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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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.