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15/07/2013 08:51 BST | Updated 12/09/2013 06:12 BST

Body Bigotry on the Today Programme

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Did you hear the Today Programme this (Saturday) morning? Sandwiched somewhere between a report about the train crash in Paris and the Liverpool Care Pathway was a tasteless and nasty debate about men going topless on a sunny day. I say 'debate': it was two self-appointed 'etiquette guides' who, between them, asserted that only working class white men with smooth bodies and six packs are allowed to go topless. It is beneath the middle and upper classes, apparently, and those who have a modicum of hair on their body, or a few extra pounds, let alone ones with 'fat bellies,' should have the decency to 'not inflict their bodies' on others.

Oh, reader, where do I start?

I suppose this was the editors' idea of having a 'light-hearted' segment between two worthy - and therefore depressing - news items, and naturally, on a hot summer's day, they thought a few vapid exchanges, what goes by the name of 'banter,' might enliven the programme. To be sure, the subject of men going topless can be the subject of a witty debate. Ask Jo Brand. But, as Dorothy Parker said, wit has truth in it. Today's exchange was mere prejudice dressed up as debate, and there was nothing redeeming in it. More than anything, it was a reminder of how difficult it has become in modern society to develop healthy self-esteem and self-acceptance.

One has to seriously question the editors' judgement in inviting the guests they did. Anyone who thinks going topless, or wearing trainers, is the exclusive province of 'chavs,' or, as he hinted later, that a 'skimpy singlet' could make him look like a 'working-class wife-beating white-trash' seriously needs to have his head examined. No matter how desperately Justin Webb attempted to reign him in, there is no antidote to sheer stupidity. Piers Hernu, Webb's illustrious guest, would go on to say: 'women have long been I think more exhibitionist in terms of flesh-crimes than men.'

To be fair, no sooner had Diana Mather arrived on air than this bit of sexism was quickly balanced. This self-appointed 'etiquette guru,' -- which epithet alone must condemn her as a charlatan -- when asked about Hernu's vest, immediately wondered if he had a 'nice six-pack.' That's the equivalent of a man asking a woman if she had large breasts. Then, she graciously conceded that men and women are both guilty of 'showing flesh when they shouldn't.' Generalisations came thick and fast: on men's body odours, their armpits, and their body weight. Unless you have a six-pack and are completely hairless, which alone makes you 'fit and fantastic,' 'it doesn't look particularly good.'

None of this should surprise us. Every magazine article, every advertisement, and increasingly every TV programme, consciously or otherwise, propagates this idea that for men, as for women, a white, hairless, six-pack body is the holy grail of human physicality. Women have battled similar bigotry for decades, and for all the welcome antidote provided by feminism, still continue to do so. Heaven forbid if someone should have body hair, or a few extra pounds. Heaven forbid if someone should be human, and not a lifeless mannequin. Heaven forbid if the rest of us should like to feel the warmth of the sun on our bodies.

The basis of all this discussion is the ignorant assumption that we alone are in control of our bodies, that if we so wished, we could all have six-packs and be hairless. Alas, science increasingly tells us that to a great extent, we are at the mercy of our genes, and that our body composition is also determined by levels of stress, our ethnicity, on our income, our immediate social structure, and even where we live in the country. Not all of us can afford a gym, nor to go to a waxing salon every other week. You see, Mr Hernu, it is about class: just not in the way you seem to think. Nor is it, Ms Mather, a question of simply eating less and spending hours at the gym, just in order to be able to take our tops off.

So, when we are repeatedly told that it is our fault that our bodies aren't 'perfect,' we naturally internalise it and blame ourselves. Our self-esteem dives, and we struggle with our weight and with our appearance. A sense of shame builds up, often with devastating consequences. But, who cares, as long as you get your five minutes on the Today Programme, or sell a thousand more copies of Men's Health?

Nobody, not even the clinically obese, should be forced to feel ashamed of their body. If anyone tells us otherwise, the shame must be theirs, not ours.