Lisa Ling launches Dove's "Let's Make Girls Unstoppable" campaign to raise girls' self-esteem. Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

Beauty is about class, money, power and privilege - and it always has been.

Body image is big business. This spring, the Brazilian modelling agency Star Models has launched a graphic campaign with the intention of showing young women how horrific acute anorexia is. It shows models photoshopped to the proportions of fashion sketches – spindly legs, twig-like arms, wobbling lollipop heads.

Given the high-profile deaths of two South American models from anorexia – one of whom, Luisel Ramos, dropped dead of heart failure at a catwalk show – one might interpret this as a way for the agency to detoxify its brand while drumming up a little publicity. But that would be too cynical; the global fashion industry really cares about young women’s health now. That’s why model agencies were recently discovered recruiting outside Swedish eating disorder clinics.

Elsewhere, a new campaign video by Dove uses facial composite drawing to demonstrate how women underestimate their own looks. Dove is owned by Unilever, a multibillion- pound company that seems to have little problem using sexism and body fascism to advertise other products: it also manufactures Lynx, of the “fire a bullet at a pretty girl to make her clothes fall off” campaign, the Slim-Fast fake food range, and more than one brand of the bleach sold to women of colour to burn their skin “whiter”.

The fashion, beauty and cosmetics industries have no interest in improving women’s body image. Playing on women’s insecurities to create a buzz and push products is an old trick but there’s a cynical new trend in advertising that peddles distressing stereotypes with one hand and ways to combat that distress with the other. We’re not like all the rest, it whispers. We think you’re pretty just as you are. Now buy our skin grease and smile. The message, either way, is that before we can be happy, women have to feel “beautiful”, which preferably starts with being “beautiful”.

Let’s get one thing straight: women don’t develop eating disorders, self-harm and have other issues with our body image because we’re stupid. Beauty and body fascism aren’t just in our heads – they affect our lives every day, whatever our age, whatever we look like, and not just when we happen to open a glossy magazine.

We love to talk, as a society, about beauty and body weight – indeed, many women writers are encouraged to talk about little else. What we seldom mention are the basic, punishing double standards of physical appearance that are used to keep women of all ages and backgrounds in our place. For a bloke, putting on a half-decent suit and shaving with a new razor is enough to count as “making an effort”. For women, it’s an expensive, timeconsuming and painful rigamarole of cutting, bleaching, dyeing, shaving, plucking, starving, exercising and picking out clothes that send the right message without making you look like a shop-window dress-up dolly.

Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are severe mental illnesses but they exist at the extreme end of a scale of trauma in which millions of women and girls struggle for much of their lives. The fashion, diet and beauty industries exploit and exaggerate existing social prejudice, encouraging women to starve ourselves, to burn time and money and energy in a frantic, self-defeating struggle to resemble a stereotype of “beauty” that is narrowing every year.

Studies have shown that, across the pay grades, women who weigh less are paid more for the same work and have a better chance of promotion than those who are heavier. In politics, in business and in the arts, accomplished and powerful men are free to get fat and sloppy, but women can expect to be judged for their looks if they dare to have a high-profile job: we’re either too unattractive to be tolerated or too pretty to have anything worth saying. Beauty is about class, money, power and privilege – and it always has been. Women and girls are taught that being thin and pretty is the only sure way to get ahead in life, even though this is manifestly not the case.

Those few young women who have fought their way to public acclaim despite lacking the proportions of catwalk models are expected to account for themselves in interviews, from the Oscar-winning singer Adele to the only-ever-so-slightly-plump Lena Dunham.

It’s hard to feel all right about yourself in this sort of toxic beauty culture: as long as “fat” is the worst thing you can possibly call a woman, any of us who dares to speak up or out about what is happening will be called fat, whether or not we are.

“Fat” is subjective and socially situated, and it’s the slur most commonly directed at any girl or woman who asserts herself, whether physically or politically. Even the most stereotypically thin and beautiful woman will find herself dismissed as unattractive if what comes out of her mouth happens to threaten male privilege, which is why feminists of all stripes continue to be labelled “fat and ugly”. This culture would still prefer women to take up as little space as possible.

Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.

I think if we want to take care of the next generation of girls we should reassure them that power, strength and character are more important than beauty and always will be, and that even if they aren’t thin and pretty, they are still worthy of respect. That feeling is the birthright of men everywhere. It’s about time we claimed it for ourselves.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.