A Healthy Role Model?

This season, Beth Ditto modelled for Jean-Paul Gaultier. Marie Claire (March 2011) greeted this event with the comment “this is the final proof that big is beautiful”. Ditto (who is a UK size 28) and women like her, the argument runs, broaden the number of acceptable images of beauty and make fashion more representative, thereby reducing the pressure on young women to lose weight.

Wait just one minute! Absolutely, ‘beautiful’ should not be synonymous with ‘about to keel over and die of malnutrition’, but on what planet does obesity make someone a healthy role model? Skinny models apparently encourage young girls to eat only salad and may encourage anorexia. If that logic is correct, surely putting Beth Ditto on the catwalk encourages young girls to eat everything in sight and may encourage obesity?

Despite all fashion’s handwringing about anorexia, the real problem of the majority of western women is not that they are too thin. The nation is in the grips of an obesity crisis. One in four British adults is obese, and unless the trend changes that could rise to 50% of women and 60% of men by 2050. The WHO predicts that in developed countries obesity is set to replace infectious diseases as the main focus of public health spending.  Obesity has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer. The last thing that is needed is legitimisation of the ‘life-choice’ of being obese – women like Beth Ditto are not role models for a ‘healthy body image’ or indeed a healthy anything. She is morbidly obese and probably shortening her own life because of it, and fashion should not be promoting that.

There is a bizarre form of double-speak about weight in the media, where personal attacks on the weight of slim models or actresses are common, but any criticism of the figures of overweight ‘role models’ is greeted with outrage. I suspect that this arises partly from certain slightly over-weight journalists seeking to reassure an over-weight public by changing the goal-posts of what we consider attractive. After all, why just stop eating hobnobs when you can promote carrying an extra three stone as ‘curvy’, ‘voluptuous’, ‘womanly’ and even ‘healthy’? Words like ‘horrifying’ ‘shocking’ and ‘unfeminine’ are frequently used about slim models. Can anyone imagine the reaction if someone called Beth Ditto ‘repulsive’, ‘sickening’ and ‘greedy’ in print? We all have to nod and smile and say that ‘beauty comes in all shapes and sizes’.

Except it doesn’t. Making everyone beautiful is like making every day Christmas – beauty (or Christmas) ceases to be special and thereby loses its meaning. The catwalk is not supposed to be representative, the fashion and beauty industry sell an ideal of what is generally considered aesthetically pleasing. Slimness is usually considered a component of this. So is height (most models are over 5 foot 10) and regular features. I am not tall and my face is not perfectly symmetrical, but I feel no need to write to Marie Claire condemning fashion for being unrepresentative because they do not use more five foot four models with wonky chins.

Weight is simply so sensitive a subject that no-one wants to be called a fat-fascist for pointing out the blindingly obvious – that Beth Ditto is neither healthy nor aesthetically pleasing and it is sheer nonsense to view her as a good body image role model. Nor is it convincing to attempt to make obesity desirable. We are all so busy being liberal and seeing many different ideals of beauty, but does anyone actually want to look like Ditto?

Human beings are animals. We are meant to be able to run about, to be fit and active; deep down, the ‘healthiness’ inherent in the ideal of being slim is what makes it attractive to us. Good role models should, of course, not be anorexic, but they should promote healthy eating and exercise, which Ditto does not. Moreover, much of the criticsm of slender and beautiful (and not recognisably anorexic) actresses and models (Kiera Knightly, Natalie Portman, Lily Cole) comes not from ‘concern over anorexia’ but from straight jealousy and insecurity. Similarly the backlash against skinniness in society is a feature of its being desirable and yet involving self-restraint and a certain amount of self-denial. If our society has reached a stage where it is psychologically easier for people to condemn as ‘anorexic’ anyone who is not overweight, where people prefer to attempt to convince themselves that Beth Ditto is beautiful rather than to lose weight themselves, then that is a shocking indictment of Britain.

I am not saying that there is only one ideal of beauty, or that emaciation is attractive. Society and the fashion industry have to be honest with themselves, however. Portraying overweight women as ‘healthy’ ‘curvy’ role models and condemning slimness is as irresponsible as encouraging eating disorders. Beth Ditto should no more be on the catwalk than a five stone, six-foot model. Neither looks nice. Neither is healthy. Neither is a role model.