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Laurie Penny: our disgusting appetite for anorexia chic

The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

Another day, another dainty dead girl. The premature passing of the French model Isabelle Caro from complications due to anorexia nervosa is as tragic as it is unsurprising. Caro, 28, was the face of the world-famous Nolita campaign, a poster project designed to show dieting teenagers the horrific effects of anorexia on the body.

After the campaign, Caro briefly became the darling of the shock press. Modelling contracts poured in, as did talk-show appearances and a book deal for her short, painful autobiography, The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Get Fat. Being the "face" of anorexia won Caro fame, praise and attention - everything she had ever craved. Everything apart from life and health.

When Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1990, she observed that the rising epidemic of serious eating disorders, which affect an estimated 3 per cent of young women in the developed world, was passing under the radar of the global press. Twenty years later, anorexia has become a global obsession.

One can hardly open a newspaper without reading another gushing interview with a teenager battling the disease, or turn on the television without seeing another gruesome documentary blithely illustrated with pictures of pouting, half-naked waifs, featured just before speculation over what Victoria Beckham didn't have for breakfast. The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

The anorexia industry, for which poor Caro was briefly the mascot, is cynical idolatry masquerading as public concern in order to sell magazines. The anorexic has become the famished saint of late-capitalist femininity: beautiful, vulnerable and prepared to risk everything to conform to society's standards. Hers is a self-defeating rebellion against the sexist surveillance of patriarchal culture.

Thinspiration

Over two decades of gory "awareness raising", real public understanding of eating disorders has barely improved. Nor have treatment standards - more than 50 per cent of anorexics never recover. The poster campaign in which Caro was involved backfired spectacularly because it was based on the assumption that anorexic women starve themselves to look more "beautiful", rather than because of any deeper trauma.

Naked pictures of her still appear on "pro-anorexia" websites, which are designed to give "thinspiration" to self-starvers. As the anorexia industry expands, people with less glamorous but equally destructive disorders such as bulimia nervosa and compulsive overeating are deliberately ignored - as are the many sufferers who happen to be male, poor, non-white or simply unphotogenic.

As a former anorexia sufferer, I have been approached to write the woeful story of my teenage illness, not once, but several times. I refused because the nation's bookstores are already overflowing with sob stories stuffed with grisly details of vomiting techniques. When I was sick, I used to read those books for weight-loss tips.

In a society where anxiety about consumption has become the defining collective neurosis, it is, perhaps, inevitable that the image of the anorexic should fascinate us. We are perplexed by the self-starver's ability to transcend the needs of the flesh and, at the same time, compelled by it. More importantly, the fashion for anorexia taps into an increasingly popular loathing for female flesh - and fear of female flesh is fear of female power.


One thing is for sure: the anorexia industry has little to do with concern for women's welfare. If we truly want to protect young women from the siren song of self-starvation, it's not enough to persuade them that "skinny isn't beautiful" - we must communicate the conviction that all women deserve to take up space, to nourish ourselves, and to be large and imperfect and unashamedly powerful.

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 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

Photo: Getty
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Grenfell survivors were promised no rent rises – so why have the authorities gone quiet?

The council now says it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels.

In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, the government made a pledge that survivors would be rehoused permanently on the same rent they were paying previously.

For families who were left with nothing after the fire, knowing that no one would be financially worse off after being rehoused would have provided a glimmer of hope for a stable future.

And this is a commitment that we’ve heard time and again. Just last week, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) reaffirmed in a statement, that the former tenants “will pay no more in rent and service charges for their permanent social housing than they were paying before”.

But less than six weeks since the tragedy struck, Kensington and Chelsea Council has made it perfectly clear that responsibility for honouring this lies solely with DCLG.

When it recently published its proposed policy for allocating permanent housing to survivors, the council washed its hands of the promise, saying that it’s up to the government to match rent and services levels:

“These commitments fall within the remit of the Government rather than the Council... It is anticipated that the Department for Communities and Local Government will make a public statement about commitments that fall within its remit, and provide details of the period of time over which any such commitments will apply.”

And the final version of the policy waters down the promise even further by downplaying the government’s promise to match rents on a permanent basis, while still making clear it’s nothing to do with the council:

It is anticipated that DCLG will make a public statement about its commitment to meeting the rent and/or service charge liabilities of households rehoused under this policy, including details of the period of time over which any such commitment will apply. Therefore, such commitments fall outside the remit of this policy.”

It seems Kensington and Chelsea council intends to do nothing itself to alter the rents of long-term homes on which survivors will soon be able to bid.

But if the council won’t take responsibility, how much power does central government actually have to do this? Beyond a statement of intent, it has said very little on how it can or will intervene. This could leave Grenfell survivors without any reassurance that they won’t be worse off than they were before the fire.

As the survivors begin to bid for permanent homes, it is vital they are aware of any financial commitments they are making – or families could find themselves signing up to permanent tenancies without knowing if they will be able to afford them after the 12 months they get rent free.

Strangely, the council’s public Q&A to residents on rehousing is more optimistic. It says that the government has confirmed that rents and service charges will be no greater than residents were paying at Grenfell Walk – but is still silent on the ambiguity as to how this will be achieved.

Urgent clarification is needed from the government on how it plans to make good on its promise to protect the people of Grenfell Tower from financial hardship and further heartache down the line.

Kate Webb is head of policy at the housing charity Shelter. Follow her @KateBWebb.