As I walk into the supermarket my eyes flit across various magazines bursting off the shelves. In their electric pink jackets with neon yellow lettering, they seem to bray at me, "Extra! Extra! This month's contribution to the body image public health crisis includes":
*LAUREN EXCLUSIVE: I've lost my lumps and bumps- I don't need to cover up anymore*
*Gaunt CHERYL urged to gain weight*
*Why BEYONCE lost a stone in a month*
*JENNIFER ANISTON... Always gorgeous, and yes she does eat pasta*
I leave the shop and a double decker bus rolls past. Plastering its side is the gargantuan image of a topless woman, coquettishly hiding her breasts. It's an advert for black tights. I log on to Facebook. A Buzzfeed article about exam stress uses a picture of a young girl frowning into her cleavage, apparently her low-cut top is relevant to the pressures of making the grade. So, when I log on to Twitter and see people apoplectic over an advert of a woman in a bright yellow bikini, with the tag line "Are you beach body ready?", I applaud the outrage, but question why and how it's different to everything I've described above.
The Protein Plus advert was hard sell. Unashamed in its pursuit of profit, uninterested in its negative impact on womens sense of self-worth. Its brash nature helped to stir indignance; but the soft-sell stuff deserves a portion of our fury too. The constant stream of material; so damaging to young girls and womens confidence; is everywhere. Look around. It's been a few weeks since the #TakeBackTheBeach protest in Hyde Park. The mindless silence of status-quo hangs over the "fight" against unrealistic representations of the female form. Why should we wait for another yellow bikini moment to remind us that this is a problem we desperately need to dismember? It's great that leaked pictures of Cindy Crawford sans photoshop get us chatting on social media for a day and a half, but what's the point in shouting about a problem only when the arrow fired hits us right between the eyes.
According to Girl Guiding UK, 87 per cent of girls aged 11-21 think that women are judged more on their appearance than ability. A coalition government report showed women's body satisfaction doesn't improve as they move toward and into midlife; indeed; a 45 year old woman is as likely to be dissatisfied with her appearance as her 19 year old daughter. Here are some depressing statistics from a report examining the link between body confidence and aspirations in education and the workplace:
15% of girls stay away from school on the days they feel bad about their bodies.
13% won't give an opinion.
5% will not go to a job interview.
3% will not go to work.
I blame advertising. That dusty, old broken record busting out the greatest hits of Flat Tummy and Big Boobs. Advertising- insidious and greedy, feasting and dribbling over peoples insecurities- holds our thoughts & feelings hostage. It tricks and teases us into a stupor that may seem impossible to challenge. Jo Swinson, former minister for Women and Equalities, helped found the coalition's Body Confidence campaign. She told me:
You can't unsee an image and that's why I think there's still a responsibility on retailers and advertisers to think about the diversity of the images that they're portraying and that they're not just promoting one ideal of the way to look and anyone who doesn't meet that is somehow a failure.
Occasionally, I'll see an advert that is proportionate and appropriate to the product it's trying to sell. But, most of the time we're faced with absurd exaggeration. For months, close to Westfield shopping centre, an advert depicting a woman dressed in a tight black ballet-type body, with her legs akimbo, towered over the bus stop. Was this an advert for a) a new Karma Sutra book b) a gentleman's club c) lipstick? OF COURSE it was lipstick. The advert that sits there now- four models in their bikinis on the beach- is; admittedly; gritty realism compared to the fantastical, "glamour girl" type set they created to sell pink lippy. Sadly, the gritty realism of the beach ad stops with the sand, sea and swimsuits. The models themselves, all four, are practically clones. I have nothing against women who look "perfect" in bikinis; I have everything against the broken record effect. But, hoping that advertisers and retailers might suddenly adhere to a moral code would require the dismantling of an entire economic doctrine. Change will only come through education and understanding.
Meaghan Ramsey, Global Director of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, told me:
An issue this complex and interwoven in the fabric of society needs action across the board, from grass roots to governments... Media literacy education is an important part of this and must help young people today to not only be savvy consumers of media but conscious publishers of their own as well.
The Body Confidence campaign encouraged schools to download a toolkit developed by the eating disorders charity Beat and a doctor from the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College. If you're a teacher, a youth team leader, a parent, a big sister, a big brother... click on this link. Put its contents to the test. The activities section suggests deconstructing images in the media. It pushes young people to analyse their actions on social media objectively. It makes them question themselves: how do I feel when I see images of perfection? Am I comparing myself to others? Another campaign, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, has introduced body diversity to fashion modules. Our designers of the future are being taught to cut patterns to fit realistic body sizes. HURRAH! This is the type of action we need.
Social media campaigns such as DropThePlus and ImNoAngel have their place in the fight, but they can also end up being divisive. We build one body image up by tearing another down. Skinny is bad, bigger is better and vice versa. These mixed messages are confusing.
Allow me to introduce a twelve year old girl to all of this. A short montage of scantily-clad women prancing about in music videos, adverts, reality shows, films and tv dramas plays on the screen. Out of the corner of my eye I catch my partner's daughter squirming in embarrassment. We're watching a documentary called Miss Representation. It examines the sexualised, limited depiction of women in the media and how that impacts upon gender parity when it comes to positions of power and influence. The montage finishes. She turns to me and asks: "Are there any women born like that?". Her question, both sweetly innocent and astonishingly pertinent, strikes at the very heart of this whole issue. Beauty has long been a dangerous construct that moulds the manner in which we view our own bodies. I can explain photo-shop to her. I can tell her about plastic surgery. I can show her this article. But, none of it will matter if, at break-time in school, her friends are all sharing pictures of their latest instagram selfies. The selfies they hope will emulate the model they saw on a billboard in town the other day, and that girl character in their favourite television show who looks really similar to that model on the billboard, and that other actress who was in the film they saw in the cinema who ALSO looks similar to the model on the billboard and the girl in the tv show, and their favourite celebrity who... wait... You get my point.