January 18, 2010

Is Curvy the New Skinny? – An Inherently Flawed Question (Natasha)

Yesterday, at stupid-o-clock for a “school night” (11.45pm), I was invited to debate “is curvy the new skinny?” on Eddie Nestor’s late night BBC Radio London show.

Being, as I am, of an Amazonian build, and embodying the notion of genuinely curvy (my bust and hips are 12 inches bigger than my waist), people immediately expect me to be vehemently and unapologetically in the red corner of curviness, a foot soldier for the “curvelution”. In many ways, I am, but not for the reasons you might think. To solely champion curvaceous beauty would contradict my entire stance in the debate: I applaud any image or media message which presents us with something undeniably beautiful, but not in the traditional (and very narrow) sense of the word. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing someone who conveys an unrepentant sense of pride in who they are, “flaws” and all, someone interesting-looking, not bowing to the prevailing Barbie-like beauty aesthetic.

For this very reason, I believe everyone, no matter what their natural body type, should have someone they can realistically aspire to as a style icon and I refuse to be drawn into “skinny bashing” – I have had first hand experience of how it feels to be judged purely on a visual assessment and that would be a disservice to the naturally slender, as well as an oversimplification of the matter at hand.

What fascinated me most about the recent press surrounding the plus size revolution, was not so much the phenomenon itself, which has been highly anticipated and a long time coming, but the public’s reaction to it. A divide became apparent between those who were delighted at the abundance of flesh, the highly sexual images of robustly healthy looking beauties (mainly men, unsurprisingly) and those who associated the images with hedonistic decadence, with the laziness, gluttony and the obesity epidemic which they saw as the downfall of modern society and, as such, were disgusted.

The idea that you can make generalized and sweeping judgments concerning someone’s lifestyle according to their dress size is ludicrous to begin with – Plenty of larger people exercise and eat healthily, but are simply genetically destined to be a little heavier. Similarly, I could name you 10 people in my immediate acquaintance right this second who have whippet like metabolisms that enable them to maintain a very slim frame and yet seem to spend most of their time eating carbs and sitting on their bony bottoms.

More importantly, however, this notion that obesity is the biggest strain on the NHS in this country and that Plus Size models are encouraging it must, crucially, be challenged. In fact, 70% of GP visits in this country are as a result of some sort of psychological issue and the one thing that unites anyone with a mental health issue, be it an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety, is low self esteem. By ensuring that everyone is represented in the glamorous fashion and media industries, in a World where celebrities are literally worshipped, we are actively promoting high self esteem. By showing images of women who might not be “perfect” in the prevailing sense of the word, yet still take pride in their appearance, wear beautiful clothes and encapsulate beauty, we are encouraging the public to do the same.

When people feel good about themselves, they start to want to nourish and tend to the needs of their body, they no longer feel like a waste of space, undeserving of attention and care – Yes, I’m going to be controversial and say it: Plus size models are, if anything, the SOLUTION to the obesity crisis.

If putting only very slim people in the public eye was going to make everyone thinner and/or healthier (remembering that these two things are NOT synonymous), it would have happened by now. What it has undeniably done is fuel the terrifying fire of eating disorders and body dysmorphia and lo and behold, obesity still exists. It’s my opinion that obesity (of the type which is the result of compulsive eating) is symptomatic of the same fundamental element that encourages people to starve themselves: Low Self Esteem.

If there is one thing that going into schools, colleges and universities throughout the UK as part of my body confidence campaign and being involved with Body Gossip has taught me, it is that people want a voice. The overwhelming response to the Body Gossip real body stories writing competition proved that people want their body type represented and acknowledged. They are tired of being ignored and ridiculed simply for not fitting a rigid ideal, an ideal which represents less than 1% of the population’s natural body type.

When I ask the students I teach “what is the ultimate aim of the fashion industry?” I get some very peculiar answers. Most of them seem to be under the illusion that it has something to do with art. In reality, the fashion industry is no different to any other – It is there to sell us things and so far it has done so by deliberately instilling in us a sense of shame in who we are, a shame that can only be counteracted by having the latest pair of stilettos, miracle foundation and dieting in a vain attempt to look like Kate Moss. Fashion must work on supply and demand if it is to survive and it seems that right now the public is demanding plus size. Whether or not it is tokenistic remains to be seen but, as far as I am concerned, it is a step in the right direction – To a World in which there is more than one definition of gorgeous and in which we can all feel happy in our own skins.

To hear my interview on BBC Radio London on I-player (available for the next week), click here and go to 1 hour 40 minutes.

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