanent procedures I object to are symptomatic of an inexplicable wish to aspire to one, uniform look. It isn’t an anomaly to be an advocate for inner beauty AND condition your hair. It’s the reason I subscribe to Cosmopolitan Magazine: I can care about the pay gap between men and women, and the state of the health service, and what’s happening in the Middle East AND have enough room left in my head to get excited about a handbag.
But only because I have the foundation of self-esteem to realise that the handbag is not my ticket to happiness.
If you think you can spot the feminist, the body confidence campaigner, the flag-waver for inner beauty: Think again. We’re everywhere. And it’s about time you joined the revolution.
Here are some other things which happened on Thursday, in no particular order:
Caitlin Moran winked at me (at least I think she did. It could have been the trademark eyeliner);
Kiss FM DJ AJ King read out my statement about young people and body confidence in a speech, raised his fist in the air and said "amen";
Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, eminent Psychotherapist and arguably the cleverest woman on the Planet, called Ruth and I "ballsy and brave" in her speech;
I got a teeny bit tiddly with the gorgeous and lovely Rosie Mullender, Features Editor at Cosmopolitan and we might have talked about boys a bit. In a room full of feminists. But then again everyone was a teeny bit tiddly by then (apart from Jo Swinson who managed to remain incredibly poised and elegant throughout) so I think we were forgiven.
To read Susie Orbach’s article on Thursday's happenings go to: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/20/body-confidence-new-line-on-beauty
To read my Times Article go to: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6207168&s_cid=tesmagazinehome
Below are some photographs, for your viewing pleasure:
Ruth and I outside Parliament pre-event (and pre-wine)
With 'How to Look Good Naked's Shona Collins (Body Gossip Ambassador)
With Rosie Mullender of Cosmopolitan and all-round Legend