Proper Gander: Image And Identity
BBC 3’s recent season of documentaries about body image raised plenty of questions about the importance we place on looks, and the effect this has on how we see ourselves. Each of the programmes feature people who don’t fit in with mainstream conceptions of what body image ‘should’ be. Shows such as Fat, Glam And Don’t Give A Damn and Too Fat For Love? focus on the lives of larger people, while the Misfits Like Us series brings together people with debilitating skin problems to learn about each other’s experiences. Two of these programmes follow people who live with scarring from burns and the skin condition vitiligo. This is a disorder which affects pigmentation cells, leaving pale patches on the skin. Little is known about its causes, and although there are some treatments available, there is currently no cure. Around 600,000 people in the UK have the condition.
Obesity, vitiligo and scarring often have as much of an effect on someone’s mental health as they do on their physical wellbeing. A lifetime of being stared at, bullied, and hearing abusive comments can ruin someone’s confidence. Social media provides an easy platform for trolls to hurl insults at people, although Misfits Like Us emphasises the positive aspects of social media, through using it to find others in similar circumstances or in receiving supportive messages.
Our self-image, and particularly how attractive we consider ourselves and others to be, is strongly influenced by the mainstream media. Emma, a blogger from Preston, draws attention to the judgemental language used to describe large people in news reports. Words like ‘bulging’ and ‘fattest’ are loaded with disapproving connotations, while obesity is reported as a ‘plague’ or ‘epidemic’. According to activist Scottee, fat people in fiction are ‘the funny sidekick or the broken one you feel sorry for – never the romantic hero everyone fancies’. Popular examples from film and TV include ‘Fat Monica’ from the now-unfashionable sitcom Friends, ‘Fat Bastard’ from the Austin Powers films and Mr Creosote from Monty Python. And advertising not only tries to flog us products, but also often sells us the view that success and happiness mean having chiselled, smooth features rather than any other body shape. Attitudes are changing, though, and some adverts now feature a wider range of people, even if this is really just to draw in a wider range of potential punters.
Part of the backlash against negative views about larger people is the ‘body positive movement’, which aims to ditch society’s expectations and appreciate all body types. In Fat, Glam And Don’t Give A Damn, pole dancer Alabama Whirley says that ‘you can be sexy at any size’. For her, pole dancing gives her confidence and appreciation. Some want to reclaim the word ‘fat’ away from its ‘ugly slob’ connotations. According to Scottee, ‘saying the word ‘fat’ removes the stigma around it. The more we use it, the less of a big deal it becomes to be called fat. It’s good for fat people, but it also takes away power from the multi-billion pound diet industry, which feeds off and profits from people’s insecurities’. The labels we apply to ourselves are often an important part of our self-image. Many find that the term ‘burns survivor’ is more empowering than ‘burns victim’, while others dislike labels altogether, not wanting to be defined by their condition.
Each of the people featured in the shows have found their own ways of accepting and living with their situation. Generally, those who aren’t too bothered about prevailing ideals or what other people think seem happier within themselves. Others find it more of a struggle to manage with their conditions, and it certainly helps those with scarring or vitiligo to get support from others with the same problem. People living with vitiligo often use concealer make-up, not only so they can appear more conventional, but also to give them self-assurance. Some find a new confidence in going outside without wearing make-up.
Unfortunately, not everyone copes well, and some people’s concerns about their body image lead to eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t just unhealthy ways of trying to lose weight, they also represent an attempt to maintain a kind of self-control in a society where we often feel overwhelmed by outside pressures. A particularly difficult condition is described in the documentary Diabulimia: The World’s Most Dangerous Eating Disorder.
Diabulimia affects people with type one diabetes who fear that taking insulin causes weight gain. Consequently, they avoid taking the medication, which risks dangerously high blood sugar levels and other complications. But, as one person with the condition has believed, ‘it’s much more important to be skinny’ than to take insulin. According to studies made in 2010 and 2015, it is estimated that at least a third of adolescents and young adults with type one diabetes omit or reduce insulin in order to lose weight, and by the age of 25, 60 percent of women with type one diabetes will have experienced an eating disorder. One of the people interviewed says that diabetes itself is isolating and stressful, so it’s easy to go downhill mentally.
Despite its prevalence, tailored support and medical treatment for diabulimia is very scarce. The NHS’s separation of mental and physical healthcare means that sufferers of diabulimia fall between services. Psychiatric hospitals aren’t set up to deal with the physical aspects of the condition, and mainstream hospitals lack sufficient mental health expertise. Similarly, the emotional and psychological needs of people with obesity, scarring, vitiligo and countless other conditions aren’t adequately catered for.
Capitalist society creates or contributes to many health problems, but can never find enough resources to treat them. Adequate medical care and counselling is expensive, without an obvious enough financial return, whereas there’s money to be made from media which promotes an idealised body image. Advertising, films and TV have sold us the idea that popularity and achievement come with a particular set of looks. And our divisive, competitive society encourages us to judge ourselves and anyone outside these standards, making many people feel marginalised and depressed. Those featured in the BBC 3 programmes have shown strength and determination to fight back against society’s pressures.