Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business.
Swinson wants magazines to “celebrate the beauty of diversity in body shape, skin colour, size and age”. While it’s easy to scoff at a Coalition MP lecturing others on diversity, it’s fair to say that the problem Swinson highlights is real. Most women and girls grow up believing that the way they look is unacceptable. What passes for mainstream popular culture in the UK is saturated with language and images that promote disordered eating. And yes, not every woman in the UK has an eating disorder, and that’s the very thing that always lets popular culture off the hook. It’s not us, they’ll say. Eating disorders are caused by deep psychological issues. Linking them to diets merely trivialises them. That’s an argument that used to always get to me. I might have been an anorexic, but I didn’t want to be a vain, frivolous anorexic. So I’d defend the likes of Cosmo and Closer to the death. These days I’m more suspicious. I think there’s an ED culture that surrounds us all – constant messages that undermine our relationship with our own flesh – but only some of us are prone to absorb it (and perhaps that’s the link with trauma). Once this ED culture’s got in you, though, it’s hard to get it out. It’s far easier to starve away fat and muscle than it is to rid yourself of the voices telling you how ugly and worthless you are.
So why don’t I want to support Swinson’s campaign? Is it to do with her politics? I guess that partly, it is. It strikes me that no one ever tells women to feel good about their bodies unless they’re trying to sell them something, regardless of whether it’s body lotion or party policies. For instance, let’s take a look at Swinson and fellow MP Lynne Featherstone’s Body Confidence Awards, an event where “by turning the spotlight on those clever enough to weave conscious thought into the business of making money by considering self-esteem, the organisers aimed to shine a light on the way forward” (whatever that means). So who’s getting a pat on the acceptably-sized back for making us all feel better about ourselves? Dove – fucking Dove, the cosmetics company who suggested to women that we should even be feeling paranoid about our underarms – and Boots no 7, “for their decision to eschew retouching and for celebrating the idea of real women” – providing said “real” women don’t sully their anti-ageing serum adverts by looking too damn real. And these awards – “presented in association with bareMinerals” – “were announced at an event at the House of Commons”. Wow. I feel great about myself already – don’t you, fellow “real” people?
It’s all terribly clumsy, but that’s not the worst of it. Why is it that female self-esteem has become a thing to be rebuilt by MPs and cosmetics companies, but only after it’s been knocked down in the first place? Why can’t we be trying to protect it from the start? Because it’s not the same when it’s been stuck back together with Dove Pro Age Body Butter and Boots Protect and Perfect. Being a “real woman” comes a humiliating second best to simply being a person. So those who still decide what beauty is will deign to let you purchase their products. So an MP will basically tell you that yes, ultra thinness is still the reigning ideal but ultra thinness is not for the likes of you. So rather than challenging a sexist, appearance-obsessed culture head-on, Jo Swinson decides the little (or not so little) people shouldn’t go on crash diets. Starving oneself down to catwalk model proportions is tantamount to getting ideas above one’s station. That’s the reason why, when Swinson attacks “fad diets”, I’m tempted to spend a week living on cucumber just for the hell of it.
It’s worth noting that Swinson is not against glossy magazines telling women to lose weight per se, offering editors the following sage advice:
As editors you owe more to your readers than the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight. If your aim is to give practical, sensible advice about losing weight – and not how to drop a stone in five days – you should encourage reasonable expectations, instead of dangerous ones, along with exercise and healthy eating.
Quite why it is still reasonable for Heat and Glamour to assume their readership wishes to be smaller – and quite why these magazines should then support such a view – isn’t clear, especially not in our brave, new, diversity-worshipping world. What’s even more problematic is the deliberate blending together of weight loss for “health” reasons and weight loss in order to look thin. These are not the same thing and let’s be honest – does anyone buy magazines to read about the former? It’s just boring. Furthermore, a poor diet – regardless of whether it’s associated with obesity – isn’t linked to getting the wrong advice from Marie Claire. It’s linked to poverty. MPs should have something to say about this, but it needs to be something a little more meaningful than “when your sister or your friend is standing there and moaning about whether she looks really fat, and actually she looks gorgeous, tell her so” (not that that’s not helpful; I, for one, have now resolved to stop telling my friends – the gorgeous ones, that is – that they’re ugly porkers).
If politicians are serious about changing how women feel about their bodies, there are things that they can do. These might include: challenging gender stereotyping in education; actively confronting age and sex discrimination in visual media; re-examining pay inequalities; allowing those born with a uterus to have exactly the same assumption of bodily integrity as those born without. All of these things might start to add up to a world in which women and girls don’t continue to assume they’ve been allocated a passive, decorative status, and one in which they know their bodies belong to them and not anyone else. It’s not a solution, but it is at least starting to look at where real confidence comes from – not from “beautiful underarms” or eating five a day, but from feeling you have genuine agency in the world. And this is something you don’t have when your equalities minister is busy telling magazine editors what to tell you to eat rather than looking at the inequalities you’re facing on a daily basis.