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.

Photo: Getty
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From war and slavery to prison – life inside an immigration detention centre

David spent five years locked in a house in Britain. Then he spent two years in immigration detention centres. 

Visitors at the immigration detention centre are met by Sid the Sloth, balancing an acorn just as he does in the family film Ice Age. The picture is one of the brightly coloured murals adorning the otherwise bare walls of the visitor's entrance. The lurid paintwork sits in stark juxtaposition to the barbed wire outside, and the metal detector and eight sets of doors which visitors must pass through.

It is a thin veneer which fails to mask a system containing institutionalised abuse from top to bottom. It isn't surprising, then, that one of the conditions of my visit was not to identify the centre - the volunteers I joined fear having visiting rights withdrawn by the company in charge.

Once inside I met Sivan, a 32-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker who came to Britain clinging to the underside of a lorry. He had been tortured by the Turkish authorities. For Sivan the children’s cartoons in the visitor’s entrance held a particularly cruel irony. Detainees at the centre are not allowed smartphones, and with no access to email Sivan’s wife, also a Kurdish asylum seeker, is unable to send her husband pictures of their first child. The couple have not seen each other in the two months since Sivan was detained. That day, in the visitor’s lounge, Sivan saw his son for the first time. Holding photographs of the little boy in his hands, Sivan’s face momentarily lit up as it split with joy and then sorrow.

Sivan does not know when he will be able to see his young family - or if they will ever be able to be together.

Across Britain more than 3,000 people, many fleeing war and torture, are locked up indefinitely in immigration centres. They arrive in Britain seeking refuge. But are shut away in privately-run prisons before being forcibly removed. Often with little or no English, detainees rely on volunteers to help them navigate Britain’s complex immigration system.

At the volunteer hub, which helps 80 of the 500 men in the centre each week, I met former detainees who all had one thing in common: the mental torture that indefinite detention inflicts. Like David, a quiet Ghanaian who has never really been free. He was kept as a slave on a plantation until traffickers brought him to Britain aged 13. Here he spent five years locked in a house, when not being forced to work 14-hour days in a warehouse. He finally escaped only to spend 11 years waiting for his asylum application to be processed - still ongoing despite clear medical evidence of his torture during imprisonment. He has spent two years in immigration detention centres. And as he waits he now has to register his presence with the authorities every Tuesday. He is terrified that when he does he won’t return to his four-year-old daughter, but instead be returned to captivity by the Home Office, without explanation.

Another former detainee Daniel, a tailor from Iran who fled five years ago, spent five months in detention when he first arrived in Britain. He describes being locked up with no time limit as "one of the worst times of my life", and still needs anti-depressants. “It really damaged my mind,” Daniel told me. “You don’t know when the process will be finished and you’re just waiting, waiting. You don’t know what’s going on.”

I heard from detainees who have had medical appointments they have waited months for cancelled because the centre wouldn’t pay for transport. Some kept three in a room with a toilet between the beds. Others woken in the middle of the night to see their friend dragged from their bed and assaulted by guards before being taken for deportation. Detainees employed to clean the centre for an exploitative £3 a day, just to afford necessities like toiletries. Or they stay trapped by fear in their rooms because they are afraid of the ex-prisoners, many who have committed serious crimes, locked up around them. I heard too of solitary confinement used routinely as a punishment for those considered not to be compliant. More than one detainee said immigration centres are worse than prisons. And they are right.

Britain is the only place in Europe which still locks people up with no time limit. Despite the government’s promise to reduce both the numbers - and the time spent there - progress is still far too slow. Last year 27,819 people entered detention. Some have been there more than five years.

Barely a week passes without a new report of violence or suicide or rape or abuse, inflicted on those who came to our country for help. The government should hang its head in shame. The Home Office must stop turning a blind eye to what it must know what is happening to those in its care. It’s clear that this is a broken and barbaric system. After seeing it for myself, I’m more convinced than ever that the use of indefinite detention has to end.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed for this article.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.