The leader of our unreal world

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The Independent Online

Today, if you so wish, you can wander into a newsagent and choose between two versions of the June issue of Marie Claire magazine. One cover features the actress Pamela Anderson, size 10, naked, arms over her breasts, with the cover-line: "Is this the ideal body size?" The other features the model Sophie Dahl, size 14, naked, arms over her breasts, with the cover -line: "Is this the ideal body size?".

The dual-cover issue, apparently, marks the moment of Marie Claire's conversion from being a magazine which is irresponsible about the portrayal of women's bodies, to one which is going to try to be responsible about it. Inside, whichever cover one decides on, and in keeping with the magazine's new stance, the magazine will feature such staples as "Kate Thornton's diary of an anorexic", "Ally McBeal syndrome: Why Hollywood stars are starving", "Plastic surgery" and so on.

The idea behind the two covers, says Marie Claire's editor, Liz Jones, is that "depending on which cover readers choose, we will be able to monitor just what women really want. Do they want perfection and aspiration or do they want something more realistic and attainable?"

The results of this rather haphazard survey will then be marched to Whitehall, at the invitation of Tessa Jowell, Minister for Employment, and Liz Jones's findings will be presented at the Government's upcoming summit on body image. Ms Jones will also be presenting to the assembled company a speech detailing her own experiences at the hands of fashion magazines. She claims that they were responsible for her own anorexia, and that only now is she beginning to realise that she in turn, as the editor of a glossy, has been encouraging women to develop eating disorders.

She says that the moment of her realisation came when she gave a "hug hello" to the Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen. This model, who is 19 years old, is much cited at the moment as an example of a healthy, curvy supermodel, proof that fashion is moving away from under-age, underweight waifs. But Ms Jones discovered, when she gave her hug, that Ms Bundchen is nothing but skin, bones and breasts. "Only then did it dawn on me that I, too, had been part of fashion's great conspiracy."

But this is not the only great conspiracy that Ms Jones subscribes to. In many ways, this high-achieving 39-year-old is the spirit of her age. As such, she of course is part of the culture of confession, with a weekly column in the Sunday Times detailing her troubles as she tries to get a man. (As the newspaper puts it: "Forget Bridget Jones, it's Liz Jones, and she's real.") In it, Ms Jones ironises herself, portraying her life as wildly neurotic, but incidently glamorous.

Here is Ms Jones, out for a drink with a photographer "based in LA". He asks her how she's doing and she replies: "Well, I'm now editor of Marie Claire, I'm travelling all over the world, working with really famous photographers and supermodels, we've just done an amazing reportage story on Mozambique, I'm on a steering group at No 10, I've been invited onto Question Time, I hung with Puffy's posse and danced with Madonna, and I even met Jennifer Aniston."

When her friend makes little response to this list of self-affirmations, Ms Jones concludes: "I don't know why I bother." She puts the man's disinterest down to his own solipcism, without realising that it is her solipcism that has been snubbed. What Ms Jones wants is to be told how clever, fabulous, successful and in control she is, because she fears - quite rightly - that despite all the trappings she has gathered around her, she isn't.

That is why she remains likeable, despite all of her breathless name-dropping, and her neurotic displaying of her neuroticism. She is vulnerable and plucky. Her constant, self-deprecating confession, is, despite her protestations, a cry for help. It's not her fault that all her cries are being heard by people just like her, who are less than likely to see there is a problem. Ms Jones insists that her eating disorder is "now under control" and that she is "very controlled". In an interview a few months ago, she spoke about supermodels.

"They're not perfect. They have cracked heels, blisters, I mean, my feet are better than that. I'm constantly being honed. They're boring, they have dirty hair, stretchmarks, I was sitting in the front row at one show and this girl had thread veins on her thigh. Oh my God! I always have my room in darkness because I don't want a man to see what I look like. How can these girls go on a catwalk with thread veins?"

She also spoke about how she prepares for a date.

"I have Malcolm at Aveda do my hair. He does magazine covers, he does Gwyneth Paltrow, he does everybody. I say, I want Jennifer Lopez stripes. So I get these stripes in my hair. It takes about four hours. Then I go to the spa. I go into training - I run and work out every day. I buy new clothes. I get the cleaner to do a spring clean of my house and wax the floor. The gardener will come. I get the window-cleaner to do the windows."

Everything, she admits "has to be perfect".

Liz Jones believes, and will advise the Government, that she places this pressure to be perfect on herself because that's what the magazines told her to do. Others, notably those who deal professionally with eating disorders, will tell the Government that her eating disorder is the manifestation of her fear that she would not be able to achieve adulthood, and that the perfect world she found in magazines was just part of her escape from the pressures of growing up in the real world.

Like the "sex and violence in the movies" debate, the "body image and magazines" debate is simply a "chicken and egg" debate. It goes nowhere, it can never be proven either way, and it's just not that helpful.

Instead, what we have to ask ourselves is why we live so much on the surface, how we got ourselves into the position whereby what matters most is how we look, how our homes look, how our gardens grow. It isn't hard or expensive to make a room look nice, or ourselves, or our gardens. Why is it that we have fetishised these simple pleasures so slavishly that they have become complex, demand dedication, and require investment? How did we get to the point whereby you can't be truly chic unless you have polished concrete floors in the living-room?

I think it is because we are all to some extent Liz Jones, that is, we are increasingly a neurotic society, paranoid about what others think about us, and neglectful of what we think about ourselves. Further, we think that sending up our febrile desires and laughing ourselves about them, makes us less shallow, when all it does is offer us more licence to take all the wrong things about ourselves even more seriously.

The children who develop eating disorders are generally either the ones who have great potential and from whom much is expected, or the ones who have family problems. Schools report that the pressure of exams - performance in which is increasingly an index of the future life and lifestyle the child can expect as an adult - tends to exacerbate eating disorders. It is real pressure that is driving people into unreal worlds. Now, a woman who has reached the top of the unreal world is advising the Government on how it was that she was kidnapped by it. Aren't the blind leading the blind here? Or the lunatics taking over the asylum?