By Laura Schwartz. This article is taken from the latest issue of Women's Fightback. Read the contents here.
One little girl wore a sandwich-board declaring ‘I love my curves’. She was only about 11 and didn’t appear to have any curves, but she obviously had the right idea. She was part of a protest I attended against body fascism in the media, which took place outside the launch of London Fashion Week on 11 February and was attended by about 40 women. The protest was called by the website-based campaign, AnyBody which challenges "the limited physical representation of women in society". AnyBody is also running a petition calling on the British fashion industry to ban size-zero models from the catwalk.
‘Size-zero’ models have been in the news since September last year, when women with a body mass index of less than 18 were banned from catwalks in Madrid. This ban was partly in response to the death of 22 year-old model Luisel Ramos, who had a heart attack after living off green leaves and Diet Coke for the last three months of her life. Since then, Tessa Jowell, the Sun newspaper and Susie Orbach have been among those to call for a similar ban in the UK.
Despite my dislike of the way in which some calls for a ban have implied that the models themselves are to blame for the ‘unhealthy’ image they promote, I do think that feminists should support it. Not least, a ban should be supported as a form of regulation which could limit the exploitation of women working in the fashion industry. Contrary to popular portrayals of their glamorous lifestyle, most women working as models are poorly paid, forced to work long hours, and are often under the age of eighteen. The pressure on them to be as thin as possible is immense and their livelihood depends upon it — anything which might then reduce this pressure is surely a good thing.
However, preventing a few especially thin models from appearing on the catwalk is not going to the address the problem of why so many women experience such an intense loathing for their bodies. The press coverage of the issue was in itself revealing of our society’s deeply twisted attitude towards the female body and women in general. The most likely reason for the popularity of the story was that it provided the perfect excuse to print endless photographs of very young, very fashionable and very thin women. And of course, the tabloids’ concern for the unhealthy influence of skinny models did not stop them from printing news of the latest diet or exposés of some unfortunate celebrity’s ‘secret cellulite’.
But the salacious detail with which the press described the skinny models was represented much more than simple hypocrisy. The ‘size’ of a woman has become the category under which the female body subjected to a bizarre degree of scrutiny in the popular press. Whatever the story, coverage of female celebrities never fails to mention their weight — ‘is Charlotte Church still resisting dieting? Is Britney ever going to lose her ‘baby-weight’? Look how thin Lindsey Lohan is!’ Heat magazine and its numerous emulators have perfected a language of pseudo-sisterhood which expresses revulsion for the bodies of very thin female celebrities as being unlike those of ‘real’ women. Needless to say, this is combined with ‘hall of shame’ photographs of the saggy underarms of less thin celebrities, and vitriolic attacks on overweight working-class women such as Jade Goody.
The fascination with women’s bodies in the media reflects the way one’s body has become an all-consuming passion in the lives of many young women. The size of your thighs, the length of your legs, the flatness of your stomach… even those of us who reject conventional beauty standards find ourselves thinking about these things everyday. As capitalism spreads its tentacles ever further, the age of the women targeted by the fashion and beauty industries decreases. In the last five years, ‘Tweenies’ (the term for girls aged 8-12) have become an incredibly lucrative market and as a result the obsession with how we, as women, look sets in even earlier.
What I am talking about here is not vanity, nor is it ‘normal’ teenage insecurity about, or interest in, fashion and appearance. It is something far more deeply psychologically-rooted than that. Many commentators were quick to point out during the size zero debate that it was ridiculous to claim that images of thin women caused anorexia, which was a medical condition. Of course eating disorders triggered off and sustained by a complex variety of factors and yet it seems clear to me that they our closely linked to the conditioning women receive regarding their bodies. No form of mental illness exists in a vacuum, separate from the social environment in which it emerged and it is possible to view eating disorders as the most extreme manifestation of the body-hatred experienced by almost all women. When someone close to me was ill with anorexia (and had reduced her 5’10” frame down to six stone) her illness would express itself in the language of the beauty industry - ‘what a fabulous figure’ she would sigh as she gazed at photographs of Keira Knightley, and the only topic of conversation which could tempt her out of her glassy-eyed apathy was the latest gossip about celebrity weight-loss.
I am unclear about exactly what causes this perverse obsession with the female body. Perhaps it’s because of the capitalist imperative of the fashion and beauty industries; perhaps it’s because of the rise of a consumer society which generates a value-system based on superficial standards; perhaps its because the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s means that the social control of women needs to be expressed in a new way…I do know, however, that it makes me very, very angry indeed.