Girl Talk: Growing up girl in a pop-culture world #2 – a personal precursor to the National Body Image Initiative
Before my "professional self" takes stock of the facts and opinions being bandied about the web (internationally) in response to the National Body Image Advisory Group's initiatives, and knowing all too well how our personal experience can alter or cloud our perceptions, a reflection on glossy culture extracted from a 30-minute speech I gave last year at the Women's Night of Spirituality...
I’ve spent most of my life living according to the gospels of Dolly, Cleo and Vogue and practicing at the churches of pop culture and Sportsgirl. By the age of 26, I’d achieved glossy magazine perfection: I had a gorgeous fiancé, a shiny diamond engagement ring on my finger, a job promotion and lots of fabulous friends. I’d traveled to Europe with my best friend, shopping up a storm in Topshop; and I was fit, healthy and slim. My day-to-day life was a whir of photo shoots, model castings, flashy events and editorial meetings. I felt included, appreciated and validated. Life was full and fabulous. But it was all stripped away...
THE IRONY OF SELF RESPECT
Every day working on a magazine, you’re bombarded with images of celebrities filtering in from photo agencies around the world. From those, we’d pick and choose which pictures to feature on our fashion and beauty pages and which celebrities to put on the cover. When you’re looking at those images all day, it’s easy for your perceptions of normality to become warped.
Around 2006, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton and Lindsay Lohan were big business, and so was their stylist, Rachel Zoe. As the story went, every young celebrity who fell under her magical gaze was magically turned into a ‘Zoebot’: a super-skinny version of her former self adorned in over-sized sunglasses, big jewellery, towering heels and caftans.
As a sort of backlash against what we deemed to be the unhealthy promotion of impossibly skinny bodies, my editor and I started talking about developing a campaign to encourage girls to treat themselves with respect. As news of the obesity epidemic was also filtering into the media, we decided that we needed to find a happy medium between the Zoebots and the unhealthy lifestyle pervading Australian homes.
After speaking with Dr Jenny O’Dea, an eating disorder expert whose research revolved around the need for self-esteem in healthy girls, it was decided the path we would follow would be holistic: one which addressed the mind, body and soul. We called the campaign ‘Self Respect’.
I threw myself wholeheartedly into the task of researching the campaign, talking to doctors and nutritionists and psychologists; recruiting a team of teenagers to participate in our photo shoot; and writing advice for girls on health, nutrition and exercise. I formulated a whole lifestyle program for them to follow in the lead-up to summer. It was only later that I’d recall becoming obsessed with a similar program I’d read about in Cleo as a 17-year-old.
As my dietician would later remind me, it’s only a dietician who should be thinking about food all day. Handing me the task of coordinating the Self Respect campaign, while deeply satisfying on a career level, was to the detriment of my mental health. Sort of like handing a potential terrorist a set of bomb-making instructions. In hindsight, I should have told my editor I'd battled eating and body image issues in the past.
As I became immersed in diet literature, knew the calorie count of every food and started exercising obsessively, to the point where I suffered a stress fracture in my ankle. But the validation came by way of compliments – I looked like a Zoebot! I was preaching Self Respect and self-love from the glossy pages of Girlfriend but taking the concept of Self Control beyond reasonable limits in my own life. I was criticising Nicole Richie for being a negative role model, yet I had fallen victim to the persuasions of thinness myself.
I developed what is called “orthorexia”, which is a dedication to extreme healthy eating. Though I’d had eating issues since I was a teen, my mother was a dieter of the Jane Fonda/grapefuit generation and experimented with Atkins, I became beyond fussy about what I’d eat, slowly eliminating food types until I was quite content to survive on the few that I knew would keep me ultra-trim.
My husband, mother and father tried to reach out to me, encouraging me to see a dietician, but I was stubborn and knew best. Durr, I liked being skinny! Our whole media culture is based around the celebration of thin – and I had got there. Whee! Yay for me!
My condition only worsened when I quit my job so my new husband and I could move to Queensland. I went freelance, dedicated myself to the magazine blog I’d started earlier that year and worked from an isolated office, where my main company were the glossy magazines I’d sought solace in as a lonely teenager dealing privately with the breakdown of her family and the absence of her mother at home. Only, now I realize the glossies make terribly lousy company. Especially if they are your only company.
I’d left my career, my family, my friends, my church, and my wonderful lifestyle behind in Sydney. I had God and my husband and his family and friends, but I completely shut down, immersing myself in work and exercise. The less social I was, the more antisocial I became. I became like The Grinch of Dr. Suess’ imagination. Horrible to look at, my face drawn and emaciated, and unpleasant to talk to, I would snap at the suggestion that I needed help and burrowed into the blog, while committing my off-time to grueling workouts.
The very essence of being a good Christian woman, wife, friend and daughter evaded me – it’s hard to be caring, compassionate, kind, welcoming and loving when you’re exhausted, counting calories or anticipating when you might get your next food fix. Ironically, shopping became like torture, as none of the clothes I liked fitted properly. The worse I felt about myself, the more I punished myself. My sense of self-worth – my self-respect – diminished.
The character I identify with most in the Bible is Job. The man who had everything only have it taken away to prove his faith. I don’t believe God let me hit rock bottom to spite me; I think he did it to cleanse me of all the wrong-thinking I’d acquired and to slow me down for long enough to appreciate the lessons. But there was a part of me that became fearful to let the eating disorder that had come to define me go. If I wasn’t the skinny girl, who was I?
There’s a scene in the brilliant ABC TV series The Brides of Christ where Sister Catherine – the flame-haired, highly educated, rebellious nun played by Josephine Burns – explains how we are each like onions and that it’s God’s desire to strip away the layers of the onion until we become smaller, shinier onions: perfected versions of ourselves unencumbered by guilt, fear, disappointments, self-loathing and worldly expectations. Glossy expectations.
While Vogue tells me that the latest Prada handbag and detox diet is the answer to my prayers, I like to think my faith and personal moral code is stronger now than these superficial persuasions. The glossies have been described as “self-hate” manuals, which exist to ensure women feel insecure about themselves enough to buy the products they proffer. By their standards, your skin, hair, body, home and successes will never quite be good enough.
Women aren’t completely clueless: yet we consume this stuff with relish. You have to ask why – it’s my job to ask why.
Having worked in the industry and kept the company of far too many magazines, I’m only too aware of all their shortcomings. One of my major gripes with the glossies is the glorification of weight loss. While I don’t deny that many women are happier when they feel they look better, this Cinderella Syndrome – the transformation of women via a makeover into glossy stereotypes – tells us that the only thing worthy of celebrating is our looks. And if you don’t have those, you might as well be invisible.
But, for all their faults, the glossies also give me insights into the world of other women.
I'm all too aware that I am an extreme case. I'm a walking, talking cautionary tale about what can happen to a girl when she uses glossy magazines as a road-map to life – or for a sense of self or security – because she's not aware that there are OTHER options. I am also very aware that I am not just the product of popular culture – parents, friends, family, society, schooling; everything feeds into one's self-perception. But we are ALL influenced by society and mainstream culture (people living under rocks notwithstanding).
I wouldn't wish the burden of an eating disorder on my worst enemy. I am hyper-aware now of how I want to bring up my girls, should I be blessed with them. First and foremost, I will love them with every inch of my being - by being there for them, listening to them, disciplining them and telling them to pursue their passions, get a solid education and utilise their gifts. I will try to NEVER talk negatively about my body around them. I will tell them God created them to be Just As They Are and loves them regardless of their achievements or looks or clothes.
I truly, truly hope that the next generation of girls can be saved by a fate similar to mine through the work being done in the community and by health professionals and even some magazines to correct all the wrongs. How wonderful the world would be if there were two feisty, spirited Sister Catherines for every vacuous pop princess; a thousand happy, healthy, functional, loved girls for every girl with a satchel who lost her way.
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