Giles Fraser: A false ideal that erodes self-worth

16 February 2011

Why did she do it? Claudia Adero­timi, aged 20, from Hackney, flew to Philadelphia for a bargain-basement operation to enhance her bottom. She was an aspiring hip-hop dancer, and wanted to look curvier, like the singer Beyoncé. The procedure was carried out in a hotel near the airport. A few hours afterwards, she died.

Why did she do it? Unfortunately, the answer is all around us. We live in a culture saturated with distorted ideals of body image. Ms Aderotimi’s death dramatises a feature of modern life that has become ubiquitous: that we can reshape our bodies according to whatever ideal we are being sold by the fashion and diet industries. The photos of models in magazines are digitally enhanced to make them fit with an ideal that even they cannot achieve with excessive dieting and daily trips to the gym.

Over the next few days, up the road from me at Somerset House, pencil-thin girls, balancing on sur­realist constructions formerly known as shoes, will convey a message to my intrigued daughters that this is what attractive looks like. Today is the start of London Fashion Week.

Yet the outward glitz conceals inner anguish. At a recent event at the National Portrait Gallery, the super­model Erin O’Connor described her­self as feeling like a “commodity”. “Fashion”, she said “is built on perpetuating fantasy. There is a sense of uniformity. We have forgotten how to be individuals.”

An all-party Parliamentary group on body image is being launched next month, but it will have its work cut out to resist the power of the media. Lorraine Candy, editor-in-chief of Elle, hit back at suggestions that tamper­ing with images of models in glamorous magazines ought to be regulated in some way. “We’re pro­ducing what women want. If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t buy it,” she insisted.

Yet this is disingenuous. They want it because they are constantly told that they want it. Again and again, they are told that this is what beautiful looks like by people such as her. Capitalism’s dark genius is that it creates the very demand that it satisfies, while being in­different to the psychological col­lateral damage.

Anyone who doubts the signifi­cance of all this ought to read the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach’s Bodies (Profile Books, 2009), where she charts the depth of suffering and mental disorder that is created by the distorted images of bodies pro­moted by the fashion and diet industries.

I like the look of beautiful women. But this is different. This false ideal gen­er­ates a deep sense of shame for those who do not have airbrushed-up anorexic figures. It is eroding our children’s sense of self-worth. It needs external regulation.

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