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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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.