This morning, I opened Instagram and within 30 seconds I had seen: a slim French blogger posing in a polka-dot bikini with the faintest hint of stretch marks on her thighs, posted with the caption, "Stretch marks, new chic?"; a painfully thin model doing "1990s sexy" for a cool New York boutique ("Get this girl a croissant!" read one comment); and a famous plus-size model in a thong bikini asking, "What ya having for lunch?" All this before I had eaten breakfast.
As a 30-year-old fashion editor, I have been to hundreds of catwalk shows and, along the way, learnt not to get caught up in comparisons. So I can take the mixed messaging about body image that social media throws at me in my stride. But I can hardly begin to fathom what my anorexic 15-year-old self would have made of it.
“Thanks to online media and the increasingly online nature of our lives, we are in the midst of a body-image crisis.”
I've always thought my eating disorder was, along with some unlucky genes, more about grasping some control in my life than wanting to be as thin as a supermodel. I was a highly strung, perfectionist student at a small, pressure-cooker, all-girls school, and food, or lack thereof, became a coping mechanism. That's not to say that I wasn't obsessed with fashion – even as a toddler, I had built an impressive collection of handbags.
When I was diagnosed at the age of 14, my parents started me on a kilojoule-rich eating plan. Mum displayed saintly levels of devotion, sitting with me as I picked reluctantly over meals such as a bowl of cornflakes for an hour at a time. But my parents also stopped my subscription to Vogue and banned me from clothes shopping.
Looking back, I can understand why. In six months, I had faded to little more than 38 kilograms which, at 165 centimetres, gave me a body mass index of 14 (anything below 18.5 is considered underweight). My periods had stopped and I was now under strict instruction from the doctor to report for weekly weigh-ins and psychologist appointments. If I lost any more weight, I'd be hospitalised.
Fashion, rightly, has a terrible reputation for fetishising skinniness, so why wouldn't my parents do all in their power to get me eating properly again? I hated seeing them unhappy, so I went along with the plan. But I also knew I could find ways to get around it, like pouring my lunchtime yogurt down the toilet.
I still can't work out whether the images in magazines were a trigger for me. I was pleased to be thin and to not be taking up too much space (yes, a genuine emotion), but I had no desire to be a model. When I was scouted by an agency while shopping, I felt uneasy; I wondered if they really couldn't tell that I was ill. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn't quite thin enough after all.
If I did snatch a look at a magazine, it felt more like an escape than "thinspiration". But in a society where thin equals success, anorexia could be the ultimate act of conformity.
My memories of that time are hazy – starvation can do that to you – but I do know it wasn't the Vogue ban that saved me in the end. After three years, my intense regimen came to an end almost as stealthily as it had begun. During the summer after I finished high school, I did work experience at a fashion trend forecaster. I felt grown up and independent. One evening, we had family friends over for dinner and I found myself mindlessly finishing a piece of cheesecake while I was helping to clear up. Within six months, I'd put on more than six kilograms. Soon after, my periods returned.
I was lucky. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness: 20 per cent of people living with the disorder will die prematurely from associated medical complications and 54 per cent never make a full recovery.
Would my story be the same today? Thanks to social media (which barely existed while I was ill) and the increasingly online nature of our lives, we are in the midst of a body-image crisis. Knowing all that I do about the reality of living with an eating disorder, I bristle at every runway walked by hauntingly thin models, every Instagram post showing unrealistically tiny bodies and every tabloid headline about someone "flaunting" their "toned abs".
That's not because I'm worried about myself any more, but because I feel for the girls depicted and anyone vulnerable they might be influencing.
What makes our modern predicament even more complicated is that we are subjected to extremes in all forms, most of which are unachievable without dramatic surgery or are as unhealthy as being drastically underweight: Kim Kardashian and Tess Holliday (a size-26 American model who coined the defiant hashtag #effyourbeautystandards) are held up by their fans as body role models as much as the super thin are by others.
Yet it's compelling and depressing to read stories about a woman gorging on 15 jars of Nutella a month to build up enough fat so that some could be redistributed into her bum in a quest to achieve the world's largest rear. Whatever happened to aspiring to simple normality and the kind of body that comes from a healthy-ish approach to food and exercise?
A survey last year by the UK Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram had the most negative impact of any social-media platform on the mental health of 14- to 24-yearolds. Users under 25 spend an average of 32 minutes a day on the app, while for older scrollers it's 24 minutes.
The constant stream of imagery is addictive, and while a positively curated feed (Great shoes! Hilarious memes!) can be life-enhancing, one filled with bodies that make you feel bad about your own can be disconcerting at best, destructive at worst. Think thigh gaps, the Kardashian sisters gigglingly discussing Kim's "anorexic" waist as they did recently, and the "ab crack" craze, as instigated by actress Emily Ratajkowski's very specifically sculpted stomach.
Working in fashion means I am more exposed than most to the nuances of our body-image crisis. Rising numbers of ethnically and size-diverse models have recently provided a refreshing antidote to the standard young, white, thin model. But there are buts.
First, the penchant for the term "real woman" is ridiculous; women come in all shapes and sizes, and some really are super slim, be that naturally, through illness or other means, but that doesn't preclude them from being "real". We're also at risk of tokenism. I will often be asked to cover a new project celebrating diversity and can quickly tick off the overweight one, the disabled one, the black one, the older one … But do these kinds of people appear elsewhere in the brand's imagery, as a true indication of diversity? Often, they do not.
So I rejoiced when I saw British fashion designer Sarah Burton had quietly used models with slightly chunky legs and a little roundness to their arms and stomachs for her spring/ summer 2018 Alexander McQueen show. Of the major label fashion shows I've been to this year, only Michael Kors and Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda seemed to have achieved a mix of models with body shapes that would go any way towards representing the women who actually buy their designs.
There are also initiatives such as the joint model wellbeing charter of fashion conglomerates LVMH and Kering: it asks that models "present a valid medical certificate, attesting to their good health and ability to work, obtained less than six months before the shooting or the fashion show".
Yet barely a day goes by during Fashion Week without a girl walking down a runway who needs medical help more than another modelling job. Magazines often find themselves having to add rather than airbrush away inches, and Ashley Graham is the only non-sample-size woman on Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid models. At least there's one, but arguably she represents another extreme.
Designers reach for pathetically outdated excuses about samples being tricky to make in anything other than minuscule sizes. But the truth is that it's a case of both practicality and aspiration; they believe it's easier to make clothes look appealing on tiny frames, and all too often that is how we would rather they were presented.
It's not all doom. For every unrealistic message, there is an uplifting retort to our body-image crisis. Instagram is full of communities where followers are encouraged to "feel valuable and see how amazing" they are by posting pictures with personal details that define them more powerfully than kilo numbers ever could.
The concept of body neutrality is now being called the New Body Positivity (proudly standing against cultural expectations of your body, particularly if you're overweight). Body neutrality encourages more gentle acceptance rather than pure hatred or overweening pride in one's body – it's open to all shapes and sizes and is probably how most of us would hope to relate to the skin we're in.
Seventeen years after my own eating disorder began, I think body neutrality is the best description for how I feel, too. But should such an innocuous I-don't-mind-either-way sort of label need to exist at all? Ultimately, these are communities created by women, for women, to make themselves feel better about a deeply ingrained social ideal that is unlikely to disappear. But faced with that pre-breakfast blend of body-image confusion, it's a philosophy I'm sticking with.
This article originally appear in The Telegraph Magazine (UK).
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 16.
Source: Read Full Article