by Tanya Gold
Parliamentary group’s inaugural awards challenge culture producing consumers addicted to beauty products and despair
The all-party parliamentary group on body image, formed last year, will report in June and held its inaugural body confidence awards at the Palace of Westminster on Thursday night. It was possibly the most female gathering seen in Gormenghast. There were tea dresses, beehives and insane lipsticks; the few pale men in suits for whom this castle was built looked outnumbered, creatures from a distant planet, who yet know that 47% of women think that the pressure to be hot is the worst part of being a woman.
Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP, is the chair. She promises to attack the fashion and beauty industries with a mixture “of carrot and stick. It’s easy to be critical. We must promote best practice.” The body confidence awards are really anti-awards, because the sort of people who usually win awards are ambassadors for plastic surgery, starvation-as-leisure and Botox. Even so, they challenge a culture producing consumers addicted to beauty products and despair, and reward those companies, charities and individuals who do not incite self-hatred in innocent consumers, including men. A survey in 2011 discovered that 38% of men would lose a year of their life in return for a perfect body, which is strange, because a perfect body would probably prolong their life.
The lobbyists and charities have woeful tales to tell. “They [the fashion and beauty industries] have historically marketed to produce feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt,” says Susie Orbach, the author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, who gave evidence to the committee.
She has been a psychotherapist for more than 30 years, burrowing in human self-esteem. “It’s got worse,” she says, and she would know. Stephanie Heart, who asks schoolgirls how they feel about their bodies, says they want the opposite of what they have. Advertising is working. Toys R Us does a Dream Dazzlers Light Up Glamour Make-Up Case for children of five and upwards. I think we can all agree that five-year-olds look terrible in make-up because it makes them look like Chucky the murderous doll, but pink. An advertising campaign featuring 30 Londoners had no black women represented, until someone pointed it out, and they found one. Anorexic models stumble off catwalks. Girls routinely drop out of sport, and will not even go shopping, such is their fear of the mirror. This is a fashion industry own goal.
The dancer and choreographer Arlene Phillips, who was fired from Strictly Come Dancing at the age of 65, like a malfunctioning clock, talked about trying to make it as a dancer in the 1980s, when she was only 5ft 3ins and “chunky. I was a brilliant dancer,” said Phillips, “But there was no chance unless you were 5ft 6 – and blonde. Could they really dance like I could dance? No, they couldn’t. I created [the dance group] Hot Gossip with anger against perfect beauty.” Phillips is objectively fashion-beautiful but body image affects us all; the Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams told me he used to dislike his nose, because it was too big, and if he feels a lack of body confidence, everyone does.
Caitlin Moran won the print award for her memoir How To Be A Woman: when she began to write, she says, she thought, “I can knuckle down and look like a woman is supposed to look or I could make everyone try to lower their own standards to mine.”
The Boots No7 Ta Dah! range won the beauty award for avoiding airbrushing in their advertising. Debenhams won the retail award for their Inclusivity campaign, which featured 59-year-old Jilly Johnston and the model Shannon Murray, who uses a wheelchair. “It makes commercial sense,” said Ed Watson from Debenhams, “as well as moral sense.” Alison Rich, who has a facial disfigurement, spoke on behalf of the charity she works for, Changing Faces, which won the campaigner award. Pink Stinks, campaigners against the stereotyping of children, won the Mumsnet award for promoting body confidence in children.
The room seethed with an enthusiasm for self-acceptance, which is rare, particularly in these painted halls. I merely hope the report on body image is more stick than carrot. If so, it may have legs. Normal legs.