October 31, 2009
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Models blur image issue

Supermodel Linda Evangelista once told Ray Martin that I was a “witch”. I’d apparently upset her during a television interview for A Current Affair, in which I asked about her “use-by-date”. Evangelista was 28 then – ancient in supermodel years. This was back in the unimaginable dark ages, before digital “enhancement” of models existed. Back when what you saw in print was pretty much what you got for real. But in the cold light of day, without airbrushing and soft filters, the feline Evangelista was even more magnificent than I had expected.

No wonder she refused to get out of bed for “less than $10,000 a day”. Why bother? It’s not like she had to go to the gym. The Canadian beauty could lounge about eating whipped cream and brownies for breakfast and still look slim and stunning.

Why? Because she’s a freak. She said so herself.

When I asked Evangelista about her eating, dieting and lettuce-leaf lunch, she looked bored. When I quizzed her about exercise, she rolled her eyes. “Look, we’re genetic freaks,” she said, referring to herself and the other supermodels of the day. “It’s just the way we were born.”

It was the smartest thing she said.

And she’s right. Evangelista and the beautiful goddesses like her are indeed “freaks”. If only the rest of us could learn to accept that, and happily get on with our own less gorgeous lives, which require regular visits to the gym and fewer choc- coated indulgences.

This week’s call for a national strategy on body image was unfortunately laden with mixed messages, which only add to the pressure on women, particularly young women. On the one hand a bevy of beauties, including from the celebrity magazine industry, met at Parliament House with Youth Minister Kate Ellis to call for a truer, fairer representation of women by the media. They want an end to digital touch-ups that make women look more svelte and stunning than they really are. And yet the key spokeswomen from the group, Mia Freedman and Sarah Murdoch, have both built careers on trading beauty and teasing women’s body image vulnerability.  Freedman as a women’s magazine editor, most notably of Cosmopolitan – the skinny-girl-sex- bible for teenage and young women. And Murdoch as an underwear model and most recently television compere of Australia’s Next Top Model. The contradictions are as bold as the women.

But putting that aside, there are other problems with this call to arms on body image. In calling for bigger, more shapely models to grace magazine pages and the fashion catwalks, we run a risk of feeding Australia’s fat frenzy. The worst thing the Australian media could do right now is send a loud message to girls and women suggesting it’s OK to be big and chunky – that it’s normal and culturally acceptable.

Australia is a fat country and we’re getting dramatically fatter. It’s dangerous to our health and taking years off our lives. Public Health Association of Australia president Professor Mike Daube says if the current obesity and overweight trends continue, the life expectancy of our kids will be reduced by two years. “That’s the first time that life expectancy in Australia will have fallen,” he says. And mostly because we are undisciplined, lazy and eat too much.

The number of Australians who are obese or overweight is scandalous.  And yet we pretend it’s not happening. It’s as if we are in national denial about our ballooning weight problem.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a whopping 2.5million Australians are obese. Another 4.9million are overweight.  That’s one in four women and 41per cent of men. In total, 42per cent of all Australian women over the age of 18 are either overweight or obese. You know how many are underweight? A slim 4per cent of women, and just 1per cent of men. Being underweight is not our national problem. Being overweight is.

The appearance of fat is ugly when it reeks of sloth and a lack of discipline. Being skinny is ugly when it reeks of malnutrition and starvation.  But that’s not what most women are objecting to when they criticise skinny models in magazines. What they’re railing against is the fact that they’re not gorgeous freaks like Linda Evangelista and her fashionista friends. Karl Lagerfeld was crude, rude and probably right when he suggested that the women who object most to catwalk models and call them “ugly’ are “fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television”. Fat women hate skinny women. Maybe they console their misery with more chips.

The gauche and gaudy frock designer is right too when he says the world of fashion is about “dreams and illusions”. Of course it is. And it’s easy to be seduced by those sumptuous illusions. But knowing the difference between what’s real and what’s fantasy has become less about common sense and more about a test of self-esteem so fragile are young female sensibilities. There’s plenty of good to come from a national body-image strategy, but let’s start with the biggest problem. Let’s tackle fat first.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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