Susie Orbach writes on why Lynne Featherstone was right to celebrate curvaceous Christina Hendricks as a role model
Christina Hendricks, as seen in Mad Men, was held up as an alternative to the skinny aesthetic by equalities minister Lynne Featherstone. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Pity those who are rubbishing the equalities minister Lynne Featherstone's efforts to influence the style industry with her comments that Christina Hendricks, voluptuous star of Mad Men, is an ideal female role model. They must be denying what they know about the body-issue problems affecting their mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts or friends. We can see an unconscious pull to dismiss the initiative by telling it as a story of the minister's personal prejudices, her own desire to see curvaceous bodies become the new visual musak.
Of course that wasn't Featherstone's point at all. She was relishing Hendricks as a refreshing counterpoint to the homogeneity of female body image that we have been receiving and transmitting and attempting to emulate for several decades. She wasn't arguing for a new form of body tyranny.
Enough studies have been carried out demonstrating the harm done to all girls and women – including those for whom that body shape comes naturally – and the harm that is now enveloping boys and men, by the almost unremitting parade of skinniness. This public health emergency is hidden from view by media trivialisation of the problem and by attributing its causes to vanity. The insistence that the commercialisation of the body is a fit subject for political discussion and intervention is well overdue.
Skinny is only one body type. But it has been the aesthetic, with modifications in height (now tall with long legs: used to be middling with shapely ones) and breast size (now big: used to be small) for several decades. It's not that there is anything wrong with skinniness in its current manifestation: it's the singularity of the image, and the message, which makes us judge anything that deviates from it as somehow wrong.
If the aesthetic changed tomorrow and the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 images (not to mention the uncountable number on the internet) we see weekly of thin bodies were suddenly to change to – skilfully lit, photo-manipulated and artistically displayed – curvy bodies, the desire to conform to that new model could produce the same kind of anguish as today's singular skinny aesthetic does. We'd be back to Wate-On tablets at the chemist and people feeling inadequate about how thin they were.
We want to see the influence of visual culture on us as trivial, as a silliness, as something that only affects people if they have an emotional disposition (read weakness) towards it, or have a gene that disposes them to it. But it isn't trivial, it isn't about weakness and it isn't about genetics. It can be deadly. It can consume a life. It can be a hidden horror starting at six and going on until old age. And, perhaps most disturbingly, most body image problems don't show. They aren't about anorexia or obesity. They are an obsession endured.
The attempt to bring the style industries together to create a wider aesthetic, which can embrace different body types while remaining edgy and modish, is an important challenge. And it is time we took it seriously.
We need to take steps to change our visual landscape to show variety in size and shape and ethnicity and – as the Guardian has begun to do in its Weekend magazine fashion spread – age. I often feel sorry for all those talented art directors who are endlessly turning the raw photos of models into facsimile copies. It would surely be so much more stimulating for them to fashion an aesthetic which is actually modern, does no harm and restores the variety of reality back to their artifice.
Featherstone has been caricatured as clunky for her intervention, but in truth there isn't a person reading this piece who doesn't know someone who is suffering because body hatred has eaten into their sense of self. This relatively new phenomenon is fed by industries which grow fat on inducing feelings of body insecurity. Few feel good and safe in their bodies. Not even, it turns out, those who happen to meet the current beauty standards. Body hatred is a modern virus undermining so many. The fashion industries who inadvertently cause considerable pain to girls and women could reformulate their stance so that they became part of what makes living in our bodies enjoyable rather than a target for beauty terror.
Eighty-eight per cent of spending on clothes is in sizes and prices that never see the catwalk or the glossies. Wouldn't it be great to see a representative of that ordinary percentage glamorised in our magazines? Wouldn't it be great if young girls had a variety of physical shapes and activities with which to identify? Wouldn't it be great if we weren't exporting body hatred around the world by implying that the bodies on our billboards are the only ones that let you engage with the modern world? Wouldn't it be great if we taught our kids body confidence rather than body fear, so that they knew when they were hungry, knew when they were tired and enjoyed the pleasure of running around and doing sport not because it would burn off the calories but because they enjoyed being active? Wouldn't it be great if expectant mums could go to term without having photographs of celebrities, who had early caesareans to avoid the last weeks of "fat", paraded in front of them? Wouldn't it be great if new mums could get to know their babies and their own bodies' appetites rather than feel pressure to get back to their pre-pregnancy body in six weeks? Wouldn't it be great for children to absorb contented and non-anxious bodies, and go on themselves to enjoy bodies they didn't feel impelled to change and discipline for life?
The acceptance of body hatred and body difficulties is what we need to take on. The way in which the media has become a handmaiden to the diet and beauty industries, whose nefarious practices yield great profits for them and great pain for us and our daughters (and our sons), is shameful. It is easier to attack Featherstone than admit the damage that we know is around us. Because we live inside the problem and manage it individually, it doesn't mean there isn't a solution. There is. Talking to those industries who could bring about positive change is a start. It's not meddling, boring or worthy. It is interesting, challenging, and especially for those art directors, exciting.
Susie Orbach is convenor of any-body.org and author of Bodies (Profile Books)
This article appeared in The Guardian 31/7/2010