Weight watchers

by Ian Sinclair
January 19, 2007

Another year, another issue of Heat magazine obsessing about the weight of female celebrities.  January means dieting, so take a tip from the stars, exclaims Heat.  First up is 37-year old Catherine Zeta Jones weighing in at a huge 10 stone, who thanks to Weight Watchers is now a much more sensible 9 stone.[i]  So well done Catherine.  But what effect does celebrity news and women’s magazines fixation on womens bodies have on the majority of their readers - women themselves?


 A 2004 Bliss magazine survey of 2,000 girls gives an indicative, if shocking, insight into young women’s relationship with their bodies today.  According to the poll almost every teenage girl hates the way they look.  While 19 percent of those questioned were overweight, an astonishing 67 percent thought they were overweight.[ii]


Along with the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia, it is likely a number of those questioned suffer from a disabling condition unknown 20 years ago.  It has been estimated Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) afflicts more than 600,000 people in the UK, making them  abnormally preoccupied with an imagined or minor defect in their appearance.  Those who have BDD often sink into months of depression, cycles of self-harming and according to one expert 25 per cent have attempted suicide.[iii]


This disgust with their own bodies is no doubt the main reason two out of three girls under the age of 13 said they had already been on a diet, according to the Bliss survey.  Dieting is to women what football is to men: a national obsession, comments Diet Breakers Director Mary Ann Evans.[iv]


Worryingly young girls are increasingly looking to more extreme solutions to counter their poor body image - more than a quarter of 14 year olds surveyed said they had considered having plastic surgery.  This bodes well for the future of the cosmetic surgery industry, already experiencing significant growth with almost 700,000 cosmetic operations performed in Britain in 2006, at a cost of £539 million.  By 2009, market analyst Mintel expects this to top one million, at a cost of almost £1 billion.[v]  The British Association of Plastic Surgeons notes that women make up 92 percent of their customers, with breast augmentation, breast reduction, eyelid surgery and facelifts being the most popular operations.[vi]


Every thinking individual will be dismayed by these statistics, but we need to remember certain industries have a vested interest in increasing womens anxiety about their bodies and aggravating their low self-esteem.  The list is long - the beauty industry, the diet industry, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, advertising and women’s magazines. This is not some kind of grand conspiracy against women, simply an attempt to maximise profits.


Although there are many factors that lead to low self-esteem and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, as a conduit for many of these interested parties the media clearly plays a central role.  In 2000 the British Medical Association made the link - for the first time incredibly - between the images of abnormally thin models which dominate television and magazines, and the rise in eating disorders.[vii]  Furthermore a survey of 1,000 young people with eating disorders by the Eating Disorders Association found 42 percent said the media needed to show more “‘real bodies, when asked what could be done to prevent people developing eating disorders.[viii]  “The link with celebrity cannot be overstated”, says Dr Dee Dawson from the Rhodes Farm Clinic for Eating Disorders.  “Though anorexics talk of family problems, the pressure of school or not wanting to grow up, we're now seeing girls who openly say they want to look like Victoria Beckham. Thinness is valued.”[ix]  And if it is not David Beckham’s wife it will be one of the many other dangerously thin female celebrities such as Mischa Barton, Keira Knightly or Nicole Ritchie. 


We continue then to have the tragically bizarre situation of women reading magazines largely written by other women that while pretending to support women, are in fact damaging their mental and physical health.


The pressure on women to attain the perfect body has become even more acute in recent years with the appearance of programmes such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, Cosmetic Surgery Live and The Swan.  For the programme makers these shows are either harmless fun or merely reflecting society.  However, these wilfully ignorant justifications are undermined by the fact companies such as Transform Cosmetic Surgery are feeding off their popularity with its website telling potential customers they can save up to £1600 with the 10 years younger package.[x] 


But the tyranny of unattainable beauty is not all powerful.  There are small, hopeful examples of resistance.  For example, television programmes like Say No to the Knife and How to Look Good Naked try to solve womens negative perceptions of their bodies without resorting to cosmetic surgery.  Elsewhere Madrid Fashion Week (followed by London and Edinburgh) recently banned models whose bodies fell below the Body Mass Index figure of 18 (a BMI of 18.5 or below is classed as underweight by the World Health Organisation).[xi]


However, the costs of opposing the dominant ideology are high.  Within a year of announcing in 2000 that she was determined to use models whose bodies resembled women on the street, Liz Davies had resigned her position as editor of Marie Claire magazine.  An ex-anorexic herself, Davies was blacklisted by several model agencies and pillared for her stance by other editors, with the editor of New Woman accusing her of discriminating against thin women.  Far from being the influential trend-setters I had thought, Davies believes magazine editors are more often ruled by fear and advertisers.[xii]


Today there is a widespread misconception that feminism is a social movement confined to history, but now irrelevant.  The issues may have changed and the enemy might be more insidious and increasingly difficult to pinpoint, but there is no doubt we need, in the words of Germaine Greer, to get angry again.[xiii]


* This article originally appeared in the Morning Star

[i]    Jo Carnegie, ‘We’ve lost a stone’, Heat, 6-12 January 2007.


[ii]    ‘Teenage girls ‘hate their bodies’, BBC News, 1 June 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/health/3368833.stm. 


[iii]    Jonathan Owen and Sophie Goodchild, ‘Ugly?  Miss GB finalist thinks she is’, Independent, 5 March 2006, http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article349352.ece.  Jane Feinmann, ‘Body dysmorphia: the tyranny of thin’, Independent, 19 September 2006, http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/health_medical/article1619312.ece


[iv]  Mary Ann Evans, ‘Feeding off failure’, Healthmatters, Spring 1996, http://www.healthmatters.org.uk/issue25/feeding


[v]    James Harkin, ‘A plastic people future’, New Statesman, 20 November 2006, p. 55.


[vi]   Kevin Hurley, ‘Plastic surgery up by 61%...and that's just the men’, The Scotsman, 24 January 2005, http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=87152005


[vii]    ‘Models link to teenage anorexia’, BBC News, 30 May 2000.


[viii]    Sharon Norris, ‘Eating disorders awareness week’, Economic and Social Research Council, http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/about/CI/CP/Our_Society_Today/News_Articles


[ix]   Mimi Spencer, ‘The shape we’re in’, Observer, 6 August 2006.


[x]    ‘Ten Years Younger’, Transform Cosmetic Surgery Group, www.transforminglives.co.uk/ten-years-younger.htm. 


[xi]    Feinmann.


[xii]  ‘Media: Perfection? Fat chance’, The Scotsman, 2 April 2002, http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/s2.cfm?id=363432002


[xiii]    Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (London, Transworld PunblishersLtd, 1999), p. 3.