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Why We Need To Talk About Women And Sexuality 



By Kate Harveston

It’s time we have a serious talk about women’s sexuality in society. There’s plenty of talk about why women should or shouldn’t shave, wear makeup or not, wear heels or not or choose a cup over pads. The deeper conversation about women’s sexuality is still being knocked around the proverbial bush.

Take a look at a recent, striking tweet posted by Twitter user XicanaRebel, which she has translated from a protest poster in Spanish:


            “Menstruation is the only blood that is not born from violence, yet it’s the one that disgusts you the most.”


Source: Twitter


There are 114,880 retweets and 220,307 likes and counting. Reading the tweet feed, there are many comments that all human bodies make gross substances, such as through a runny nose or urination, even pointing out how menstrual blood is a mix of “tissue, blood and mucus.”

So, no biggie, ladies — many men and women seem to be saying, but there are those who tell women their bodies are “nasty” and “gross” for its ability to give life.


Source: Twitter


Yeah, no biggie. Go talk to your mothers about that, guys.

Unfortunately, it’s not only men who do this. Mothers, too, who grew up with unhealthy relationships with their bodies, must struggle against the cultural ideas that their bodies — and their daughter’s bodies — are somehow unclean.

Go Deeper: Let’s Talk About Women’s Sexuality

There are many discussions about the gender politics of women's fake pockets or how contouring makes some women feel like their natural beauty doesn’t matter, while it’s an art for others. Are the fashion and beauty industries advancing with women or holding them back?

There are many sides to the conversation when it comes to women’s beauty, with their own valid points, but when you peel back the layers, it comes down to women’s sexuality. Speakers quote statistics on domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, but it's only in the last couple of years that we're talking about what real consent means.

There is also what young women — and yes, men, too — believe about their personal sexual pleasure, and more often than not, consent and wearing a rubber is the end point.

What about a woman’s entitlement and capacity for sexual pleasure? Many women say they have the power to orgasm deeply, but scientists still think aspects of a woman’s orgasm are a myth, without much research to back it up. For them, there are more important topics to cover — No biggie, right?

Like people have their opinions, they have their entitlement to pleasure, meaning this: women must know they have the right to enjoy sex, be that with a partner or by herself.

Instead of focusing on what gives them pleasure, women are often over-considerate of their partners: waxing, shaving, putting on restrictive corsets and lathering up the makeup because it’s what you do. Nearly three-fourths of women remove pubic hair. Many say they do it for themselves, but when winter comes, how often could that be true?

For women, what part of shaving the genital is their own, and why isn’t all of it their own? Do women accept it because they want to or because it’s trending? Every woman has a right and a need to enjoy her skin, the gift of her body, without having to do all the things a woman “has” to do to “be pretty.”

Society needs to let women find what they need for themselves, but there’s a long way to go — women of all generations struggling with an inherited and conflicted self-image.

Women, Young and Old, Need to Enjoy the Gift of Their Body

While young women are raised by strong mothers, these mothers are often dealing with their own struggles with post-baby weight, staying on trend, aging and all the topics society tells them they should worry about or feel shameful about. And when moms find the natural processes of their bodies disgusting, you can bet their daughters will, too.

Every generation, children watch their mothers struggle with self-image on unconscious levels. As they grow up, they watch their friends try to come into their own and find out what a woman’s sexuality means for them, sometimes with little to no guidance because it’s considered an “awkward” topic.

Fortunately, young girls are now seeing more types of bodies represented in the media with less Photoshop, but only in small increments gauged by some invisible “acceptable” standard and often only when there’s public outcry.

Society is slowly evolving. Women’s health may finally be prioritized over beauty: France recently passed a law, one of the first of its kind, to make sure that "excessively thin" models are medically well to walk the catwalk.

Ovulation and intercourse are taught biologically in classes, but what about how it feels to be a woman when you become one? Women are taught two different things — that their bodies are both sacred and icky. You can bear life, but for nearly half the month, you feel horrible, and those symptoms are often downplayed by medical professionals — the truth is that period pain can be like having a heart attack.

The disgust society has for women’s bodies is becoming a problem: More women are getting cosmetic genital surgery, from teens to women in their sixties. When women are given a narrow view of what their genitals are supposed to look like, it does harm. As of 2009, a medical textbook in the U.S. included its first chapter on plastic genital surgery for women.

What You Can Do to Help Make a Change

Women’s sexuality is a topic that is glazed over far too much in the media and scientific realm. And I’m not talking about sexuality as the sexual appeal of women — we all know the media covers that plenty.

I’m talking about women’s biological processes. For example, why aren’t there more studies being done on the female orgasm? Men can now have Viagra literally delivered to their doorsteps, while some women still can’t figure out how to even get themselves to climax on their own, let alone with a partner. How can we fix this?

Believe it or not, there are leaders in the field making great strides. Meredith Chivers, director of the Sexuality and Gender Lab at Queen’s University, reports the fascinating progress her group is making, and encourages the public to share any and all information on this subject. She hopes that if the public knows that scientists are studying female sexuality, it will send a message.

Additionally, interested advocates can and should browse around online and get involved in some of the movements that are out there. Sites like Our Bodies Ourselves offer a wealth of information on how to become involved, with movements ranging from simply contacting representatives, to working together to create films and advocacy groups for the advancement of the cause.

Other movements, such as the My Body Back Project, work specifically with sexual assault victims to discuss sexuality and ways to reclaim their sexual comfort after surviving an attack. Supporting and spreading the word about groups like this will help them continue to function, as well as potentially reach the people who need them.

The issues related to women’s sexual liberation run beyond if you prefer light or heavy makeup, heels or no heels. The conversation about women’s sexuality needs to go under the makeup, about why women still feel the need to keep their feelings hidden, their sexuality hidden — and undiscovered.

Shaming our bodies, or even flat-out ignoring them, is counterproductive. It’s up to the culture of women — moms of daughters — to start the conversation.  


Is It Ever Okay To Say You Feel Fat?


By Annie Ridout

Photo by Annie Ridout Copyright

Late last summer, I was photographed for a feature in a brilliant print magazine called The Fourth Trimester. It offers an honest – sometimes sad or shocking, sometimes funny – look at new motherhood. This particular piece was about mothers who keep up hobbies after having a baby and I was photographed playing the piano. I was honoured to be asked, loved playing the piano for the camera and was excited to see it in print. 

When the magazine arrived, I flicked through and found a double-page spread with a selection of photos of me tapping the ivories. It's presented beautifully; and the photographer is very talented, but – if I'm honest – one of my first thoughts was: "blimey, I look a bit fat. And slightly bald." I was 20 weeks pregnant at the time, had crazy 'morning' sickness and was feeling uncomfortable in my body. I was also too big for normal clothes but not quite pregnant enough for maternity wear so my get-up wasn't quite cutting the mustard. In summary: I felt crap then, and I felt a bit embarrassed when I looked at the photos. The focus should have been on the piano playing but I shifted it on to my appearance.

 So when I wrote an Instagram post about being featured, I mostly celebrated the fantastic magazine but added a "P.S." – criticising my fat back and thinning hair situation. At the time, I wondered if I should leave out the "P.S." but I kept it there for two reasons: 1. Because I felt it would be dishonest to say I was overjoyed by the photos when in reality, that wasn't how I felt. And 2. Because I'm all about honesty – and sometimes, hearing another pregnant woman or mum say that she, too, feels shit about her body from time to time is reassuring. For me, anyway.

A woman who follows me on Instagram took offence at the "P.S." – saying that with a few thousand followers, I had a duty to be careful about sharing negative body image messages. I was upset by the comment because in some ways, she was right – I do have a responsibility to my followers. But also, because I felt criticised for being honest. I couldn't work out if honesty, when it comes to negative body ideals, is ok. My response was that women should be able to express themselves, and that to silence a woman who is having a 'bad body day' isn't in line with my way of thinking. 

But it did make me reflect on how I feel when other women shame their bodies. I tend to feel that if it's expressed as a joke, a look-at-me-when-I-look-crap comment, it's ok. Though I’m aware there’s a rather subjective line between someone who really is having a bit of a rough day saying she feels gross for a laugh and someone who is perhaps craving attention, or some body image encouragement, asking social media followers to compliment her. In fact, perhaps they are the same thing; only the joke is thinly disguising the need for reassurance. Anyway, who am I to judge whether a woman’s real feelings about her body are reflected truthfully in her online comments, and what her motive is?

On the whole, I accept my body as it is. I love the way it made, birthed and nourished my first baby. I am in no way ashamed of my stretch marks. And I love that is has made a second baby. I feel proud of my body. When not pregnant, I keep fit by running. I eat healthily (most of the time) and enjoy fashion. But occasionally, I feel disappointed by the way it looks. It might be down to hormones, or a throw away comment, or women's magazines (that I tend to avoid) or being mid pregnancy and eating shit loads of crisps and feeling crap because I knew I wasn't treating my body with respect.

I feel a great duty to my toddler-aged daughter to be positive about bodies, eating and exercise. I would never denigrate my form in front of her. I don’t talk about diets or needing to lose weight, because I know that a fixation on appearance and consumption can be contagious. But she is two. I tend to think that grown-up women have their own ideas about these things already, and so if I share an honest thought about finding my appearance a bit shameful – they are better equipped to hear it but not absorb it. 

Of course, this may be misguided. But as this “P.S.” was swimming in a sea of articles and comments that I've written about body positivity – I hoped that it was ok to throw out an honest piece about sometimes feeling uncomfortable in my skin. Because that's the truth. And I'm sure almost every woman, sad though it is, will empathise with that. More than they would if I proclaimed to adore my body in its entirety at all times... Unfortunately, for me – like so many others – that just isn't the truth. 


Motherhood Blog Series


Photo by Shelly Sim via Flickr under a creative commons licenseIntroduction by Dinah Gibbons

I’ve been delighted to work with Susie Orbach, Holli Rubin, and the rest of the AnyBody team on a project around body image and the relationship with food and eating in pregnancy and post-natally. We ran a series of workshops with NCT teachers to try to change things for the next generation – to provide an antidote to the toxic culture that engenders body insecurity (for profit) in a great many women, and to help promote body security so that they can pass this on to their children. We hope that our work will be taken up more broadly to include midwives, health visitors, and other health professionals coming into contact with new mums.

Becoming a mother is a precious time that can be tainted by the pressure to lose weight gained in pregnancy, to “get back” something deemed to be lost. We aim to reach women, and the individuals working with them, before these demands take force, and to enable them to find peace in their skin.

I’m a big fan of love letters. As a midwife and a mother I wanted to write a love letter to a newly-pregnant woman. Here goes:


 Dear Darling Woman,

So here you are, on the threshold of motherhood, and I’m wondering how that feels for you right now? You’re probably experiencing some fear, hopefully some excitement, and perhaps trepidation.

Your body, which has carried you until this point, is now nestling another being. Things will change. You may be feeling utterly sick and exhausted at the moment – repulsed by food and drink that you used to love. Your clever body is showing you what you need, let it do its job. Trust.

Your breasts have grown and are sensitive. The pregnancy hormones are affecting just about every system in your body; over the course of your pregnancy your heart will grow bigger (in more ways than one!), your digestion will slow down, your gums will probably bleed more, and your hair will be glossy.

Your body may not feel like your own any more as this little being grows inside you. And you may feel like your body becomes public property – that strangers and friends feel it necessary to comment on your appearance – the bigness or smallness of your belly, whether you are seen to be blooming, or your apparent tiredness. That is their opinion; it says nothing of you, or of the miracle that’s taking place under that expanding belly. They may touch your belly without permission. It’s okay to let people know if this feels too intrusive. Your body is still yours.

Read books, Google, etc., if you wish, but more importantly take time to wonder at what is unfolding. When you become aware of your baby’s movements, it will let you know how it’s feeling. Try to set aside time every so often to really tune into how you feel.

Allow your body to lead you. Try to relearn that trust you had in it before you started hearing about good/bad/clean/dirty foods, or the ‘right’ exercise to do, and when. Trust in it, and your body will guide you. It’s got you this far.

You and your baby are dancing together – nourish yourself… not just with food, but in a wider sense. As birth approaches, the more love you can feel, the better. Whatever birth you experience will be easier if you’re feeling the love. To do this, you need to know what makes you feel good – what makes you feel most alive, comfortable, cherished.

Your body will look different after the birth; you may have stretch marks, stitches, enormous leaking breasts. You may be knackered. Take time to eat, drink, bathe (with your baby too - you will feel the softest skin imaginable!). Glory in what your body has achieved. You are amazing!

With love, and honour, from Dinah


We recently invited people to submit their stories about how they felt in their bodies around pregnancy and post-natally. Below are a selection of responses:


There's A World Where Everyone's Beautiful

by Annie Ridout

Image by Annie Ridout Copyright 2015This post was originally published on, reprinted with permission.

This morning I was sitting on my bed, naked, after having a shower. The Gypsy Kings were playing through the Spotify app on my phone and Joni was holding it up to her ear saying “ello” repeatedly, while running around the room – occasionally stopping to twerk.

The song came to an end and she looked me in the eyes. She came over and started to point to various parts of my face and body: “eyda” (eyes), “non” (nose), “air” (hair), “booboo” (boobies). She got to my stomach and stopped. She looked a bit confused. Then using both hands, she lifted a piece of flab and found the “tata” (tattoo) she was looking for on my hip bone.

I laughed. And then I thought: shit, we’re a year and a half post-birth – should that flab still be there? And then I thought: yes, it should, because it’s winter and I although I run every morning, I also like (in fact LOVE) drinking white hot chocolate every day, and eating flapjacks and thick slices of sourdough bread with chocolate and almond butter.

In a recent interview (coming soon to The Early Hour), a mum told me that she feels we are all in awe of a pregnant body but disgusted by it post-birth. And I agree with her – pregnancy is buoyant and blooming and rosy, while our postnatal bodies are flabby and sagging and feel as if they’ve been used and are now just getting in the way.

Funnily enough, in the photo above – taken three days after I gave birth – I remember looking down at my stomach with its stretch marks, linea nigra, flaps and indents and bobbles and loose skin and feeling amazed and so in love with my body. Rich caught me taking a photo and asked why I wanted to photograph “that”. He didn’t see the beauty in it, like I did.

But my amazement at what my body had achieved in growing and birthing and feeding Joni ceased after a few months, when I started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t run without getting mastitis, that my back ached and that those rolls of loose skin/fat weren’t shifting from my belly.

So this morning I was imagining a world where a female’s body is considered beautiful throughout childhood, teenagehood, adulthood – through pregnancy, birth, post-birth – into the menopause, out the other side and all the way into old age… Wouldn’t that be so lovely? If us women didn’t have to feel guilty about what we eat, how much we exercise (or don’t), and the state of our frame after growing and pushing out a baby…

And then, after my initial moment of horror/hilarity as Joni shifted my belly fat around while hunting for my tattoo, it dawned on me that there is a world where women’s bodies are revered whatever their size, shape, texture, age. It’s the world through children’s eyes. Joni is fascinated by my body – crevices, rolls of skin and fat, hair (wherever it may be. She excitedly referred to my pubic hair as ‘dogon’ – yes, DOG – in the bath recently).

And her love and fascination of bodies extends beyond just me, her mum. She loves her grandma’s “booboos”, her auntie’s “booboo” (as well as breasts, this means belly – her auntie has a lovely big round one, as she’s six months pregnant). And any other woman she is fond of will undoubtedly have a body Joni thinks is just wonderful.

So for anyone feeling down about their body today, try to shift your perspective. Take yourself back to childhood – when beauty was about kindness and warmth and smiles and playfulness; not skinniness, flawless skin, youth, cool clothes – and keep that outlook firmly in place as you look at your sisters. If we all start loving our own and other women’s bodies just as they are, as children do, the world will be a better place.


Helen White-Knight

TW: anorexia, self-harm, sexual assault.

Photo by Helen White-Knight Copyright

My journey to parenthood was less than straightforward. My mind and body had been in a state of stand-off for well over a decade by the time I was at the end of my twenties. I was badly bullied at school and my looks were a big part of that. Even though I was white, like everyone else there, I was called racist names because I had dark hair on my arms and top lip. I wanted to become less of a target, so I began to starve myself.

Through anorexia, taking drugs and self-harming, I lost all sense of what I looked like objectively, as is so often the case for young women. I experienced a huge amount of stigma as a result of self-harming particularly. At one job I was referred for a health assessment with an occupational health GP, who did an inappropriate physical exam after noticing I had scars. She questioned me aggressively about my mental health status; I left humiliated. She recommended I be kept on permanent probation despite having worked there for 6 months already. I didn’t find out until recently that she had no right to touch me at all - but we naturally trust those who are there to care for us.

The notion of others feeling they had the right to touch me is something I’ve always struggled with. Beginning with some mild abuse by an older child when I was 11, then being assaulted during my first kiss; people grabbing me in the street to grill me about my scars/tattoos, I was then raped and assaulted multiple times at university. My body was the focal point for so much pain and misery in my life - and I abused it in retaliation.

After a rough start, having children was a goal that lay in the distant future rather than something I felt compelled to do as soon as possible. By 29 I was in a new relationship and after a nagging doubt about my fertility I’d been to see my GP and been brushed off because of my age, so I took a blood test that could give you a rough idea about how many more fertile years you might have. Unfortunately for me, the test revealed that even with IVF I would have a <20% chance of a live birth. I was 31 and I’d been with my new partner for just a year.

Beginning IVF, I had to put on weight to have the best chance of success. The process is very invasive - I had to overcome my needle phobia to inject myself daily and have painful internal exams every week - my body became just a vessel. The first round was unsuccessful, so we changed the drugs and my one fertilised egg was implanted in front of a room full of people - I was pregnant.

I lost some weight in the first trimester, but then as my belly began to grow I had to let it take over - it wasn’t about just me anymore - which made it easier to reconcile the emotional tug-of-war going on in my head. For the most part people responded to my body positively and respected my personal space but I didn’t have a regular midwife, and when I went for check-ups I was just one of tens of women waiting to be seen. It was very transactional and impersonal, everyone seemed stressed and even if I’d wanted to ask for help I don’t think I would’ve felt able to.

The birth went smoothly, but after my little boy was born he wouldn’t latch to breastfeed, so midwives would come and just grab my breasts to push them into his mouth, without asking me. It made me feel completely inadequate and lost - here I was still bleeding and having just laboured but the way I was manhandled made it clear that my body was no longer mine. I had to abandon my dignity to be a mother. The midwives got irritated as if I was purposefully starving my baby and the more pressure they put on me, the worse it got. After 24 hours of failed attempts I left - despite not having successfully fed him. Health visitors came in the following weeks and again touched me without asking. One said it was because my nipples were too flat, another said I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m very socially awkward (I’m currently awaiting an assessment for high-functioning autism) so I avoided breastfeeding groups.

I lost count of the number of times I was assured that if I breastfed all the weight would drop off but instead it piled on as I ate for comfort. My breasts had invited unwanted attention so often that I couldn’t face going out in public and trying to feed him, or even being around family.

I became severely depressed and I shut myself off. I even avoided looking at myself in the mirror. I stopped wearing makeup and showering - I felt I didn’t deserve to take care of my body because it had failed to fulfil the brief of motherhood.

The first time I went out after the birth was with a close friend to a show where a big comedy star was a surprise guest. After the show I wanted to get a picture with him, but he started commenting on my breasts and trying to get me to go backstage with him despite my protests, pushing me towards his security guard near the door. I was vulnerable and I have a tendency to be easily led when alone but thankfully the other people there were distracting him so I made my excuses and left. Yet again my body was a source of humiliation.

When my son turned one we had a small party and people took photos and posted them online. I was horrified at how big I looked and this triggered a serious relapse of my eating disorder. Six months later I had lost a lot of weight. My hair turned grey and was falling out, my skin was flaking off and getting infected and my muscles had wasted away. The skin around my belly was wrinkled and loose and my breasts were empty pouches of skin, but I was back in control. If my body took up less space in the world, I would be invisible. My body felt fragile and that reflected what was going on in my mind.

When you have a child you’re ‘supposed’ to put yourself last. This can feel strange to even the most body-confident of women, but for me it just gave me more reason to hate and abuse my body.

There’s precious little support out there for mothers with a history of eating disorders even though having a newborn is a time of huge change; lack of sleep and no time to attend to your own needs can be a huge trigger for unhealthy behaviours and body dysmorphia - the assumption is that you simply ‘choose’ to be well for your children, but my illness is definitely not a choice. Other women I know often talked about how none of it matters once you have your baby but I wonder how many of those women really accept themselves, deep down. 


Reclaiming My Body

by Anonymous

TW: mentions rape

Photo by Ola Pemberton via Flickr under a creative commons license 

Not many people know this about me, but I am a rape and sexual assault survivor. I don’t talk about it much, partly because I don’t really like to think about it, but also because it just isn’t the kind of thing that one talks about in ordinary conversation.

At certain points in my life, this fact becomes more relevant: when I was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, when I was getting into a relationship, and – most recently – when I was in the process of pregnancy and motherhood.

Reclaiming my body has been the work of a lifetime; making it mine again after my abusers branded me with their anger, desire and entitlement. Taking back my shape, my curves, my breasts, my secret places. Honouring my desires; allowing myself to live the revolutionary life of self-care.

Somehow, when I became pregnant, my body became public property again. I was unprepared for just how much I would struggle to say ‘no’ to people who would casually stroke my belly by way of a greeting. How I would feel when I found out that it was a boy, a man-in-embryo, growing deep inside of me. It took me time before I could bring myself to tell people that my baby was a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’.

Mostly, I found peace with the boy inside me. I remembered that I chose this, that it was not imposed on me. I grew my boy with a man that I love and deeply trust. 

When he began to move, I found that I loved the feeling of him swimming inside me, turning and rolling, and later, kicking; it felt like our very first conversation. I had a long commute to work, and instead of reading, I sat, peaceful, and watched the hills roll by as I breathed into my belly-space where he lived.

I watched myself grow with gladness; the first time that I have ever been excited about my body getting bigger, despite years of work in therapy. I remember stroking my belly, looking at myself from side on, is it bigger? Dressing to accentuate my growing belly, I would often catch myself holding the curve of my bump absentmindedly during conversation.

I thought that this would be my struggle. I was prepared to hate myself as my body expanded, but I, a woman who has spent most of her life breathing in, tucking in the corners of my body so I didn’t take up too much space, I breathed out in one long, glorious exhale.

But, there were also the darker days. Days when I wanted to push him away inside me, to stop the fish-roll of him reminding me that I was not alone, that I was never alone. Feeling invaded, colonised, nauseous, although morning sickness had long passed.

As my due date approached, I began to fear the process of labour. I imagined that I might curl up like a wounded animal in the corner of my living room, snarling at the approach of well-meaning midwives. I was scared what that level of vulnerability would trigger in me around people that I didn’t know, how the touch of well-meaning strangers on my body would feel.

Searching for articles about labour after rape, I read that victims of sexual trauma often had longer, more difficult labours and more frequent interventions. I discovered that if you were scared during labour, your body would slow down and that this could lead to more medical intervention and physical trauma. Women experience flashbacks, panic attacks. There was a maternity unit that was opening up in London to support survivors, but it opened two days before my due date.

And so I worried. Would I dissociate? Have a panic attack? Would the pain of my boy being born trigger me, and would I be in a fit state to deal with that? Would I be able to let go, and allow my body to take over?

I talked a lot with my therapist, and I also began to think about how I could take care of myself; I learned that I did not need to let the midwife examine me internally if I didn’t want to. I could (and did) say no. Consent was on an examination by examination basis. I said yes three times throughout my entire labour, and each time I meant it.

I wrote my birth plan, knowing that it may all go very differently, but that it helped to be able to speak to the midwife in advance. I included my survivor status and described how I would like them to treat me.

I did a hypnobirthing course, focusing on trusting my body’s animal instincts (women have, after all, been doing this for millennia!) I watched videos on YouTube, and talked it through with my partner repeatedly.

In the end, labour was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Roaring, cursing, shitting, bleeding, I pushed my son into the world. It was incredible; I have never felt such raw, awesome power in my body. I know also that the pain was intense, but that has now faded into the shadowy netherworld of labour.

It was over in just over a day, from first contraction to being handed my sticky, crumpled little boy. I kept a hold on myself all the way through, even when I was roaring as I bore down and felt as though I was being split apart from the inside, I trusted my breath and I inhabited my body.

I do feel that I am changed, although not in a way that can be easily described. In the crucible of labour, I hung onto myself and a deep sense of trust in myself and my body. I said ‘no’ when I felt ‘no’, and was more assertive with medical professionals than I ever dreamed I could be.

I feel sexy, motherly, womanly. Having my husband beside me in such an emotionally naked, raw state has deepened my trust in him and in us. It makes me feel that I am beautiful in a way that is not about my appearance.

The early days of feeding around the clock are behind me and I have regained some much needed physical distance from my son. That too was hard, as my body was used for another’s needs, despite what I felt about it: whether I needed space or peace, whether I wanted to feed him or not, it didn’t matter because he needed to eat. This triggered me, too, in a different way.

I do feel, though, that through labour and the early days with a new-born, I dug into the very deepest reaches of myself and discovered a steel and a strength that still awes me. My body gives life to him, and while I am in no hurry to turn myself inside out again, I feel deeply empowered by the experience.

* * *

We would like to thank these three wonderful women for sharing such raw and honest experiences with us. If you have been affected by rape/sexual assault there is a fantastic organisation called the My Body Back Project, which offers maternity services to rape and sexual assault survivors, as well as specialist cervical screening, and more. 


How Women Carry the Burden of Zika 

Photo by Martine Perret via under a Creative Commons licenseBy Halah Flynn

It has been roughly a year since Brazil reported a link between the Zika virus and microcephaly as a birth defect. Reports of infections have spread to every hemisphere of the globe, as headlines detailing stories continue to dominate top-tier news media.

By now, Zika has become a household term, resulting in a spike in bug repellent sales and investment in vaccination development. For many parents in developed countries, Zika means an increase in prevention methods. For women in underserved communities of the Global South, the implications of the virus are much different.

The spread of Zika is endangering women’s bodies, but not in the way we are medically inclined to think. Yes, it implies monitoring symptoms closely and taking blood samples to test for the virus. But it also implies something much more dangerous: loss of reproductive rights.

The World Health Organization responded to the outbreak by recommending that women “be informed and oriented to consider delaying pregnancy” until 2018. In the meantime, women infected with Zika have given birth to thousands of babies with microcephaly, a once-rare birth defect that now poses an extreme threat to women and children across the globe. Public officials in the Latin American region echoed the response to delay pregnancy, without actually providing these women and families with resources to do so.

Health advocates say that the problem with this is twofold.

First, it makes the assumption that all pregnancies are planned. In reality, at least half of pregnancies in Latin America are categorized as unexpected. Pregnancies regularly occur outside of family planning, due to a lack of contraceptive resources, inadequate sexual health education, or rape. By not acknowledging this, public health officials only have addressed a small percentage of pregnancies and births that will occur — those that are a result of family planning.

This pitfall in health policy highlights the unaddressed threat of sexual violence against women across Latin America. According to the Women and City Summit in Santiago, Chile, half of women living in Latin American cities experience sexual assault in their lifetime, yet only 14 per cent actually report to a medical professional or social worker. Without the adequate supports to report sexual violence and a lack of prevention initiatives, women cannot effectively approach safe family planning in the face of threats like Zika.

Second, this recommendation places the entire burden of family planning on women, without giving them resources or opportunities to follow guidelines. “The government is not issuing any recommendation for the men to use condoms, which is very unfair,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, a Colombia-based programs specialist for the Center for Reproductive Rights in an interview with Time magazine. “That makes the women responsible for everything.”

In many Zika-affected areas, reproductive rights are already severely limited by federal regulations. In Chile, Haiti, Suriname, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, abortion is completely illegal, even in the case of pregnancy that is the result of rape or which poses a threat to the mother’s life. In rest of South and Central America some of the most restrictive abortion regulations in the world exist. Without the option to terminate a pregnancy, women are forced to give birth, and still deprived of access to clinics with Zika testing, disease prevention or treatment for infections and high-risk births.

So what resources do these women have? Not a whole lot.

For women who are not already pregnant, contraception is in extremely low use. In Latin American and Caribbean countries, access to basic contraception like birth control and IUDs is highly restricted, and the supply of these items is also very low. Therefore, women who qualify for access might not even find available contraception at all.

For women who fear they may have been infected, Zika testing and treatment is the recommended route. It’s not as easy as it sounds, as underserved communities are understaffed with primary care providers likes family nurse practitioners in clinics that lack funding for testing resources. In many cases blood samples are taken from clinic patients to a central lab — a process that can add weeks to diagnosis and treatment time.

Considering all the barriers to accessing safe, supportive family planning resources, it is evident that a large portion of women living in high-risk areas ultimately lack control over whether they will get pregnant in the next two years, not to mention how they will navigate the threat of Zika infection.

Encouraging celibacy for the next two years is unrealistic, and providing recommendations without resources to follow them is irresponsible. Women’s bodies are not controllable tools for disease prevention, nor are they an expendable source for advancing unsafe family planning practices. 


Battling anorexia as a body image activist 

Photo by Ashley Rose via under a Creative Commons licenseBy Louisa Harvey, AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK member

As a body image activist, feminist, and recovered anorexic dedicated to the cause of eliminating fat phobia in society, I believed that I was immune to ever falling ill with an eating disorder again. I had been recovered from anorexia for around five years after discovering the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement and learning to eat intuitively when, in January of this year, I found myself in a starvation haze once more. Having come to the realisation that there is nothing wrong with being fat, that bodies are meant to come in all shapes and sizes, and that eating is pleasurable, social, and necessary, I couldn’t see how I could be lured into a disorder characterised by a fear of fat.

In previous episodes of anorexia I was scared of being fat, and would often associate this with being disgusting and greedy, but people were quick to reassure me that I wasn’t any of these things. This happens frequently by well-meaning people, and also by professionals in the eating disorder field who don’t seem to, but should know better. By telling someone that they aren’t fat we are also saying that there is something wrong with being fat, we reaffirm that fat is something to be avoided, and that terms such as ‘greedy’ and ‘disgusting’ have a place in relation to fatness. They don’t. I have heard professionals say ‘don’t worry we won’t make you fat’, which legitimises the narrative people with eating disorders are often trapped within instead of offering a way out of the I-feel-fat loop.

In my encounters with HAES, I had found a space for myself and my body in the world. It was okay that I was not naturally thin, and I had come to a place of trust in my body by getting to know its signals. A couple of years ago I became involved in activism through AnyBody UK, and the days of self-induced hunger and a hankering for a smaller body seemed a lifetime away.

In January I was admitted to a psychiatric ward to treat my depression, and found that I had lost my appetite. I believe that this brought about something of a ‘high’ – an experience I’ve heard many people with eating disorders say they experience as a result of restricting. There’s something addictive about it and it probably initiated the downward spiral that would follow. I was being treated against my will with electro-convulsive therapy, and I felt that I had lost all agency. My voice was not listened to, what I felt was best for me went unheard, and I was powerless. I believe that I unwittingly allowed my body to speak for me.

The experience of being a body image activist and anorexic has primarily been one of shame. The overwhelming feeling has been one of ‘letting the side down’, and feeling like I should know better. In particular, I felt like I was letting down all the people I try to stand with in my activism – those subjected to fat-phobia and body shaming, and those who are struggling to accept their bodies. I have always felt that the way we treat ourselves as activists can have very powerful consequences. I believe that if I am able to live as an example of someone who is willing to take care of herself, and work towards accepting herself, then it will show other people that it is possible to live securely in one’s body in this society.

The cognitive dissonance inherent with being an activist while struggling with anorexia is unsettling. I believed (and still do) that all bodies deserve love and respect, but at the same time I was treating my own body as if it isn’t worthy. I knew that I had lost a lot of weight, but couldn’t see it in any consistent way. My experience of myself and the world became fragmentary – looking at my reflection was like being in a room of funhouse mirrors. I knew I needed to eat more, but also had no desire whatsoever to do so. I could see the anorexia at work, and would listen to myself spouting eating disordered thoughts as if from afar, feeling powerless to change it. 

In hindsight, I was also getting some sense of satisfaction from people (mainly nurses) who would say I was strong-willed. This is of course a fallacy – eating disorders are a mental illness, not about strength of will – but it spoke to my need to be seen as fearless, needless, and self-contained. As well as the shame, I also felt tremendous guilt for giving up on life, and the people who cared about me. I could see the distress in people’s faces, but felt once removed from everything. It took many months before I could take myself seriously. I woke up one morning at the lowest weight I’ve been since middle school and suddenly saw just how pointless it was to be looking for some solace or solution to my problems in the numbers on a scale - that it just wasn’t delivering on its promises. It might sound like an elementary realisation, but it was something I finally felt, rather than thought. My friends had been persistent in their attempts to get me to see the reality of the harm I was doing to myself, which I think finally broke through to me. Further, I believe that my body-image activist work had a lot to do with this turnaround. I don’t think it was coincidental that when I began re-engaging with my activist work (online, from my hospital bedroom), something in me clicked and I was able to re-establish a desire for recovery. You could say that this was ground zero for me, that it was just the beginning.

No longer believing that there is anything wrong with being fat, I have been forced to look beneath the surface of the eating disorder and ask myself, what am I really shrinking away from? What is my body saying for me? In starving myself I believe I was trying to starve the feelings away. I felt that if I didn’t come across as emotional then I would be taken seriously, that my wishes would be respected. Women are often accused of being overly emotional, and in turn, less rational. In order to be heard we can feel that we have to be measured and restrictive in our presentation – an anorexic presentation, if you will. Moreover, I wanted to do away with any needs because I didn’t feel they could be met in the situation I was in. Rather than advocate for our needs to be met, many of us seek to change our needs, or to eliminate them altogether. Paradoxical, perhaps, given that a starving body is the epitome of need. 

Another aspect to my relapse was a great sense of being overwhelmed. Depression is a leech to the spirit, and it’s hard to feel socially responsible when you’re fighting for basic survival. I think starving myself was also a way of saying, ‘don’t expect anything from me, don’t look to me for change, because I can’t even take care of myself’. Not a particularly attractive revelation, but I think activism and simply caring about social justice can make dealing with mental health issues extra hard.

An anorexic existence is barren, but it is predictable. It means not putting your head above the parapet. It’s about dodging criticism. It’s about avoiding the vulnerability of taking risks, of doing things you care about, of putting yourself out there. It’s about apologising for existing, and about hurting yourself more than anyone can hurt you. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of being a living, breathing apology.

* * * 

I’ve been back in recovery for a couple of months now, and feel confident that I can regain the relationship I had with food and my body once more. For those of you who may relate to what I’ve written, here are some things I find helpful:

1)    Feed your mind the kind of resources that honour all bodies, for example reading HAES-friendly articles, blogs (check out Dances with Fat), etc.

2)    Find professionals who understand that we each have a weight at which our bodies will settle naturally, and that BMI is not a reliable indicator of health. This may mean educating the professionals involved in your care about how you wish to be treated if you don’t have a say in which professionals you work with.

3)    Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, who do not use fat-phobic language, and with whom you can enjoy food without the guilt-police being invited to the table.

4)    Set boundaries with people who can’t or won’t, for whatever reason, refrain from body-shaming or food-policing behaviour.

5)    Let people love you, and accept their compliments – even if it’s a challenge to believe them.

6)    Stand up to size-discrimination when you see it because in doing so you are also standing up for yourself.

7)    Ask yourself what you are really feeling if you find yourself being pulled into the “I feel fat” narrative.

8)    Treat yourself as you would a dear friend.

9)    Accept that recovery is a process, and whilst loving your body is an awesome goal, you might have to work towards feeling neutral about your body first in order to get there.

10) Trust that you have the right to take up space in the world, to have your opinions heard, and that your needs are valid.



Clean Food: The Mantra of Relish and the Practice of Exclusion

© Victoria ChetleyBy Susie Orbach, convenor of AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK 

I like clean food. As an idea, it’s hard to challenge, especially after the trend towards so-called dirty food. But what is it that these clever copywriters are capturing about the zeitgeist that has us believing that foods can be segmented into categories of clean and dirty?

It follows a well-established notion that that has penetrated all of our minds that food is either good or bad, naughty or nice, healthy or toxic, safe or dangerous. Food is no longer a neutral or pleasurable concept. It seems always to be set against its opposite, a lurking horror of some kind.

Britain came to food culture relatively late and has taken to it with enormous enthusiasm. Fancy restaurants, food emporiums, fast food eateries selling organically produced meats, fish, vegetables and fruits are plentiful and food supplements with beautifully arranged ingredients and dishes drive newspaper sales and draw our eyes on Instagram. Food porn has intensified. The food we eat and the way we prepare it is a signifier of class, of aspiration, of moral value, of self-control, of ethics and environmental awareness. As neo-liberalism puts the individual in charge of his or her health, our food decisions become charged with responsibility for our personal well-being and ‘clean food’ is the latest iteration of this duty. Health is increasingly becoming a dubious concept driven as it is by big pharma, the so-called alternative ‘health business’ and new food fads such as clean food.

Behind these concerns is the business of food and it is big business. At whatever level we look, food is in the forefront of economic activity. Cookbooks are our biggest sellers. Restaurants, supermarkets, speciality food providers, farmers’ markets, newly discovered berries, potatoes, and artisanal grains brought to us through enterprising producers and canny PR folk tantalise us and the spend on food increases. White strawberries, heritage carrots, multiple tomato varieties challenge the hegemony of agribusiness and industrial food production and encourage us to believe we are making wiser, healthier and more beautiful choices about what goes in our bodies. And we do. But paradoxically and sadly the trend towards non-industrial food is set against a background of an increasingly eating disordered environment in which the most basic aspects of our relationship to food have coincided with many many people becoming divorced from eating as a response to hunger.

Eating, not eating, fasting, the 5:2 diet, managing one’s appetite in one way or another has become a site of incredible distress as confusion about fat, about protein, about acid neutralising alkalines, about destroyed nutrients have jockeyed with confusion about body size – how large or small we should be – and the emotional valences we ascribe to food which vest it with magical powers of soothing, of comfort of solace or of disaster.

For many, food is a no-go area. The desire for it becomes guilt inducing and internal equations in which particular foods are on one side with obsessive thoughts and plans to nullify what’s been ingested on the other. So-called clean food, which is neither less nor more than an attempt to control food intake by sending some foods to Coventry and surrendering to the lure of others, is a way to cope with disordered eating. When I wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue four decades ago it was clear that alongside the many vegetarians who chose to avoid meat and fish for ethical reasons, were people so perplexed by their own chaotic eating that they were trying to manage the frenzy by excluding whole groups of foods. So to with clean food. I don’t say that unkindly. I say it sympathetically for creating borders around certain foods is the only way many people feel they can dare to eat. They have to police the foreign, the disdained, indeed, food in general in order to make order in a food force field whose magnetism is simply irresistible.

© Victoria ChetleyFood has become like email or Facebook or text: always on, always beckoning, always promising something and yet not quite delivering, because if it did, we wouldn’t have to keep going. A real conversation, or a real read is more sustaining than a tweet but like a seductive form of junkmail, the machinations of the food industry send us non-food food teasers through calibrating the bliss point of foods, the crunch and sweet/salt ratio so we are tempted to respond even as we know the more we have the less satisfied we are.

The question is why. Why is food in all its forms so alluring? Why is electronic messaging so compelling? We enter human culture through the acts of being fed and being seen. The arms that hold us, the eyes that see us, the smile that greets us, the breast that feeds us, introduce us to being human. Without attachment we fail to thrive, and food for us is linked with recognition and attachment; with what we call love. That love can be benign and gentle. It can be fierce. It can be cruel. It is  fundamental to our sense of self and how we relate. But food itself is not love despite the fact that today we are invited to use food as a way to self love.  

Clean food appears redemptive, it appears to wipe away unruly longings we can’t meet. It might work for individuals for a time but as long as the food industry – mainstream or independent - is mucking about with our minds, our taste buds and our emotions, we will be seeing many more food salvations coming down the pike to still the hurt that is food for many.




Your body is next: NHS cuts are an assault on our human rights


Image taken from the Human Rights in Health Care website, which states the under The Human Rights Act (established October 2000) that all public authorities, including NHS organisations, have an obligation to respect and promote peoples' human rights, which is sorely missing from the current NHS cuts discriminating against smokers and the obese.By Dr. Dana Mills, AnyBody Activist

Over the past few weeks, we have woken up to various pieces of news which employ the term “obesity” in their headlines. First, we are told, the obese cost the country more than the cost of the war on terror[1]. Then, we were told, the NHS in Devon is cutting down its funding by way of barring operations from smokers and the obese[2]. These two pieces of news are two sides of the same coin. They are the sign of the retraction of the welfare state from our lives and a continued and targeted assault on our human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights starts from the right to life[3]. It elaborates this right as a right to medical care, as stated in article 25:

“(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care[4] and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

These rights, fundamental to our basic standard of living as well as our ability to flourish as human beings, are under an incremental but powerful attack by the current government and its funding cuts. The right to health care with no discrimination is one of the pillars of the human rights regime, and attack upon it is the worrying sign of the British government’s recession from its commitment to accountability towards its own citizens. Discrimination in access to health is a human rights violation[5]

Further, this assault should be read in the context of other connections, less popular in the daily headlines but just as important for the British citizens’ understanding of their relationship with their state as protector of their basic human rights. There have been many connections between private for-profit organizations focussing on weight loss and the NHS[6].

On Thursday, August 8, 2013, BBC2 broadcasted, “The Men Who Made Us Thin”[7], a documentary about the weight-loss industry. In the first episode, presenter Jacques Peretti captures on tape Richard Samber, former Weight Watchers (WW) finance director, acknowledging the statistics provided throughout the show, according to which only 16% of consumers using WW diets maintain goal weight over five years, and acknowledging that WW survives financially by the other 84% “who have to come back and do it again”. It may be further argued that WW sustains itself financially through creating non-consensual consumption of its product. This argument may be pushed more by drawing on a range of other evidence. In her evidence in the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Body Image, Zoe Griffiths, Head of Public Health at Weight Watchers, swiftly shifts between health-based arguments and arguments presenting the company as aiming towards inducing weight loss[8].

Thus, we must return and read the discourse around obesity as effacing, growing a dependency of the British health care system upon private corporations, and further privatization of basic services without transparency of this process towards the citizen turned consumer[9]. Whenever the next headline emerges which employs the term “obesity” the reader should be worried. Not for their BMI (Body Mass Index) definition as obese or not, or other such terms often used; but by the consistent and focussed assault on their basic human rights and further liberalization of our most basic societal support networks. It is not obese we should dread becoming; it is the self-interested, insular human beings to whom the state is no longer accountable and for whose rights there is no legal protection. We are all on the way to becoming those human beings. Your body is next. 

Editor's Note: Shortly after publishing, the BBC reported that NHS Devon will drop the proposed surgery bar on smokers and the obese. 



[3] Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

[4] Emphasis added.

[5]  More information about the connection between health care and human rights can be found at British Institute of Human Rights Further, previous work on the connection between health care and equal access to human rights can be found at "human rights are about how public authorities, such as NHS organisations, must treat everyone as human beings"; "the bottom line is that human rights, like the right to life, are not a gift the NHS staff can give to patients. NHS must respect the law and all the rights contained in the Human Rights Act in everything that they do”.


[7] 45:06

[8] “A when you come to Weight Watchers and reach a healthy weight we support you free for the rest of your life, and the reason we do that is because we know that evidence shows that when you continue the support, of however it was that you lost weight in the first place, that is a key indicator for long-term success and that’s why we’ve build the system. We want you to come to Weight Watchers and when you reach your goals, to come back and regularly check in, check up on your weight, check up on your healthy behaviours so that you can sustain that weight loss”.

[9] It should be mentioned in this context that the funding towards human rights in healthcare has been discontinued since 2013. 


Why is Body Confidence Worthy of a Public Health Campaign?

The Be Real Campaign in the UKBy Holli Rubin, MSW, Psychotherapist, AnyBody/Endangered Bodies activist

If you ask me, I’ve been on my own body confidence campaign for over 35 years - long before the term had entered the public consciousness and well before awareness grew of the link between body confidence and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. I am very excited to have witnessed how we as a society are beginning to change and notice how important body confidence is in living our lives more freely.

The Government-backed Body Confidence Week took place October 13-17, 2014. One of Body Confidence Week’s initiatives is an awards event recognizing brands, organisations and individuals who have positively contributed to healthy body image. On October 16, the Body Confidence Awards were held at The House of Commons, hosted by Caroline Nokes MP, who currently chais the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image that I have been part of for the past few years.  The very fact that there is an entire week dedicated to body confidence demonstrates the importance and gravity of this topic today.

I was asked to be a member of a panel to judge the nominees for The Body Confidence Awards. As I sat in a room with other experts representing organizations all involved with body image and its impacts, like Girl Guiding UKUKactive, Central YMCA, Unilever and The Centre for Appearance Research, we all tried to articulate what exactly we wanted the awards to represent. In comparison with the 2012 event, which was Body Confidence Award’s first year, the amount of nominees and panel experts have grown by more than 50 per cent, demonstrating the growing momentum behind the Body Confidence movement. People are waking up to the critical role it plays in the disruption of healthy living.

Body image is a complex phenomenon and affects us all on so many different levels.

At first glance, we are our bodies.

We are evaluated on what we look like in that moment in time.

We are who we appear to be.  

But what happens when we connect or engage with someone? There is another opportunity to get to know beyond or beneath appearance. That requires time, and in our “time poor” lives, this proves challenging. We are bombarded by visual imagery and are forced to make judgements instantaneously. It is where we are seeing men and women, boys and girls portrayed in very unrealistic terms.

So… if you do not fit the very narrow beauty ideal well… too bad! Out goes the job, the date, the opportunity, the account!

Well, that is how it used to be but actually we have found a way around that, too. If you don’t fit, you can change that! Once again technology has facilitated this and through our smartphones, we can all be the masters of our own trickery as we Photoshop our pictures to fit more with what we think others want to see, never minding what we actually feel about how we look.

Is changing how we look the answer? For whom are we making these changes? Hopefully, through public awareness, we are beginning to widen the beauty ideal to include more than our current female stereotype of 5’10, blond, 26’ inch waist… because I have a secret to share with you and I want you to share this secret… the average size in the UK is a 16! This is a secret because there is shame around that number, that size. Shame because it does not fit with the fashion industry’s warped perception of who they are dressing. That is why All Walks Beyond the Catwalk exists to disband these myths by rewriting the fashion curriculum and changing the thinking of big business to incorporate a variety of mannequin sizes to realistically represent the people buying their clothing. That is what Susie Orbach, the psychoanalyst/feminist/activist and I are doing by lobbying government to make them listen to what five-year-old girls are feeling when they say their bodies are fat; when charities like Endangered Bodies are relentlessly pushing government to help support mothers during pregnancy so they can freely attach to their babies and provide them with the security and care their lives depend on; when Shape Your Culture, a project of AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK is tirelessly approaching schools to engage with young girls to explore creatively who they are and how they feel about their bodies and to hook them in enough so they can become activists and change the world they live in. And it is why Dove continues to fund the Self-Esteem Project they began over 10 years ago….

This is all happening now and that for me shows that we are in a state of positive change. However, behind my door, I see parents who tell me their 13-year-old daughter is fussy with food so much so that she cannot focus in school, or my client who has a one-year old and sneaks around waiting for the nanny to leave so she can throw up in the bathroom before her husband comes home, or a woman who is still trying to get over her son’s traumatic birth 11 years ago and restricts her food believing that this will undo the guilt she has for having an emergency C-section. I can tell you that, ‘yes we are changing’ but these issues run deep and we have a long way to go.

Body confidence is a pressing concern that we must address, so we don’t lose a handle on another generation,

so we can give women and girls their bodies to live in,

so we can learn to love food and listen to our appetites,

so we can stop punishing ourselves for not eating the right thing,

so we can begin to recognise that skinny is not a sign that all is well, the same way that obesity is a sign that all is unwell,

so we can quiet the voices in our heads and begin to live the lives we were meant to, and

so we can stop wasting time and energy on the ‘achievement’ of being skinny but rather focus on the positive goal of body confidence.

Body confidence and how we feel about how we look is anything but trivial..... So, on October 16, when I sat in the House of Commons amongst like-minded positive body image advocates, I celebrated each and every nominee and winner, but more than their personal awards, I celebrate that the platform now exists to support the change that is so desperately needed and to continue to educate people about why body confidence matters so much! 



A Small But Significant Revolution: The Reaction to Philip Hensher's Review of ITV Drama 'Prey'

By Dr. Roanna Mitchell AnyBody/Endangered Bodies Activist UK
Image source: Screenshot

Typecasting, judging on appearance, idealizing certain physical types, the morality of the disciplined body — there is a part of me that is tired of discussing these.

I have had my share of time with them: A thesis, four years working with body activists AnyBody, and many, many conversations with all kinds of people in the performance industry and in the industries surrounding that industry.


I am tired of them, because the conversation is often circular, typical when raising anything that questions the status quo: ‘hard-wiring’ versus social construction of taste; choice versus oppression; art versus business, art and business versus life. These binaries get us nowhere, and yet the temptation is to keep circling them in the hope of coming to some definite conclusion. And every now and again something happens that reminds me that the debate is worth having, such as BBC critic Philip Hensher’s review of ITV drama Prey, in which he described the actor as the ‘fat lady detective.’


Is it unfair that actors are judged on their appearance? Or is this simply part of the job? Could we do away with typecasting? Or would that only make us long for the simplification of stable signifiers? Aren’t actors simply dealing with the same pressures we all face when it comes to the presentation of, and living in, our bodies? We are all exploited for the way we feel about our bodies, in deft constructions of what is desirable, acceptable, moral and admirable. All of our bodies are mined for profit and manipulated down to the most private recesses of our lives.

So actors experience this too. So what?


One of the answers to that is of course that actors provide the furniture for our imaginations. We understand life-situations through comparing them to similar situations from our experience, and if the real thing is not available, then we draw on stories to provide a template. Actor’s bodies are often the illustration in that template. The range of bodies represented in the stories we tell each other shapes the landscape of our imagination, be that through stories on the stage, in film and TV, or in specific areas within these such as musical theatre, ballet, made-for-TV period drama, romcoms or pornography.


So the boxes that actors are asked to fit their bodies into are simplifications that do not only affect them, as individuals. They shape our — the audiences’ — brain as well. With every actor that is cast ‘to type’, the possibilities that we have to imagine a place for ourselves in the world are simplified too.


This means that while art might be reflecting life — conforming to social expectations of who will be the hero, villain, best friend, or indeed remain silent in the background — art is also reinforcing and shaping life: those social expectations are themselves shaped by what we see in the stories that we tell each other.


That in itself is depressing. With no view that typecasting will be abandoned anytime soon, we can look forward to many more years of actors torturing themselves to make their bodies suitable for certain parts (or indeed any parts) — and to many more years of the rest of us feeling under pressure to make our own bodies suitable for the places we want to go and the ways we want to be understood by the world (There is another aspect of this narrative, which is the problem of everyone wanting to be the ‘hero’ in their story, and the options for what a ‘heroic’ body is allowed to be. But I leave that for another time.).


But there are moments of subversion, and at their best they are both the exception that proves the rule, and also the exception that changes the rule — one painful moment at a time.

An example of such a moment happened last week, when Philip Hensher decided it would be appropriate to discuss Rosie Cavaliero’s performance in Prey not by her skill as an actor, but by stating his fascination with the fact that the writers chose to create her character as the ‘fat lady detective’.

He might be forgiven (if we are very generous) for thinking this focus on the actor’s physicality apt — it is done all the time. However, in this case the critic made two misjudgements: firstly, in the real world, there is no sense in which ‘fat’ is an accurate description of Cavaliero (although again, we leave for another time the discussion about why, in the first place, it is seen as so offensive to be called ‘fat’). That he deems her fat, and that this is his main fascination with her work on Prey, demonstrates how urgently he and his kind need to be exposed to a wider range of bodies in a wider range of roles.

Secondly, reactions to his comments show that audiences expect something more from a discussion of the actor’s craft than an airing of the critic’s prejudice. Even when invited at a later stage in the programme to comment on Cavaliero’s performance the best he has to offer is ‘I wanted her to have her own series called ‘fat lady inspector’’.

Outrage on Twitter against Hensher’s review, from the makers and cast of Prey as well as its audience, caused Matthew Hemley to question in The Stage whether critics should comment on an actor’s size. Hemley makes a no-nonsense dismissal of Hensher’s comment and warns that ‘Dangerously, comments like this could also force some actors, particularly young ones, who are already working in a difficult and unstable profession, to believe they need to change their appearance and conform to an image people like Hensher believe they should have.’

Crucially, Hemley points out that ‘What Hensher might have commented on is the fact Cavaliero, in Prey, is playing against type… But did Hensher notice? Did he heck. He only seemed to notice her physical appearance.’

Hemley’s article and the debate that surrounds it are a welcome public airing of a pertinent issue, and as such there is a silver lining to Henshaw’s comment as it offered a vent for this discussion. It is gratifying to see that this instance of an actor doing a sophisticated job of playing against her conventional ‘type’ has received the support that it did, particularly when comparing it with other discussions in public forums of the pressures that actor’s face. Perhaps, through this support, the notion that only certain bodies are allowed to be seen doing certain things, has been dismantled by one more little brick. And by subverting the expectations of a critic who thinks in little boxes, a further pocket of possibilities has been opened for us, the audience.

I hope that the many actors I work with have been following this debate, and that they take courage from it. These battles are fought for all of us, and they are fought on the site of actors’ bodies who — let us not forget — are people like the rest of us.






Being female and successful, the double fault for an athlete

By Jo Harrison, AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK activist Edited by Sharon Haywood

How are girls going to achieve or enjoy sport, movement or most importantly their bodies, if their potential role models are being savaged on social media, mocked in the press and disrespected or treated idiotically by commentators?

There is some kind of twisted logic at play here, and forgive me if I play devil’s advocate for a bit. Apparently there’s an obesity crisis in town, accompanying it there’s a hefty enough portion of steaming bile to be shared equally amongst everyone who ‘appears’ to be creeping above an ‘acceptable’ BMI, because obviously just looking at someone is a reliable way to assess their place on the discredited assessment scale (but that’s a whole other blog).

Women especially are judged harshly about their appearance, their weight in particular. This cultural attitude accounts for shouts in the street of ‘fat cow’ and ‘try a f*cking salad luv’ to unsolicited and earnest concern from colleagues ‘my sister’s just done this new weight loss plan, she looks great, do you want the details?’ to hateful bullying (online and off) of teens by their peers, which sometimes has fatal consequences. So one could be forgiven for thinking that our culture really values health and fitness*, despite having a really, really funny way of showing it.

So, when women excel and achieve in sport, we can again be forgiven for thinking that a culture which has misguided, unpleasant or hate-filled things to say about what is considered to be excess flesh, would be ecstatic that women are upping their metabolisms by running, jumping, kicking and hitting balls with rackets and bats and things…but no. While for the most part (straight, white) male athletes get accolades, female athletes get abuse about their appearance hurled at them on social media, as World Champion gymnast and Olympic medallist Beth Tweddle was subjected to on Tuesday morning, they receive disrespectful comments from established commentators and irrelevant questions about who’d they’d like to date.

But let’s face it, the problem isn’t whether women are fat or thin, still or moving, ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’—the problem is a toxic mixture of the following:

A sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, that women’s bodies exist for everyone but the women who them. Never mind that she should act as she sees fit within it; the truth is, thanks to our culture of sexual objectification and aggressive/insidious marketing techniques, many people feel they can pass judgment over a body that is not theirs, forgetting there is a person within it.

The stifling beauty ideals stuffed down the throats of us all about what a woman must look like, which incidentally is also making us sick. If a woman diverges from the ideal of the slim, white (but preferably tanned), blonde, large-breasted western aesthetic and dares to achieve things, this clearly makes a lot of people very uncomfortable—uncomfortable enough to hurl abuse. If she does conform and achieve, there's still every chance she'll receive abuse; this is not a win-win situation for anyone.

The very real backlash against the idea that women can be equal in our society, particularly within a male-dominated arena such as sport. Considering that Tweddle is British it’s interesting: in the UK we’re very proud of our sporting history and our (largely underfunded compared to men’s teams) women’s sport teams do really well, so if we celebrated them more readily, we’d have lots more reason to party!

And lastly, but certainly not least, the bizarre way that many, many people think it is acceptable to behave aggressively on social media, as if it were not part of the real world and so are not accountable for their words or actions. We’ve seen in horrifying detail the ways in which ‘trolls’ will attack women online who are promoting equality.

We’re basically sickened by the disrespect and abuse that women, who are doing nothing more controversial than excelling at what they are paid to do, have had to put up with. I have lots of friends with young children, and I want all of them, regardless of their gender, to see a wealth of opportunity in their futures, and feel they can explore their potential for achievement and enjoyment by trying all manner of things. We shouldn’t have to explain to them that they will have to learn to deal with abuse just to engage in something they love because they don’t fit a narrow stereotype. This is not something we should tolerate.

If you are on Twitter or Facebook, please join us in sharing the hashtag #respectsportswomen to show solidarity and support for female athletes everywhere. We need to change this conversation, we need to band together, support each other and enjoy doing it. We can all be role models by just refusing to accept this treatment of women, speaking out about it and telling those we admire how fantastic we think they are.


Since launching our Twitter campaign yesterday morning, GirlGuiding UK, the YWCA Scotland, Miss Representation, The Clare Balding Show and the No More Page Three campaign among others have publicly shown their support by sharing our hashtag. Will you join us?

*Health and weight are separate issues, maintaining healthy behaviours is more important that maintaining a certain number on a scale – please see this TED talk for more info. 


HAES-ed and Confused

Photo by Alexandra Bellick

*Every since its inception in 2002, AnyBody has been excited to see the HAES movement spread as it shares the same anti-dieting philosophy and spirit found in Fat is a Feminist Issue, written by AnyBody convenor Susie Orbach. We are pleased to assist in the dissemination of the HAES message with the following blog post*

By Amy Godfrey, AnyBody/Endangered Bodies activist

At the end of my Health At Every Size Facilitator training last week I was in Coventry in a room with no windows, having as close to a religious experience as a totally heathen non-believer like me could possibly manage. Like a beam of light through a glass of water, my world-view had been all bent out of shape and was refracting at strange angles, breaking up into tiny shards before my very eyes. Even surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, the world seemed new and bewildering. At the end of the day I trailed silently down to the station and got on the train home feeling emotionally bruised, unsettled and more than a little bit overwhelmed.

Health At Every Size (HAES) might be an idea you are familiar with: it incorporates elements of mindfulness, such as intuitive eating, something Susie Orbach writes about so clearly and beautifully in her book On Eating. HAES is a philosophy on health that steers us away from assumptions based on appearance and suggests that a little more compassion for ourselves, and then others, could do wonders for our well-being, as individuals and on a wider scale.

The online HAES community outlines a few of the basics as being:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite. 
  • Finding the joy in moving one's body and becoming more physically vital.

So far, so manageable. These are all ideas I felt comfortable with—ya, ya, self-acceptance, listening to your body, blah blah, compassion—I was down with all that stuff. I couldn’t exactly completely do it, but I got the idea and I thought it was a grand plan in theory. I knew the basics, I had the t-shirt and I was ready to learn how to teach the good word to the rest of the world: “Being fat is fine, people!” I thought I was prepared.

You probably guessed, I wasn’t prepared at all. I wasn’t prepared to face myself with such honesty. I wasn’t prepared to give up the “ideal me” that I had been striving vainly towards for virtually my whole life. I wasn’t prepared to be moved and challenged by the Health At Every Size philosophy, the enormity of its meaning and its powerful argument for change, awareness and acceptance. I wasn’t prepared to be pulled apart, pummeled and reformed, a new, more resilient me.

So, I know that it sounds a little like I just got smacked out on a heady combo of mushrooms and Marxism or signed away my first born to a fantastical cult – philosophy, you say, profundity and ideals? All that can ever lead to is a terrible come down or stockpiling for Armageddon. Well, yes…. And no.

In some ways, HAES requires such a shift in world-view that it is comparable to gaining or losing a religion. It encourages the kind of switch in perspective I associate with the fuzzy, fishbowl views and sudden epiphanies of being high.

It’s not just understanding the science of why diets make you fat, it’s asking you to abandon the binary system of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, right/wrong that we have grown up with, and grown into, that forms the basis of our ability to categorise and understand the world. It’s asking that you not only throw out all the pots and pans of the BMI as a tool to measure health, it’s asking that you burn down the kitchen and rebuild from scratch our concept of what health is and the ways in which we affect changes to it. It’s not just re-evaluating which nutritional expert is the best. It’s insisting that we interrogate the way we value information, and make a system where different forms of knowledge, such as lived experience, are just as valuable as biomedical or academic knowledge, where teaching and learning are one and the same. It’s not just about size, it’s not just about food, shit, it’s not even just about health–it’s huge.

But on the other hand, HAES is also the small fry, the every day. HAES is having a bad day, eating a whole packet of biscuits and, crucially, not feeling bad about it. Because the problem is not eating the biscuits, the problem is the judgment that leads to the cycle of shame and guilt that follows. HAES is being able to tune in to what you need right now to enable you to do whatever it is you’re doing; to begin to unpick the difference between a tool that serves a useful purpose for you and a learned behavior. For me, part of HAES is beginning to understand when I’m mistaking a non-food need as hunger. I might think I’m hungry for cake but I might just be feeling angry and have learned to self-soothe always with food. It’s also reassuring to know that food can serve many purposes including nutritional, social and emotional, all of them valid. HAES is a tool that can help you to choose whether it’s ironing, or running or cheese—whatever it is that nourishes you and helps you fill the needs you have. HAES is keeping the faith and staying open to possibilities. More than anything, it’s giving yourself options.

It’s not easy. Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t set my feet on this path and that I could return to the comfortable discomfort of knowing that all I needed was the “right” kind of hair to be happy. It’s been a grieving process to give up the perfect me I knew I could become one day, to let go of the familiar smokescreen of fat as the root of all my unhappiness and my old friend, the cycle of dieting that I knew I could fail at so successfully. It’s hard to meet yourself where you are. If, as HAES suggests, your socio-economic status and your environment have as much impact on your health as lifestyle choices, then the problem with people’s health is as much the massive inequality in the world – in education, income, rights - and what the hell do we do about that? The day after I took the course came a crash-and-burn into despair at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of social injustice.

But I have recovered and am putting the pieces back together, renewed and hopeful. HAES gives us the tools to be proactive at every level – at a personal level, at a peer level and politically (with a small ‘p’, y’all). It gives us agency and the ability to understand why agency is crucial to health and making positive change. HAES is a philosophy of health that is relevant to everyone and it gives us options outside of hating our bodies, beyond competing fruitlessly against ourselves or each other, and the chance to be connected with others in a powerful, compassionate way. If you can just sit with the discomfort until it settles, the future looks bright.

I’m only halfway through my training and there’s a long way to go. Accepting that you are a process, a messy, non-linear process is key. To take your eye off the physical perfection that seems tantalisingly just out of reach and to fix instead on the distant goal of equality and the broad expanse of horizon, is no mean feat. But it can make the process more pleasurable in realising that, with a switch in perspective, your ultimate destination is the path you’re already on.

I’m still afraid that if I begin to believe that this really is a genuine shift in my relationship with myself, with my body and with food, then it will escape and disappear into dust like any previous dieting ‘successes’. I am terrified, and exhilarated – the possibilities for joy and pain are all too real - but for now I will just keep putting one foot in front of the other, be brave in my contentment with myself and hope that this one, this time is for keeps.


Vogue Wants Teenagers' Perceptions to Change So It Doesn't Have To



"[in] no way do we want to pretend that we're going to try and change the way that we portray fashion."


by Jo Harrison Any-Body UK Team Member & Co-Founder of Shape Your Culture

Sunday's Independent ran a story about how British Vogue's Editor Alexandra Shulman has made an educational film to show "the difference between fashion and reality and how a fashion image is constructed", so far, so good.

We shared this story on social media as we feel that, credit where credit is due, in terms of moves toward more realistic portrayals and of understanding of the constructs that can underpin feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in many people, men as well as women. This seemed positive since what would be the point of deconstructing fashion images if there were no intention of starting to do things differently? Well, this optimism was short-lived indeed. My mother rang me and seemingly quite agitated said, 'Have you been listening to PM on Radio 4??' I had not, but she gave me the gist and I hopped on iPlayer as soon as it was available to have any hope quashed that Vogue's mission was a sign of change or intention of promoting size diversity, Holly Baxter in The Guardian sadly seems to have it right:

Perhaps it's just me who sees something sinister about attempting to re-educate young people so that a business can continue pushing what they acknowledge to be a damaging agenda. But why exactly are we supposed to swallow that the problem was with the public's perception all along? These magazines exist purely to dictate to their young audience, for a fee, what is beautiful, fashionable, desirable – and largely unattainable. Trying to tell us that their content shouldn't change, but the attitudes of their disillusioned and apparently uneducated readership should, is depressing doublethink.

During the interview on PM where Eddie Mair interviewed Shulman and Helen Goodman the Shadow Media Minister (which you can listen to here at 31:10 minutes for 7 days) Shulman came across as evasive, condescending and irritated, even tutting audibly when Mair asked her for a second time why Vogue does not use and does not intend to use models more representative of the 88% of the female population who are not a size 8 or below. (See my transcript of Shulman's comments below).

An issue that also came up during the conversation was of air-brushing. Shulman, at this juncture, took the opportunity to patronise Goodman by saying air-brushing hadn't been used for decades and that now it's digital, pretty sure that's what Goodman meant as even the most hard-core Luddite will have heard of Photoshop, but I digress. Shulman went on to say that actually digital manipulation is quite often used to make the models seem fatter, she said:

It's just to make sure that if somebody is looking so… a photographer can, light can do so much to the body so you can make a perfectly ordinary person look very bony and skinny if you light it the wrong way and sometimes we have that problem. 

"Looking so..." what, Alexandra? I couldn't help but think of this slideshow on retouching featuring models whose jutting ribs are hidden digitally. This article also comes to mind, written by former Australian Vogue Editor Kirstie Clements where she recounts horrifying stories about the high fashion world such as this one:

On another shoot I was chatting to one of the top Australian models during lunch. She had just moved to Paris and was sharing a small apartment with another model. I asked her how that was working out. "I get a lot of time by myself actually," she said, picking at her salad. "My flatmate is a 'fit model', so she's in hospital on a drip a lot of the time." A fit model is one who is used in the top designer ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed. That the ideal body shape used as a starting point for a collection should be a female on the brink of hospitalisation from starvation is frightening.

I thought she was about to say if somebody was looking so ill, but of course she didn't.

Of course there's also Dove's video which was done quite some time ago. Now, this is by no means solid evidence, but having worked over the last year with lots of teenage girls for our project Shape Your Culture  many had seen the Dove video in school before we'd met with them and sadly, this had enlightened them, but not cured their body anxiety, so what should they do with this information if nothing is going to change? In her blog on this subject, Glosswitch eloquently states, "It’s the way in which low self-esteem is defined as yet another female flaw." We need to be honest, realising there is a problem is the FIRST step, not the solution.

My initial reservations, apart from the fact that this comes from a brand specialising in selling aspiration, was this part of The Independent on Sunday article:

Vogue's publisher, Condé Nast, is keen to court British teenagers. Ms Shulman launched a fashion magazine for teenage girls this week, Miss Vogue, packed with adverts for high street labels and luxury brands.

Perhaps it is a coincidence. I hope so, because as cynical marketing ploys go something like this would really take the biscuit.

PR aside, according to Shulman "people don't buy fashion magazines to see what they look like". Ok, but fashion magazines are full of pictures of people in clothes with the make and price of them listed, yet 88% of the population cannot see from these images how they might look in the clothes being advertised. I remember being in Borders in New York and discovering Bust magazine, and among the pleasing range of articles, was a lingerie shoot. The model had similar proportions to me (I'm big busted, big bottomed etc.) and I felt so good seeing those images; I recall physically relaxing, I didn't feel like I was mentally trying and failing to look good in clothes never designed for my body. Now there are people out there who scream 'promoting obesity!!!!!!' when people mention more representative images, but we've been fed a vast banquet of ever thinner women for years and years, but people are dieting more and the population is getting bigger, so where's the logic in that? 

To conclude, I was particularly interested when Shulman stated that one of the points of the educational material is that it "is not all about size, not everybody should want to be a model" but since digital manipulation is so sophisticated, see here and here (both enlightening and offensive in equal measure), wouldn't it stand to reason that actually--and I am playing Devil's Advocate here--anyone can want to be a model if "correcting" people is relatively simple? But that's not the point is it, despite the fact that fashion editors and art directors routinely say in defense of being un-representative that fashion is about fantasy, it's not real. Well, if stepping away from reality is the point, why can't we all get in on the act? I could be a model if Adobe Creative Suite is anything to go by, I could have four heads and wings and appear to shoot lasers from my eyes...

Interview Transcript from PM on Radio 4 with Eddie Mair Thursday 5th September 2013

[After Helen Goodman MP says she hopes that Vogue will address things like hiring more from a more diverse pool of body sizes for fashion shoots Eddie Mair asked what Vogue was doing about this issue]

Alexandra Shulman: We sell 200,000 copies of vogue a month because people want to see the images of fashion models in Vogue and er and I think no way do we want to pretend that we're going to try and change the way that we portray fashion umm interestingly in the main it's commentators that complain about it we don't get tweets, we don't get letters, we don't get emails complaining about the images in the magazine…as for the air-brushing, or the so-called airbrushing - I don't think air-brushing has been used on the magazine for several decades, what you can do is digital manipulation of types, which interestingly quite often now is actually not to make people look thinner and taller but actually quite often to make them look a little bit fatter.


Eddie Mair: Why don't you just employ fatter people?

AS: Erm because [pause, laughter] it's a good question but it's a very fine line of the fatter it's just to make sure that if somebody is looking so… a photographer can, light can do so much to the body so you can make a perfectly ordinary person look very bony and skinny if you light it the wrong way and sometimes we have that problem. 

EM: I want to ask you if I may Alexandra about the lesson plan because it's not just a video you sent [] drawn up with the help of teachers The Times says, underlining that while the average dress size of a model is an 8, only 12% of women are this size or smaller the plan urges teachers to tell pupils that only a small percentage of the population have the natural build and appearance of a model. Why not simply use some models which are more representative of the other 88% of the female population?

AS: Well I'm far more interested in talking about the lesson plan because it's the key component of… 

EM: Well this is in it so why don't you tell me why…

AS: Er um the point is that was brought up is to allow young women to discuss what they feel about the images and I think if the criticism is that we are creating any problem, what we're actually doing is we're bending over backwards to provide a forum for young girls to discuss these issues and that was the whole point of this, it's not a film. 

EM: And in this forum for discussion can you just deal with my question of why you don't use people more representative of the 88% of women.

AS: *tuts* Oh because um people don't buy fashion magazines to see what they look like, you can see what your friends look like -

EM: Have you tried?

AS: Yes we have, probably let's say we have um 150 editorial pages in every issue and I would reckon that about 60 of those 150 editorial pages are real in quotes women 

EM: What size would they be?

AS: They can be anything I mean we've had people ranging from 18 down to 8 or 6 or probably had a size 20, I mean we don't tend to ask somebody if we're doing a feature on an Opera Singer or an Engineer or a Ballerina, we don't ask them what size they are, it's not the issue, and that's one of my big points here, this is not all about size, not everybody should want to be a model.


Review of the Regulation of Cosmetic Interventions: Will They Do Enough?!

Image by Sinead FentonAnyBody has contributed to the evidence gathered as part of a review of the Regulation of Cosmetic Interventions. The call for evidence was initiated by the Department of Health after the Poly Implant Prothese PIP scandal, in which faulty implants continued to be used despite knowledge of the risks, thereby endangering patients health.

On December 31st, 2012 the Summary of this call for evidence was published and released. Beyond PIP, it highlighted other serious concerns, including:

- concerns around the products used in cosmetic procedures;

- questions around the training of those performing them;

- and the treatment and procedures for managing complications that may arise, and caring for patients who suffer from them.

When people decide to undertake cosmetic interventions they are consumers as well as patients. However, their buying-decisions may have a profound impact on their health and wellbeing, and this emphasized by the fact that the current regulatory system does not support patient safety.

Patient protection

One of the positive outcomes of the review is that now a framework is in the process of being readjusted to accurately protect the patient. This is good and welcome news.

Regulation of advertising

There needs to be a tightening of the regulations on advertising for cosmetic surgery — and this report is attempting ways in which to do this.

This is an important point, as the external influences of advertising industry and the increased visualisation of our society play enormous roles in influencing peoples perspectives on their bodies and images.

Psychological care

Are current psychological assessments accompanying cosmetic surgery sufficient? 

The review concluded that, overall, respondents acknowledged the importance of the practitioner assessing the patients motivation, but felt the current use of psychological assessments to be sufficient. But is it really enough?

Beyond the regulatory piece is the reality of the individual. To take a few steps back and take the time to understand why the individual has decided in the first place to change a part of themselves — this should be an obligatory part of the procedure. The person performing the procedure needs to ask these questions and be trained enough to know whether the patient is emotionally prepared for whatever they chose to do.

Much of the time, because these procedures are so accessible, there is not much thought put into the ramifications of being cut open and re-arranged — it has consequences both for the outside and inside of us. The outcome may be very different to the celebrated ‘growing confidence’ which many cosmetic surgery adverts promise.

Image by Sinead Fenton under a Creative Commons license. 


EATING: Encouraging Intuition not Obsession

Something we have realised with our Ditching Dieting Campaign is that ditching something you've always done, even if it's something that may not be working, is scary. So what to do instead? How to trust yourself around food without a 'plan'? Without a points structure? Meal replacements? Special recipes? We're led to believe that there's no way of doing it on our own, and enormous profits are made off the back of this common myth.

If you are moving around, living your life and listening to your own desires - eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, eating precisely what you need and want in that moment – then you should not feel your health threatened by being in the ‘obese’ box on a flawed BMI chart. However, this kind of intuitive eating becomes harder and harder under the onslaught of methods to make money from your body. The diet industry claims to offer comfort, support and solutions to make your world a happier, healthier place and it's completely understandable that many, many people choose to diet when in the thrall of anxiety about their bodies, something that is exacerbated by imagery in the media, gossip magazines and online news outlets that dissect bodies (women's especially) routinely as entertainment.

To help people who are dieting and are sick of it, or have given up and are not sure where to turn or for those considering dieting, we have made a free Intuitive Eating booklet to download (see below). It's based on Susie Orbach's book On Eating and gives you basic pointers to understand intuitive eating and how it might work for you. The whole book is great but it isn't practical to use discretely, so this guide has been designed (with instructions) so it can be made into a booklet or small cards, sized to fit into a credit card slot in a wallet.

Intuitive eating isn't easy and takes time, but it works for many as a way to be free of anxiety around food and to have healthy responses to all 'hungers' as we often mistake other feelings, such as boredom or loneliness for actual hunger, and food cannot alleviate such feelings for long.

Perhaps this approach might seem scary to try alone, so maybe do it with others, as one of the best things about diet groups is the mutual support people get from other members. This doesn't have to cost you a penny either: you could meet with friends to discuss how you are getting on, the breakthroughs and pitfalls, just like a regular diet meeting except you can banish the scales!

Last but not least: there are common misconceptions around the concept of eating whatever you want or are hungry for in relation to this kind of diet-free approach, and in the context of public health and the 'obesity crisis' some have criticised it as irresponsible to encourage people who are classified as "morbidly obese" to eat what they 'want'. Intuitive eating is not a free pass to stuff yourself with as much junk food as possible, or in other words, binge. Rather, it is about developing a new relationship with food and your body,

This misconception is rooted in the fact that there are no forbidden foods while practicing intuitive eating, so in the initial stages, some people’s bodies may ask for more of those “bad” foods they had previously categorized as off limits. With time and practice, those “bad” foods lose their power, so that a chocolate bar and a carrot stick ultimately can have equal appeal. Intuitive eating is about distinguishing between hungers and discovering what your body really needs by tuning into the messages we get naturally.

Learn more about our Ditching Dieting campaign and how to become part of the movement.

Download the Intuitive Eating Guide HERE.


Mini Intuitive Eating Guide


Pregnancy: A Message for Mothers-to-Be

Photo by Christian Glatz By Holli Rubin, AnyBody team member

Pregnancy is a time of hope, excitement, wonderment, anticipation as well as fragility, insecurity, and vulnerability. However you feel about it, which may actually be a combination of all those things, pregnancy is a milestone in your life.

Some women love being pregnant and enjoy their changing shape. There is a sense of joy and freedom whilst pregnant. This may be the first time you have given yourself permission to genuinely be in your body and relax about how you look. How refreshing!

Sadly, not everyone "glows" or has a neat little bump during their pregnancy. Many women feel alien to their normal sense of self. Your figure, as you once knew it, will morph into something new and different. You become your body and your body becomes a home for your unborn baby which you begin to take care of and nurture. Your body is no longer your own. Sharing yourself in that way can be amazing and warm or it may be difficult for those feeling that their space is being impinged or intruded upon. 

As you navigate your way through the trimesters your weight begins to increase and some women feel "fat" as opposed to pregnant. Acknowledging and accepting that the weight gain is a sign of health and not something abnormal is often foreign and difficult.

This may be more difficult if prior to pregnancy you exerted control over your body by restricting your food intake. However it is important to know that there are two of you now, and doing so while pregnant in an attempt to prevent any further changes to your growing body, puts you and your unborn child at risk. 

A pregnant body has a life of its own and is meant to move and change in its own time through its own rhythm. This is nature's way of growing, protecting, and keeping your baby safe, not your body betraying you.

Being pregnant affects everyone differently. There is no right or wrong way to be pregnant. However you experience this stage of your life, it prepares and shapes who you are and who you will become as a mother.  

Image by Christian Glatz under a Creative Commons license. 


Doctors and Diet Clubs are Dangerous Bedfellows

Original image by Kenjonbro - flickr creative commons.

By Amy Anderson, AnyBody team member

As the clocks chimed midnight on December 31st the grimly inevitable diet industry wheels – oiled by millions of pounds of profits – rolled into action. Forget focusing on spending time with the important people in your life, or your work, or your interests or what you’re really hungry for – people across the UK instead woke up on January 1st to the usual soul-sucking exhortations from adverts and magazine features about shifting those pounds, toning those thighs, flattening those stomachs. 

This year however these messages have not been restricted to magazines or weekend supplements. They have been screamed at us from the main media outlets: “Bulging Britain's fatness epidemic” shrieked the Daily Express; “Fat fighters” hollered The Sun; “Fat Britain: NHS can't cope, say doctors” was the ominous headline from the Daily Telegraph.

The source of these headlines is a report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) entitled: “Action on Obesity: Comprehensive Care For All”.

The Royal College of Physicians, a registered charity, outlines its aim as “to ensure high-quality care for patients by promoting the highest standards of medical practice”. It also advises the government, public and the profession on healthcare issues.

However, the authors do not reference the report from the Body Confidence Parliamentary Inquiry held last year. Witnesses included eating disorder specialists, Weight Watchers and Slimming World, and Dr Susie Orbach, psychotherapist and the convenor of AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK. This report’s recommendations include:

  • A review into the use of BMI as an indicator for health
  • A reframing of health message from a focus on weight-loss to health-enhancing behaviours and the adoption of weight-neutral language
  • A review of the evidence-base to support the long-term efficacy and safety of diets

But on closer inspection of the RCP report perhaps this glaring omission isn’t so peculiar.  I was shocked to see, as stated in the report’s conflict of interests section, that some of the members of the working group that produced the report – some of whom are medical doctors - have financial links to Weight Watchers UK, the Cambridge Weight Plan, Counterweight Plc and Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness magazine.

Is it really any surprise then the report recommends "commissioning weight management services which have proven effectiveness”?

Much has been written about the ineffectiveness of dieting and the research that backs this up. 95% of people who lose weight on diets put it all back on and more within five years. This is one of the reasons we organised our Ditching Dieting campaign outside Parliament last year, timed to coincide with the diet clubs giving their evidence. Diets don’t work because diet clubs’ profits depend on us returning again and again

We are continually scolded that we’re getting bigger and that our bodies are not acceptable as they are and we’re also blamed if we go on diets and don’t lose the weight that an external authority has deemed we must get rid of. The diet industry has infiltrated the health sector and it would seem that, judging by the RCP’s report, doctors are not immune. Indeed it has been the aim of certain diet companies to influence commissioning groups within the NHS to buy in their services for their patients. No surprise really when they are being paid by the diet clubs.

The thrust towards dieting is backed up anecdotally too. I know women who have gone to see their doctors for anything from hearing problems to smear tests who get told that they’re too heavy, that they must lose weight. This is despite the evidence which shows that our weight is not an accurate gauge of our health. Please see the latest research from the Center for Disease Control at NIH which published a major review of mortality and size in JAMA ON January 2nd. This is a very different kind of post Christmas message than the diet industry would like us to hear.

We need open and transparent conversations in the health debate and it’s absolutely imperative that, in order for these to take place, our health professionals are not financially invested in the diet industry. They need to be on the side of their patients, fairly and objectively.



Smaller Than Before: The Politics of Postpartum Bodies 

Image courtesy of Marc Samsom under a Creative Commons license

By Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

A close friend of mine from graduate school was in town over the weekend, someone I hadn’t seen since I was mid-way through my pregnancy. As we briskly walked toward each other, arms outstretched, brimming with wild enthusiasm about our long overdue rendezvous, Amalia blurts out from across the toddler trafficked park, “Oh my God, look at you, you don’t even look like you had a baby! You’re smaller than you were before.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt as we hugged, in the midst of awkwardly digesting her jubilant albeit off the cuff comment about the apparent erasure of my pregnancy. The embrace was cut short as she gently pushed me back to scan every inch of my postpartum body, unable to contain her energized description of how “little” I look, how “tiny” I am – spilling with words she defines as every woman’s dream. Or more to the point, every woman’s goal. 

I want to be marked, in some way, by pregnancy, by the birth of my child. This is not to say that I would have wanted to maintain all the weight gained during pregnancy, but I do feel the body as well as the mind/psyche/heart go through a series of metamorphoses as life is being nourished inside and outside of the body.

Women are constantly shamed for their shape. Prepartum, postpartum, and never-partum. All but the smallest sizes are viewed as less than, not driven enough to surveil every morsel of food ingested, not vigilant enough to carve out time for daily workouts. Even women I know who do embody the cultural ideal – trotting around in the smallest sizes the jean manufacturers are producing these days- even they don’t feel at home in their bodies.

The droning laundry list of things that women say about how they “got their bodies back” include and sadly are not limited to: “breastfeeding is definitely what made the baby weight fly off”, “I got the food delivery service straight away. I was determined to return to my pre-baby wardrobe as quickly as possible and that way I didn’t have to think about what I was eating, it was done for me”, “I started counting calories while in the hospital. I was surprised by how long it took for the weight to come off but I feel like it’s the only thing I can control right now so my focus is sharp”, “not even a moment goes into thinking about my food intake.  I guess I lost it all while running after my rambunctious toddler. He never gives me a break.” 

Amalia is freshly married, 38, ambivalent about having kids. As she blithely puts it as she considers raising a family, “I could take it or leave it.” The ubiquity of psychological disconnection and body disenchantment is illuminated in Amalia’s detailing of my presence. My physicality is noticed first. My size is experienced and discussed in relationship to banishing pregnancy. The absence of body change is asserted as an enviable compliment. Meanwhile, my darling toddler is resting on my hip and I look into his eyes knowing that he grew inside of me and together we altered the feel and shape of my body. And then I think to myself, “Why would we want to erase that?”

Amalia provoked me to reflect on hundreds of fragmented interactions I’ve had with women since my baby was born. Women who are mothers themselves, women dying to get pregnant, women who share their horror of giving birth, “getting fat”, “staying fat”, women who asked me how much weight I gained while pregnant, my own mother reflecting on her speedy loss of “baby weight” and curious about why mine wasn’t slipping off as quickly. The dynamics of women and what we unwittingly do to each other is devastating.  Paralyzing. A cultural vestige all too pervasive.

And then of course we are inundated with endless magazine images of emaciated post-pregnancy “stars” who “got their bodies back instantly.” They pontificate about the various ways women must expunge maternity. The pride taken in shrinking one’s body at any cost is emblematic of a cultural obsession with women not being real women.

The intimacy I experienced with my body and my developing baby during pregnancy was perhaps the most compelling transformation I have ever known. It became, in a way, a metaphor for how I feel about parenthood—a striking awareness of loss of control, simultaneity of surrendering to change on a moment-to-moment basis while experiencing more joy and more fear than the heart can contain. Pregnancy and parenthood invoke an unprecedented heightening of anxiety—excruciating awareness of vulnerability, altering one’s perspective on the fragility of life, as well as a depth of love that redefines the concept. Why would we erase all of this complexity– the physical and psychological makings and markings of pregnancy and parenthood?

I am not necessarily idealizing the experience of pregnancy. I’m not saying women should necessarily enjoy gaining weight, being tattooed with stretch marks, or relish the postpartum belly jiggle. I am attempting to call attention to cultures calamitous requirement that women erase the life-giving process.

As Amalia and I make our way through the throngs of sweaty and spirited toddlers and exit the park, she turns to me and reiterates, “You’re so lucky, you look exactly like you did before.”  There’s a pregnant pause. And I say, “Actually, my body’s changed from having a baby, and that is why I’m lucky.”   

 * * *

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health with a focus on transitions in motherhood, perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, and parent-child attachment. Jessica studied at Harvard University and New York University. She is an award-winning writer and a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS This Emotional Life, among myriad other publications. Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge). Jessica consults on numerous projects pertaining to the motherhood continuum.



Who is the Fairest, Fittest, Fattest, Most Flawless?  

Original image by Debs via creative commons. 


By Jo Harrison AnyBody Activist

In July, we received the news of BBC3’s planned Body Image Season with great enthusiasm, as we believe there are crucial issues within this topic that need to be made part of the public debate, and the BBC is a fantastic arena to raise important issues and question common assumptions. As an organisation that focuses on the cultural and social causes of the distressed and damaged relationship many of us today have with our bodies - relationships which can limit the full potential as of people as human beings - we know that the way we perceive ourselves has a huge effect on what we feel capable of, how we treat ourselves, how we will allow ourselves to be treated and how we treat others.

We know that there are huge problems with the representation of diversity in terms of the body in our culture, especially for women, although men are definitely feeling the burn of our culture’s very narrow ideals, and much needs to be done to make sure people see themselves first and foremost as human beings who have something to contribute to the world, not to feel their potential is rendered unworthy because they don’t match up to an ever shifting (and therefore elusive) idea of perfection.

Unfortunately, upon seeing the first outcomes of the Body Beautiful Season we were concerned about some of the messages being propagated, and the opportunities missed. For one, that the season was finally titled “Body Beautiful”, we felt it sent a slightly skewed message about the cultural value of appearance. The banal tyranny of the word “beauty” stalks most women on a daily basis; in fact, the average British woman thinks about the size and shape of her body roughly every 15 minutes. Whether you’re berating yourself for not being beautiful enough or berating yourself for not waking up every morning with a body-positive “I’m beautiful” feeling of wonder at your own uniqueness, it can hover about like a bad smell. Yes, it’s a word that grabs attention and that’s probably why it was chosen, but body image is a broad topic and under such an umbrella, beauty goes hand in hand with “ugly”, in a world where the pop-cultural go-to format is relentlessly competitive we felt this had an exclusive edge. The tag line of the season, “A new season of BBC Three programmes exploring whether changing your body makes you happy” along with the title seems to suggests that changing one’s body, rather than changing one’s mind, is considered the norm in the quest for happiness.

AnyBody has been watching…


Holli Rubin, Psychotherapist specialising in Body image, watched: I Want to Change My Body

I attended a season preview of the documentary, I Want To Change My Body directed by Sam Emmery. The programme followed 30 young people aged 16-25 as they went on a personal quest to transform their bodies with the hope that the changes would make them happier. Some of the issues explored were extreme weight loss surgery, hair transplant surgery and nose jobs.  Some of the emotions revealed were anxiety, excitement, pressure and fear.  Whilst the feelings were named, they were not expanded upon with enough time and depth to genuinely understand the meaning behind why these youngsters were deciding/choosing to go forward with these drastic physical changes to their bodies. This documentary highlights body-obsessed Britain and reveals the problems through exposing the participants’ dangerous behaviors. On a greater scale, the quest for perfection is societal failure. That stops there. In fact, all of these stories might even entice more young people to consider enhancements to change their own bodies.

The question, “What happens if changing my body doesn’t change the way I feel about myself??” is asked. This is a very important and excellent question. The answers were cursory, shallow and not truly thought about. Questions like this are big and require time to reflect upon. The culture we are living in doesn’t allow for that space or time needed to properly formulate a sound decision. Besides which, there is no one facilitating this process- where are the parents? Or what about the professionals who have an obligation to ask these questions and truly be available to help young adults process the content of their feelings, and then help them weed through understanding the repercussions of their choices should they be disappointed with the outcome?

A general feeling of “needing to get rid of “or “get more of” is what the film reveals. There is no mention, no presentation or suggestion of learning to accept what you have and who you are. Learning to appreciate yourself flaws and all. The theme of striving for unattainable perfection is rampant. There was a comment made about how there is so much available to fix yourself that why wouldn’t you?

The young girl who had always wanted to have a nose job was very fixated and determined. Her excitement throughout the process was real and palpable. I could understand how desperate she was to see herself differently and that because her dissatisfaction was so specific, it felt contained and her desire reasonable; she was convinced, on side and empathic. Until a month later when she had been living in her new nose and was continuing to feel good about this new change that she revealed what I always worries about after her clients have elective surgery:  “I like my nose so much that now I think I will do my boobs - I don’t mind them really but they could be a bit more round”. Oh no, there it was,,, the moment of truth! Do these changes address underlying dissatisfaction? If after one area is “fixed” is it only replaced by yet another target for dissatisfaction? This situation mirrors what the research shows. Many of these young people were suffering from some form of Body Dysmorphia.

There was one young woman whose story was dissimilar. She was a victim of a terrible accident, which left her face scarred and disfigured. This was very different than the others who were wanting to change themselves because of their perceived disfigurement. Ironically, it was she who was the most grounded in her perspective and her reality. There was a mourning that she seemed to be going through and ultimately an acceptance of her situation. She had an accident, which left her scarred-physically and emotionally. She needs to wear a type of mask to keep her face protected and to help the skin heal. The sadness and loss were expressed. Her surgery seemed necessary, and can be validated in a different way than those of the others. 

I Want to Change my Body presented us all with a massive cultural problem, which needs addressing on many levels.


 Jo Harrison watched: Transsexual Teen Beauty Queen 

This isn’t an ideal starting point for discussing the very complex area of what it means to be transgender, since gender and sexuality are intimately linked to body image but are also enormous subjects in their own right. In an ideal world, perhaps it would not be complex at all, where gender fluidity would be an accepted human trait, and physical characteristics such as genitalia might be less of a hindrance to expressing a person’s multifaceted self. But at present such a utopia is not in sight, and what it means to be a woman is so often depressingly surrounded by on all sides by the spectre of beauty.

Eighteen-year old Jackie is seamlessly female to anyone and everyone who doesn’t have access to the chromosome codes in her DNA, and even if they did, what does that matter? She lives as she sees fit, she has done what she felt she had to do to carry on living in a world that has very divisive gender norms. She uses the term gender variant which is very pleasing, after all we know that variety spices up life, for all but lovers of absolute uniformity. The documentary was intelligent and sensitively handled, but it’s a shame that the main crux hinged on participation in a beauty pageant. Jackie’s desire to be an ambassador is brilliant, and the fact that she is funny and bolshy and stylish and swears like a sailor is awesome and shows someone well-rounded despite a very difficult childhood. However, the competitive leitmotif of this season of programming just seemed to reinforce the problems it purports to want to understand, after all, what of other transexual teenagers who may not fit the prescribed “norm” of the gender they ascribe to as successfully as Jackie?

Roanna Mitchell, Body Image Activist and Movement Director, watched: I Hate My Body: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men

This programme appeared to be merely another version of the stream of body-as-freakshow TV, comparable with Channel Four's Supersize versus Superskinny. It may make for 'good TV', however, its content encourages radical and fast-paced transformation (which can have severely detrimental psychological and physical effects). 

There are two major concerns with this programme. Firstly, it offers inspirational material for those who want to change and re-shape their muscle-mass. In the same way as individuals with anorexia may keenly retain any information that will help them to loose weight, those people whose thoughts circulate obsessively around their muscle mass may collect the 'tips and tricks' from this programme: that, if we are not mistaken, was not what the Body Image season was about.

This then leads to the second, and major concern with the programme: Skinny Boys and Muscle Men does not question the concept of an ideal body. It takes for granted that these men need to change in order to be 'happy', rather than asking the obvious question of what is wrong with a society in which a body must always  be monitored, evaluated, and forcefully transformed.

While the inclusion of men and the topic of muscle is an important part of the Body Image debate, this programme does not seem to offer anything much different to what a quick flick through Men's Health magazine can provide. Crucially, what needs to be asked iswhy these men are compelled to do what they do — simply showing how they do it, and turning it into a 'hero's journey', is not enough. 

Jo Harrison watched: Inside the Body Beautiful

The standout comment for me on this programme was the young woman, Lucy, at the beginning discussing her reason to have breast augmentation: “No, I’m not happy with the way I look and I know I can change it.” She wasn’t asked, “What if you couldn’t so easily change it?” and for many it’s not so easy, despite cosmetic surgery being more affordable than perhaps it once was, especially with many clinics offering finance, some people, approximately 3 in 10 according to a cosmetic surgery expert on another programme, are turned away from having surgery for a variety of reasons, medical and psychological. Some argue that surgery offers everyone equal access to beauty, when we do not even have equality in far more fundamental areas, this can’t possibly be true.  

Roanna Mitchell & Jo Harrison watched: Body Image & The Media on Class Clips in the Learning Zone 

This film is also offered as source material for curricular activities around body image. However, the celebrities (often role models) who told their stories within this video merely display their own dissatisfactions with their bodies, normalizing the idea that it is accepted to hate our bodies and that there will always be something we must improve on. These sorts of messages can easily serve to encourage especially young people to further doubt their adequacy (e.g. Do I have man-boobs? Should I always walk around with my chin up to hide a double chin?). What is missing here is the question of why these celebrities feel that way: where are the pressures coming from, and who is profiting from them?

In addition to this video, Nobody’s Perfect on Radio 1 Surgery website, shows deejays from Radio 1 and 1Xtra who volunteered to have their photos dramatically airbrushed to show how far images in the media are manipulated. This website offers the opportunity to distort and re-assemble bodies and faces. We believe that the playful approach to the dissembling and re-arranging of features here encourages a view of the body as an object which can be changed at will, and engages the topic of digital re-touching in a way that offers no creative and productive engagement with the subject.

Jo Harrison watched: “Free Speech” Clips “Bald vs Styled”, “Weave vs Afro”, “Buff vs Skinny”, “Implants vs Natural” and “Hairy vs Smooth”

It’s great that they got people to discuss their various choices but was a shame they added the vs element, which is frustrating, inclusiveness is key to this issue, not divisiveness. On the whole, the individuals speaking who had chosen a more natural appearance seemed more relaxed and confident than those who had chosen the more ‘high-maintenance’ route, even though some had overcome issues to get there. This is not to say that altering one’s appearance will make a person miserable, rather, it seems it is the pressure to do so that causes problems, the freely chosen modifications in some cases seemed to generate an added fear of their loss, or as a condition for being able to indulge in certain activities, like being always ready to go on holiday. On the whole good debate starters.

Jo also watched: Free Speech

Rosi Prescott CEO of Central YMCA, Sabrina Mahfouz Performance Poet and Playwright and Grace Woodward fashion creative, stylist and TV personality were thoughtful and engaging panelists. Venice Fulton, personal trainer, self-regarding “maverick” and author of 6 Weeks to OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends was largely at odds and frustrating to the rest of the panel, not least when he reduced a girl who’d nearly died from an eating disorder to tears for suggesting the title of his book promoted unhealthy attitudes and practices. He had the peculiar air of a cult leader and contradicted himself when insisting that to suggest people with eating disorders or body anxiety were vulnerable to media pressure was a dumbing-down of the issues, despite suggesting that he had to name his book very sensationally to make sure people took note, as Mahfouz insightfully pointed out. Prescott kept the debate grounded with research findings and urged for treating body distress and low self-esteem holistically: “We’ve gotta get away from ‘skinny is great’ and fat is to be vilified, we’ve got to stop stigmatising people on the basis of the way they look and their weight”. Mahfouz and Woodward were both thoughtful and sensitive in handling what for many are provocative issues.

One person watching tweeted that people should have the common sense to see that advertisements are real, but the lines between entertainment, editorial and advertising can blur to the point where a magazine article is a thin veil for an ad and a viral ad is something people share to amuse or wow their friends.

On the subject of the cause of body anxiety and media regulation, Fulton was emphatic that, “The Media” is merely a mirror of society, one that does not influence us but that is influenced by us. If that were true then advertising, marketing and spin doctoring would be not be aspirational career options. Both Prescott and Woodward disagreed explaining that the truth is more complex and we absolutely agree. In all fairness though, Fulton's metaphor was insufficient since the media's mirror-like qualities cannot be unbiased and is more comparable with a fairground hall of mirrors, mirrors after all are not all reliable in showing us our true selves, they can distort and also only present us with evidence of the two-dimensional.

At the beginning of this episode there was a great clip with Olympic athlete Zoe Smith, who publicly responded to internet trolls who criticised her appearance during the games, her attitude is great, she's smart, likeable, inspiring and accomplished, why there wasn't more of this throughout the season is anyone's guess.

Image from Wikipedia.

Beauty Sparring

The Free Speech episode was probably the high-point of the Body Beautiful season since it wasn’t concerned with maintaining any particular entertainment-heavy narrative and was open to discussion. What came up over and over again was the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, artificial enhancements and superficial “fixes”; yet the absence of questions such as, “Would you prefer to feel better without going through all of this?” or “What if there were a way to feel better without physically changing a thing?” is bewildering, especially if this is to be a one-off season rather than an introduction to more exploratory programming on what people really need to feel contented with themselves. There’s also the fact that this season, by and large, dealt with quite extreme body issues, pushing the discussion to limits where there is fear and heightened emotions around inadequacy, exclusion and health hysteria. What is also important are the issues surrounding what is becoming the norm, and many efforts to make decent change and promote body diversity (something research suggests is beneficial to all) is met with the dull thudding of obesity-scaremongering and BMI-loving tub-thumpers who insist that representing diverse body shapes promotes obesity. They seem to have failed to notice that while we’ve been fed a meagre visual diet of impossible flawlessness and ever shrinking thin models for years, we also have a very, very prosperous diet industry that seems to create more problems than it solves. 

The biggest issue was the emphasis on competition, the use of versus and pageant culture throughout the programming, the online clips and educational content reflected that which pervades much of pop-culture fare such as celeb mag staple Who Wore it Best?, or TV's Supersized versus Superskinny and Next Top Model etc. Our consumption of the idea that everything is a battle and there must be winners (which inevitable creates losers) is hugely problematic, especially when dealing with body image which is so often linked to self-esteem, a topic ill-served by lazy formatting. We’ve had a great deal of competition on our screens this year, some healthy some less so, it’s not great to see athlete’s Olympic hopes dashed, but we accept that for most people sporting prowess is only one element of a person’s worth, otherwise we’d all be racing each other to bus-stops and getting hernias showing we can carry our weekly shop to the car without a trolley. Pitting people against each other and requiring external approval, as if there is a general consensus and only a limited number of ways to being considered “beautiful” or acceptable, is one of the reasons people feel distressed enough to want to drastically change their bodies. The vested commercial interest in encouraging competition is as divisive as any means to exert or accrue power, we’re encouraged to take against one other rather than the system that suggests we’re all somehow inadequate based on a criteria that is like shifting sand.  What seemed to come up over and over was the need for those who are perceived to be somewhere outside the realms of acceptable - whether as a fat woman, a skinny man, or a transgender individual - to be able to “do what everyone else does”, which boils down to taking the format of a contest, in which there is only one winner, and apply it to themselves despite their potentially subversive power as individuals with qualities that exist beyond the edges of a mirror. Of course, being different is never easy and anyone who has ever been bullied or singled out for difference will want in some way, or at some point, to assimilate. But this is social failure on a large scale,  a failure of our society to see the beauty in people as the same and yet different, for allowing ourselves to be coerced into valuing the things that money can buy and disregarding those things which are completely recession-proof.

As an example of the media, the BBC's Body Beautiful Season seemed to be a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, suggesting we are doomed to endless demonstrations of oneupmanship, that even factual entertainment cannot see beyond the “reality” format of weeding out a “winner” from a group of hopefuls, who lay some of their self-worth at the feet of judges. If this continues, don’t we all lose?

Other related & excellent links:

Central YMCA

Girl Guiding’s role models

All Walks Beyond the Catwalk

Body Gossip

Campaign for Body Confidence

Centre for Appearance Research

Health at Every Size?



An awareness of negative messages is not enough.


Yesterday this piece: "'Ugly girl': The negative messages we send to our daughters:We tell young women that they can achieve anything they want, but the extra pressures are everywhere to be seen." by Laura Bates appeared in The Independent. It's heartbreaking and sadly very true. Most women can sympathise with the words by a 15 year old girl that prompted the piece.

"I always feel like if I don’t look a certain way, if boys don’t think I’m ‘sexy’ or ‘hot’ then I've failed and it doesn't even matter if I am a doctor or writer, I'll still feel like nothing...successful women are only considered a success if they are successful AND hot, and I worry constantly that I won't be."

As Germaine Greer wrote in her 1999 book The Whole Woman “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.” I was at college when I read that book and quoted it in a presentation, I remember a fellow student named Guy being aghast at that statement, I explained that it wasn't about women being shallow, but rather that the feeling comes from societal expectations, and his precise words were "what kind of women are we raising?" Well twelve years on and things have only gotten worse. There are now a great deal of twelve year old girls who were babies when Guy and I had that conversation, who are now scrutinising and berating themselves in the mirror daily, trying to lose weight, hoping for the right kind of breasts, considering surgery once they're old enough, having absorbed so many messages throughout their young lives that makes such preoccupations not only understandable but inevitable. These messages will have come from their mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, TV programmes, advertisements, magazines, cartoons, movies, newspapers, everywhere, it's practically in the air we breathe. 

Our very own group member Holli Rubin is quoted in Bates' piece, “this is a problem of epidemic proportions. Over 60% of adults feel ashamed of how they look…when we put ourselves down in front of our children we are modelling a very negative view.  This gets passed down to children who internalize it and consequently begin to feel the same way.”

Kids listen and absorb a hell of a lot, they're sponges for information explicit and implicit, that's why most adults try not to swear around children, because they have great memories. I remember a lot of things about my mum from when I was little, I recall I was gleefully able to say "shit" over and over with impunity after she burned herself getting cake out of the oven and said..."shit"; she listened to Radio 4 a lot and I'm told I sat in my high-chair saying "Order, Order"; I remember her being tired and having headaches all the time, which I thought was normal but it was because she suffred from anxiety and depression and one of the first things I said was "Mummy I'm worried". I'm now a member of the adult anxiety and depression club, it wasn't her fault, she told me all the time that I was special and clever and I was a confident kid but her actions betrayed her words. And when school bullies swooped in, as they do for most people, perhaps there were cracks in the armour she'd tried to build for me and my confidence took a battering. But it's what we take from those external things and tell ourselves over an over that settle and spread. And those external messages come from people that love us and want to keep us safe even while they hurt themselves and they come from mass media.

Gossip magazines such as Heat and Tabloids like The Sun, that revel in celebrity culture and set out to "reveal" the truth about the lives and bodies of a privileged and notorious few, only really reveal an editorially endorsed hatred of women's bodies and a desire to capitalise on insecurities and rivalry between people who might otherwise be able to admire each other, or at least legitimately dislike each other for good reason, if for once they/we were allowed to be valued for things other than physical attributes. 

Many of us are complicit in this culture, buying these magazines even though we know they're "trashy" and mean, it can be seen as ironic, as if somehow that view renders the reader immune. The tabloid press have adapted along the same lines seeing the success of Heat and all the others (there's a reason it's often referred to by an anagram of its title "Hate" magazine) The Daily Mail's femail bar on its website drools revoltingly over the bodies of women, slavering praise on taut, post-baby bodies and spitting venom upon women who perhaps don't do their hair to go and buy stamps and so fall short of whatever contradictory ideals they're promoting that week. Like the celeb mag, the journalists peddling these opinions, who often aren't named (hmm wonder why?) write as if their inspiration is the nastiest school bully, you know, the kind who pretends to be your best friend one second only to dismiss or tear you down the next. Bullies want an audience, willing devotees, control. The best way to do that is to always make sure your victims are on the back foot, unsure of where they stand, insecure. Being consistently mean to someone is upsetting, but people can rely on consistency, you know where you stand with consistency, it's easier to say "ENOUGH" when someone's being consistent. But it's a different story with someone that charms you, promises things and tells you you're fabulous no matter what, but the next day is slagging off a girl just like you...or paying back-handed compliments. You loved the charm, you want it back, you go back for more, as long as they're poking fun at others they're leaving you alone right? Ever read The Game by Neil Strauss and the bit about "negging'?


It's a way to pick up girls. How it works is you use remarks to tap into female insecurity; Shake their confidence. Neg is a negative remark wrapped in a back-handed compliment. 

So your neg will confuse and intrigue them and maybe even shake their confidence a little bit...[Urban Dictionary]
Much mass media seems to be based on this very concept: "You're WORTH IT! Here's something to reflect that...some shampoo!" Might a college scholarship, job prospects, equality, respect, or something of actual worth reflect worth? Saying "you're great, but wash your hair" is not the way to sustain confidence or robust self-worth.

How do we fix this? There's lots of work being done, but the negative messages fall on us like avalanches, many are buried beneath. For starters it has to be seen as a serious problem and not just "easy" or "sexy" feminism. Tackling the machines that run on these messages is an enormous undertaking, the press, beauty and diet industries have enormous resources and advertising space everywhere but the insides of our eyelids, although having taken root in our brains seems to have been successful since in a recession guess which industries are reporting growth? The rhetoric of "choice" is used often to brush these issues under the carpet as if choosing to have breast implants means that one has chosen to have no voice as if that purchase renders debate moot. But the fact that it's a choice in the first place? That in itself is questionable. When it's a choice of either have your body cut open or hate yourself? It's like being asked if you'd prefer to be given a wedgie or an elbow drop, obvious the most appealing choice is neither but if that's out of the question you'd choose the wedgie right? Does that mean that people can't criticise whoever insisted you choose and exacted the punishments? Does choosing make you complicit? And even if it were so, does it mean there's nothing to be gained from getting people to feel fine as they are? Obviously there are some who stand to lose much if that were the case.

As well as collaborating as a movement we can do things as individuals, as families and as people out in the world. We can question our appearance-based assumptions of others; we can avoid engaging in looks one-up-womanship, y'know where someone says, "Oh I feel so faaat in this dress, I look awful!" and then you say "Oh don't be silly, I look awful!"; when we meet young girls we can try not to comment on their appearance even if they do look pretty, say nice things about what they're good at or ask them things about what they enjoy. These small acts are resistance made large by many people just thinking twice before speaking. Words are so powerful.

What needs to grow is acceptance of our bodies as OURS. Not public property to be dismissed for taking up space or celebrated for conforming. If we saw others caring for themselves and others as frequently as we see competition and negativity, it could grow and we would in turn influence those around us. We know our needs. We know our desires. But we have to find a way to drown out the brainwashing and really listen.

By Jo Harrison AnyBody UK 


Body confidence report out now

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image has today published its report into the causes and consequences of body image dissatisfaction in the UK today.

The report is based on evidence submitted to a public Inquiry which was conducted between November 2011 and February 2012.  It includes evidence from a range of organisations and individuals, including representatives from industry, the voluntary sector, healthcare professionals, academics and the general public; Professor Susie Orbach, convenor of AnyBody/UK Endangered Bodies provided evidence, as well as AnyBody member Sue Thomason. The report can be accessed here:

Central YMCA, a national health and education charity, will now be working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image and a number of other non-commercial organisations to take forward the policy recommendations in a campaign which will be launched later this year which will raise public awareness of many of the issues contained in the report.

We would encourage you to complete a short survey on the website and to comment on the report  – it will help us inform the campaign we are launching later in the year.