A little while ago I got an email asking if I could pop in to NOW HQ for a round table discussion on body image and the media, having met some of the team at plus size brand press event I was really excited that such a big, national weekly wanted to talk about body image.
Also at the table was NOW magazine editor, Sally Eyden, Acting Deputy Editor Caroline Millington, or as I can't help but think of her as, '@showbizmillie', Now Lifestyle Editor - Jess Spiring, Online Editor - Beverley Watts , Bloggers - Pauline Vance-Riggens and Kate Taylor, Fi from SCPR, Anna Shillinglaw of Milk Model Management, Claire Richards from Steps (and now designing collections for Fashion World and last but not least, Chanelle Hayes - Business Woman and model and Lauren Benton CEO of National BDD charity 'BODY' (@_B_O_D_Y_). Thankfully I'd thrown some make up on as there was a photography and video being done (you can watch the video on the NOW magazine website).
Unbeknown to me we were there because over Christmas and New Year NOW had brought out a cover that had really riled a number of people, including Pauline and Kate. The cover showed a number of celebrities at different sizes - not looking their 'best' with the headline... 'Shocking Bodies That Will Make You Feel Normal'. The idea the team at NOW said was genuinely to make women feel better about themselves by seeing celebrities, who we normally put on a body pedastal, looking anything but perfect. The issue however had offended and after strong blog posts, NOW did what no other magazine would have dared. They emailed the two bloggers who called them out on it and essentially called them in for a chat, which then turned into the table I was now sat at.
I have a confession to make. I have that issue of NOW magazine, and I didn't even bat an eyelid at the cover - Ithink I'm too desensitised now to realise but I respect the girls opinion and as I read the cover tagline I couldn't argue with them. While having now heard NOW's side of the story, I could see what they were aiming for but the terminology used here was misguided -something they could now see. It's a common misconception that the way to make ourselves feel better is to find fault in others and it is a myth that haunts our media obsessed generation. The fact that NOW were willing and ready to have an open discussion about it though was commendable, in fact, it was pretty refreshing. We live in a competitive society where we seek to compare ourselves to someone else and to beat them in order to feel better. I wonder what happened to a time when we elevated ourselves instead of trying to push someone else down? As much as we have the remenants of Geri's 'Girl Power' to cling onto, this issue of NOW only proves my thoughts.
Editor of NOW, Sally told us that sales for the 'Shocking Bodies' cover outsold the following week where they put Chanelle, Gemma Collins and Ferne McCann on the cover - 3 gorgeous women at 3 very different sizes, all posing and telling women everywhere to forget about dieting in January. A cover we would think would be as equally popular if not more so as it does so much more to champion what we like to call 'good body image' or 'body acceptance'. How wrong our idealist selves are! The fact of the matter is, overall, the consumer - us - women - on mass, enjoy looking at other women's bodies. Whether it is to find fault or to try and make ourselves feel more normal or better is the million dollar question.
However there is no denying that 'shocking body' covers sell magazines more than posed pictures where celebrities look naturally great. I believe it is because we are more aware of photoshop and the way images can be manipulated than ever before and while we lap up celebrity photos and interviews we are also acutely more aware that there is a false element to those posed photos. 'Unposed' celebrity snaps (although many of those are set up too) provide what we now class as 'reality' and we subsequently lap up the weeklies and their insight into celebrities lives as greater gospel than the pages of a glossy magazine, where hair and make up has taken at least 3 hours before photoshop even comes into play.
So is it simply all about money? Are we doomed to a cylce of body bashing magazine spreads? No of course not, but the spreadsheets don't lie. The magazine publishing industry is a million pound market and we've seen a host of publication closures since the recession kicked in from those that weren't either selling enough advertising or weren't giving readers what they wanted. So while NOW magazine can alter their editorial tone to a certain extent, readers love them for their celeb features and pictures and that isn't something they can or should change. It's about learning to create a balance and use the right editorial tone - but I for one, a buyer of weekly gossip mags alongside my regular Elle magazine habit would be sad to see the likes of NOW change altogether. It is about finding room for improvement and creating balance between celebrity gossip photos and championing normal bodies. The change is in the language we use to describe each other and to regain some of that 90's 'ziga-zig-ah'.
We also discussed the way images are obtained for some of the greater offending celeb features, - you know the ones, a celebrity exercising in the park in the most inappropriate workout attire ever created - to the point, where you stop reading the article only to stare at said attire and think - why - why would you wear this - said celeb then gets papped and subsequently demolished and hounded in the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame. Following this disasterous PR, 8 weeks later there is a fitness DVD on the shelves and a much happier celebrity. These are 99.9% of the time a total set up. Normally through the celebrity and the agent themselves, the scenarios are created to promote the eventual fitness DVD, keep the celeb in the papers and also keep their bank balance looking healthy. Shots of relative C-listers can go for upwards of £30,000 - which is a huge amount of money, but clearly worth paying for as it will generate sales for everyone. So next time you feel sorry for a celebrity caught off guard in the park, remember, they're probably chuckling all the way to the bank.
The discussion continued, moving on from looking at NOW magazine on its own, to the industry in general with a great focus on the plus size fashion market. We talked about the lack of high street availability and the few and far between bricks and mortar stores as well as the sparse availability of trend led pieces for fashion concious, plus size women.
Anna from Milk Management discussed how the markets in France and Italy were far more foward thinking in their use of plus size models for main fashion editorial as she has had girls booked for Italian Vogue and French Elle to name but a few, however the market in the UK in terms of big glossies seems relatively non existent.
Claire Richards was incredibly honest about her own yoyo dieting and discussed her clothing line for Fashion World (it's great) and how she has finally managed to create pieces she loves wearing and always wanted, she talked about feeling unable to dress well at her largest because she didn't know what to buy or even where to buy it. Claire talked about internet trolls (not to be confused with the colourful hair variety), something that has really come to a forefront in the media recently. NOW's online editor concurred with Claire about the number of comments they have to go through that can simply only be described as 'trolling'.
Body image campaigner and charity runner Lauren Benton shocked us all, telling us that they have dealt with children as young as three who are suffering from eating disorders, body image problems and even children who are self harming. Lauren pointed out that it wasn't simply a magazine or media issue and we cant just blame magazines for eating disorders and poor body image. Other factors have huge influence too, including social pressure, a lack of control through excess work at school or a pressured home life and being exposed to the notion of dieting and body hate from parents or older siblings. We forget how much children pick up from their surroundings and while we can work towards a more responsible media society it isn't the sole cause or issue.
It's a natural instinct to judge both ourselves and others, whether we feel we aren't good enough because we're comparing who we are to someone we aren't or simply judging someone based on their appearance. I've yet to meet a person who doesn't do at least one of these things. We're built to make snap judgements - I think it's a kind of fight or flight mechanism, it helps us protect oursevles but it also helps us to hurt others in the process.
Chanelle Hayes - of Big Brother fame and now a lads mag favourite came up with some of the most thought provoking ideas of the afternoon. At a size 14 Chanelle is body confident (and so she should be) She told us that at this size she is a popular sell on the front of the likes of FHM etc yet at a size 14 - other women call her out for being 'too big' and while lads mags, feature bigger women (albeit in their own special way) as desirable, most glossies can't stand the idea of using a model over a size 8. While I'm not suggesting you sign up to a subscription with NUTS magazine to boost your confidence, it does make you think that really we're our own worst enemy. Shouldn't us girls be sticking together? It is an interesting way of looking at the situation.
After 2 hours of discussing body image, fashion, plus size brands and models it truly felt like we had only just scratched the surface. The subject is huge and we literally only touched on an industry that is ever evolving and developing fast. While we can't and shouldn't expect a 360 on editorial policy from NOW, the fact that they are willing to engage women and readers in their editorial language is a hugely brave and positive move from an established magazine that quite frankly could've shrugged and moved on. We will never see a time where celebrity weekly magazines don't exist, they are without a doubt here to stay. The industry is too great and our thirst for escapism too large to imagine that this will be something that goes entirely anytime soon. The internet has simply fuelled our desire for 24/7 gossip. Sadly with this comes trolling and body image issues that we need to find a way to address. We need to find a path to being more open about our bodies, what we look like and accepting that we are all different.
I read a fantastic quote on tumblr just before I wrote this... "Don't compliment me by insulting other women. That's not a compliment, it's a competition none of us agreed to". I don't know who said it, but they're 100% right. So look out for your fellow women and encourage and inspire your friends, daughters and mothers to be happy and healthy - to appreciate the body they have not the one they think they should have.