Sunday, 8 January 2012

A serious post about the media and body image

Way back in July, when I was still in hospital, I was invited to take part in a therapy group entitled Bodywise, 'sold' to me as an intervention that would help me to understand the impact the media has on my body image. At the time this made me really angry for lots of reasons that I won't go into. But the biggest reason this irritated me was that, as an English graduate, I pride myself on a solid grasp of, and healthy cynicism for, the media. I don't buy women's gossip magazines because it irritates me that one week they will use a photo of Victoria Beckham, labelling her emaciated; the following week they will use the same photo (usually photoshopped in some way) and call her a 'porker.' It's just *too* obvious. And too damaging if you actually believe it.

My personal understanding of eating disorders is that they aren't about body image. Not really. Not properly. They're mental illnesses that are predominantly emotional in their genesis. I'm not a teenage girl (and to be honest, even if I was a teenage girl I'd be just as insulted by the idea that a picture of a skinny model could cause me to become ill) and I don't look at models, celebrities or actors as role models unless they have done something to impress me like won a well-deserved Oscar. I'm aware that controversial images and stories of struggles (or otherwise) sell magazines, and to some extent, newspapers. So, talking to me about body image and the media generally makes me feel patronised. I think, "I'm not stupid, don't tell me things I already know!"

January 2011 Heat front cover - HOW many stories about weight and bodies?!
But January is a unique challenge. And I think I'm only just beginning to realise this. You can't open even the most academic and (small c.) conservative newspapers without being bombarded by New Year, New You rhetoric. Even the cynical approach of the most insubordinate columnist turns into panic about how to lose the post festive 'bulge'. Foods are labelled 'good' and 'bad' and indulging in these foods brands us, the reader, as either 'saints' or 'sinners.' It doesn't end with food either: January is all about restriction in some way. It's absolutely everywhere and it takes a resolve of steel not to feel that you should be taking part. Even I've resolved not to shop. And fallen off the wagon already. Therefore I'm 'bad'. It's so easy to fall into a pattern of self-loathing, and we're almost encouraged in this self-loathing. January is the cruellest month - and if that cruelty is self-directed, all the better, as it will make us better people later in the year.
Even the broadsheets have to get in on the January action! (this one's from 2007, but it pretty much the same as it is every January - Change your life!)
And this is where the media's impact is insidious. I don't believe the photos that have been photoshopped to within an inch of the celebrity's tiny frame; I know that part of being a 'celeb' is being photo ready at all times, (3 hours in the gym daily may not be healthy, but it's essential for those who rely on image in our HD culture) and I'm also aware that (shock horror!) gossip magazines are not necessarily exercises in factual journalism - quite the opposite. But what I really struggle with is the implicit suggestion from the media that a combination that these things make us good or bad people. Surely we are more than the sum of what we eat, or how much exercise we do.

Like most people, I strive to be the best person I can be. I want to be liked, I want to be kind and I want to be 'good'. So, when foods are labelled in these emotive terms, I find it so difficult. How many times a day do you hear someone say "I'm so bad, I ate 2 chocolate bars yesterday" or "I'm being good at the moment, I'll just have a salad?" - and the media feeds (excuse the pun) this loaded discourse. Why should foods be good or bad, or we saints or sinners as a result of consuming them? I have never calorie or fat counted, but I have ever-growing lists of good and bad foods in my head that have a ridiculous ability contribute to my sense of self-worth.
No wonder we're all so confused!
So, whilst I remain sceptical about gossip magazines, I think it's worth being aware of the impact of the media as a whole. Food keeps us going, it enables our brains and bodies to work (did you know your brain alone needs 500 calories a day just to function, and that's without even adding the everyday business of breathing and moving and speaking and walking - in other words living?) and yes, it is true that in our society its plentifulness leads to overindulgence and greed, but I do wish that we could be a little less emotive in our talk about food and dieting. January *is* the cruellest month, and I'm not sure I've got the answer to this conundrum, but if we could just think about food as fuel, and our bodies as machines that help us to complete the everyday task of living, perhaps we would be able to get through this difficult period without such intense self-flagellation.


  1. Great post. It's honest and what you say about patronising media literacy stuff is so true. I've been making a conscious effort not to regurgitate the same chiche rhetoric in my own talks -especially with 'older' young people.

  2. Thank you. It was a heartfelt post and a little more academic than I like to write on my blog, but felt it had to be said! If it helps with your work with young people, please feel free to use it as a viewpoint!