Ban images of emaciation, not airbrushing
In the Eating Disorder Unit, as we sat around in the lounge, cushions held tight over our swollen, protruding tummies, we were supervised post-meal to make sure we didn’t throw up, exercise or make a bid for freedom. The blaring TV would be immediately switched over at the slightest mention of dieting or weightloss, certain staff would rip pages from magazines and websites (even my own blog) were blocked from view.
If these measures were consistent, they would have protected us from the dangers and potential triggers that, outside of the clinic, are everywhere. Of course, as with any rules in mental hospitals, they were there to be broken. We all had phones, dongles, secret stashes of magazines and most of us would skulk off at 9pm to watch Supersize v Superskinny on our laptops…we didn’t want protecting from this. Not simply because we were sick of feeling like children and being told what to do, but because we knew that the life we were living wasn’t ‘real’ and that when we left the safety and comfort of the unit, we would be fully exposed to skinny celebs, diet tips, exercise regimes and God forbid, airbrushed models in Vogue. For me anyway, it was a case of ‘why bother hiding it from me now?’ Surely if we were at risk as a result of seeing or hearing such things, we should be taught how to deal with any feelings or behaviour that arose as a result – not sheltered.
The airbrushing debate has yet again come to the attention of the press, as “brave” young women, recovering anorexics and their mothers are campaigning to ban airbrushing models. I think that anybody who speaks out openly about their experience of mental illness, its causes and effects are all to be commended and I appreciate that we all have our own opinions and beliefs, but I cannot abide hypocrisy…
I’ll take you back to the unit setting. Sitting around, we would (some secretly, others not so) analyse every inch of each other’s bodies. Each of us were convinced that we were the fattest one there and we would reel with jealousy whenever a new recruit joined us, so emaciated that they had to be confined to a wheelchair, not allowed to even think of using the stairs. I would compare the tops of my arms to their thighs and cry because I though my own thighs were the same circumference as their waists. Some would flaunt their bony bodies whilst others would hide behind layers. No matter how much we tried to ignore it, the competitive streak flecked through every one of us whether we liked it or not.
We were much less concerned with Victoria Beckham, Angelina Jolie or zombie models – we’d look of course and eagerly read to see how much they weighed or what their ’sources’ claimed they were living on, but none of that had the same impact, or even close, as standing at the back of a room full of anorexics in their yoga gear.
It is this comparison – between real emaciation and fake, airbrushed images that bothers me. Yes – photoshopping models to make them appear slimmer, taller, leaner, bigger boobed, smaller boobed, less spotty, less tired does perhaps give the impression that we should aspire to be something we’re not – but we know that the image that appears on the front of Vogue or iD isn’t what turns up at the studio the morning of the shoot. As adults, we know it isn’t real and it isn’t hard to pass this knowledge onto our children in the same way we teach them that smoking is bad, not cool. Talk to them, show them before and after photos or the video from the Dove campaign and explain to them that these polished images are just that; an image, not a reality. It’s not rocket science.
To me, airbrushing a model for a high fashion spread in a magazine is the equivalent of adding varnish, glue or a steaming tampon (really, it’s one of the tricks of the trade they use at photoshoots – insert a tampon soaked in boiling water so that the food appears to be steaming hot) and a touch of photoshop to a photograph of a sumptuous roast for a Marks & Spencer advert. It’s dressing up, enhancing what’s there and we have to deal with the fact that advertising comes hand in hand with making things look better than they really are – whether it’s a playsuit that looks stunning on a model and frumpy on you, or a delicious looking chocolate fondant that actually tastes a bit like soil.
What is more damaging, I think, and what in my experience is given much more attention by anorexics, is magazines and television programmes that contain images and details of ‘real-life’ emaciation. We are much more likely to compare our bodies with ‘normal’ people, those on the same level as us, than celebrities who have their own nutritionists, fitness gurus and whatever else. Last year, B-eat charity set out media guidelines for the reporting of stories on eating disorders and this highlighted the very real dangers of illustrating articles with images of very sick, malnourished victims of this illness in skimpy clothes and even underwear. Unfortunately, the warnings seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
This week, Liz Jones wrote about meeting a recovering anorexic who is calling for the government to ban airbrushing. Some of it was very real, well written and gave an essence of what it is like to live with an eating disorder – but calling her a hypocrite would be an understatement. She, and anyone else campainging for this ban must be aware that images and statistics of ‘real thin’ people must be equally, if not more potentially triggering and devastating as photoshopped models. I also find it disturbing that this journalist is supporting a girl who is recovering from anorexia, who has obviously come a long way in fighting this illness and yet she manages to slip into her article that “No anorexia sufferer is ever totally cured”. Hardly inspiring.
Even the young people who are doing a great job of standing up for something they believe in are taking away from the point when they allow these publications to print images of them in their underwear with a tube up their nose when they know that some impressionable, vulnerable and ill people will see that as a trigger.
I understand that many editors want to illustrate just how bad the situation was, how ill these people were and many will say that grotesque images are justified as they will put many people off ever wanting to be that thin. I have been there myself – willing to tell my story but not willing to send them photographs of me at my most vulnerable. Then they wave the cheque. Sadly, whatever they say their reasons are, I worry that editors’ only concern is that the pictures and shocking headlines will make them a small fortune with no care for the consequences.
I’m not against this campaign, but I’m not for it either. I’d rather see well presented fashion spreads than a bruised, blemished coked up model with bags – but only in the same way that I wouldn’t enjoy leafing through Olive Magazine if it was full of amateur photographs of food cooked by amateur cooks and thrown on a plate any old how. Wouldn’t you?Tagged in: airbrushing, anorexia, bulimia, diet, eating disorder, Eating Disorder Unit, health, weight loss
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