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Laurie Penny: The use of "curvy" models is hardly progress

This does not make it one jot easier for troubled young women to live in our own skin.

This fall, the fashion press is celebrating 'the return of curves'. With London Fashion Week in full swing, designers and photographers are congratulating themselves on what has been dubbed a 'catwalk revolution', amounting to a handful of models weighing up to 170 pounds featuring on a handful of runways, the feting of designers like Erdem Moralioglu who occasionally make dresses in a size 16, and the paparazzi mobbing poor, expansively-bosomed Christina Hendricks every time she gets out of a taxi.

'Curves', it appears, are back in style. This means that women whose skeletons are less than entirely visible through their skin will now be permitted to doff our sackloths of shame and go to parties with fashion people. Well, roll up the banners, ladies, and put away the placards: it's the greatest achievement for feminism since equal pay.

It is rather a sad indictment of the scope and ambition of the modern women's movement that the limited return of 'curves' to the fashion zeitgeist is being treated as serious progress. In case anyone hadn't noticed, meaningful social revolutions do not tend to happen on the catwalk. The last style 'revolution' was the re-introduction of jodhpurs to the fashion-forward female's aspirational wardrobe in the terrible autumn of 2008, and we all know how that ended. Feminism has come so far, it seems, that we're now supposed to be grateful that fashion editors have graciously allowed a few models to appear in public with one or even two obscene spare inches of subcutaneous fat.

This particular runway revolution has an element of the freak show about it. Roll up, the press seems to be hollering, roll up and see the amazing meal-eating women! Besides previewing the socks, skirts and unlikely headdresses that are going to be in style in 2011, the circus of Fashion Week also showcases what type of woman will be in vogue next season, and oddly enough, this year's on-trend female looks surprisingly similar to the identikit models who crowded the runways at Fashion Week last year: she is young, white, slender, pretty, fragile, obedient and silent.

Used by fashion editors and PRs, the word 'curves' smacks offensively of euphemistic posturing. In today's post-watershed world, where you can stream five channels of hardcore coprophilia over your cornflakes at breakfast, why is female flesh still so horrifying that we still have to have a polite euphemism for it? 'Curves', in fact, have always existed - as, for that matter, have love handles, cellulite, scars, dimples, fat thighs, chunky calves, bad hair, broad shoulders, big boobs, round arses and turkey necks. Shocking though it might sound, women with these ghastly personal attributes have just as much right to self-esteem and social status as young, beautiful catwalk models.

In this context, getting excited about the 'return' of curves is just one more way of obsessively scrutinising women's bodies, fetishising female flesh and particularly female fat as somehow shocking, abnormal, edgy. Female fat is not edgy. It's not an unusual fashion trend. It's everyday reality for over three billion human beings on this planet. I'm sitting in nine and a half stone of it right now, and let me tell you, it's gloriously mundane.

It wasn't always like this. Not so long ago I was easily as scrawny as a catwalk model, because I happened to be in the grip of a life-threatening eating disorder that stole five years of my youth and caused my family and friends no small amount of unnecessary heartbreak. As a recovered anorexic, I'm supposed to be particularly pleased that 'curves' are back in style, given that everyone knows little girls only get eating disorders because their brains overheat from looking at too many fashion magazines, and not because of any sort of unrelenting social pressure on women of all ages to work harder, look prettier and take up as little space as possible.

Take it from me: noticing a few extra inches of fat on the relentless images of silent, costly feminine perfection that bombard us every day does not make it one jot easier for troubled young women to live in our own skin. The things that make a difference are things that cannot be sold, or advertised, or crammed into a gushing press release. They are simple things, like time and patience, love and security, tolerance and respect; vital things, like understanding that adult sexuality isn't just about submission and servility, like believing that what we do and who we are might be more important than what we look like. That type of personal and political revolution is something that the fashion industry, with its inability to imagine women who are not silent commodities or faceless consumers, will never be able to deliver.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.