Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Black Women Body Confidence - A Mini-Blog

Today the British press have gone gaga over a study which apparently reveals that black women are happy to be a little heavier than white women. Which, in my view, demonstrates exactly how entrenched the idea that one has to be very slim to be beautiful is, amongst the larger white population in this country. That is how this study came to be ‘news’.

“Black women body confident!” the headlines this morning have screamed - Which is a massive logistical leap.

It does not necessarily follow that, simply because curvy black women tend to be happier than curvy women of other races, that the black community have no body confidence issues at all. Body image in all its guises is a minefield, with no room for simplification of this nature.

This morning, I was asked to share my views on Nick Ferrari’s show on LBC 97.3. Having taught my self-esteem class to teenagers of a wide range of different races, and hailing from a mixed race family myself, it has of course not escaped my notice that beauty paradigms often differ according to culture. Whilst a white women, for example, might covet Beyonce’s super flat stomach, a black woman might aspire to her magnificently strong thighs.

The reversal of the more widely acknowledged “thin = beautiful” paradigm within the black community has in fact left many naturally slender black women feeling marginalised. And that’s before we even begin to tackle the twin Goliaths of skin colour and chemical hair straightening within the black community.

But let’s not generalise. For, I fear that is where we are heading, on this one. British born black women might have a foundation of different cultural ideals, but they’re still subject to aggressive pro-slim UK marketing, just like every woman other who lives here.

I’m writing an article for FAB Magazine, detailing my observations on the relationship between race and the beauty debate. In the meantime, this topical mini-blog is designed to give readers pause for thought – Making generalisations about any race or culture is dangerous. Let’s not disregard all the black and mixed race women who are, in fact, in need of a body confidence boost.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Never Injure Yourself in London and Other Life Lessons

Last week, Ruth feel through a roof. She rang to tell me whilst I was having one of my legendary “giant Nandos and a bucket of beer” evenings with my flatmate, Amy. “Roof’s fallen in the Ruth!” I exclaimed, as I replaced the receiver. Then, realising my mistake, I continued to say the words “Roof’s Ruth! Ruth!” in quite a beer-addled way before Amy shoved a spicy chicken wing in my mouth just to shut me up. Turns out “Ruth’s fallen through a roof” is quite difficult to say, even when sober. Go on, try it now. See. I can’t imagine why that sentence didn’t feature during Eliza Doolittle’s vocal training in ‘My Fair Lady’.

A few days later, I was due to meet a bruised and battered Ruth for lunch and it seems, subconsciously, I was determined not to be outdone on the injury front.

In North East London, where I live, the landscape is categorized by a series of gigantic main roads, which have several small roads veering off them, at right angles. For non-Londoners, this can be incredibly confusing during bus journeys. The silky-toned bus voice-over lady will announce the names of the right angled roads, as opposed to the one you are actually on, leading you to momentarily believe that either one street inexplicably changes it’s name at two minute intervals, or that the bus is playing the wrong ‘journey announcer thingmy’, or that you’re lost, or that you are mad, or a combination of all of the above.

The other unexpected side effect of my local infrastructure is what I like to call ‘breezy corners’. In summer, ‘breezy corners’ are, in my humble view, the best thing about London. You can be sweltering in 35 degree heat, hating the world and feeling as though you might spontaneously combust and then you will approach an intersection between the main road and a side road and there will be magical, cooling, glorious wind. Last summer, I was mainly to be found standing around on North London street corners, in the style of a low grade prostitute.

On this particular occasion, however, it being unusually windy even when not in the vicinity of breezy corners, as I traversed the intersection my umbrella broke. We’ve all been there- Your umbrella blows inside out and sensible people with waterproof hoodies laugh at you. I’d thought my suitably huge and sturdy umbrella would be robust enough to tackle the weather conditions but, clearly, I had been wrong.

“Oh, bum”, I thought to myself, as I closed my umbrella and hurtled towards the bus stop to seek shelter.

Later, our bus driver, for no apparent reason, decided he was concluding our journey. This is another eccentricity I associate with London living. You’ll board a bus to Waterloo and mid journey, with no prior warning, the silky-toned lady will say “this bus terminates here, please take your belongings with you” and you’re turfed out onto an unfamiliar street, cursing under your breath and invariably late. You then follow your fellow ex-passengers, assuming they’re walking to the nearest tube station, without knowing that they are equally clueless as to where they are and just picked a direction at random. If you’re lucky they have an I-phone, or are tourists who are not too proud to ask someone where they are (it is an unwritten rule that if you live in London you must never, ever do this, no matter how lost).

As I struggled along the street in the rain, my umbrella refused to open. “How annoying” I thought, shoving it violently with my left hand, in the hope that this might prompt it into a shape that had some hope of protecting my freshly straightened hair from the elements.

“Ouch”. My hand collided with a broken umbrella spike.

I’m always injuring myself. I have a propensity for haphazardness which is legendary amongst my acquaintances. If there’s a step to trip on, broken glass to cut myself on, stupid shoes to stumble in or a hot baking tray upon which to burn myself, the smart money’s on me succumbing to that particular danger. It’s because I’m quite nebulous in my thinking – I’ll be nurturing some sort of embryonic social theory about why posh men love the colour pink and it distracts me from the need for oven gloves. Or, that’s my excuse anyway.

So, even though my tussle with the umbrella hurt, I wasn’t too alarmed. That was until I felt hands around my shoulders. A man had raced up behind me, shouting incoherently (but people shout incoherently all the time, so I’d assumed it wasn’t aimed at me).

“Oh my God are you ok?” he asked.
“Errr, yeh, why?” I replied.
“LOOK!”....

That command unleashed chaos in my brain. Because I did look. And the three or so feet of ground between myself and the bus stop had been painted red by my blood. I looked at my hand. Blood was dripping in great rivulets from my hand, but also squirting in all directions, covering my clothes (including groovy new boots I got for Christmas, I was later gutted about this) and the surrounding architecture.

I released myself (quite rudely, I now realise) from the kindly stranger’s grip and stumbled into the nearest building, which transpired to be a Starbucks. I briefly considered queuing and then decided that, however much of a nuisance I might have been at that present moment, the degree of nuisance-ness would quadruple if I spent any more time than strictly necessary coating the place in blood. As it was a pool was gathering at my feet and the peculiarly-angled sprays were splattering on the glass edifice of the snack counter.

A woman started screaming and threatening to faint. Everyone ignored her. I later reflected how ridiculous it is for any woman to claim to be blood-phobic when we have periods once a month.

“Excuse me. Have you got a first aid kit?” I said to the startled young man behind the counter. He was inanimate for a second, presumably cursing the fact that this wasn’t in his training, before leaping into action, handing me reams of that blue kitchen roll type stuff they seem to use in every single bar and cafe in the UK, in a fruitless attempt to help me stem to flow of blood. I noticed that my voice sounded strange. I realised I was sobbing.

The Starbucks Youth led me into the toilet, sat me on a chair in front of the sink which seemed to have materialised from nowhere and instructed me to hold my hand underneath the cold tap. The sink turned crimson. And that’s when I glanced into the mirror and noticed I had mascara streaming down my face. “How embarrassing” I thought, and promptly spat on my uninjured hand and began wiping at my face, as if it’s common to see someone drenched in their own blood and judge them for having imperfect makeup – But shock knows no logic.

Starbucks Youth was on the phone to NHS Direct, I was thanking him and apologising profusely for making a mess with my stupid innards between sobs and the manager was bellowing at the other staff to get cleaning equipment (clearly worried about the aesthetic effect of blood coated glass counter on fairy cakes). A woman came sauntering up to the bathroom door casually avoiding the puddles of blood as if they were milk, or water (or even wee) and clutching a laptop.

“Excuse me.” She enquired of the Starbucks Youth, forcing him to interrupt his conversation with the NHS about whether or not he thought I might faint....

“Do you have free WiFi?”


Post A & E and feeling sorry for myself


Ruth's Roof Injury

(On the plus side, these shall make cracking Body Gossip stories *)


Post-Script:

As I type this amusing little anecdote about the ridiculousness of modern urban culture, I have one very swollen and severely bruised hand, which makes it look a little bit like I’m at an American baseball game and wearing a giant foam finger (I’m supporting the blue, purple and black team).

Turns out, I’d severed an artery with the umbrella spike (those with any medical knowledge will have guessed that already).

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Starbucks Youth, whose First Aid knowledge allowed us to eventually stop the flow of blood and who sat with me until I felt well enough to get a taxi to A & E, my friend Derek, who missed half a day’s work to come and sit with me in A & E and made me laugh with silly rants until my prescription painkillers set in, and the lovely nurse who gave me said prescription painkillers (which are amazing) and a tetanus shot so that, with any luck, my arm won’t drop off.

*Body Gossip does not advocate injuring yourself in the pursuit of a good story.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Body Gossip's Eating Disorder Awareness Week Campaign

Picture the scene: I’d spent the day teaching 300 teenagers in a secondary school in Surrey and now, here I was, in the very same hall which was the scene of my day’s graft, 4 hours later, ready to face their parents.

Something about parents makes me nervous. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because my Mum has always been a ‘best friend’ type figure in my life, way cooler and funnier than I could ever hope to be in my wildest imagination, and so at odds with other Mums of my generation who seemed to spend their lives either at home baking pies, or chasing corporate, high flying business careers, but were equally terrifying when uttering the word “grounded”.

Or perhaps it’s because my Gossip School class relies so heavily on humour (as Body Gossip Ruth says “it’s basically an hour of stand-up comedy which suddenly becomes incredibly profound and heart wrenching, out of nowhere”), and, when it comes to their children’s education, it’s been my experience that parents have a bit of a sense of humour bypass situation going on.

I feel at ease in a classroom full of teenagers, perhaps because I have mental age of about 16 myself (interestingly, many of the teachers I have spoken to express the same sentiment) and suddenly, when faced with “proper grown-ups”, I was a little terrified.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. They laughed in all the right places. They were engaged, intelligent and just the right amount of cheeky. They asked a gazillion questions. By the end, they were suitably galvanized in all issues body image related. In essence, they were my perfect class. I should teach parents more often.

At the end of the session, a long line of, mainly mothers, queued along one side of the hall for a private chat. And that’s when it truly hit me – For every child battling body image and self-esteem issues, there’s at least one parent in utter anguish, fruitlessly hand wringing and wondering where the hell the guidebook is on THIS thorny issue (incidentally, they could do worse than to read Lynn Crilly’s ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’, out in April).

They were also, without exception, labouring under a, mainly media perpetuated misconception – Namely that all eating and body related issues are the result of a dark and unspeakable trauma. That because their children were consumed by body dissatisfaction, or engaging in unhealthy food behaviours, they MUST be being bullied or have suffered abuse in their formative years. And of course this belief magnified the guilt they were feeling for ‘missing’ whatever the cause of their child’s issue happened to be.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that, in a lot of cases, bullying and abuse doesn’t result in eating disorders. They undoubtedly, empirically, unarguably do. But the same causal link doesn’t work in reverse. Sometimes people abuse their mind and body because they’ve read too much Heat Magazine, or want to emulate the airbrushed images they see on the internet, or they feel inadequate compared to their mates.

And those people will probably not weigh five stone. They won’t qualify for immediate, urgent psychological and physical help from their GP. They might, if they are lucky, have been put on an 18 month waiting list for ‘counselling’. However, they’re likely to have been so inundated with ‘real life’ eating disorder stories featuring skeletal teenage girls standing in their bra and pants that they’ll feel they somehow ‘don’t qualify’ to ask for the help they need to battle their own demons.

Susie Orbach said in her address to Parliament last month that behaviours which have been completely normalised now – skipping meals, cutting our food groups, occasional purging, compulsive exercising, consumption of diet pills etc – would have been classified as a serious eating disorder when she first began practising as a Psychiatrist, back in the 1970s.

These behaviours aren’t seen as particularly serious, now, and are even advocated in certain glossy magazines as ‘quick fix, usually pre-holiday “fit into your bikini/skinny jeans” weight loss tools. Yet these behaviours can still lead to osteoporosis, depression, heart palpitations, inability to concentrate, suicidal tendencies, impairment of academic performance, bad circulation, hair loss, lack of menstruation, social isolation and general misery – Not things we’d ever wish upon Britain’s teenagers.

So, this Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Which starts tomorrow in the UK (20th February), Body Gossip are challenging the public to speak up about the eating disorders you can’t see, and wouldn’t necessarily expect.

There are a host of bulimics, compulsive eaters, compulsive exercisers, diet pill addicts, anorexics who ‘don’t look too thin’ and borderline body dysmorphics out there who deserve a voice. These people encompass a broad racial and social spectrum, come in all shapes a sizes and both genders. You know them. You might BE them.

Acknowledging these people will help us nip eating disorders in the proverbial bud, to take the relatively time and cost effective measures to get Britain back to physical and psychological health and let its inhabitants enjoy their lives.

Tweet your thoughts to @_BodyGossip or @BodyGossipTash and let’s give a voice to the eating disorders you cannot see.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Oi! Lagerfeld! No!

This week, a reporter asked the immensely talented and resplendently beautiful Adele what she thought of barely-disguised-Nazi and notorious body fascist Karl Lagerfeld and she said “his fashion designs are ok, but, I’ll tell you what: He can’t sing for shit”.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

As we all know, the reality is that Karl Lagerfeld was asked what he thought of Adele at which, in the least surprising statement ever to escape anyone’s lips, he branded the singer “too fat”.

Let’s examine that: He branded the SINGER “too fat”. Too fat for what, precisely? If Pavarotti proves anything, it’s that size isn’t any sort of hindrance when it comes to belting out a good tune.

Simply because one is a fashion designer, does not give one carte blanche to judge those who aren’t models by one’s own incredibly narrow beauty standards. Which brings me to my original point: This turn of events is as ludicrous as if Adele had chosen to comment on Lagerfeld’s singing ability.

Furthermore, as someone who teaches self-esteem classes in schools, it saddens me that Lagerfeld feels it’s appropriate to give the message that no matter how talented, successful, wealthy or, indeed, beautiful a person may be, it is ultimately how fat or thin they are perceived to be upon which they will be judged.

And then we wonder why eating disorders are rife amongst teenagers.

On a less body confidence related, and slightly more political note: Lagerfeld has a documented history of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Why, OH WHY are we publishing this man’s views in any sort of publication, simply because he designs a few nice outfits?

It’s time the fashion industry realised it’s not as arty and important as it thinks it is and that comments which narrow the all-important notion of a spectrum of beauty or persecute a particular race of people will not be tolerated. Boycott Chanel.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

There's More than One Way to be Anorexic

I’m a little baffled by a war which seems to be being waged by certain ‘awareness raising’ campaigners on the subject of the ‘right’ way to have anorexia (a completely counterproductive and time wasting debate to begin with, so I don’t propose on spending too much time on it).

Anorexia, it seems, is a notoriously competitive field. Current and past anorexics battle to have plumbed the most crippling lows and reached the most dangerous BMI, thus claiming the title of ‘most knowledgeable in their field’.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of branding myself as a body image 'expert' before working alongside the All Parties Parliamentary Group on Body Image, speaking to more than 6,000 teenagers on the topic, reading the thousands of stories sent into the Body Gossip campaign, attending conferences where the most breaking research is presented by the world’s leading experts and reading every morsel of information I could get my hand on.

My eating disorder was my own, private, experience and, just as I am unique, so was my experience of first anorexia and then bulimia nervosa.

There are a myriad of different ways to abuse food and people do it for all sorts of reasons.

And I’m sorry to break this to the people who claim to feel patronised by the idea, but sometimes eating disorders ARE simply because of triggering websites, fashion magazines and peer pressure.

All over the country, the parents of my students are tying themselves in knots, reasoning that their children must have suffered abuse or some other horrific childhood incident because that’s the only reason someone gets an eating disorder, right?

Wrong.


Yes, eating disorders are complex. But acknowledging that they are complex also means acknowledging that one’s own experience is a drop in a bucket of 1.1 million in the UK alone. It’s not all inclusive.

The fact is that teenagers all over the country are starving themselves for days at a time, purging by vomiting or taking laxatives and exercising compulsively to achieve an entirely unrealistic beauty ideal. I know because they tell me. You can't get more empirical than that.

The pedantic brigade are spending far too much time hypothesising about why this behaviour isn’t a ‘real’ eating disorder and not enough time acknowledging that our young people are in the grips of a low self-esteem epidemic. Whatever the root causes, the effect is the same: A nation prepared to sacrifice its own health.

Eating disorders can claim anyone as their victim, regardless of age, race, social background, sexuality or gender. And, as a former bulimic, I have to add, regardless of size/the dreaded BMI.

Which is why ‘Gok’s Teens’, screened this week, a programme which DOESN’T present eating disorders and body insecurity as something only suffered by institutionalised five stone teenage girls is a magnificent feat of televisual brilliance. Furthermore, it does not claim to be an expose of eating disorders, it claims to reveal the naked truth about teens. It's right there in the title, people.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m in it.

(well, maybe I am a bit….)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Gok Delusion

In May last year, my business and non-sexual life partner Ruth Rogers rang me squealing in a most un-Ruth Rogers like manner (she is usually, irritatingly, the epitome of cool).

“We just had a call from Maverick TV! Gok Wan. GOK WAN wants to work with us!!” she said.

“What, THE Gok Wan?” I replied, rather stupidly (I am bereft entirely of anything approaching Ruth’s coolness).

Of course, it was THE Gok Wan, as opposed to the veritable hoards of his fellow British celebrities who share his name.

And so, the day of filming approached. The arrangement was that Maverick would gate-crash a Body Gossip film shoot. Hence, when Gok made his entrance the only people who didn’t get to fling themselves on him in star-struck delight were Ruth and I, who were trapped filming in a room hotter than the surface of the Sun. (Tip: When arranging a film shoot during an unseasonably hot Spring, in a noisy urban side street (meaning windows cannot be opened) ensure the venue has air conditioning.)

Lynsey Tash, our inhumanly capable right hand-gal and Organiser Extrodinaire burst into the sauna-cum- studio. “GOK IS HERE!” she exclaimed, breathlessly. Ruth and I suddenly took on the demeanour of startled meerkats. “But it’s ok. He’s happily chatting to everyone and playing with Danielle’s camera”.

“Oh” we thought. Somehow, we’d imagined Gok might swoop in wearing a cloak-like pashmina and oversized sunnies, demand a room temperature cappuccino with extra foam and sit sullenly and impatiently in the corner until filming commenced. Yes, we knew that on screen he is charismatic, funny, caring and animated, but, we reasoned, surely no one has enough reserves of energy to be like that all the time?

Turns out, the Gok you see is the Gok we got. Which happily confirms that the entire female population of Britain are completely correct in their unwavering loyalty to him. When I shook hands with Gok the first thing he said to me was “Wow! Aren’t you tall? I’m not used to not being the tallest person in the room” at which stage Ruth pointed out that I was wearing utterly ridiculous shoes (as per usual) and he said “power heels! Why not?”.



The entire experience was reminiscent of those situations where you meet someone you really like in a bar, get a bit squiffy and proceed to compliment each other incessantly to convey the part-genuine, part-wine-induced feelings of love growing strong in your bosom. Accept there was no alcohol involved (thank goodness, or I may have humped his leg).

Of course, in my previous incarnations as a model and musician, I met my fair share of ‘slebs’. I’d adopted a rule: The less famous the celebrity, the more likely they are to be a knob-head. Which Gok, as someone who cannot walk down the street without being harassed by scores of screeching girls in a way that immediately conjures the word ‘Beatlemania’ , totally bore out (totes famous, not a trace of knobheaddery).

A couple of days later, Ruth and I met Gok outside Parliament as part of an elite, ninja* team of body confidence experts who would help him teach the country’s largest ever body confidence lesson. (*note, none of us, to my knowledge, were actual ninjas. It just seemed like an appropriate sort of word).

Gok came bounding up to where Ruth was trying to coax me across some cobbles (I was wearing stupid shoes. Again) and greeted us like old friends. Which I suppose we were, if one defines ‘old friends’ as ‘people who have spent a day sweating profusely on one another’. It was only as we were debating that eternal conundrum - ‘does David Bowie have some sort of sock/codpiece stuffed down his leggings in the film Labrynth?’ - that we realised there was a camera about 3 inches away from our respective faces. Only Bowie knows whatever happened to that footage.

Over lunch in the canteen, I had a sudden realisation. I have a crush on Gok Wan. Which is, of course, totally inappropriate considering the professional nature of our relationship and the fact that I have one too many X chromosomes to be his type. Up close, Gok is beautiful. He has eyes which make your soul melt like brie in a microwave and a flawless, caramel complexion which makes you want to lick his face.

“Erm, are you alright, Natasha?” he asked. I realised I was actually staring at him. Mouth slightly ajar, head cocked to one side, chin on palm – Which is what I do when I love someone a little bit. “Yes, yes fine” I replied silently adding “PLEASE DECIDE YOU’RE NOT GAY AFTER ALL AND WANT TO MAKE ME YOUR WIFE!”.

I’m sure I’m not the first girl whose heart and loins have been touched (metaphorically, not literally. This isn’t a kiss and tell) by the fabulous Gok.

What I can categorically say is this: My suspicions that the slightly snooty young man I met in a North London pub about a year ago was a liar and a bit of a twat when he proclaimed that he had “worked with Gok” and that “he was a NIGHTMARE”, were totally founded.

Gok is as sparkly, starry, glittery and exuberant as you’d expect. He is also humble, self-effacing and exudes genuine warmth. To see footage of Ruth and I being seduced by his loveliness, tune into Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth – Tuesday 7th Feb, 8pm, channel 4.