Skinny shaming and mental health – one for the ladies

skinny shaming

In our shiny, digitally enhanced and airbrushed modern world, body image and poor mental health are – unfortunately – inextricably linked. I’d like to share some thoughts on one particular brand of female body shaming that often seems to slip under the radar and is still lowering self esteems and causing misery among the female population today.

Some time ago I had the misfortune of catching the film Salt on the TV. When it became obvious that Angelina Jolie’s CIA-agent-on-the-run wasn’t the most believable character  – enter gravity defying lorry hopping stunts and an immaculate hair-dye job while on the run – I turned to alternative entertainment. Twitter.

“Nothing feminine about Angelina Jolie! Far too thin!” screeched @JazzyFizzle4man. “As if Angelina Jolie can take on these guys. She is a twig. I’m calling BS,” chortled @lauramcglone. Just as I was starting to despair over AJ’s boneability, @Taff_Hollywood hit my newsfeed with: “Regardless of what anyone says, I would still do Angelina Jolie.” PHEW.

With a female lead voted sexiest woman alive more times than OK! Magazine has printed photos of Kerry Katona’s arse, sadly it’s not shocking the film’s plot was sidelined for debate on her waistline. What was dire, however, was how readily viewers aired their disgust at her lean figure. Jolie was looking a little on the gaunt side, for sure, but after training two hours a day three or four times a week for the role, she was never going to be popping out of her pencil skirt. It’s not the first time the actress has been lambasted for her size, but I have to wonder if she was tipping the other end of the scales would we be so quick to tell her that she was overweight.

Because there’s something we seem to forget when we talk about the female form. Pointing out excess weight is cruel and unnecessary, yes? So is skinny shaming.

I’ve never been a big girl, but it’s not through choice. I’m certainly not extremely thin, but in my experience people tend to assume that a slighter frame comes only from a diet of mung beans and compulsive spin classes. I find this insulting because I love food. I love food so much that if I’m not fed every two hours I lose the ability to form sentences. I refuse to go to restaurants on first dates because I know the excitement of impending culinary magic will distract me from the guy I’m there with. “I love you more than cheese” is a platitude which carries immeasurable weight coming from me, because, seriously…CHEESE.  The implication that I’d curtail this love affair to stay ‘skinny’ irritates me more than you’ll ever know.

Glorifying being skinny and fetishising thinness is never OK. I can’t even begin to describe how much work the fashion industry and media-at-large have to do before they stop peddling unrealistic body images. But not everyone under size 10 becomes an automatic role-model for thinspiration. It is possible to consume your body mass in mince pies now and again, and still naturally err on the slender side, and there’s a real tendency to underestimate how hurtful being called skinny is when you’re demonstrably lacking in so-called ‘feminine’ curves.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of incidents occurring at various points in my life; that you should never mirror if you want to avoid being a dick to someone that’s smaller than you. DO NOT:

  • Utter the words “Oh but you obviously don’t eat anyway” – assuming that solids don’t generally pass my lips, even though my hair has yet to fall out and I still have gums, is annoying.
  • Physically prod the stomach area, accompanied by exclamations of “there’s nothing there!” Get off. Immediately. Would you do the same if you noticed I was packing an extra roll round my midriff? Didn’t think so.
  • Allude to inherent weakness or being scared to touch me in case I ‘snap’. Careful bitch, I could stab you with my collar bone.
  • Act like my size is so repellent it’s offensive to be seen next to me. “I’m not standing next to you in a bikini, you’ll make me look fat”, etc. How do you think I feel knowing that your curves make me look like a pre-pubescent boy? It works both ways, but evidently I’m 100 times more polite.
  • Use the words skinny, bony, stick insect or beanpole. No. Just no. STOP IT. I’m not ‘about to slip through a drain’, either.
  • Assume that a lack of blubber makes for a Siberian winter. “You must be so cold, there’s no fat on you!” LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Unless you’re comparing me to a polar bear, this is ridiculous.

So let’s all simmer down and make room for the petite amongst us (they only need a little bit of room) without pursing our lips or murmuring cruelly about ‘real women’. It ain’t good form – and in this world of oft-celebrated diversity, we can afford to remove that last barrier of acceptable prejudice.

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Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

extra-extra-news2

“Killer pilot suffered from depression.”

“Depressed German deliberately flew into mountain.”

“Suicide pilot had a long history of depression – why on earth was he allowed to fly?”

By now you’d have to have been trapped deep in the wilderness in a cave guarded by angry honey badgers not to know that Andreas Lubitz – the Germanwings pilot responsible for last week’s tragic plane crash – had previously suffered from a mental illness. These tabloid headlines build a very simple equation for the public masses clamouring to know how anyone could carry out such a monstrous act – depression equals danger.

This isn’t just irresponsible and insensitive reporting – it’s a fantastic way to try and wipe out years of toil against mental illness stigma, through the scribble of a pen. So far all we know about Lubitz is that the police found torn up sick notes in his flat and that he was unwell in 2009 with something that may or may not have been depression. What has this meant to the papers? That 150 plane passengers were murdered by a mental illness.

One in five people will endure clinical depression at some point in their lives (I strongly believe this figure could be much higher – stigma makes many hide their illness). That’s around 350 million depressives worldwide. One of them has crashed a plane which is, obviously, horrific. That doesn’t mean everyone else suffering from the illness is a potentially murderous risk to the safety of the public at large – we mustn’t confuse a terrible, debilitating mental health condition with motive to do harm.

I can’t, and I won’t, speculate on why this man took down a plane full of innocent human beings. The truth is we’ll probably never know what was behind his actions. Did something slip through the net during his health check-up? Don’t know. Was he actually supposed to be signed off work sick? No idea. Was he harbouring secret mass murder plots hatched between himself and his pet hedgehog, Wolfgang? I know more about nuclear fission than I do this subject. What I do know, however, is that massive headlines equating past experience of mental illness with colossal risk is misleading and dangerous. In the case of depression, stigma literally costs lives.

I hated listening to the news when I was clinically depressed a few years ago. Not that I particularly enjoy the relentless barrage of negativity now, but a few years ago when I was poorly the radio bulletins literally felt like a physical assault on my ears. I’d hear tales of misery from war-torn countries and wonder what the point of living in such a terrible world was. I’d see the story about the mentally ill mother who killed herself and her two children and feel the white-hot creep of terror that my illness might turn me into someone like that. If something like this had hit the headlines while I was in the throes of self-esteem-eroding, guilt-soaked and paranoia-laden mental illness I know I would have really struggled. People with depression can already feel (totally illogically) that they’re bad people, a danger to society or just generally incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks without cocking it up. When they see these darkest fears confirmed in bold newspaper print, instead of laughing it off as bad journalism they may well believe it and just sink further into self doubt.

I have many friends and family members that have lived through depression and currently hold down all kinds of positions of responsibility. They’re doctors, teachers, support workers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I work in a children’s centre. We’re all fantastic at our jobs.

I don’t know what the protocol for pilots that are in the middle of mental health treatment is – of course the assessment for those in charge of safely transporting us across the skies should be rigorous and examined on a case-by-case basis. Should anyone that’s currently suffering from severe depression with brain fog, poor concentration, exhaustion, back pain and all it’s other varied symptoms be flying a plane? Of course not. Clinical depression is a physical illness too – I could barely safely drive a car when I was at my worst, let alone a plane. But there’s a vast difference between responsible reporting about a man who was suffering from an ‘unspecified illness’ who perhaps should have been signed off sick, to making a broad and generalised link between someone having ‘a history of depression’ and the idea that they shouldn’t have been in employment.

People make full recoveries from depression all the time. It’s actually likely that they go on to become healthier, more useful individuals than those never bitten by the black dog – facing the future with a new perspective and better ways to manage stress. I never really paid much attention to my health before I became depressed – now I’m uncompromising about looking after myself, and this has a positive ripple effect across my life, relationships and capability in the workplace.

Linking experience of depression with risk and danger isn’t just irresponsible, it doesn’t make any sense. Someone in full remission from cancer wouldn’t be expected to taper their career and general life expectations – depression is no different. The last twenty years or so have seen a surge in public acceptance of depression as what it is – a horrible and indiscriminate illness that can affect anyone, anywhere, that you can completely recover from – but judging by this last week’s press, we still have a long way to go.

Giving ‘Blue Monday’ the finger

 

batman

It’s that time of year again. December’s festive bickering over the last Quality Street and Auntie Marge’s gin-fuelled racist rants at Christmas lunch have passed through the January-depression-memory-adjuster, leaving only fuzzy memories of family bliss and jolly games of Scrabble around the log fire. You’re reminded that it’s January, you haven’t kept any of your New Year’s resolutions, you’re broke and the mince-pie thighs are still expanding. You now resemble a walrus.

Or so the media, detox-diet advertisers and the creators of today’s ‘Blue Monday’ love to tell us every bloody year. No, I’m not talking about New Order’s awesome 80’s anthem. PUT THE GLOW STICKS DOWN. Alas the infuriating phenomenon I refer to uses some sort of nonsensical equation incorporating variables such as ‘weather’, ‘motivation’ and the ‘post Christmas slump’ to pinpoint the most depressing day of the year as the third Monday in January.

Get ready to crawl under the nearest duvet/sofa/fridge, dear readers, for that apex of doom is in fact today. It’s allegedly the most popular day of the year for divorce proceedings to begin, a time to start worrying about Valentine’s Day and supposedly a day we can expect an avalanche of woeful and grumpy tweets to fill the internet.

I say ‘supposedly’ because, what’s that, Buzz…?

buzz

 

Yep.

Fine, it’s January. Yes, it’s a tad chilly. Christmas is over. I still haven’t saved up enough money to buy a second hand Volvo, nor have I written my first novel, married a Persian Prince or come up with a cure for Alien Hand Syndrome. I’m feeling quite chipper though. Not having mulled wine foisted upon me at every opportunity is actually quite nice, in fact I was more than happy to see the back end of Christmas and purge my house of tinsel. I never bother with New Year’s resolutions. Spring is coming. As far as Mondays go, this one feels anything but blue – in fact as the afternoon sun laughs through my window it’s positively glowing orange.

I wonder if instead of telling us when we should be feeling grim, the media might stop talking about fictional depression days conjured up by useless equations, and spend their time actually highlighting the real issues surrounding mental illness? Just a thought.

To conclude, if you’re still in any doubt as to whether today really is the most depressing day of the year, I leave you with Grumpy Cat. What do you think, GC?

no

 

Well alright then.

Christmas marketing and the hysteria illusion

Bad Santa

“Why do they call it ‘Christmas time’, when ‘time’ is the one thing you don’t have at Christmas?” sighs the Curry’s voice-over man on the radio. Before we have a chance to ponder whether this is true, he’s chipper as a grotto elf and explaining how the electrical shop plans to make buying their wares ‘stress free’ this party season.

It’s December, and if mass media is to be believed there’s an unspeakable force of evil in town – jolly ol’ Saint Nick.

We all know that things can get a little stressful at this time of year, what with all the panic sock purchases, the inexplicable need to photocopy your bum at the office party and limited time to eat your body mass in mince pies. The last thing we need is a constant reminder of just how tense we should be feeling. Except, unfortunately, the big brands have long since figured out a way to make cut prices and next-day-delivery all the more appealing in their festive advertising campaigns – by pretending Christmas is the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.

‘Oh isn’t Christmas horrible,’ we chortle, as our chapped, bleeding hands get to work on wrapping present number 73,’ but thank goodness all these random brands are here to whip up some festive hysteria and get us to spend loads of money on things we didn’t know we needed!’

I recall Morrisons doing a particularly spectacular job of aligning Christmas Day with Dante’s seventh circle of hell a couple of years ago. ‘Here it begins. It’s everywhere. There’s so much to do…’ whispered a possibly clinically depressed Mum, who morosely trudges through her Christmas ‘to do’ list with all the festive enthusiasm of a dead kipper. She literally gets in the boxing ring with the turkey, practically has a nervous breakdown while peeling the spuds and eventually proclaims: ‘It’s hard work, but it’s Christmas and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’ Did we believe her? I put it to you, readers, that it was actually Morrisons that ‘wouldn’t have it any other way’ otherwise who would be bulk buying their cranberry sauce on Christmas Eve?

If you’re battling mental illness the holiday season can be tricky enough to deal with, without the big corporates trying to make you feel even more overwhelmed. So I try not to let myself within a cubic centimetre of the TV at this time of year, even if the John Lewis ad really does embody the ‘magic of Christmas’ and will make you cry snowflakes.

If you weren’t already feeling a little strained, fear not – crimbo advertising will have you hyperventilating into a paper bag before the year is out. Next are touting their next-day-delivery as the eighth wonder of the world, Ocado promises to ‘take the stress out of Christmas’ and Aldi warns you to stock-pile novelty napkins at once with their creepy ‘once they’re gone they’re gone’ mantra. Forget Yuletide joy – if the marketing Gods are to be believed it’s all about burned out shoppers beating each other out of the way with Advocaat bottles before flinging themselves off Rochester Bridge in despair. Tis the season, indeed.

Is Christmas really so terrible? Of course not, we’re being duped. It’s not about buying everything in sight until your home resembles an Ikea catalogue page. It’s about quality time with loved ones, going to stare at the twinkling, luminous Oxford Street lights, making mulled wine at home, badly, hanging up tacky, fluorescent paper chains and mopping up the dog’s puke when you forget to hang the Christmas tree chocolates above snout height.

This Christmas, instead of battling fellow shoppers for the last cut-price pigs in blankets, I’ll be tuning out the avalanche of bile taking over the TV and radio waves and actually enjoying myself. Spending time with people I care about, exchanging sloppily wrapped gifts and not having a hernia because someone forgot to buy the Pringles. It may not be as ‘perfect’ as the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference advert, but I’ll bet it will be traditional.

Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

robin williams

Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and somewhat confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss that really isn’t going to improve. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.

No More Page 3 – an ode to tits and arse

No-More-Page-3

I remember The Sun newspaper littering the worn coffee tables of my school common room. The boys in the year above comparing Page Three models to various girls they’d seen naked. Katie from Dorset, 34DD, out on display like strawberry millions in the local sweet shop window. She was an aspiring photographer, apparently.

I remember listening to my male friends’ open commentary on which model had the best breasts out of those adorning lad’s mag covers in our local newsagents. The first time I camped out at Reading Festival and the boys decorated the tents with a paper-chain of lesbian porn mags. Feeling ashamed and stuffing my bra with cotton wool to match these buxom ladies, and ending up with lumpy boobs.

I grew up aware of female objectification, surrounded by it in fact. At school we were active participants in our own subordination – rolling our skirts up until they were a mere puffy grey bulge connecting hip and upper thigh, cooing over the ‘fit list’ that circulated round our year 8 class, trying to hide barely repressed pride the first time a white van man honked his horn at us. Such was the way of the world and we accepted our female bodies as vessels for lust, vying for male attention and adoration, competing with each other via lipstick and push-up bra weaponry to live up to the images of femininity peddled by the media that enveloped us.

It was only when I lived and worked in Honduras briefly aged 21 and suffered daily cat-calls, hisses and spitting from local men in the street, that something truly and irrevocably sank in. Being treated differently for occupying a female body wasn’t just frustrating and irritating. It was frightening. My grasp of Spanish was lacking, but even I soon knew my way around Latino slang for ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘cheap’.

Whether I knew how it affected me at the time or not, I grew up surrounded by tits and arse. These days I’m grown up enough to know that my bra size isn’t the sum of my worth, but I know as a self conscious adolescent this conveyor belt of female objectification made me feel inadequate. And it was everywhere. The man on the bus flipping through topless photos of Paris Hilton, bikini-clad women on the front page of the Mail in the corner shop, raunchy magazines carelessly strewn in the gutter.

Depression is around twice as common in women as in men. About one in four females are bitten by the black dog at some point during their lifetime – this isn’t about to change while girls grow up enveloped in a media culture that ascribes value based on their bodies rather than their achievements.

‘Turn the page’, David Cameron once said – asserting that it’s the ‘parent’s responsibility’ to protect their children from inappropriate images in the media. ‘There are some things you don’t want your children to see and you should make sure they don’t see them.’ I’m fairly certain the only way a parent could truly shield their child from the kind of sexism and objectification our society promotes, would be to blind and deafen them.

So I’m supporting the No More Page 3 campaign, and I’ve signed the petition asking editor David Dinsmore to take the bare boobs out of The Sun newspaper. If you too have a problem with insidious displays of female availability in the media, then you should sign the petition here.

My young mind was yet to start really asking questions when I didn’t see being surrounded by wholesale female nudity as anything but the norm. I just don’t want my children growing up thinking that seeing naked ladies in the family newspaper is ordinary.