In a week when the world’s focus has been variously divided between the horror of the Boston marathon bombings, Lady Thatcher’s funeral and an explosion at a fertiliser plant in West, TX (Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea seemingly shelved for the time being), it’s curious to note how some trivial hardy perennials persist in being “newsworthy”. On Thursday I was alerted via Facebook to an article in the Daily Mail which was prompting outraged responses from both men and women. I’ve no desire to give the oxygen of publicity to its author, suffice to say the writer has lately made a name for herself by peddling provocative articles for the paper’s Femail supplement – a sort of poor girl’s Julie Burchill, only less erudite and infinitely more self-absorbed.
What seems to have got everyone going is the author’s assertion that in order for a woman to be beautiful (and by the same token, retain the interest of a man, not die an old maid half-chewed by an Alsatian, etc.) she must diet every day of her life, citing the formidable Joan Collins by way of example (I bet nash treszh Joan was thrilled to guest star in this priceless piece of tosh). She goes on to detail her own weight control tips, the most bizarre of which involved subsisting on Polo mints as a student. Her current regime involves a quarterly starvation diet, even though it renders her so weak physically and mentally, she’s unable to work. No-one would deny that cutting out the junk in favour of healthier food is a smart move but nowhere in the article does it mention eating sensibly or taking exercise, the tried and trusted way by which most people control their weight.
And her incentive for doing this? A visibly chubby hubby who’s apparently told her the marriage is over if she ever gets fat. I don’t much care what happens; aside from reeking of desperation, her prose is so obviously designed to needle the reader it’s laughable, but I take exception to any publication giving column inches to someone whose behaviour is at best bonkers and which might encourage those of a less-than level-headed disposition to follow her lead (a quick skirt through the readers’ comments would indicate some are taking her at face value and that’s worrying enough). That this thinly-veiled misogynistic drivel appears in the DM is no great surprise; its penchant for employing women to broadcast its peculiar brand of anti-female rhetoric is nothing new. That women choose to go along with it is what strikes me as a singular betrayal. It seems everyone has her price and mortgages must be paid…
So why has it got my goat? Well, two days ago, Boo’s daughter who’s a month shy of her eleventh birthday suddenly announced she didn’t like her “fat” legs, adding she wants to slim down (a bit) and would be eating more healthily from now. Being a responsible, caring dad he immediately took heed and told her she had great legs, not skinny sticks like some. He rightly sensed the potential for danger ahead and was keen to nip it in the bud. Young girls have a tough enough time in an age when the media projects air-brushed perfection as the norm, without forty-somethings joining in like bullying fourth formers. With surveys revealing low self-esteem and poor body image rife among British teenagers, sensible and sensitive debate is required, not self-satisfied and frankly irresponsible nonsense from those old enough to know better. If middle-aged women have insecurities, they should work on finding a resolution rather than bequeathing them to the next generation.
In this regard I’m eternally grateful to my mother who, despite an enviable figure and a knock-out wardrobe, managed not to create hysteria around food or appearance. At home we were encouraged to eat well for nourishment’s sake and whilst we all indulged in Hovis bread’n’butter triangles, Jaffa Cakes and the odd bowl of crisps, we weren’t made to feel bad for enjoying them. If my mother had an issue with her weight then she never showed it, much less discussed it. I later learnt this was a deliberate decision; a conscious desire on her part to instil confidence in her children – especially her daughters – to ensure, at least as far as was possible, that we grew up physically fit and free of hang-ups. But just as it’s easier to believe our worst critics than the praise of our staunchest supporters, few of us are impervious to the drip-feed of glossy images, then confined to magazines and television. Nowadays, such images are everywhere and almost inescapable thanks to the Internet. mobile phones and TV channels broadcasting round the clock.
Thank goodness for Gok Wan, a man who’s striving to combat the low self-esteem epidemic currently plaguing the young via high profile campaigning and charities such as Kidscape. In November 2009 Wan delivered a petition with 45,000 signatures to Downing Street calling upon the then-Education Secretary Ed Balls to include lessons in body confidence on the national curriculum. He stated: “Over 70 per cent of teenagers have admitted they have little or no body confidence at all. We have a social and public responsibility to advise and care for the next generation. We need to teach them that what we see in the media is not a fair representation of the real body.”
Accompanied by Shona Collins who surveyed teens for Wan’s How To Look Good Naked show, Wan added: ‘The average woman in this country is exposed to over 3,000 images of perfection every week, of air-brushing and re-touching and our teenagers are aspiring to look like these people”. The Channel 4 documentary series Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth had revealed a disturbing yet far from uncommon picture of adolescent girls and boys angsting over their appearance and contemplating plastic surgery; the knock-on of being bombarded by images of heavily air-brushed models and celebrities. Wan sought to bust some of the myths behind those images with a hefty dose of reality, revealing the many tricks employed to distort the average into the unattainable. Where he has led, may others follow.
At the risk of digressing, as a hopeless Maddict (a devotee of AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men), I’ve enjoyed reading fans’ responses to the new season’s eps and adding my twopenneth but have been nonplussed by some of those directed towards Betty Francis formerly Draper (played by January Jones). Last season revealed Don’s ice blonde ex had piled on the pounds, although the reasons were never made explicit. We’d previously learned she’d been overweight in adolescence, something her mother had evidently made much of. Comments ranging from “get her out of the fat suit” to “she’s so boring now” proliferate but are misguided, implying her life (pre-weight gain) was nothing but unbridled joy and fuel the misconception that if you’re carrying a few extra pounds, you also come with a bundle of other “flaws” – boring being one of them. In truth, by contemporary women’s standards Betty’s life might well seem boring; indeed, for most of the first three seasons her (size 8) days comprised light domestic duties (most of them palmed off on her daily help), perfunctory childcare and simmering dissatisfaction.
By and large, that hasn’t changed and, for the record, her svelte figure and Grace Kelly looks did not stop her erstwhile husband from philandering, but to suggest that Betty’s boring now for being heavier is inaccurate and insulting. Sadly, it does reflect an all-too common attitude towards those who are overweight or don’t fit the conformist’s world view of what’s acceptable. Men and, more interestingly, women seem prepared to tolerate “dullness” if it’s at least decorative, and in Betty’s case, that requires her to be thin. No matter how complex a character she is, irrespective of her back story or her achievements, “attractiveness” trumps all for this Bryn Mawr scholar. Reassuringly, her new-ish husband Henry doesn’t find her weight gain a turn-off but supports her as she strives to reduce, spurred on by her “traditionally built” mother-in-law. Henry’s mother suggests diet pills and when Betty asks why she doesn’t take them, Mrs Francis replies she has a heart condition and besides, she “no longer has to please men.” In other words, it’s OK for a woman to risk her health so long as the end result is slimline perfection.
This is all sounding depressingly familiar. But remember, Mad Men is set in the mid-1960s, when females were routinely objectified, chauvinism and inequality in the workplace and the home were still default settings, and the women’s movement had yet to gain traction. Nearly fifty years on, isn’t it about time women started pleasing themselves, fat, thin or otherwise? Lose weight, gain weight or stay as sweet as you are because you want to and it will make you happier and healthier, not because it will enable you to snare a man. If all your hopes of future happiness hinge on being a size 10, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed when you get there. Isn’t it better to focus on being a well-rounded (no irony intended) independent person with a fulfilling job, friends, passions, opinions and energy? None of these precludes being attractive and fanciable, but cultivating a personality and some goals (beyond not dying a spinster) are more likely to retain the interest of a significant other than your dress size ever will.