In a Barbie World

Duty: that which one is bound by any obligation to do.

I am increasingly interested in how certain actions first become acceptable to society and then, ultimately, something that you feel obliged to do. Following on from that, why do society and culture come to see certain behaviours or beliefs as acceptable when they are clearly damaging to the individual?

Just look at our relationship with our appearance. Looking after oneself physically is important in terms of how we dress and present ourselves to the rest of society – it is part of self-respect, and how we express respect to the people around us. We have a duty to make our image chime with society’s notion of acceptability. To get a job, we need a certain uniform to denote what it is that we do. We are expected to go to some lengths to take responsibility for our health and well-being. As individuals, we sometimes play with that sense of expectation and challenge conventional views – punks and teddy boys were playing that game. However, now it seems that the pressure is to conform to certain ideas of beauty. What happens when the image that society sees as acceptable starts to slip into something destructive?

Fashion is often held to be a major culprit in this process: undermining, apparently, to women and their view of themselves. Some argue that through media and publicity the industry steals a woman’s love of herself and then offers it back to her for the price of a product.

I believe that we are playing a dangerous game with our self-esteem. Self-esteem allows us to value and accept ourselves. High self-esteem gives us strong coping skills and persistence in facing up to life’s challenges. On the other hand, low self-esteem is linked to unhappiness and depression. It would appear that the spread of eating disorders, whether anorexia or obesity, the increase in cosmetic surgery and other interventions such as Botox injections are the product of our insecurities and play with our self-esteem.

Dissident voices have been issuing Cassandra-like warnings for some time. Recently they have been clamouring to make their point. Miss Representation is a US-produced film which highlights, in a graphic and shocking way, the sexualisation of women in the media and the lack of representation of real, powerful, intellectual and engaging women. This lack affects the education and self-confidence of girls and women and sabotages their ability to be proud of who they are and their ambitions. The film shows how the sexualisation of feminine imagery has led to it being the only value society uses to measure women’s success.

In her book Fashion and Celebrity Culture, Pamela Church Gibson highlights the effects of the sexualisation of the female image and the lengths women will go to in order to construct an image. She makes a distinction between the ‘devotees of high fashion’ – angular, slim, wearing clothes that champion the look of the catwalk – and the more prevalent and acceptable image that is one of ‘contemporary glamour … many would rather be seen as sexy than stylish’. This, Gibson notes, is an image of a ‘toned-down porn star’, a look that is false with fake hair, breasts, lips, nails and skin tone.

Recently, I was asked to give evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, and I am encouraged that our lawmakers are examining these pressures. The inquiry is attempting to gain a better understanding of the causes and consequences of body-image anxiety. They have been taking evidence about how the fashion industry, celebrity and the representation – or not – of women in sport are all creating a prevailing sense of body anxiety. We can challenge some of these stereotypes, and begin to encourage other ways to take pride in our bodies and the image we have of ourselves. Perhaps it is our duty to issue such challenges.

At the London College of Fashion, we teach students how images are manipulated and can’t be trusted. In our catwalk shows, we use models of different sizes, ages, ethnicities and some with disabilities to make it clear that fashion can be a way of celebrating who we are, and that it can positively transform how we think about bodies. We hold debates on these issues, and exhibitions that celebrate different notions of beauty.

However, recent research from the US which has examined the difference between white and black women’s views of their bodies concludes depressingly that because there are fewer representations of black women in the media, they have a far more positive view of themselves. While we all want better representation, perhaps we should be careful about what we wish for. Until we start to fight back and demand that idealised images of women are not the measure by which we judge ourselves and our success.