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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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.

Find me on Instagram – I’ll send you a tweet, then see you on Facebook, yeah?

 

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Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace, Friends Reunited, Tumblr, Instagram – modern society is infinitely connected. Isn’t it fantastic? You’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world. On the downside…you’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world.

The modern culture of online sharing – or the endless sea of links to videos of transsexual dogs and articles slagging off David Cameron – has taken off like Apollo 11 in recent years. While this has opened us up to a glut of easy-access information and learning opportunities, there are drawbacks, especially for those of us vulnerable to depression and low self esteem.

Social media is a playground for narcissism. Every Facebook-status-updater, Tweeter and Instagram addict is in the business of marketing his or her online presence in the best possible light, aiming to incite news-feed wide jealousy and admiration, whether they’ll admit to it or not. Retweeting that filthy political joke Caitlin Moran posted because you ‘want others to enjoy it as much as you did?’ No. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to affirm your status as a hilarious wit who ‘gets’ high-brow comedy. Posting that selfie because your friend wanted to see your new haircut? You’re fooling no-one, it’s obvious you just want people to see how a bob sets off your delicious cheekbones. If instant gratification is measurable in ‘likes’ then Facebook is essentially the internet’s answer to crack cocaine.

The average person in the UK apparently spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen, and for some a sizeable chunk of that involves scrolling through their friends’ carefully edited digital lives, practically expiring with jealousy, before plotting clever status updates and uploading flattering photos to create the illusion their life is even more perfect.

Living in the moment, we are not – and it’s impacting our mental health.

I’ve never been a massive consumer of social media – I had a brief flirtation with Twitter but these days it’s solely Facebook that I dip in and out of – but even I’m not immune to being sucked into the narcissism vortex. Recently I noticed it had become habit to wander onto the Book even when I was working, and I was actually doing this several times an hour. I wasn’t even particularly enjoying this time – aimlessly scrolling through friends’ holiday snaps, reading boring status updates about cats, updating the online world on something I thought was hilarious – it had just become an ingrained habit, and it never made me feel particularly great about myself.

Luckily, just as you can create bad habits, you can undo them too.

I started by setting myself a strict thrice-a-day Facebook check in policy – only allowing myself to log in once after breakfast, lunch and dinner. Initially I had to exercise a modicum of self restraint and resist the urge to stray into social networking territory while working, but after just a couple of days I found I wasn’t even thinking about who might be checking into Heathrow on FourSquare, and I was much more focused on work projects. After about a week I started to find that looking at Facebook three times a day was too much, so I cut back to two browsing sessions. Then one. Now I probably log in no more than once a day and my primary objective is to read any private messages that have come my way – I’ll take a cursory glance at the newsfeed but to be honest it doesn’t really interest me any more.

The hyperactive stream of status updates, news stories, photos and videos that used to assault and engage with my brain every time I looked at Facebook has become like the gentle hum of background noise in a cafe. I’ll occasionally tune in to the clinking of china and distant sounds of chit-chat, but primarily I’m focused on my own space in the room.

Do I feel any different for my less socially-networked life? Yes. There are palpable changes for the better – I’m calmer, more focused and I feel far less compelled to tell the online world every time I think of or see something amusing. I don’t need to write something witty and have people ‘like’ it to feel validated, I’m just happy to enjoy the moment by myself, or maybe with a close friend. By spending less time peering through the keyhole into my friends’ fabulous online lives I’m less concerned with how my own life compares. My self esteem is actually higher.

All this from just spending less time on social networks? It seems crazy. But it just goes to show what kind of effect these sites have on the psyche – and serves as a reminder that the only person I need to impress is myself, not a virtual room full of online ‘friends’.

That’s not to say we should all forever avoid Facebook like it’s an overly handsy Uncle – it certainly has it’s place for occasional fun and boredom alleviation – but you know what else is fun? Going outside. Where there are actual trees, not just the kind that adorn your screensaver. Do it.