Is Susie Orbach right to be optimistic?

I have just been re-reading Susie Orbach’s article in the Guardian, published on 20th April, and I feel rather buoyed up by the experience. Writing about the Body Confidence Awards which took place in the House of Commons earlier that week, she drew attention, of course, to the grip which the ‘beauty’ industry has on society, and the effects that this has on girls and women in particular. She reminded us of this year’s survey by GirlGuiding UK, which revealed that 95% of teenage girls wanted to change some aspect of their appearance, and she was blunt in her summary of what has happened in our society: ‘We have moved from a position in which the joys of decoration have turned into a command of transformation and the production of a body that can fit.’

And yet there is hope on the horizon. One of the speakers at the debate held at St Mary’s Calne last Monday suggested that the greater popularity of the television programme ‘The Voice’ compared to ‘X Factor’ was down to the fact that the public was beginning to appreciate talent over appearance – in ‘The Voice’, as you will know, the judges make their decisions based only on what they can hear, and not what they can see. It may be too early to tell – ‘The Voice’ benefits, no doubt, from its novelty value, and we should not overlook the fact that sometimes the looks on the judges’ faces as they turn and look at the act they have rejected often seem to betray a regret that they had not chosen on sight. We still, after all, live in a world where people are continually astonished that Susan Boyle, who does not fit a conventional model of ‘beauty’, can actually sing so amazingly well.

But the seed is planted, and this seed is what Susie Orbach senses in her article. In the years since she wrote ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, very little has seemed to change for women in respect of the attention paid to their appearance; if anything, the attention has grown more intense and the judgements harsher. Could change now be around the corner? The Body Confidence Awards may be just what we need. As Susie Orbach puts it, ‘Of course awards ceremonies don’t change the world, but they highlight the importance of initiatives that would otherwise go unrecognised. They illuminate what’s possible. They insist that things can be different. They acknowledge that there is an answer to the distress and self-critical attitude that daughters, sisters, mothers, brothers and grandmothers carry. They challenge the priming and mining of women’s bodies as commodities to be exploited.’

Quite so. The debate is growing stronger and more audible. This is how perceptions are changed and the world evolves. Let us keep on talking.

PS Do read my letter in today’s Guardian as well – society, it would appear, is open to these ideas. Onwards …

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