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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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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war