'We need to teach our children that there's more than one way to be attractive, and that it's OK to be themselves'

To encourage a healthy body image in all pupils, we need media and advertising to truly reflect the range of shapes, sizes, ages, races, skin colours and physical abilities in our society, says Tes' mental health columnist, Natasha Devon

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Today marks the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which every year prompts media discourse concerning what constitutes "healthy" body image. I have been involved in mental health and body image campaigning for 12 years now, and that’s more than enough time to have noticed the cyclical nature of these discussions.

It usually goes something like this:

  • An ad campaign is criticised by an eating disorder charity for using a severely underweight model.
  • A televised "debate" pits a survivor of an eating disorder against a self-proclaimed "libertarian". The former will argue that guidelines should be put in place prohibiting dangerous, triggering imagery. The latter will argue that this impedes the free market.
  • A modelling agency will attempt to piggyback on the publicity by announcing their intention to "health screen" their models. Coincidentally, it will transpire that all of the models currently on their books have a "healthy" BMI.
  • A plus-size model will be asked to do a spread in a magazine branding itself as a refreshing alternative to the super-slender norm.
  • Someone will write a "think piece" about how humanity is in the midst of an obesity crisis caused by a simple lack of discipline and willpower and the "plus-size movement" is nudging us all closer to a fat-smothered apocalypse.
  • Various social media users will discuss the above furiously.

The problem with this endlessly repeated cycle of conversation is that it fails to acknowledge several, crucial factors:

The first of these is that the impact of advertising on our culture is cumulative, unconscious and absorbed from an early age, particularly (although not exclusively) by girls; and happiness is synonymous with beauty, and beauty is defined according to impossible-to-achieve criteria, and therefore we must dedicate huge amounts of energy, time and money in pursuit of it, else we are a failure. One advertising campaign, analysed and scrutinised consciously, can never tell that story.

The second is that the impact of the fashion and beauty industry on people vulnerable to eating disorders is a lot more complicated than an "it does or it doesn’t"-style analysis. Talk to someone currently experiencing, or newly in recovery from, an eating disorder and the chances are they’ll be offended by the notion that the seemingly trivial concerns of billboards and glossy magazines could have played any part whatsoever in their serious mental illness. I understand this. However, the fact remains that countries with less slender beauty ideals have lower instances of diagnosed eating disorders.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider, at this juncture, what an eating disorder actually is, since the medical definition appears to shift according to culturally defined ideas of what is "normal" behaviour. Dr Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, said during a speech at Parliament in 2012 that, when she began practising as a psychotherapist 30 years previously, if a patient told her they were cutting out entire food groups she would have urged them to seek help for a "serious eating disorder". This behaviour is now actively advocated across millions of "clean-eating" Instagram accounts. Whilst they claim to be concerned with "health" and "strength", the underlying "you will lose weight" message is thinly veiled.

The issue of 'perceived health'

Thirdly, whilst it widely acknowledged that pictures of severely underweight models can encourage food-restricting and compulsive-exercising behaviours, there is no evidence to show that the phenomenon works in reverse. Of course, plus-size models have an impact on cultural ideas about beauty and body acceptability, but there has yet to be a recorded case of a person with an average BMI frantically consuming calories in an attempt to emulate the figure of size 26 model Tess Holliday.

This brings me to the most important consideration – the focus should not be on policing the weight and eating habits of individual models, but on what behaviours their image can potentially induce in its audience. The issue is one of "perceived health" and, unfortunately for those who seek a simple solution, health is a lifestyle not a look.

Almost 20 years ago, during my brief and spectacularly unremarkable modelling "career", I was a size 10-12, practically morbidly obese by fashion industry standards. I was wheeled out by clients trying to create a profitable niche for themselves by using a refreshingly "healthy" model for their campaign. I was severely bulimic at the time. Equally, there were other models on the same books who happened to be smaller than me and ate extremely well. Whilst my objective health was much worse, my perceived health was better.

As an adviser to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, I’ve spent more hours than I care to count in roundtable meetings with various experts across a huge number of disciplines trying to define what "perceived health" should constitute in visual terms. Every time someone makes a suggestion, such as models should be a size 8-14, someone else points out that there are many people who fall outside that spectrum who are perfectly healthy and deserve representation. Yet another person (usually me) will then question whether it’s incumbent upon models to be flagbearers for health and fitness, in any case. It’s a slippery slope to suggest that the only bodies worthy of celebration are the "healthy" ones.

The solution, I have concluded, is genuine diversity. Human beings are, after all, diverse beings. If we all strived for the curvaceous proportions of Ashley Graham, that would be just as problematic as if we all thought we should look like Gigi Hadid. One beauty paradigm, however "perceived healthy", will never serve the wellbeing of the population.

To encourage healthy body image in children and young people, we should strive for a media and advertising industry in which a broad range of shapes, sizes, ages, races, skin colours and physical abilities are routinely on display (ideally to the extent that it becomes unworthy of note). It isn’t so much that every single person should be able to see an exact replica of themselves – that would be an impossible feat. It’s more that in making the wallpaper of our world diverse, the message is that there is more than one way to be attractive and that it’s therefore OK to be you.

A victory for diversity is, therefore, a victory for everyone.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here and preorder Natasha's book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: an A-Z here

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