Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Body Confidence Awards

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

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Bricking It

Okay, so you forced me.

There was I, thinking that the mildly diverting story of journalist Samantha Brick (some say) deludedly believing that she is the dog’s doo-dahs was going to hold our attention for the thirty seconds it deserved and yet here we are, days later, still rabbiting on about the chuffing thing. This is why Britain is still in a recession, you know. We’d rather point and laugh at people we believe to be physically or psychologically inferior to us than sort out the deficit.

Sigh….Anyway......

So, here is my two penneth. For what it is worth (2p, presumably):

Firstly, the public reaction to Brick says far more than the original story ever will. She believes she is gorgeous beyond sense and,if her anecdotes are to be credited, the people around her have bought into this belief and treated her as such. There is nothing wrong with this. I’m forever telling my Gossip School students “if you believe something is true, your mind will find a way to make your life fit that belief” and Brick’s rather extreme example bears this out (excuse the pun) beautifully.

For what is beauty if not in the eye of the beholder? If Brick believes she is sensationally good looking, and so do the people around her, is that not the definition of attractiveness? Whether or not she measures up to some arbitrary, society-created, ever shifting, plastic beauty paradigm is largely irrelevant.

Secondly, the public backlash epitomises the British “don’t get too big for thy boots, young lady” attitude. We are never allowed to boast. We can’t say “hell yes, I was born to do this task!” we must say “well, I’ll probably be a bit crap but let’s give it a go”.

This is particularly true of women. We self-deprecate all over the gaff. This is apparently the most ‘attractive’ quality in a woman: to sit demurely, ankles crossed, with one’s head cocked slightly to the right and, in hushed, breathy tones, list all your shortcomings and foibles. “She doesn’t know how beautiful/talented/intelligent she is” is the highest accolade we can bestow on a female person.

Accept it’s all bollocks. It’s all just another mechanism by which women are quashed, trampled and kept in check. It’s also bloody annoying. If we spent less time bleating about our fat ankles and more time running the world, that Beyonce song might have an iota of truth in it.

I’m not suggesting for one minute we should be blind to our flaws. But self-acceptance is all about embracing and celebrating the things that make us brilliant, as well as acknowledging the things we’re less good at. Humility has its place, just as the occasional “waaay haaaay! Go me!” moment does.

So, whether Samantha Brick is a few root veg short of a bushall, whether or not she is guilty of ‘narcissism’ or whether or not she is objectively ‘beautiful’ are all utterly beside the point. The point is, if we lived in a society where women were allowed to have a good old gloat every now and then this story would be exactly what it should be: A non-story.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Blame Game

When bad things happen to good people, our first instinct is to look for someone to blame. In doing so, we'll often willfully ignore the facts and eschew all knowledge of the notion that there might be two, or many, sides to a story.

For example, I'm almost irresistibly tempted to blame the tabloids for this very phenomenon. It isn’t actually entirely their fault. But they love a scapegoat, and, partially because of this, so do we.

This is particularly true when it comes to eating disorders. Because eating disorders are baffling. And being able to point the finger at ‘parenting’ or ‘the media’ or 'fashion' or 'bullying' or ‘celebrities’ makes us feel as though we’re making sense of them.

You may be surprised to hear that I like to think of the rise in eating disorders as being a little like the evolution of life on this planet. At the beginning of documented time, conditions were exactly right for Earth and all its living beings to flourish – the temperature, the humidity, the air pressure, the soil, the sea, other things which clever scientist type people understand……..all these things were exactly as they needed to be to give rise to life as we know it today. If the Earth was a few miles further away from the sun, we might all have one eye, located slightly to the left of our belly buttons (may I stress once more that I’m not a scientist and will not, under examination, be able to explain how this causal link would ever arise. But you see my point).

In the same way, conditions are exactly right for low self-esteem to flourish, in the western world. The reasons for the body confidence crisis are manifold, and the only thing you can do, in attempting to tackle it, is to address these contributory factors one at a time.

What you shouldn’t do, though, is claim that contributory factor is solely to blame, or make villains of people, when your beef is, in reality, with an attitude, or an industry, or an ignorance, or a prejudice. This is what is known as “oversimplification” (or “Tash will throw nearest objects to hand at her television and shout the word ‘bollocks!’ repeatedly to the surprise and alarm of her flatmate”). It happens all the time.

“New study finds Mums responsible for body confidence issues in daughters!”

“Angelina Jolie: Frail frame gives damaging message to young girls!”

“Call to ban airbrushing to end body insecurity!”

Sound familiar?

It’s headlines like these which promote the idea that it’s only teenage girls who suffer from eating disorders, that they’ve all had trauma in their childhood (or have terrible mothers), that celebrities want us all to stop eating and that the media is one huge ogre, chasing us around all day bellowing at us relentlessly until we feel like shit about ourselves. They also represent the sort of social attitudes which gave birth to the inexplicable need for Supersize-v-Superskinny to assault our television screens every Tuesday. And I don’t think any of us can forgive them for that. But of course I cannot just blame the headlines, or Dr Christian (however tempting that might be) because that would run counter to my argument.

So, imagine my delight when an article came out in the Daily Mail Online today in which "she of the fabulousness", Body Gossip ambassador Zaraah Abrahams said “I don’t want to be anyone’s thinspiration!” and defended celebrities against our tendency to blame them for promoting anorexia. Hurrah yippee etc. Read it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2123257/Zaraah-Abrahams-fights-disturbing-trend-spurs-weight-loss.html

Tomorrow my delight will continue, as a new book hits the shelves: ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’ by Lynn Crilly. It’s a guide for friends and family who may be concerned for someone with an eating disorder and want some unbiased advice. If you read it, and I hope you do, you’ll see that Lynn is determined we stop playing 'The Blame Game'. Her message is consistent: Blame makes us bitter and exhausted. We’re all trying our best. Here is some support.

To find out more about Lynn’s book go to: http://www.lynncrilly.co.uk/MyBook/HopewithEatingDisorders.aspx