Imagine, for a moment, you’re flicking through a magazine and come across a photo spread full of beautiful, glamorous young women. Shot in a beautiful, softly lit dark fantasy setting of plush velvet and baroque picture frames.
The women are resplendent and graceful in gorgeous evening dresses and eye-catching jewellery. Ivory skin, dramatic eyes, full seductive lips … and ragged bloody gashes criss-crossing along their arms, slicing through dozens of spidery white scars all the way up.
A dozen different levels of hell would break loose if something like this was actually published. Most people would find it morally irresponsible and dangerous to glamorise the physical symptoms of mental illness, and the images themselves would inspire widespread horror and disgust. The magazine in question would be condemned from all sides, the mental stability of the creative team placed under scrutiny.
In reality, we see similar images each and every day of our lives – and most of us don’t even raise an eyebrow.
Here’s the skinny: the impossibly proportioned young women in your average fashion shoot are more than likely anorexic, bulimic, chronic over-exercisers or a combination of all three.*
In the elusive glimpses we get into the modelling industry, we see strange, sad things. Girls living on diet drinks for months on end. Models so hungry they eat tissues and cotton balls to stave off the cravings. And now the latest painful revelation – model talent scouts hanging around eating disorder clinics, on the hunt for new recruits.
People die from eating disorders. Only a third of sufferers ever fully recover, and only then after years of painstaking mental work. When the fuck did dressing up the symptoms of a life-threatening disease in beautiful fabrics and photographing them become acceptable?
Many people are of the view that it’s OK because only the weak-willed let the media influence their mindset. Yeah, maybe there’s a hint of truth in that. There are a huge variety of reasons why people develop eating disorders, and it would be rare that media representation is a sole cause. But I call bullshit on anybody who believes it’s ‘easy’ to throw off an idea they’ve had hammered into them since the doctor smacked them on the bum.
If someone tells you something over and over and over again (in this case, this is what you should be striving to look like), it becomes a big presence in your life simply by virtue of the fact it keeps getting dragged up. Even if on one level you know it’s bollocks, you’re still having to think about it in order to denounce it as bollocks. And the more you see or hear something repeated, the more ‘normal’ it becomes to you and the more likely you are to begin believing it, particularly if friends, colleagues and authority figures do. If that sounds a lot like ‘weakness’ to you, then keep in mind that we start being exposed to messages about ideal bodies when we’re still old enough to believe in the Easter Bunny.
Putting the onus on the public to ‘just ignore’ the images of malnourished models is an appealing one – no need to lift a finger, those being brainwashed should just click their fingers, buck up their ideas and stop striving to be skinny at all costs. Simples. It absolves us of the hard work of changing laws and attitudes – which needs to happen because the status quo is beyond fucked up and going nowhere fast. Little girls of 10 are dieting. Pro-anorexia websites encourage teenagers to starve themselves to the brink of death.
What should the theoretical changes be? In my view, nothing less than prosecution with severe penalties for any agency or publication which uses images of underweight women (say, with a BMI of under 18) or alters images of healthy models to make them look underweight. Unless, of course, they’re running a feature on starvation or famine.
Sound extreme? Well, remind me again why it would be OK to distribute images promoting other forms of self-harm such as cutting or burning. Oh, that’s right, it’s really not.
* My sincerest apologies to the tiny population of women who are naturally very thin but eat normally – I know you do exist, and having to constantly deny you’re unwell must get exhausting. It’s just unfortunate that yours is a body shape most women are encouraged to emulate when they cannot do so safely.