UNTIL relatively modern times most British people had little time or opportunity to worry about their appearance.
And until general food insecurity became a thing of the past in the 1950s, thinness was never going to be fashionable.
Then cheap, calorie-dense food, combined with restricted opportunities for daily exercise, turned Britain into a nation of fatties, at precisely the same moment that advertisers and celebrity culture bombarded us with images of unattainable sylph-like slimness. What is worse, it is a culture that disporportionately emphasises appearance over once-prized attributes such as kindness, intelligence, loyalty, courage and determination. To cap it all, this quest for an ideal appearance is reinforced by technology that has made retouching magazine and billboard images so subtle that it cannot be detected. So eyes are enlarged, spots removed, stomachs flattened and legs elongated, remorselessly feeding our sense of inadequacy. The result is a society in which too many people, especially women, are either too thin or too fat for their own good and many in the middle constantly struggle to reach an unachievable shape and size.
Today's report from the all-party parliamentary group on body image, chaired by East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson, concludes that negative body image is now so widespread that it is a major contributor to low self-esteem and an underlying cause of poor health and relationship problems.
The suggestion that this pre-occupation is a handy distraction for a Liberal Democrat MP from more serious issues, like escalating female unemployment, is unworthy. Few who have followed her campaign can doubt her passion and sincerity on this subject. Tackling it is the tricky bit. Simply delivering self-esteem programmes to school children, for example, offers no guarantee that it will alter their own body image. It may make it worse.
Kite marks for those, like Debenhams and Dove soap, who have the courage to reject fakery, are certainly worth considering. But encouraging retailers and advertisers to draw on a wider range of body types to market fashion, perfume and beauty products is unlikely to succeed in an industry that peddles dreams and relies on our yearning to reinvent ourselves. Where to draw the line between gentle enhancement and gross misrepresentation?
In the case of cosmetic surgery, ageing women are encouraged to think they need to be "fixed". Stricter advertising regulation of this area and better screening of patients are surely overdue.
It would be wrong to promote the idea that it is fine to be grossly overweight, when obesity carries clear health risks. However, as this report argues persuasively, negative body image is now so pervasive and damaging that many lack the confidence to engage in sport and exercise. Nobody wants to be the fattest person in the gym.
Ms Swinson is right. The gap between average size and the images constantly being presented to us as the ideal is too big. The idea that there is only one version of human beauty is a dangerous lie.
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