Mannequins are a reflection of the way we see our ideal selves. Photo: Getty
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Size 16 shop mannequins are bad for women’s health – but not in the way you think

The way we present the female form spreads the idea that physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of a woman’s acceptability to society.

The day you chuck your thin wardrobe is the day that you’ve decided the weight you’ve put on isn’t coming off again. The old you, the ghost you who could slip into those trousers and shiver inside that dress – she has been eaten into submission; she isn’t coming back. And I suspect that when chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies criticises the introduction of size 16 mannequins in Debenhams, it’s because she thinks they represent that moment of surrender on a national scale. We could have a sugar tax and install a cycle network, but maybe this is who we are now: maybe we’ve simply come to an accommodation with our bigger selves. (Whether our livers or our cardiovascular systems can be as tolerant as our self-esteem is, of course, another matter.)

The comments about mannequins aren’t really the most important part of Davies’ report, but there’s substance to them. Selling clothes always means selling an idea about the kind of person your target consumer can be. As the exchange of cash for garb gets nearer, the ideal is shuffled delicately closer to the actual until it seems so close you believe you could just stretch out and pluck it from the rail. The wistful, remote, skinny beauty of the catwalk becomes the slightly less alienating thinness of the fashion magazine, then transmutes into the shop window figure that looks like it could almost be you on a good day, before passing through the most important conversion and leaving the store in carrier bag, swinging hopefully by your side. There is one last miracle, and that’s the one where you put on your new clothes and realise that, rather than changing you into the kind of person who wears this marvellous outfit, you’ve just turned this outfit into the kind of thing that a slightly disappointing person like you wears.

All is vanity, all is dust. And for the most part, fashion relies on it being that way. Your unhappiness is the engine that keeps commerce ticking. Every product is the answer to a problem, one way or another, and if the clothes-buying portion of the world woke up one day and decided they had no problems to which a side-buttoning denim skort was the answer, the British high street would be in a bad way. Maybe it’s a kindness to remove one portion of that perpetual misery by installing mannequins that are closer to the actual size of women. At any rate, if we have to have a model figure, surely better that it’s Debenhams reasonably sized woman rather than something like the Venezuelan “operated mannequins” with their hoisted tits and globular buttocks, designed to match that country’s surgically hewn ideal of beauty. At least you can see yourself fitting into the injection-moulded pattern of the UK’s new standard without having four bags of silicone slipped through four incisions in your body.

But a standard mannequin is still a beauty myth, even if that myth has got bigger. Accepting largeness as a form of loveliness is not the same as accepting every woman’s body on its own terms. A friend confided a while ago that she felt like a misfit on account of her size – not because she thought she was too big, but because she’d started to feel that her size 16 was insufficient to qualify her for the “fatshion” scene, where the attractive standard starts around size 20 and comes in a smartly maintained 50s pin-up package. In line with mainstream fashion imagery, that package is overwhelmingly white – which, given that Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani women are disproportionately likely to be obese (pdf), is a notable enforcement of the usual beauty standards in the middle of something that casts itself as an aesthetic rebellion. And it’s a rebellion that can act like a regiment: several fat accepters have found that the scene’s body positivity started to run out when, whether deliberately or through illness, they stopped having quite so much body to be positive about.

Obesity isn’t a uniquely female problem. But the self-torturing belief that our bodies are somehow an offence to decency by being the wrong sort is. Anorexia, plastic surgery, obsessive dieting and feeling like the wrong sort of fat – these are issues that, in the vast majority of cases, plague women and not men, because it’s women and not men who learn that their physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of their acceptability to society. It’s women who learn that they exist to be looked at, and it’s women who are encouraged to make drastic alterations when they inevitably fail to match the shape they’re asked to be, whether that shape is a wispily unobtrusive size 0, an hourglassy 16, or a voluptuous 20 snapping hot selfies with a kebab in hand. The chief medical officer is right that mannequins are bad for our health. I’m just not sure she understands exactly how right she is.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle