“All Women Should Be Size 14″, says the Daily Mail. Say what?

Amber McNaught writes…

This morning, against my better judgement, I followed a link from Twitter to this article on the Daily Mail website. And was instantly hit with the shocking information that “ALL” women in the world should be a UK dress size 14, according to UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

Sorry, but what? ALL women in the world should be exactly the same size? And that size should be the apparently randomly-chosen size 14? (Roughly equivalent to a US 12, although obviously it depends very much on the manufacturer) Rubbish. The idea that there is just one “right” size to be; a “one size fits all”, which is healthy for ALL women, regardless of their height, age and body type is ridiculous, and actually rather hypocritical when you realise that this “magic” size 14 is apparently being promoted in order to help rid women of the insecurities created by looking at images of thin models. The article continues:

“[The minister] said that too often, women were made to feel wretched about their size as they were constantly comparing themselves with ‘unattainable’ figures of celebrities and models. This posed a ‘significant risk to the physical and mental health of young people’ she added, and in the worst cases could lead to anorexia and bulimia.”

Right. Because telling women that they all should look like Christina Hendricks, even if they have a completely different natural body shape, won’t make them feel “wretched” at all, will it? For some women, Christina Hendricks’ shape, lovely as it is, is every bit as unattainable as that of a runway model. Take me, for instance. I’m short and slim, and I’m not like that because I starve myself: I’m like that because that’s the shape women in my family are. If I wanted to be a size 14, I’d have to gain an amount of weight which, on my frame, would tip me into the “obese” category of the BMI index. (Just for the sake of clarity, I’m not saying that size 14 is “obese”, or that anyone who is that size is fat. I’m saying that if I, as a short girl with a small frame, was that size, I would be overweight. Equally, I know some women who would be considered underweight if they they were wearing a size 14. It’s a healthy size for SOME women, but not ALL women).

Even then, however, I would not look anything like Christina Hendricks, because when I do gain weight, I gain it on my stomach and thighs, not on my boobs and hips. (Important point: not all size 14 women are the same shape. You don’t reach size 14 and magically turn into Christina Hendricks.) No amount of weight-gain would turn me into an hourglass. I’m just not built that way, and neither are many other woman. Why should we be made to feel “wretched”? Why should we be forced to “risk our physical and mental health” in order to try to mimic the “unattainable” figure of a celebrity? How is this different, or better, than telling women they “should” be a size 8?

It’s not, is the answer. In recent years, however, the media has seemed to be taking the view that the best approach to the “size 0″ issue is to demonize “skinny” women (and notice how we’re allowed to call thin women “skinny”, or use even more pejorative terms, like “skeletal”, for instance, but we’re not allowed to call a fat woman “fat”, and must instead describe her as “curvy”): we’ve had no end of articles on how “real women have curves” (the rest of us are just imaginary, obviously) and “big is beautiful”, and as far as I can tell, this is every bit as unrealistic as the idea that everyone should be thin. The fact is that REAL women come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. Big is beautiful, sure, but it’s not the only definition of beauty, and lately the media seems to want us to think that it is.

Notice, however, the fact that I’m arguing here with the media rather than with Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone. I’ve read the article several times now, and I can’t for the life of me discover when and where she ACTUALLY said that “all women should be size 14″ – a quote which the Daily Mail has attributed to her (and let’s be honest: it wouldn’t be the first time this particular site was guilty of putting words into someone’s mouth). If she did make reference to a particular size as the be-all-and-end-all of female health, then I find that pretty shocking. From what I can gather, though, she mostly seems to want to put pressure on magazine editors not to use “skinny” models. She also wants magazines to be required to disclose air-brushing of photos.

The last point I wholeheartedly agree with. I actually think airbrushing can be more damaging to women’s self-image than the use of slim models. The banning of thin women from magazines, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. The fact is, whether you like it or not, some women ARE thin. Slim women do exist (and the idea that everyone who is thin must have an eating disorder is a myth that badly needs to be busted: saying that all “skinny” people are anorexic is like saying that all overweight people are greedy) and they need to buy clothes just the same as anyone else does.

To completely remove them from the media, then, and pretend that they don’t exist, seems like a bit of an over-reaction to me. “Curvy” is not the ONLY body shape out there. And let me be very clear here: I’m all for the inclusion of models of ALL shapes and sizes (and skin colours and hair colours and everything else) in fashion. I just don’t feel that this should be achieved by means of the exclusion of every other body type. Sure, parading anorexic models down a runway is deeply disturbing, and is a practice that badly needs to be addressed, but telling women that they should all aspire to being curvy isn’t the answer either: it’s simply replacing one unattainable ideal with another one, and completely ignoring the fact that one size DOESN’T fit all.

 Women: let’s stop bashing each other’s body types. Let’s stop telling each other we’re “too fat” or “too thin” or whatever. Let’s just accept that we come in all shapes and sizes, and that as long as we’re healthy, that’s all that matters. Let’s not try to claim that we SHOULD all be size 0, or we SHOULD all be size 14. Let’s stop telling each other to “eat a sandwich” (a phrase that I would imagine is deeply patronising to people who ACTUALLY have eating disorders: as if it was that simple!) or hit the gym. Can we even do that, or must we go on and on putting pressure on ourselves and each other to conform to some arbitrary ideal, in the name of fashion rather than health?

 Lynne Featherstone says:

“All women have felt that pressure of having to conform to an unrealistic stereotype, which plagues them their whole life. It’s not just the immediate harm, it’s something that lasts a lifetime.”

So says a woman who wants us all to try and look like Christina Hendricks.

She is right about one thing, though: ALL women feel pressure to conform to unrealistic stereotypes. For some women, it’s the pressure to be size 0, even if it means starving themselves. And for others it’s the pressure to be “curvy”, when their bodies are naturally straight-up-and-down.

Wouldn’t it be great if that pressure was completely removed, and we were all simply encouraged to be healthy, no matter what shape we were? Size isn’t a fashion statement. Health isn’t something you can diagnose from a red-carpet shot. And dress size should never be something we try to force each other to conform to.

Edited to Add: Lynne Featherstone has clarified her statement both in the comments section below, and in her own blog, which is here. I’m very relieved to find that she doesn’t, in fact, want to replace one “ideal” body type with another, but still disappointed to see her comments comparing “curvy women” to “stick insects” in the same post. This is exactly the kind of divisive language that demonises people of a particular body type, while setting the other up to be the “ideal”!