You may have seen that, earlier this week, broadcaster and actor Jameela Jamil publicly called out multi-national cosmetics brand Avon for a manipulative advert targeted at women. The company soon apologised and withdrew the ad, saying they had ‘missed the mark’. Of course, as with all of these things, I can’t help but suspect this apology has more to do with fear over profit margins than a genuine respect for their customers.
It was a small victory, highlighting a much bigger problem which will take more than a few Tweets to resolve. Our society expects people – women in particular – who do not conform to narrow standards of size/shape/appearance to feel shame. The word shame is often confused with ‘insecurity’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. There is a myth of women naturally having ‘body issues’, that it is somehow a female trait.
Unfortunately the way we deal with shame can be to hide – covering up with clothes that aren’t our preference, deciding not to exercise or socialise, or even using food, alcohol or other substances to escape. It can also involve dedicating yourself to changing the way you look to get rid of feelings of shame. This can involve negative self talk, depriving yourself of nutrients and obsessing over ‘health’ related routines.
Shame manifests as fear and self-criticism and no ‘body type’ is immune. Shame tells us that the worst thing we could be – worse than not following your ambitions, worse than being in a toxic relationship, worse than being too anxious to socialise – is fat. And then the parameters of what is acceptable become smaller and smaller.
In my late teens and early twenties, magazines and advertisers would try to profit from articles, supposedly about healthy body image, but which actually focussed on women’s flaws. It usually went something like ‘Hey, don’t worry – extremely thin women have imperfections and hate their bodies too!’, accompanied by images of young women working in an industry that tells them their only value is thinness. This still continues and, arguably in a much more extreme way, due to social media.
We are told that the damaging consequences of body shame are normal, rather than being told that ruthless corporations and distorted social attitudes are damaging us. Shame has created a world in which seriously ill young women have been told by adults that eating disorders are just ‘part of growing up’, then stigmatised for the mental health problems which arise from hatred of their bodies.
Jameela Jamil was absolutely right to shame Avon. Companies like this should absolutely be ashamed of encouraging self-hatred to make themselves a nice profit. Your worth cannot be measured in pounds, inches or size labels. Your life cannot be defined by a before and after photo. You deserve the right to enjoy your body and to define what healthy means to you without judgement. You are not a collection of flaws – the fact that certain bodies are demeaned by society is what is truly flawed, shameful and unhealthy.