Jo Swinson on lives blighted by poor body confidence

jo swinson Alex Folkes/Fishnik PhotographyI wish Jo Swinson had been around when I was a teenager. My self-loathing teenage self could have done with a friendly looking government minister, a shining example of healthy living, telling me that the images society measured me against were unattainable and I should just concentrate on enjoying life and living healthily, taking loads of exercise and not being obsessed with weight and crash dieting.

Last week, someone posted a photo on a Facebook group about Inverness which had a 12 year old me in it. It took me quite aback to realise that, actually, I didn’t really look that bad. At that age, I thought I was hideous. Too fat, too hairy, too spotty. No way would I ever be able to be as pretty and, by extension, likeable as the girls in Blue Jeans and Jackie’s photo stories. My teenage story was one of intense anxiety, depression  which has undoubtedly cast a long shadow on my life. There were times when I didn’t believe I had the right to leave the house, let alone participate in anything at school. It wasn’t all to do with body image, but it seemed that everything I saw and everybody I came across in my life reinforced that image. There was no respite and no escape.

That was all a very long time ago. It’s much worse for today’s teenagers. The internet is full of people who are more than willing to shred people’s self confidence. Everyone is held up to impossible ideals. I mean, even the gorgeous Jennifer Lawrence was talking yesterday about the effects of being considered fat and obese. I don’t agree with her that calling people fat should be illegal, but I think that if we’re going to judge anybody, it’s the people making these sorts of jibes.

I wouldn’t mind being called fat – it’s an undeniable fact under any standards – if it were just a simple adjective. It’s not, though. It’s become a word loaded with judgement and is used as a weapon to control, intimidate and humiliate. And,as the report launched by Jo today points out, reinforcing poor body image by such comments and bombarding people with images of perceived aesthetic perfection which they never have a hope in hell of achieving doesn’t help. It makes people miserable, prone to misuse alcohol or drugs or harm themselves. It holds them back and stops them being who they should be as Jo told ITV this morning. Her message was that promoting body confidence leads to positive, healthy behaviour. If you are thinking of commenting on this, and you’re one of those mostly men who thinks that we shouldn’t be “promoting obesity” or making it “normal to be fat”, I strongly suggest that you read the report in its entirety, especially page 6, before you do so that you can do so in the knowledge of the effects that your words may have.

Jo commissioned the report to promote understanding of the problems and complexities surrounding body confidence, the factors affecting it and the effects of a good or a poor body image on the individual. She had this to say about it:

The evidence from these academic experts shows that poor body confidence doesn’t just affect how people feel about their looks. It can have a devastating effect on many aspects of their lives, from achieving at school to succeeding in the workplace – and at worst can lead to depression and self-harm.

Hearing about the links between negative body image, obesity and risky behaviours is both fascinating and worrying as we grapple with these significant public health problems. Promoting positive body image can increase healthy behaviours and create a virtuous circle instead of a vicious cycle.

That’s why the Government’s Body Confidence campaign will continue to work with the media, advertising, retail and fashion industries to encourage more diverse and realistic representation of body shapes, sizes, ages and skin colours. Hopefully as people think ahead to New Year’s resolutions they might ditch the daft fad diet plans and opt for introducing healthy habits instead, including reinforcing positive body confidence with friends and family.

The conclusions drawn by this report need to be acted upon not just by this government but every successive one to come. It’s important to build a proper cr0ss-party consensus for future development of ways to promote body confidence which will in turn make us a healthier society.

Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald, the impossible girl, ended up being fragmented through time and space to save The Doctor throughout all his lives. Given that women have had to put up with unrealistic and often painful expectations and demands about how they should look for as long as there have been human beings, it’s a pity we can’t have Jo as the Impossible Minister spreading this message through the ages.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I was fat and ugly and bespectacled and nobody fancied me. That was what I thought, anyway. To an extent the first three still apply, but I discovered young enough that the last one definitely didn’t for me to develop some confidence anyway.

    I wish everybody else who feels that way could have the same luck. But until then I’ll keep cheering Jo on.

  • Thank you for those very personal insights, Caron. By amazing coincidence, a few minutes before reading the post above, I was sent the following very relevant article, entitled “When your mother says she is fat”, by a (male) friend in Australia:

  • Liberal Neil 19th Dec '13 - 3:30pm

    Very good article Caron.

    I spent my teen years feeling much the same way myself and it’s a shame that the society we live in tends to increase such feelings rather than mitigate them.

  • Since the start of the summer I have lost 10 kilos and moved out of the obese range and into the overweight range of BMIs. I am now less confident my body could perform well in a fight but more confident it could perform well at attracting a partner, so I think that means my body confidence has improved as the report understands the term to mean – it isn’t actually defined specifically. The report has no mention of the dating game and its influence on this (except perhaps under the single word “peers” in the chart), but certainly my memory is that finding a girlfriend / boyfriend was the be-all and end-all of mid-teenage life. The trouble is that unless you are willing to say that a teenage boy is wrong when he feels attraction to a particular body type (and we men are going to be participating mainly to stop you doing that) then you are not addressing a big part of the actual issue.

    It is true that the media, particular women’s magazines put forward a view of attractiveness that is unhealthy and unrelated to most heterosexual men’s preference for healthy weight rather than underweight (citations on request). If we want to improve things then one of the first things we can do is oppose Adrian Sanders’ campaign against Miss England, as images promoting men’s actual taste as beautiful such as:
    need to be given more prominence alongside women’s pro-ana stuff.

    There is also no comparison with other cultures. The UK, where the ideas of “beauty comes from inside”, and “trust me, you don’t look fat” are the mainstream ranks third in the world for obesity, so it is not clear to me why more reality-denial is supposed to be the solution. The most overweight girl in the class and most overweight boy in the class are going to have pretty much the last choice in finding a boyfriend or girlfriend anyway, regardless of whether you lie to them about how things work. As I said earlier in the year, the best way to improve one’s confidence in something is to improve the reality, I still have a long way to go but I feel much more attractive now I have lost ten kilos and would advise others who are overweight to do the same instead of lying to themselves that it doesn’t affect attractiveness or other things you want your body to do for you, which was my previous strategy.

    The above is framed as mostly about heterosexuals because I am writing about what I know about, but I have been told that looks play a role in same-sex relationships too so please anyone feel free to substitute pronouns if it makes sense to you personally that way.

  • Further to my previous comment about cross-cultural evidence (which is delayed as it has a link but should appear above this one), when one looks at more extended lists of overweightness by country (which include all countries rather than the lists of major ones in which Britain ranks third), one can see many of the gulf countries ranking high, where presumably the media should be having no effect on body image for women at all. I really think the connection between seeing thin people and wanting to eat more doesn’t work in the direction the report states for the majority of people.

  • Stuart Mitchell 19th Dec '13 - 7:29pm

    Some of this is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately the whole body confidence campaign continues to be let down by the usual problems, i.e. too narrow a focus, and an unscientific approach to the causes and possible solutions.

    Here’s a fact you won’t glean from Jo’s report: Thin girls have body confidence issues too. They’re not all flouncing around thinking about how fabulous their lives are. Some of them worry they are not curvy enough to be considered attractive (for the thin-model look is NOT universally promoted in the media, contrary to what Jo says), they get bullied for their appearance, and they even feel they are not well-catered for by clothes shops. A recent survey commissioned by Littlewoods found that size 6 women are nearly twice as likely as size 16 women to be unhappy with their bodies.

    Yet this latest report, as usual, completely ignores the existence of such women and girls, preferring to give the impression that body confidence issues only affect those women who feel pressured to lose weight. And of course, there are many other aspects to body confidence that have nothing to do with weight at all.

    The problem with this whole debate is that the causes of negative body image are complex and not well understood, yet Jo Swinson and others continue to talk as if the causes are simple and clear. It’s very interesting to contrast today’s report with the Rapid Evidence Review that was produced for Jo’s department earlier in the year – a report that Lynne Featherstone had said would inform the government’s future policy, but instead seems to have been somewhat buried – presumably because its conclusions didn’t quite fit in with the anti-media agenda.

    That evidence review stressed that there had been hardly any good quality research into the true causes of negative body image – most of the studies we hear about suffer from the old, old problem of confusing correlation with causation. As far as the role of the media was concerned, the studies quoted found only a weak link, or no link at all, between looking at pictures of thin models and having negative body image. One study even found that pictures of inanimate objects had exactly the same effect on body confidence as pictures of thin models. Yet still we keep being told it’s all about pictures of thin women in the media.

    Most major problems with body image are probably caused by serious issues like psychological disorders and bullying. But why bother expending effort tackling those when it’s so much easier to come up with Twitter-friendly slogans about airbrushing? There are real problems here, but you won’t tackle them by demonising large parts of popular culture which actually provide harmless entertainment to the vast majority of women and girls; all that achieves is to give women yet another hang-up about something that men, needless to say, don’t have to worry about at all.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Dec '13 - 7:44pm

    What amazes me is that there is never any acceptance that the route cause of the problem is that both men and women generally prefer slim partners. Tackle the media and others going OTT about things, but it has to be balanced with respect that people will generally always prefer to be slim and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • Stuart: having been both very thin and clinically obese I can start that there is some truth in what you say; no girl ever feels that she can live up to the idea of perfection imposed by society HOWEVER the level of condemnation aimed at fat people simply for existing far outweighs anything thin people suffer.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Dec '13 - 8:10pm

    Why does Jo Swinson’s assessment of the report only mention women and plus sized clothes? Are men aliens who all walk around with perfect body confidence? It’s just feminist sexism.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Dec '13 - 8:16pm

    OK, Jo’s summary of the report on .GOV doesn’t highlight women, but the official summary does and when you open it highlights about young girls jump out straight away. As if young boys aren’t bothered too and suicide among young men doesn’t exist. The neglect of young boys by the whole campaign makes me angry.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Dec '13 - 8:33pm

    Eddie, Jo talked about the effect on boys too on Breakfast this morning. In general, though, I think there is much more pressure on women and girls to conform to a certain body shape that is generally unachievable.

  • @Caron,

    I would agree particularly among adults. Men generally compete for women on a wider range of playing fields. You can get women by being confident, funny, rich, clever, good-looking and so on. When women are confident, funny and clever the men do often react positively but with friendship rather than romance. For teenage boys it is also a bit more limited (certainly rich and clever don’t work in that age group, and few of them are confident yet) so they worry too.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Dec '13 - 8:45pm

    Caron, thanks for addressing my concerns. I have calmed down now and I’ll say that I agree there is probably more pressure on women and girls when it comes to body types, but I still don’t think men and boys should be largely excluded from the campaign.

  • Stuart Mitchell 19th Dec '13 - 9:52pm

    @Eddie – Jo Swinson is doing boys a favour by excluding them from this. Boys can look at whatever magazines they like, have whatever kind of figure they like, and even be airbrushed as much as they like, and no Lib Dem minister will try to give them a complex about it.

    @Jennie – I appreciate your personal experience, but I think you underestimate the degree to which thin women are vilified in society and the media these days. Any really thin female celebrity is likely to be subjected to endless speculation about whether she has an eating disorder (see endless reams of articles about Kate Middleton), and compared unflatteringly with more “curvy” and “real” women. Jo’s predecessor Lynne Featherstone has even been known to refer to thin women as “stick insects”, at a time when she was heading the body confidence campaign! No way would she ever think it appropriate to liken larger women to “elephants” so how come it’s acceptable to call thin women “stick insects”? If my ultra-skinny 11-year old daughter were to find out that our former equalities minister refers to girls like her in such a way, how would I even begin to explain it her?

    I don’t want to get in to an argument about which size demographic has the hardest time of it. Any kind of bullying based on size should be equally unacceptable. My main issue with the body confidence campaign is that they are clearly starting from an assumption that only large girls suffer body confidence anxieties, and that assumption is plain wrong.

  • Stuart Mitchell 19th Dec '13 - 10:15pm
  • I don’t underestimate Stuart, I’ve BEEN THERE. Stick insect is not nice. But fat people don’t just get told they are fat. They get told they are fat AND lazy AND a drain on the nhs AND many many other things.

    I am sorry your daughter is suffering, but basically this all stems from the same source anyway: no woman is ever good enough in society’s eyes. Not physically, not emotionally, not intellectually. We are all judged and found wanting. The myth that there is a perfect shape is given the lie to by what had been going on around Jennifer Lawrence of late.

    This is not REALLY about body shape at all. It is about finding something – ANYTHING – that can be used to sap a person’s confidence and using it to keep them compliant. It might be your size or your shape or your fatness or your boniness or your shortness or whatever. But it’s all about keeping you under control; and as a liberal that is what bothers me.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 9:44am

    Stuart, I’m going to read through the report properly later and try to provide fair feedback. It’s not that long and this is an issue that affects us all.

  • Body confidence is not just about being ‘fat’ or ‘ thin’ where at least you might have some control over the matter. Or even about the size of one’s boobs. My experience of being an almost 6 foot 14 year old did not help my confidence one bit. And short of having a bit taken out of the my legs there was nothing I could do about it. Now I’m old enough to have begun shrinking and I want that lost inch back. Which means I have finally come to terms with being tall just too late………….

  • YJennie 20th Dec ’13 – 8:21am
    I don’t underestimate Stuart, I’ve BEEN THERE. Stick insect is not nice. But fat people don’t just get told they are fat. They get told they are fat AND lazy AND a drain on the nhs AND many many other things.

    Jennie”s point is sadly only too true.
    What makes it worse is that more and more people are now actually fat and we have a food industry that is hell bent on profit so that it is happy to kill its customers just so long as their profit is maximised. The combination of the food industry and the fashion industry (the body image fascists) is lethal and urgently requires legislation.

    Unfortunately the free-marketeers of the Tory party and UKIP (and some at the top of our own party) will bleat about de-regulation and rolling back the state and removing burdensome regulations from industry etc.
    The powerful retail and corporate lobbyists will drown out alternative voices with a tsunami of cash every time someone tries to do anything about this.

  • My comments above seem a bit pessimistic, and they are about the present strategies which relate to the world adult media personalities inhabit and not teenagers.

    We won’t change there being a notion of physical attractiveness impacting on romantic success, but we can try to change the way people seek to be validated through others opinions instead of developing means to value themselves. Maybe Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead should be a set book.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 5:57pm

    OK, just read through the report and made two pages of notes. Not something I usually do, but I wanted to be sure my criticisms were justified and that I gave credit where it was due. I also got angry yesterday, which not only hurts me, but others too.

    A summary of my notes are as follows:

    1. The report shows a clear link between body confidence, public health, equality and the economy.
    2. The question remains whether government or free market solutions are the best to tackle this issue, being Lib Dems we should probably go for a bit of both.
    3. It is right to focus on those who are most affected by body confidence issues, namely plus sized women and young girls, but other demographics and body confidence issues need to be included more.
    4. Fears holding the campaign back are based around appearing to attack slimness, media workers and not giving enough attention to men, boys, other body confidence issues. The campaign should focus on getting rid of some unpleasant extremes, rather than putting people on the defensive with a broad attack on industry, society and the individuals within it.

    Best regards

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Dec '13 - 6:26pm

    @Jennie – I don’t understand why you should want to quibble about what knocks one’s confidence more – being deemed too fat or too thin. Your experience is one thing, but not everyone is the same and other people’s experiences will be very different. If someone suffers from these issues, shouldn’t we treat them all just the same?

    The rest of your post I agree with. That sounds like a fantastic idea for a campaign. If only Jo Swinson would do something similar.

    @Eddie – a thoughtful and reasonable summary, thank you. If you’re interested in this, I’d also recommend you have a look at the Rapid Evidence Review I mentioned earlier – a report which the government commissioned, said it was going to use to inform future policy, but then seems to have said nothing about since…

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Dec ’13 – 6:26pm
    Stuart helpfully provides a link to a rapid review paper. For those who do not want to read the full paper there is a conclusion on Page 25.
    I have pasted below an extract from that conclusion. My concern with this conclusion is that it identifies a problem with the media but makes no stab at what to do about the media (including deliberate marketing in the media) and instead talks about “exercise-based interventions” which of course does not address the media problem.
    I don’t think I am mis-readig the conclusion.

    This is the extract from the conclusion –

    … … by far the most researched topic is the influence of the media on body image. The research indicates that being exposed to images of ideal body shapes via the media can negatively impact some people. …

    … …Research exploring potential interventions to improve body image has mainly been focused on the impact of exercise-based interventions.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 12:40pm

    Stuart, thanks for the link. I read the summary of the evidence review and the most interesting part I found of it was this:

    “An increased use of experimental design along with an increased focus on falsification (attempting to disprove rather than prove your hypothesis) would help to generate a more robust evidence base.”

    This resonates with me because when I was making my notes yesterday I stopped reading the stats half-way through because I felt they were “too bad to be true” and lacked credibility.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 12:43pm

    Theories such as “white” models being idolised is also a lazy generalisation I feel. I don’t think the ideal body image promoted by the media is white, which is why we have a big problem with tanning.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Dec '13 - 12:55pm

    @John Tilley
    You are not misreading. Page 9 of the review goes in to more depth :-

    “The majority of research indicates that exposure to idealised body images can result in a small to moderate reduction in body satisfaction and body perception. This is a finding that has been reproduced in many studies using both male and female participants. However, this finding is not universal. Some studies have failed to replicate the finding and have instead found that exposure to idealised body images has the same impact as being exposed to images of inanimate objects (e.g. pictures of homes and gardens).

    “For women who are only slightly bigger than the models used in the media, exposure to media images improved their body satisfaction. It is suggested that for these women exposure to thin images may act as a motivational factor to help maintain lower weight.

    “Another important factor is the extremity of the images used. Bartlett et al only found a relationship between idealised body images and low body satisfaction when extreme images were used (e.g. very muscular men).

    “In addition, any pre-existing low body satisfaction in the participants appears to have an impact on the results. Individuals who already have low body satisfaction are likely to be negatively affected by images of idealised body shapes whereas individuals who have high body satisfaction are unlikely to be affected by images of idealised body shapes.”

    (end of quote)

    It seems to me that much more research needs to be done on this, because the picture painted by the review is much more mixed and complex than Jo Swinson’s anti-media pronouncements would have us believe. Removing “idealised” images would help some women, but it would leave others unaffected and actually make matters WORSE for some others.

    I think it’s striking that whereas Jo normally goes on a big publicity drive (including the obligatory LDV article) when any of her body confidence reports are published, there was a complete wall of silence back in May when this rapid evidence review was published. Instead, her response was to convene a “seminar” of friendly faces six months later which seems to have been very much a cherry-picking exercise.

    I’ve waffled a lot here so I’ll finish by reiterating: improving body confidence is a noble aim, but if we’re to try to do it, we need to take a MUCH more scientific approach to the evidence on the causes and remedies, and we need to be much more inclusive instead of pretending that body confidence anxiety only affects one particular demographic (i.e. plus-size women).

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Dec '13 - 1:00pm

    Absolutely – the rapid review stresses early on that there is a big problem with most of the research in that it only looks for *correlation* rather than *causation*. Much more work needs to be done.

  • I think if you start to say that it shouldn’t depend on looks but on intelligence, or that looks shouldn’t be defined as BMI 20.8 or stick insects or whatever, you are just moving the problem around, changing people’s rank order relative to each other but not fixing anything. The problem is that if the “it” my first sentence is “what other people think about me” (whether potential partners or more generally) then the real problem is being too dependent on the opinions of others (or relationships with them) for our own sense of self-worth. We need to teach real individualistic values, (not the 1980s ones about being a success merely to show off to other people). Kids need to be told that they know themselves best and other people’s opinions are not more valid than their own. The alternative, basically the present ideas of “I care what you think therefore I have the right to tell you what to think,” is wrong.

  • Shirley Campbell 22nd Dec '13 - 2:19am

    Yes, Richard, the essence of the argument is “know yourself and be yourself”. Who wants to CONFORM to the “norm”?

    Liberals should occupy themselves with embracing difference. Who actually dreamt up the concept of “body image”? Don’t tell me that it was the MEDIA machine!

    It is my view that PARENTS should regain lost ground and encourage their children to understand that people tend to differ in appearance, including physical stature, and a study of history would explain the FACTS of why this is so.

    Perhaps. one day, we will all look the same, the melting pot, but meanwhile shouldn’t we seek to embrace difference. Our GENES HAVE A LOT TO ANSWER FOR, AS, INDEED, DO OUR PERSONALITIES. How many awe inspiring PhDs were fuelled by copious supplies of chocolate covered HobNobs? LIVE AND LET LIVE.

  • Stuart Mitchell 21st Dec ’13 – 12:55pm

    Thanks, that is reassuring.
    I was amused that your comment included – “…It seems to me that much more research needs to be done on this, …”.
    In the office I worked in before I retired there was a bit of a joke about how when you had commissioned some research, it always contained a sentence along the lines of “…much more research needs to be done on this,”.

    I have never seen a research report that concluded with – “Well thats it folks, let’s stop all this research and just do it!”.

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