LET'S imagine a girl called Britain.
Every day, she measures her weight, her waist, her BMI. Some 42% of her is overweight and, she hears, by 2030, half of her will be obese. And when she has done sizing up her body, she assesses how unhappy the process has made her. She tries to come up with ways to make herself feel better. Eliminating the word "fat" from her vocabulary might help. As might surrounding herself by images of other plumper, less air-brushed, more normal bodies. Perhaps she should go to some kind of class where a teacher could tell her not to worry. She stares at her belly. She navel-gazes. The words that spin round and round inside her head continue to be "fat" or "ugly".
Last week the results of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, chaired by Jo Swinson, the MP for East Dunbartonshire, were published. The report announced that more than half of the British public had a problem with body image. One in five of us has been bullied for our weight. The recommendations included the introduction of "mandatory lessons on body image" in Scottish schools, a "review of broadcast and editorial codes on reporting body-related issues" and increased pressure on advertisers to reflect a "consumer desire for authenticity and diversity". The underlying message of the report is that bad body image is an epidemic of our time: one that needs to be therapised, censored and cured. But haven't women always fretted over the size of their waists – in some eras almost suffocating themselves in corsetry? Haven't men – like my own great-grandfather, who competed in the body-building competitions of his era – long prided themselves on pert pecs?
There are two main reasons given for the current anxiety about poor body image. The first is that it might be linked to eating disorders and thereby, in some cases, to horrible illness or death. The second is that negative feelings about our bodies might be making us less productive, less confident and less happy. Both of these ideas are fairly recent concoctions. Early cases of anorexia nervosa were not considered to be related to a notion of "body image", but rather to family dynamics, and even today, many experts believe the illness's roots are complicated. Meanwhile, the theory that how we feel about our looks can blight our lives evolved during the early part of the 20th century, alongside notions of self-esteem and psychological terms such as "inferiority complex". According to historian Elizabeth Haiken, author of Venus Envy, the emergence of cosmetic surgery as an acceptable and respectable industry in the 1940s, was linked to the popularity of this kind of psychological terminology.
One thing rarely mentioned in the eating disorders debate is that big fat fact staring us in the face: we are getting bigger. At no point does the report deal with such realities: that perhaps the reason we think we are fat is because we are; and perhaps we worry because we are constantly being told, by medical experts and politicians, to do so. Half of us, the report says, have a body-image issue. "By the age of 14," it points out, "half of girls and one-third of boys have been on a diet to change their body shape." Given predictions that by 2030 half of us will be obese, this is perhaps no surprise. The report also includes the shock fact that girls as young as five are worrying about their weight – as if the phenomenon were entirely disconnected from the constant reports and news stories that focus on the obesity of small children.
Meanwhile, the historical evidence suggests that eating disorders have risen roughly in line with the graph of obesity. So perhaps it is not because there are more thin people in magazines that we have more eating disorders, but because there are more of us who are fat. We are frequently told that bad body image is an invention of the media, fashion and celebrity; we blame the skinny models used as "thinspiration" for driving girls to anorexia. Yet we forget that being fat has become mainstream, and that we see fat people every day. The historian Lisa Appignanesi has noted how the mental illnesses of a particular era frequently reflect its mainstream characteristics: "Anorexia," she writes, "is usually an illness of plenty, not of famine."
These days, we are subject to a surfeit of photographs of others. Though it is possible that bad body image could be an illness created by this tsunami, I suspect what counts is not the shape and form of those images – fat, thin, air-brushed – but just their multiplicity. Given this, the antidote cannot simply be to replace size zeros with size 16s, or to create endless Dove commercials presenting alternative, "real" images of beauty, as this is just adding to the onslaught. One has to ask whether shows like Gok Wan's How To Look Good Naked really do make us feel better about ourselves, or whether they are simply part of the endless stream of body imagery and body talk that feeds the spiral. We are literally navel-gazing, staring deep into a little dark vortex of flesh – and that is our real problem.
Given this, if I were to meet that girl called Britain, and had the chance to give her some advice, I wouldn't mention anything to do with body image. There would be no talk of censoring the word "fat", no bigging-up her good looks, or telling her she was beautiful and normal. Instead, I would focus on encouraging something else – a physical activity, a craft, a musical instrument – something to get lost in and forget that her body is anything other than a mover and doer. This may be old-fashioned, but it is, surely, part of what is needed: something to distract us from the trance and lure of the navel.
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