The government announced last week that it was calling a summit on body image, where owners of model agencies and editors of fashion magazines will join Tessa Jowell and Baroness Jay to discuss Kate Moss and Gucci advertisements. The coverage the announcement received was surprisingly respectful. But do we really believe that this is how the ministers for women should be spending their busy time?
Even if you think this is a worthwhile project for politicians, what kind of success can they expect? Look at this month's Vogue. In its gleaming pages you will see the girl who carries so much longing and loathing on her tiny shoulders, Kate Moss, elevated way beyond a clothes horse. The clever editors at Vogue have persuaded the media-hungry stars of the art world - Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marc Quinn - to use Kate's lovely face and fined-down body as subject for their art. Whether it's an ice sculpture of Kate's head or a drawing projected on to her half-naked body, the glossy images enshrine Kate's slender frame as the contemporary feminine ideal.
What can politicians hope to do to turn this cultural phenomenon around? Any intervention is, after all, pretty well doomed to backfire, not just because designers and editors aren't likely to take their directions from the government, but also because their audience would actively prefer that the government disliked what they do. It's odd that the government cannot grasp this simple fact; that there is a natural propensity towards rebellion embedded in most people, even if it has been missed out of the minority who go into politics.
That's never more true than it is for teenagers, who are those most affected by eating disorders. Most adolescents feel compelled to make adults furious - that's part of growing up. They pick elements out of a menu of things that their elders and betters find pretty incomprehensible; taking up smoking, having unsafe sex, drinking until they fall over, using drugs, driving cars too fast. The government seems unable to understand why they can't just tell teenagers to buck up and stop acting like teenagers. But as with its war on drugs, a war on waifishness could only have the effect of making anorexia look glamorous and dangerous.
Still, let's not exaggerate the power that the fashion industry really has on most women. If we are so affected by Kate's angular form, why is it that in just fifty years, the average British woman has become plumper and more pillowy than ever before? In 1950, the elusive Miss Average was about eight and a half stone and had a 24 inch waist. Now, she is over ten stone and has a 32 inch waist. So perhaps even seeing Kate as an ice sculpture isn't putting most of us off our pudding.
That's not to say that a number of women don't have a hard time with food. Many do. But I'm not sure it's just because they have seen Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd on the catwalks. Dieting is not, after all, a brand-new, twenty-first century craze. Everywhere you look in the literature of the west, some women are having problems eating. When Sylvia Plath's alter ego goes to New York in the Fifties in The Bell Jar, she finds that she has to cram the food in at lunch as fast as she can because "Almost everybody I met then was trying to reduce". Eventually, as she becomes depressed, she too finds that food won't go down. When Doris Lessing looks back on her younger life, she remembers that in the 1940s, her body was "already established in the rhythm it would follow for decades: slim then plump - strict dieting, then slim and then plump".
Even before dieting was fashionable, women stopped eating to display an emotional intensity that was beyond pies and puddings. Cathy, in Wuthering Heights, didn't need pictures of Kate Moss when she refused to eat for a week before going into the decline that ended in her death. Marianne, in Sense and Sensibility, didn't need to see images of Victoria Beckham partying in white leather to know that when Willoughby went away for a while, she should be "unwilling to take nourishment", weeping instead of eating at meals, and gradually weakening her body to fit in with her seedy emotional state.
If so many women have taken their uncertainties about themselves out on their bodies, the problem posed by dieting won't be solved by putting some new, plumper, government-sponsored images on the billboards. There are deeper reasons why many women feel that they would be doing something wrong if they started to fill out more space, to throw their weight around.
When Tessa Jowell carried out the consultation with young people that led to the announcement of this summit, the young women did tell her they were worried about body image. But they also told her they were worried about a lot of other things - about the lack of support for young women who get pregnant, about the lack of protection the criminal justice system gives them against violence on the streets or in their homes, about the absence of opportunities to do worthwhile work. They were, in other words, angry about the inequality and violence around them, and they wanted to live in a society where women could fulfil their potential without fear of discrimination.
But while the government announces its summit on body image, it closes its eyes to the ways in which its own policies prevent many women from playing a full role in society. It refuses to take action on reforms that would really give them their place in Britain. The help that the government promised parents has failed to materialise: they are hungry for the well-funded, quality childcare that they were promised, and for the extended rights to maternity and paternity leave that MPs keep muttering about. Lone parents who are out of work are still confined to bringing up their children in real deprivation. Employment opportunities for real work, not just dead-end drudgery, are still not rising in deprived areas. Women still make up the vast majority of the low-paid, and the minimum wage is still too low to keep them out of poverty.
Women cannot be diverted from these issues, which affect their everyday lives, by a sudden initiative to talk about fashion instead. No, to the annoyance of New Labour, women are quite capable of seeing that despite the government's fine talk, they are still struggling against great odds which the government could, and should, do more to remove.
When the opinion researcher Deborah Mattinson told Downing Street last week that women were far less satisfied with the government than men were, she told them it was particularly because women wanted to see concrete changes, especially in health and education. They are more likely to drop children off at school and take them to hospital after an accident, so they see what Labour has delivered in terms of public services - "which isn't enough", she said succinctly.
No meetings to discuss whether Victoria Beckham and Calista Flockhart should be pushed off the front page of the tabloids will stop women from feeling that they want more change on these basic, concrete issues. Rather than diverting its energy to an issue where it can have little positive effect, the government should ask itself what it can really do to help make it easier for women to lead free and fulfilling lives.
Whatever Tessa Jowell's motives, and however deeply she feels about this issue, the announcement of the summit on body image looks like a flailing attempt to get women on side while the government is still failing to deliver on the reforms that could actually make a real difference to women's lives. Because if the government took steps to tackle inequality and poverty throughout Britain, it would be doing more to build women's self-esteem than any number of meetings with fashion editors. N.Walter@btinternet.comReuse content