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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.

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

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