“Oooh, it’s that time of year again. Buds are on the trees, the sun’s shining and headlines are proclaiming that we have just six/seven/eight short weeks to ‘find our th-inspiration!’ and get our ‘bikini bodies’ ready for some ‘sizzling summer action’. Welcome to the world, baby doll.
It’s time, therefore, to arm ourselves against this annual burst of madness encouraging us to ramp up our insecurities, guilt and other crippling emotions around body image and detonate them on a foreign beach like a tanorexic D-Day soldier. I offer you two new weapons to add to an armoury that I hope is already stocked with basics like self-esteem, anger and giant Toblerones (which do inarguably taste much better than skinny feels).
The first is The Vogue Factor by Kirstie Clements, former editor of Australian Vogue, recounting her time in the fashion world. Unlike the people the book features, it’s stuffed with juicy titbits. Like the time Clements went on a three-day fashion shoot and didn’t see the model eat. Not once. By the end, the woman was so weak she could hardly stand up. Or the time she learnt about ‘fit models’, who are used to check the fit of clothes before they are made and are required to be even thinner than catwalk models. She asked a top catwalker how she was getting on with her new flatmate. ‘Oh, fine,’ came the reply. ‘She’s a fit model so she’s mostly in hospital on a drip.’ Meanwhile, non-fit, non-intravenously supported models subsisted, according to Clements, on tissues soaked in water.
A less gossipy but more thoughtful insight into that same world came from a recent TED talk by Cameron Russell who has appeared in runway shows and advertising campaigns for all the big names. She described herself as simply the winner of a genetic lottery constructed before she was born – a beauty aesthetic that prizes not just traditional, perhaps evolutionarily justified qualities like youth, health and symmetry, but also height, slenderness and pale skin. She showed a series of pictures from her career and described the reality behind them – impossibly sexy in a man’s arms when she hadn’t yet even had a boyfriend, her first bikini shot, which was also the first time she’d ever worn a bikini, family snaps and professional pictures taken on the same days with her barely recognisable as the same person and so on, making abundantly clear the power of images to manipulate, distort and utterly erase the truth.
It is a salutary reminder that the ‘perfect’ bodies in the media fundamentally and inexorably distort our idea of what is both normal and achievable. I’m sometimes startled when I leave the house and don’t find the high street populated with slightly shiny, hard-bodied Amazons who could just as easily step into a Burberry ad as my local Greggs.
It’s heartening to be reminded how rare these perfect beings are
I’m becoming almost wistful for the Eighties. At least then there was just a handful of these amazing beings – Naomi, Cindy, Linda, Helena – and they had the decency to call themselves ‘supermodels’. Like superheroes – the name suggested there would only be a few to serve each generation, made of different stuff from the humans they oversaw.
So it’s now heartening and terrifying to be reminded how rare and freakish these perfect-looking beings are. Heartening because it takes some of the insidious pressure off us to match up and lessens the inner self-flagellations that we (or some of us – here’s hoping many of you are better adjusted than my friends and I) carry out almost unthinkingly, almost constantly, for our failure to do so. And terrifying, because it brings home momentarily the visual cosh we subconsciously live under.
I’d like to give honourable mention here too to Joan Collins’ admission that she has been on a diet her entire life. We need to be reminded as honestly and as often as possible that the people who make it onto our screens and onto our visual cortexes have usually gone to extremes of one kind or another to get there. We need reminding that their metabolisms don’t run differently from ours – if a woman looks impossibly thin by the standards of normal life, it’s possibly because something has gone very wrong indeed. She might even be starving. Unless her stomach’s full of bleached, toxic tissues, of course. In which case she might be dying instead.
Eat your Toblerones, ladies. Fuel your rage.”
Email Lucy at lucy.mangan@stylist. co.uk or tweet her @LucyMangan
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Additional image: Rex