02/03/2012 11:15 GMT | Updated 02/05/2012 06:12 BST

Body Image and the UN

Appearance pressures are no longer a lightweight topic. I know this because Gov. Minister Lynne Featherstone has just attended the first UN Summit about body image.

She told listeners....

"Every day, women across the world are surrounded by body images which bear little or no resemblance to reality, whether that be the 'size zero' or the 'perfect hourglass'. These images can cause real damage to self-esteem. If children continue to grow up in a world filled with images of uniform beauty and airbrushed perfection, future generations will never be happy in their own skin. This is why I am bringing the debate to the UN."

This is progress indeed. But what can the rest of us contribute here? Perhaps the next step is to join up the dots - we can all be aware of the stealth tax on female confidence. Everybody counts here!

Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach has observed the pernicious way unachievable body ideals sabotage confidence for 30 years. She has inadvertently recruited many of us along the way.

And All Walks Beyond the Catwalk is working at recruiting others too. So along with the YMCA and Body Confidence Campaign, we screened the US film Miss Representation recently at the House of Commons. Creatives and thinkers attended.

As Jennifer Siebel Newsom's US film illustrates in graphic detail, a media that ignores women's achievements undermines us all. Those with illustrious careers like Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin, still have their attractiveness rated over anything else.

With a media message to young all young women that goes something like...'it doesn't matter how powerful or clever you are, your appearance will define you,' we can surely do the maths

Young women become increasingly more anxious about the way they look.

Now add a helping of fashion...

Apparently an industry dedicated to bolstering female self-esteem.... or so it says on the press release.


An industry at the vanguard when it comes to creating wonderful, silhouettes, innovative new fabrics and fantastical imagery.


A collective creative force dragging their heels to understand the effect of unachievable body ideals on the psyche of women.


Every woman from the enthusiastic pre-teen to the sophisticate forty something feeling alienated and undermined by the imagery they see daily around appearance, much of it generated by fashion.

Conclusion: Your appearance will always hold you back unless you look like a model.

But here's the thing, even models feel the burden to try harder. In her blog for the Model Alliance, top model Amy Lemon writes...

"I began to feel the pressure to be smaller, thinner. But how could a girl who was almost 6 feet tall be a size 2? Why must there be one ideal body shape when there is such a wonderful variety in size and shape of the female body?"

Why indeed?

In allowing himself to publicly berate Adele for her weight, Karl Lagerfeld was true to type. There can only be one ideal it seems. The simple question - can fashion make ordinary bodies look spectacular - remains unanswered by Karl and his contemporaries.

All Walks asks this question to student designers, writers and image makers in UK Fashion Colleges and Universities because we believe that giving those at the beginning of their career a heads up on issues that will inform the way they work, is crucial.

Currently models are expected to exist on starvation rations to facilitate a designer's disinterest in crafting a garment for noticeable breasts and hips.

Consumers however are diverse. It is absolutely and completely a more lucrative business proposition to consider the needs of the consumer and create imagery that uses a variety of body shapes.

"My PhD research indicates that average-size models may be just as effective in advertisements and that many consumers actually want to see more realistic models."

So says Dr Phillipa Diedrichs now at the Centre for Appearance Research in Bristol. And there are pleasing side effects...

"Women who saw the size 14 models felt significantly better about their own bodies in comparison to those who saw the thinner models."

Ben Barry a PhD student at the Judge Business School Cambridge University will add his research to this important area for Business and Body Image later in the month with his new findings, and it cannot come soon enough

Joining up the dots from Academy award winning Actor Geena Davis also a speaker at the UN on Body Image says...

"Hollywood and the media have the power to shift attitudes and achieve social change, particularly in how our children value themselves and each other. There is a real need to dispel the myths of the 'perfect' body that just don't match up to the real world."

But perhaps a new dawn is upon us. On a simplistic level, many who attend the All Walks lectures say afterwards they feel better about their own bodies as well as energised to take up a postion. Education is creating a new generation of emotionally considerate designers and fashion practitioners at last. And it is all done as this news report of student protest outside Scottish Parliament shows, by putting them in touch with their own power.

At All Walks we say everybody counts for a reason...I'll leave you with a few recent comments from the last two lectures - you can see young women and some young men in my world are learning they do count, they can change the system.

"I think that what All Walks is doing is amazing! I really agree with the presentation and it has given me the confidence to go ahead with my plans of launching my brand that will be aimed a curvy women, who still want high end fashion! Keep it up!"

Laura Raymond - 3rd Year Fashion BA (Hons), Plymouth College of Art

"The All Walks presentation was great! And this was without trying to force any opinions on me. It made me aware that I will have a responsibility to be conscious through my design work."

Stefani Nurding - 1st Year Fashion BA (Hons), Plymouth College of Art

"I feel that the All Walks campaign will start something revolutionary and can change society's attitudes, which is something I feel very strongly and passionately about. It's exciting to be right in the middle of something so powerful!"

Holly Glover - 2nd Year Fashion, Edinburgh College of Art

"The All Walks presentation was inspiring to say the least. It gave me an answer to a lot of my fears of the fashion world. Bring life, personality; vibrancy and love back to women and to fashion! Thank you so much for letting me know that it's possible!! I am so proud to be a part of this."

Melissa Villevieille - 2nd Year Fashion Design, Edinburgh College of Art

What's not to like about that then?