The fear and loathing created in us by the beach-ready body cult

A war is being waged on the self-esteem of the young, who are being assaulted by manipulative images

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The Independent Online

Summer brings light, warmth, bliss, vacations and, for most females, young and old, undeclared anxieties and agonies. Looking in the mirror is unbearable, shopping makes us feel freakish. Parts of the body that should feel the sun are covered up as shame and self-loathing overwhelm.

I was trying on a swimsuit the other day and was revolted by my shape. I didn’t buy it, couldn’t face trying on another, and so will not go swimming when I go to the beach in a few weeks. I am size 10-12, sometimes a 14, hardly obese. But my eyes and head have been programmed to see gross imperfections, ugliness. I am a confident feminist and a professional journalist who can take on politicians and other powerful people, yet the sight of me brought me down. It often does.

Many of my readers will have had that same experience or will know women and girls who have. We have more rights, fight back against sexism and discrimination, and are breaking through glass ceilings. Those gains are offset by what seems to be the war within, the relentless, harrying voices in our heads telling us we have imperfect bodies and countless other defects.

I note every new wrinkle and fold, veins on legs, the bits that lose elasticity. It is the worst kind of navel gazing, obsessive and self-destructive. Okay, maybe this is just a manifestation of loss. The years have taken my youth and I want it back. (Oh God how I spend, spend, spend on face creams and oils. My husband has no idea about the amount of money I squander on expensive and useless products. There, you now know my secret.)

But, tragically, the young are even more tormented about the way they look. A war is being waged on their self-esteem. They are assaulted by manipulative, unattainable beauty messages. The media gleefully displays celebrities who have put on weight or lost some; articles and programmes go on and on about getting that shape, that size, that complexion, that hair, all mirages which induce only despondency. Then there are the emaciated models whose lifeless expressions create emotional and mental chaos they can never know.

One customer fought back this week. Laura Berry, 28, from Stroud, was infuriated by Topshop’s tree-tall and stick-thin mannequins so she went to the company’s own Facebook page and let rip. She accused the fashion chain of showing no concern “for a generation of extremely body-conscious youth… Perhaps it is about time you became responsible for the impression you have on women and young girls and helped them feel good about themselves rather than impose these ridiculous standards.” She ended: “I used my size 10/12 legs to walk straight out of your store.”

Respect, Ms Berry, much respect. The post received thousands of “likes” within hours. Shop bosses explained that the offending mannequins were never meant to be “a representation of the average female body” but vowed to phase them out.Businesses don’t get it, don’t want to. Well why would they? Misery sells. Politicians, advertisers, fashion editors have, from time to time, held summit meetings which were simply glamorous, savvy showcases of cynicism. A teen magazine journalist told me she left the industry because it deliberately, knowingly, targeted female insecurities and vulnerabilities. “I felt as if I was in some dreadful cult which was determined to capture and distort young minds. I am now training to be a psychotherapist and know the damage caused by the dream catchers and image makers.” This cult, the most dangerous of all because it is seen as normal, makes its money from mind-bending our young (and old, too) and taking away personal agency.  It creates havoc and it doesn’t care.

A few weeks ago, in a department store near Brighton, I heard a mum consoling her sobbing teenage daughter who thought she was too fat. She wasn’t. In fact she was petite and gorgeous, but had a slight, roundish tummy. The mother could say nothing to make her child feel better about herself. Nobody could. The idea she has of herself is fixed and is not susceptible to rational talk or even the family’s love.

That same problem must afflict stars, too. Lovely singers, actresses, even businesswomen visibly shrink the more successful they become. They allow themselves to be reshaped by fashion dictators because nasty populist watchers stalk and snap them. Like the rest of us  they feel they have no choice but to conform.

Obesity is much debated these days, and rightly so. The health hazards, pressures on the NHS and personal unhappiness make it a priority. But we must not neglect the opposite problem – of ever more thinness. (I don’t mean anorexia and bulimia, which are complex mental conditions which require specialist treatment.) Size 10 is now considered too big by millions of gullible females – including me on a bad day – and bones are the new boobs.

In the winter and spring, I am told, plastic surgeons get very busy sculpting women so they can get their bodies “beach ready”, that dreadful advertising promise. Some patients are teenagers. Most can’t pay for such operations and so they diet manically and take pills. An inquest last month heard how Eloise Aimee Perry, only 21 and a student,  died after taking toxic diet pills bought on the internet. Look at her photos: she was slim and lovely. But she thought she wasn’t, and probably, that society didn’t either.

These anxieties are now emerging in  5 to 8 year-olds. Sita Pai, the author of a US report on the subject, found that kids as young as 5 “were expressing a desire for a body that is thinner than their current or future selves”. This a crisis without end. We are all lost in a hall full of distorting mirrors which we can never leave.