Ladies: Accept your body, know your place

"Celebrating" female self-esteem assumes it's been destroyed in the first place - why not protect it instead?

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business.

Swinson wants magazines to “celebrate the beauty of diversity in body shape, skin colour, size and age”. While it’s easy to scoff at a Coalition MP lecturing others on diversity, it’s fair to say that the problem Swinson highlights is real. Most women and girls grow up believing that the way they look is unacceptable. What passes for mainstream popular culture in the UK is saturated with language and images that promote disordered eating. And yes, not every woman in the UK has an eating disorder, and that’s the very thing that always lets popular culture off the hook. It’s not us, they’ll say. Eating disorders are caused by deep psychological issues. Linking them to diets merely trivialises them. That’s an argument that used to always get to me. I might have been an anorexic, but I didn’t want to be a vain, frivolous anorexic. So I’d defend the likes of Cosmo and Closer to the death. These days I’m more suspicious. I think there’s an ED culture that surrounds us all – constant messages that undermine our relationship with our own flesh – but only some of us are prone to absorb it (and perhaps that’s the link with trauma). Once this ED culture’s got in you, though, it’s hard to get it out. It’s far easier to starve away fat and muscle than it is to rid yourself of the voices telling you how ugly and worthless you are.

So why don’t I want to support Swinson’s campaign? Is it to do with her politics? I guess that partly, it is. It strikes me that no one ever tells women to feel good about their bodies unless they’re trying to sell them something, regardless of whether it’s body lotion or party policies. For instance, let’s take a look at Swinson and fellow MP Lynne Featherstone’s Body Confidence Awards, an event where “by turning the spotlight on those clever enough to weave conscious thought into the business of making money by considering self-esteem, the organisers aimed to shine a light on the way forward” (whatever that means). So who’s getting a pat on the acceptably-sized back for making us all feel better about ourselves? Dove – fucking Dove, the cosmetics company who suggested to women that we should even be feeling paranoid about our underarms – and Boots brand No 7, “for their decision to eschew retouching and for celebrating the idea of real women” – providing said “real” women don’t sully their anti-ageing serum adverts by looking too damn real. And these awards – “presented in association with bareMinerals” – “were announced at an event at the House of Commons”. Wow. I feel great about myself already – don’t you, fellow “real” people?

It’s all terribly clumsy, but that’s not the worst of it. Why is it that female self-esteem has become a thing to be rebuilt by MPs and cosmetics companies, but only after it’s been knocked down in the first place? Why can’t we be trying to protect it from the start? Because it’s not the same when it’s been stuck back together with Dove Pro Age Body Butter and Boots Protect and Perfect. Being a “real woman” comes a humiliating second best to simply being a person. So those who still decide what beauty is will deign to let you purchase their products. So an MP will basically tell you that yes, ultra thinness is still the reigning ideal but ultra thinness is not for the likes of you. So rather than challenging a sexist, appearance-obsessed culture head-on, Jo Swinson decides the little (or not so little) people shouldn’t go on crash diets. Starving oneself down to catwalk model proportions is tantamount to getting ideas above one’s station. That’s the reason why, when Swinson attacks “fad diets”, I’m tempted to spend a week living on cucumber just for the hell of it.

It’s worth noting that Swinson is not against glossy magazines telling women to lose weight per se, offering editors the following sage advice:

As editors you owe more to your readers than the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight. If your aim is to give practical, sensible advice about losing weight – and not how to drop a stone in five days – you should encourage reasonable expectations, instead of dangerous ones, along with exercise and healthy eating.

Quite why it is still reasonable for Heat and Glamour to assume their readership wishes to be smaller – and quite why these magazines should then support such a view – isn’t clear, especially not in our brave, new, diversity-worshipping world. What’s even more problematic is the deliberate blending together of weight loss for “health” reasons and weight loss in order to look thin. These are not the same thing and let’s be honest – does anyone buy magazines to read about the former? It’s just boring. Furthermore, a poor diet – regardless of whether it’s associated with obesity – isn’t linked to getting the wrong advice from Marie Claire. It’s linked to poverty. MPs should have something to say about this, but it needs to be something a little more meaningful than “when your sister or your friend is standing there and moaning about whether she looks really fat, and actually she looks gorgeous, tell her so” (not that that’s not helpful; I, for one, have now resolved to stop telling my friends – the gorgeous ones, that is – that they’re ugly porkers).

If politicians are serious about changing how women feel about their bodies, there are things that they can do. These might include: challenging gender stereotyping in education; actively confronting age and sex discrimination in visual media; re-examining pay inequalities; allowing those born with a uterus to have exactly the same assumption of bodily integrity as those born without. All of these things might start to add up to a world in which women and girls don’t continue to assume they’ve been allocated a passive, decorative status, and one in which they know their bodies belong to them and not anyone else. It’s not a solution, but it is at least starting to look at where real confidence comes from – not from “beautiful underarms” or eating five a day, but from feeling you have genuine agency in the world. And this is something you don’t have when your equalities minister is busy telling magazine editors what to tell you to eat rather than looking at the inequalities you’re facing on a daily basis.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog here

Telling women how to feel about their bodies is nobody's business. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Michael Dugher interview: "A remarkable achievement" for Jeremy Corbyn to be doing so badly

In his first interview since announcing his departure, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister takes aim at the left - and his own side's failings.

On the morning of 18 April, as news broke that Theresa May would make a surprise announcement, Michael Dugher was on the phone to his old friend Tom Watson. By chance, Labour’s deputy leader was “the person who had said most consistently that there would be an early election,” Dugher recalled. “I thought it was likely but once they decided not to have it at the same time as the locals I thought that ship had sailed.”

Two days after May revealed that a snap election would be held, the 42-year-old Barnsley East MP and former shadow cabinet minister announced that he would stand down. Labour allies and lobby journalists mourned the loss of one of Westminster’s characters: a pugnacious northerner full of authentic loathing of the Tories and contempt for his party’s hard-left.

When I met Dugher in his parliamentary office four days later, he told me that he longed to see more of his family (he has three children aged 11, nine and four) but also that the last two years had been “thoroughly miserable”. The former Brown spin doctor lamented: “Opposition is always really, really hard. People who like opposition and skip into the chamber every day, I kind of wonder whether all the lights are on ...  The only point of being in opposition is to try and get into government.” He would trade his seven years in parliament, he told me, for seven days on the backbenches in government.

Born into a working class family in Erdlington, a Doncaster mining village, Dugher hails from Labour’s “old right” - a tradition antithetical to that of Jeremy Corbyn. Like other standard-bearers such as Tom Watson and John Spellar (all former trade union officials), Dugher is pro-Trident, pro-NATO and devoted to the politics of power, rather than protest.

Four months after he became shadow culture secretary under Corbyn (having served as shadow transport secretary under Ed Miliband), Dugher was sacked for “disloyalty”. Corbyn privately cited a New Statesman article in which Dugher argued against a “revenge reshuffle” targeting supporters of Syrian intervention.

Ever since, he has warned that Labour is drifting remorselessly away from power. Though he insisted that electoral defeat was not inevitable (“Politics is wild and unpredictable. Who knows what could happen?”), he added: “You’d have to have a screw loose not to think things are pretty tough. I noticed when Jeremy addressed the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] he didn’t announce the key seats we’d need to take off the Tories to form a Labour government. I thought that was ominous.”

He continued: “It is a remarkable achievement for the leadership to have taken a catastrophic situation in Scotland and made it quite a lot worse. We seem to be doing worse in Wales ... We’ve gone backwards amongst every demographic, every region of the country. Jeremy is behind Theresa May on managing the NHS! It’s quite a special achievement to put all of that together in a short period of time. Hats off to Jeremy and Seumas [Milne], Diane [Abbott] and John [McDonnell]. That’s pretty special.”

Some Corbyn allies privately suggest that the Labour leader could retain office even after a heavy defeat (as Neil Kinnock did in 1987 - though he gained 20 seats). "If Jeremy loses the general election he’s got to go," Dugher said. "The election’s started, I want Labour to do as well as possible but if Labour lost again, particularly if we did worse than last time, it would be ridiculous and an act of profound self-indulgence and vanity to consider staying on in those circumstances.

"I don’t know what his office are so defensive about. They think Jeremy’s going to win. Jeremy’s office should have a bit more faith in him to win the election and then the issue won’t arise."

He added: "The left have always been in the fortunate position of being able to blame the moderates, the centre for when we’ve lost. But whenever we’ve won, they’ve banked it, saying anyone would have won. 'Jeremy Corbyn could have in 1997' - not sure that’s the case, actually. For the first time, they are going to be put to an electoral test themselves: they’ve got the leadership, it’s Jeremy’s shadow cabinet, it will be his manifesto, the public are fairly clear about what Jeremy believes in and the direction of the party, so let’s see how it does electorally.”

Dugher ridiculed the suggestion that party disunity and a hostile media were to blame for Labour's woes. “I recognise that disunity does not help. But the reason why we are so far behind in the polls, it comes down to very simple things: it’s about leadership, leadership is the dominant issue at every general election.

“The idea that Labour might do badly because of Michael Dugher’s tweets, someone who nobody has bloody heard of, rather than Jeremy Corbyn, who is standing to be prime minister, is just for the birds, it’s the politics of excuses.”

Dugher added: “We’ve had a Tory press forever and a day ... They’re a lot less powerful than they were. The Sun will never be able to claim it won anything now, it isn’t like 1992. And yet they [Corbyn supporters] use it as an excuse, it’s just deranged.”

He derided the pro-Corbyn sites The Canary and SKWAWKBOX as "total bollocks" and recalled tweets claiming YouGov was biased towards the Tories. "It’s a member of the British Polling Council! Have these people been smoking something? They should just quit the excuses.

"When I saw a [Momentum] demonstration outside the New Statesman, and you had a beautiful look of bemusement on your face as much as anything, and I just thought 'the left are demonstrating against the New Statesman!' Is the New Statesman now part of the Tory press? What do they want, Pravda?"

But Dugher, who managed Andy Burnham’s 2015 leadership campaign, conceded that it was “no good moderates blaming Corbyn”. Labour members, he said, were “lured to Corbyn out of desperation. What we offered didn’t inspire, it wasn’t radical, it was more of the same. I am as guilty as everyone else.” He insisted that he was not pessimistic about Labour’s future, singling out Rachel Reeves (“the biggest brain in the House of Commons”), Chuka Umunna (“incredibly talented”) and Dan Jarvis (“I knew him when he was in the army and I was at the MoD, a great talent for the future”) for praise.

Dugher is not a man who will struggle to entertain himself outside of Westminster. He delights in sport, cooking (tweeting photos of his homemade curry), karaoke (unlike most, he really can sing) and sharing his Beatles obsession (his office includes an Abbey Road sign and a framed Yellow Submarine cover). “I know but I’m not going to tell you yet,” he said of his future plans.

As Dugher prepared to meet fellow MPs for leaving drinks in Strangers’ Bar, I asked whether he would ever stand again. “I’m a big believer in never say never,” he replied. “I’m very proud of the very small contribution I played in previous Labour governments.

“Unlike Jeremy and Seumas and others, who have no idea about government, who learned about socialism in expensive private schools, my politics was because of where I was from. I was born into the politics of Labour because I grew up in a pit village in the strike ... There was a lot of poverty when I was a child, I have very strong memories of that. That’s made me who I am and that’s why representing that working class constituency, ex-pit villages, I’m really proud of that.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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