Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Sunday Times Re-Ignites the Breast Implant Debate (and my Rage)

Oh, Sunday Times Magazine. I used to think you were so magnificent……

For those of you unfamiliar with The Sunday Times Magazine – They have regular columnists who include the resplendent Caitlin Moran (who is unwaveringly entertaining, articulate and right about absolutely everything). Every week we’re treated to the equally diverting ‘Things You Only Know if You’re Single’ (v.g.) and ‘I don’t give a monkey’s about…….’ (we do love a rant). I always try, and fail, not to enjoy Giles Coran’s restaurant review (he was a big mean-y during a radio debate with my Body Gossip co-Captain Ruth Rogers and I am nothing if not fiercely loyal).

There’s also this someone who calls herself Daisy Waugh. Until last Sunday I had no opinion of her at all. I couldn’t remember a single thing she had written. I vaguely remembered her photo – Slim, blonde, face pulled a little too tightly, slightly smug general demeanour.

Blog readers, this is a direct quote from her 29/02/12 column:

“It’s no surprise that the recent unhappy breast-implant leakage has the fleece-wearing, cake-eating, boob-sagging flag bearers for ‘inner beauty’ smacking their lips with told-you-so glee.”

She went on to suggest that any ‘normal’ person with sufficient income would opt to have any surgical procedure in the pursuit of youth and that breast implants are ‘self-improvement’.

Breast implants are not ‘self-improvement’. They could be, depending on your point of view ‘boob improvement’. They will not ‘improve’ your mind, character or disposition, however much those adverts for cosmetic surgery companies attempt to persuade us otherwise. Having two lumps of plastic shoved under your skin cannot make you more successful, more loved or more worthy.

Of course, there are exceptions to my condemnation of breast surgery. I believe strongly that implants should continue to be used for the purpose for which they were invented, i.e. reconstruction of breasts lost to cancer.

Neither will I ‘do a Daisy Waugh’ and make sweeping generalisations about the people who opt to go under the knife for purely aesthetic purposes. It would be so easy for me to condemn them all as vain, vacuous, lazy, wag-wannabe, pneumatic, attention seeking laughing stocks. But I’m possessed enough of reality to realise that this isn’t the case.

One thing is for certain – We shouldn’t be asking “what would you 'have done' if you had the money?” rather we should be asking “what WOULDN’T you 'have done' if we didn’t live in such an insanely body image obsessed culture?”.

Breast implants take something which should be for the pleasure of the owner, i.e. our breasts, and turn them into objects of sexual gratification for another party. Our bodies are the only thing we truly own and they are there for more than simply looking “good” . They are there to allow us to do the things we want to do with our lives – to run, to laugh, to shag – If they happen to look pretty that’s an unexpected bonus.

We now live in a world where the average teenager is blithely unaware of what a natural breast actually looks like – so saturated are we with perfectly spherical, round, hard artificial silicone substitutes.

The PIP implants scandal is very sad, and I have genuine sympathy for the women embroiled in it. But, by the same token, I’m pleased that this story has come to light – Breast enhancement was starting to be perceived, not only as an inevitability, a part of one’s ‘grooming’ routine, but also as an entirely risk free procedure. I hope now that anyone considering a medical procedure for purely cosmetic reasons might have been given a reason to pause.

Daisy Waugh, I do not own a fleece. My partiality to cake is no more unusual than your average person. I have a blinding pair of natural norks. Heck, I even wear makeup and heels. But I am still an advocate of inner beauty, because it’s so much more important than the outer version. It takes 10 minutes to paint my face in the morning. But it’s taken 30 years to develop my character.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Real Cost of Sensationalist TV

On Thursday 26th January, I will be hitting the airwaves on the Radio 5 Live Midnight Debate, discussing the impact of sensationalist, body-image related TV documentaries. There’s been a spate of them recently – “Accused: The 74 Stone Babysitter”, “Cherry Healey: Like a Virgin” and “Dying to Be Thin”, to name a few.

I will argue that, whilst awareness of body image issues undoubtedly needs to happen, it’s also crucial to do it in right way. Exploiting extreme case studies for shock value and wheeling out research that’s at least 15 years out of date probably isn’t the right way to go about it.

Of course there are some great people in the media doing amazing work – Gok Wan’s example (and, incidentally, I thought Kate Thornton’s Channel 5 Documentary: Anorexia My Secret Past represented a huge step in the right direction). But is all their hard-work being undone by shows which treat body image issues as light entertainment? Most of us would condemn the concept of a Victorian Freak Show: But did it ever truly go away?

Body Gossip is about real people with real, complex, subtle, beautiful stories. We base our campaign on the premise that everyone has a body, and everyone feels a certain way about that body, so everyone can contribute to the debate. Body image is a far-reaching and multi-faceted issue, which affects people who aren’t supersized, aren’t super-skinny and are likely to be wearing clothes. At present, that’s not the message being given to the public.

I will argue this isn’t just annoying: It’s dangerous too. While television reduces people to two- dimensional stereotypes, defining them by their genetics and circumstances, as opposed to their achievements, not only are health myths being perpetuated that might potentially endanger lives (see my complaint re “Dying to be Thin” below), but we’re also nurturing a generation of people utterly devoid of meaningful ambition. After all, television tells them, they live in a world where it’s your economic situation, weight, sexual orientation, alcohol/drug intake or propensity for getting naked at any available opportunity which defines you, rather than what you positively contribute to society.

With the average UK adult spending a, frankly staggering, 25 hours per week having such codswallop beamed into their brains by the little box in the corners of their living rooms, isn’t it time Television Production Companies started acknowledging their responsibility to treat body image issues with the sensitivity and intelligence they deserve?

We want to get people talking about this issue – tweet me with your views at BodyGossipTash, use the tag #BodyGossip.

Remember to tune into Radio 5 Live at Midnight on Thursday 26th – I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on the implications of this phenomenon within the gay community on the SoSo Gay website in the morning.

The People's Panel: Body Image

Last week, the Guardian newspaper invited the public to write 300 words on the diet industry/body image, in response to the AnyBody March to Parliament. Here is what I wrote:

The People’s Panel: Body Image

All adverts for diet industry products and services (and there are thousands of them, glaring down upon us loftily from billboards, on the pages of glossy magazines, on television - you cannot swing low fat fromage frais without hitting an advert for something weight-loss related in today’s world) have the same format. A small, grainy photograph of a miserable looking overweight person dressed in what could generously be described as a misshapen potato sack accompanies a large, professionally taken glossy picture of the same person, newly styled and half their former size. “I lost 10 stone in 5 minutes!” the headline screeches, as they pose in an approximation of unadulterated joy, apparently delighted with their skinny selves.

Because fat people cannot possibly be happy, you see. Fat people cannot be stylish. Fat people cannot be successful or popular. Fat people aren’t loved, or respected. Heck, fat people can’t even afford a half decent camera, it seems.

And this is the message the people of Britain, and in particular a generation of already tragically body-conscious young people, receive every single day. While ‘research’ based on an antiquated and misleading notion of ‘BMI’ tells us 66% of the country are clinically ‘obese’. And we wonder why depression, self-harm, eating disorders and body dysmorphia are rising meteorically.

There’s never been a better time to take a stark look at what our obsession with body image is doing to our society and to take a stand. And that’s why today I took to the streets of London with an equally impassioned group of men and women who were angered, disillusioned and downright disgusted by a billion-pound industry which relies, crucially, on our insecurity. I hope they listened.

Dying to be Thin: Response from ITV re my Complaint

Thanks to everyone who facebook-ed/tweeted/commented/emailed me to express their agreement with my complaint to ITV1 regarding their programme ‘Dying to be Thin’. To those people: I wish I had better news vis a vie ITV’s response. Below is the load of sanctimonious, emotive old twaddle I received by way of reply, which failed to acknowledge or address any of my original complaint, other than to say “we DIDN’T do that” (which shows the intellectual maturity of a five year old):

Dear Ms Devon,

Thank you very much for your email regarding the Tonight programme – Dying to Be Thin (5/1/12)

The purpose behind this Tonight programme was to examine certain eating disorders, dispel some myths associated with them and to raise awareness.

We believe we achieved this as almost four million people watched the programme which received an overwhelmingly positive response. We have just heard that B-eat received five times the number of calls they usually receive – mainly from parents who believed their children were displaying signs of an eating disorder. B-eat who worked with us from the time the programme was commissioned was totally prepared for the volume and type of calls they might receive and have reported to us that all calls were dealt with and all concerns, from parents, were handled.

We did not suggest that anorexia and bulimia were the same illness. We were talking about figures and said that these are two specific and well known eating disorders which are on the rise.

We consulted with both Dr Tony Jaffa at the Phoenix Centre and Dr Dee Dawson throughout our research and filming and did not at any point in the film suggest that you are only anorexic if you weight 5 stone. In the programme we highlighted the point that eating disorders “are complex mental illnesses.”.

The programme did give hope to carers. We featured the case of Lisa, who, our reporter Fiona Foster, met eight years ago and who was anorexic at that point. She has now recovered and we felt that showing her recovery left parents and sufferers with the most positive message - that children can recover from anorexia.

The Eating Disorders Association - B-eat was prepared for all types of calls from viewers and was able to handle them all. We also had the number for Anorexia, Bulimia, Care on our website.

The part of the programme focusing on young girls looking at pictures of themselves was used to show that girls as young as seven are aware of different body shapes and the significance of these shapes to them, even at such a young age.

The programme resonated with parents across the country and we were contacted by one couple who thanked ITV for saving their daughter’s life after the programme prompted her to open up to her parents about her anorexic feelings and talking to them about how to deal with her feelings.

We appreciate your concerns and at ITV we always seek to make responsible programmes. If we make a further programme looking at eating disorders in the future we will bear these concerns in mind.

Yours sincerely,
Elaine Carlton
Development Producer, Tonight

Monday, 16 January 2012

Storming Parliament (Again)

It only seems like 5 minutes ago I was storming Parliament with Gok Wan, in my totally inappropriate shoes, campaigning for body confidence lessons to be put on the National Curriculum. But today I found myself there again, this time in the company of the Magnificent Beast that is Susie Orbach, in a protest against the diet industry.

Here are some of the Body Gossip team, proudly wielding our stupidly large banner in a defiant manner (that rhymes, I am a secretly talented rapper).

My beef with diets, people who advocate diets and those poor, dull, miserable, ultimately-doomed to failure souls who actually embark on them, is endless. What it essentially boils down to, however, is this:

There are two types of health we need to be concerned with, as human beings – Our physical health, and our mental health. And however much the diet industry might try to convince us otherwise, it is never, EVER psychologically healthy to wake up in the morning and know exactly what you will eat that day. Pre-planning is just another word for ‘fixation’. ‘Diet’ is just another word for ‘food obsession’.

So, by all means educate people to make healthy food choices. But by prescribing our food behaviour, the diet industry teaches us to ignore and deny our hunger, to channel our considerable talent and energy into an never-ending quest for thinness and to spend a heck of a lot of our hard earned pennies in the process.


Monday, 9 January 2012

'Dying to be Thin' - Why Awareness-Raising is a Double -Edged Sword

I’m not ashamed to admit it, Blog readers, there was a small, illogical part of me what was filled with irrational hope when I saw that ITV1 was screening a programme called ‘Dying to be Thin’ last week. Aired at 7.30pm, it’s a rare thing for the televisual equivalent of the Sun Newspaper to deign to ping something about such a sensitive issue out to the masses during prime time. It had the potential to be a gigantic leap forward in awareness raising.

Of course there was another, more logical part of my mind which was only too aware that in terms of emotional evolution, ITV1 is about 50 years behind every other channel. There was every chance that this could be a bucket-load of sensationalist old crap. Unfortunately, this part of my mind proved right.

The half hour show focussed on a handful of female, teenage, and severely underweight sufferers of anorexia nervosa, wheeling out time-old clich├ęs, such as the sufferer standing in front of a mirror to reveal that – shock, horror! – she believes she is fat! They also conducted a ‘cutting edge’ (read: already used about a gazillion times during programmes on the much more progressive channel 4 and BBC3) experiment, which involved photographing young girls in close-fitting garb, showing them a full size image of themselves, and 4 additional ones made both larger and smaller than they are in reality, and asking them which one they prefer. “These girls are OBSESSED with body image” the presenter cried, in apparent disbelief – Of course they are – Show me anyone who wouldn’t feel a bit body conscious and, frankly, weirded out by being filmed in this bizarre hall of mirrors.

The sole redeeming feature was a 10 second VT of the magnificent Jo Swinson MP, talking sense.

As I heaved a huge sigh of disappointment, switched off the television and dragged myself into the kitchen to make a lovely soothing cup of tea, I was only mildly irritated. Then my phone rang.

“What did you think?” my friend asked.
“Load of clap trap”. I replied.
“Yes, but it’s a step in the right direction. On ITV1! At Prime Time! And most people don’t know as much about eating disorders as you do – For most people it will have taught them something”.

Which got me thinking – Was that programme ‘better than nothing’? And do all the people who work tirelessly to put out information which might genuinely give someone an understanding of eating disorders deserve something more than ‘better than nothing’?

It would be remiss of me to blame ITV1 entirely. This programme was the epitome of the tendency by some sectors of the media to turn serious mental health issues into light entertainment. Time after time organisations like Body Gossip and Men Get Eating Disorders Too have metaphorical doors slammed in our disillusioned faces by the popular press , as we present to them our well-reasoned, well-researched and suitably complex angles on the body image debate and are told “unless you can supply before-and-after-pictures of some case study we can exploit, or can find someone a little bit famous to say it instead, then bugger off”.

It’s little wonder, then, that most people’s understanding of eating disorders is at best rudimentary. The amount of cab drivers who have tried to give me their ‘informed wisdom’ on the topic, which essentially amounts to “that’s when birds think they’re fat, but they’re not, innit? Tell them men like something to grab hold of”. Thank you, for that.

So, the purposes of this blog are two-fold. Firstly, I’m going to share with you the complaint letter I wrote to ITV1, expressing in detail my concerns about their silly but dangerous programme. I hope you will be inspired to write to them too, remembering that we, the public, can occasionally wield our power for good.

The second is to thank all the media type folk I know who have genuine intentions to put something informative, helpful, respectful and complex about eating disorders right smack into the eye of the public. Amongst those are: Cosmopolitan Magazine, BBC London, BBC 5 Live, Heart Radio and last but not least, Mr Body Confidence himself; Gok Wan and all who sail in him.

Thank you, without you the world would still be thinking that the only eating disorder is anorexia, it’s only suffered by teenage girls, the only treatment option is being sectioned and institutionalised and that all of this occurs because teenage girls want to be thin and sexy.

And that’s why even the name of the show was an epic fail. Those girls weren’t ‘Dying to be Thin’ – They were dying trying to deal with something deep in the recesses of their troubled minds, something that could only be expressed by denying themselves food. They were dying in the midst of an obsession with deprivation. They were dying because of something unique and personal to them – Because there are many different ways to have an eating disorder, but very rarely does it arise solely out of a desire to be ‘thin’.

Complaint Email to ITV1
To Whom it May Concern

I am writing to make a formal complaint regarding your programme 'Dying to be Thin', which was screened at 7.30pm on ITV1 on Thursday 5th January 2012.

As someone who works for a charity campaign dealing with body image issues and eating disorders, you can imagine how pleased I was that awareness of these topics was apparently being raised on a prime time slot. However, upon watching the programme, I found that not only did it perpetuate some potentially damaging myths surrounding eating disorders, but that it used information and research which is about 10 years out of date. I also found the overall tone of the programme to be lazy and sensationalist.

Having expressed my concerns on Twitter, I was immediately bombarded with similar opinions from present and former eating disorder sufferers, as well as professionals in the field. Here is a summary both my concerns, and those which were presented to be on Twitter:

1. Your programme focussed only on teenage girls, with no acknowledgement made of the fact that eating disorders can affect both genders and all ages.

2. Your programme mentioned 'bulimia' in the same sentence as 'anorexia' on several occasions e.g. "anorexia and bulimia are on the rise". Bulimia is an entirely separate and different illness from anorexia, and bulimia sufferers will exhibit vastly different symptoms, not least usually being within a technically 'normal' BMI range.

3. You also completely failed to mention EDNOS, or 'eating disorder not otherwise specified', which is the commonest diagnosis of eating disorder in the UK.

4. Your programme perpetuated the sensationalist tendencies of the media to focus on severely underweight case studies, for 'visual' purposes. Although you did not mention weight or BMI (well done), it was clear that the patients used were very underweight. This dangerously suggests a patient can only be anorexic if they are 5 stone or thereabouts. Anorexia is a mental illness, it is the state of the mind which characterises the condition, not of the body.

5. Your programme focussed on an anorexic who saw a 'fat person' when they looked in the mirror, the implication being that this is common amongst eating disorder sufferers. In fact, the latest research suggests that this is a myth - Most anorexics know how thin they are, they simply do not consider this to be thin enough. Your failure to mention the same could delay diagnosis in several cases.

6. Your programme disregarded recent research undertaken by the University of West England, as well as other organisations. The statistics you used, as well as the general tone of the programme, appeared to be very out of date.

7. Your programme did not give any advice for, or hope to, carers. At the end of the programme, you gave the B-eat helpline. B-eat are a support organisation primarily for sufferers. The millions of concerned parents who would have tuned in for further information were not given a support helpline to call (such as SEED) and would have been left with a very negative and depressing message.

8. Although your programme mentioned the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge, no information was given about alternative treatments and therapies and where to find information about them.

9. The experiment conducted on young girls - showing them pictures of themselves both larger and smaller than they are and then asking them to pick a favourite - is not only ridiculous (show me anyone who wouldn't be body confident when photographed in a tight fitting outfit, shown full size pictures of themselves and then asked questions about it) but has also been used several times before in programmes on Channel 4 and BBC3.

In conclusion, I, and many others, believe that ITV1 missed what could have been an exciting opportunity to raise genuine awareness, instead churning out a lazy programme which, if anything, has set back the course of eating disorder awareness-raising.

I look forward to your response.


Natasha Devon