“These issues are high up Corbyn’s agenda”: Maxine Peake on the crisis in social housing

First published by New Statesman, 25th August 2017

“I believe that a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn could go some way towards solving this issue. That’s one of the reasons we’re behind him, he’s a viable option and these issues are high up on his agenda.”

Maxine Peake is discussing the housing crisis, and in particular the decimation of social housing that is the subject of a new documentary she is narrating.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle tackles the causes of Britain’s social housing crisis and gives a voice to tenants whose homes are threatened by action from local councils and private developers.

The stats are starkly revealing. In 1980, 40 per cent of Britain’s population lived in social housing. Today, less than 8 per cent do, and around 1.7 million people are stuck on waiting lists.

“Areas in London have just become full of Airbnb rentals,” says Peake. “There’s no community because people don’t actually live there, they just stay for two weeks, four weeks, a couple of days.

“People think, ‘I can make some money here’ and that just feeds into the sense that housing is about ‘oh, what can I gain?’ The whole purpose of the home becomes lost if it’s seen as an assert to trade on.”

Directed by Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain), Dispossession takes the viewer on a whistlestop tour of housing policy from the end of the Second World War right up to the present day. It lays the blame for the depletion of social housing stock at the door of both Conservative and New Labour governments.

“Margaret Thatcher’s a major part of why this country’s in the terrible state that it is, but you can also blame Tony Blair,” says Sng. “In the 13 years of New Labour, fewer houses were built than under Thatcher’s government, because Blair and Gordon Brown ran with Thatcher’s policy.

“It’s now obvious that the market economics that Thatcher forcefully pushed through, the absolute faith in the market to deliver housing – it hasn’t worked.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, Dispossession highlights a deliberate strategy on the part of local councils to allow social housing stock to fall into disrepair, so they can embark on costly “regeneration” projects with private developers. These have seen estates bulldozed and tenants forced from their homes.

Communities are broken apart and people are moved out of the area they may have lived in their whole lives, away from family, friends and support networks. For vulnerable people, this can be an act of terrible cruelty.

Sng spent many years of his young life in social housing, and says “poverty porn” programmes such as Benefits Street are created to make viewers “feel good about themselves” – and to reinforce negative perceptions of council tenants. Dispossession includes interviews with social housing tenants in London, Glasgow and Nottingham.

Eileen and Micheal O’Keeffe have lived on the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill for 41 years, but their home is now under threat from Lambeth Council. They describe attending the weddings of their neighbours’ children, leaving the viewer in no doubt that the sense of community and relationships they’ve built have been formed organically over many, many years. These community bonds can’t be quickly rebuilt elsewhere, should (as they fear) Lambeth raze the estate and sell the highly lucrative land to private developers. (Lambeth Council say that the proposal for Cressingham Gardens is for the estate to be regenerated by Homes for Lambeth, which will be wholly-owned by Lambeth Council and any plans would replace all council properties on Cressingham Gardens, with new homes at council-level rents.)

Dispossession feels very necessary, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It approaches the national scandal of social housing with extraordinary precision and compassion. With an estimated 4,134 people living on the streets in Britain – while 200,000 properties have stood empty for more than six months – it’s clear that our approach to housing needs a radical overhaul.

“I’m supposedly a successful actress and I couldn’t buy until I was 32, and I had to move back up north, because I wanted a house,” says Peake. “This is over 11 years ago, and the situation has become so much worse since then. It’s the younger generation I really feel for.

“Everyone needs to see this film. It’s a documentary about where were are socially and it’s as important as I, Daniel Blake.”

According to Sng, his film is about value. “Not about property values, but about who is valued. If Grenfell can tell us anything, it’s that the people who lived there were not valued by the council, but that’s not a phenomenon that’s just confined to Kensington and Chelsea.

“We need to start valuing people who live on estates and valuing the estates themselves. Bricks and concrete don’t cause societal problems – they’re caused by inequality.”

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will be screening in selected theatres from August to November.

How do you deal with mental health problems in the workplace?

First published by New Statesman, 31st July 2015

I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was about 13. Poor mental health has cost me the majority of my school and university friends, and a number of academic achievements. It has also had a long-lasting impact on my physical health. As an adult, it makes working a full-time job and fulfilling my professional obligations difficult. I’m not alone in this, as one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties in the UK every year. Working full-time when you’re also trying to deal with a long-term mental health problem often feels like an uphill struggle. It’s like trying to run the same race as my colleagues, but with weights on my wrists and ankles that drag me backwards.

I decided to speak to a number of people currently managing mental health problems while in work, and I was inundated with responses within minutes of making a public request.

Almost everyone I spoke to reported that things considered mildly unpleasant by other colleagues (like staying late or getting up early) can feel like insurmountable hurdles, particularly if you’re taking certain medications. Holly was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when she was 19. While working as a call handler, she found the strict four week rota, early mornings and varied shift lengths had a negative impact on her mental health. She told me “I struggled with the early morning starts because I had been prescribed Quetiapine. Taking this drug at night would knock me out for twelve hours and I began to find this balance increasingly difficult. I didn’t feel I could open to my employer about my mental health issues.”

Admitting that you’re taking a psychoactive medication that impacts on your ability to function is still not considered the “done thing”. Getting up in the morning was a major problem for me in my first full-time role after university. I was taking Trazodone as a sleeping aid and mood stabiliser, and it would make me feel so groggy and hungover in the mornings, that getting up was a superhuman struggle, every single working day. My inability to be punctual and my “miserable face” (direct quote from previous employer, and pretty offensive to anyone, let alone someone suffering with depression) saw me repeatedly penalised.

In July, comedian and author Ruby Wax was awarded an OBE for services to mental health. She told the Times: “when people say, ‘Should you tell them at work?’ I say: ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema”. Coming from someone so recently rewarded for her advocacy work for people with mental illnesses, this is irresponsible advice.

She adds that mental illness “is like the situation used to be with gay rights. Like being in the closet, but mental illness is now the taboo instead”. If this is the case, then surely the way to combat stigma and end the taboo is not to hide mental health problems. The LGBT community don’t continue to make gains in terms of civil rights, positive representations in the media, and widespread public acceptance by staying quiet and hiding away. Of course, Wax is merely responding to a world in which unjust stigma still exists, and advocating that others take the path of least resistance within the workplace. Ruby Wax has, of course, experienced her fair share of prejudice. However, as someone who campaigns for acceptance regarding mental illness, to advise others to hide their conditions from employers is completely counterproductive, and potentially dangerous from a health perspective.

If one in four adults is suffering from mental illness, then you will know someone who is currently experiencing mental health problems. Your boss will know someone. The charity Mind has published research demonstrating that the “culture of fear and silence around mental health” can cost employers dearly, with 1 in 5 people taking days off due to stress, and 1 in 10 leaving positions because of stress. Mind also found that 56 per cent of employers surveyed said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but didn’t t feel they had the right training or guidance to do so. That’s more than half, and it puts a big pin in Wax’s assertion that “employers will find a reason to fire you anyway”.

Tom experienced mental health problems while working for two business magazines, and says that “as someone with little practical experience of the workplace, there was nothing as lonely as being hunched over a laptop in a small office, panicking over how to organise the next hour, never mind hit the deadlines expected. I wouldn’t say my manager was unsympathetic; it was they were incapable of helping. Workplaces, and especially smaller ones working in more specialised fields, simply don’t have the capacity to help people unless they’re fully functioning. It isn’t built into their structure, and however sympathetic people are, as in all fields of life they have their own problems.”

The 2010 Equality Act states that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, including those who have a mental impairment that impacts long-term (more than 12 months) on their day-to-day activities. From a business perspective, it only makes financial sense for employers to make reasonable adjustments for people with mental health issues.  It’s expensive to have staff take lots of sick days because they’re unhappy and stressed and unable to cope. It’s expensive and time consuming to advertise someone’s job, interview for it, and train and/or acquaint a new person to the role, because a member of staff has resigned due to ill health.

Laura* works in a primary school to support children with learning difficulties. She says “I was actually referred through my work place via occupational health after confiding in one of my close colleagues, (who happened to be my manager), to have counseling. It was done completely privately and I was free to tell everyone or no one, and my timetable was changed to take Wednesdays off for my appointments, running over a six week course. And if I wasn’t feeling up to coming in I could stay at home to cope. As a school, we take mental health super seriously like any other medical condition and I received absolutely no prejudice from the people who knew what I was going through.” Laura was also paid for the time she took off for counseling.

Katie* has bi-polar, and she describes her episodes as “completely debilitating”. She says “I am so lucky right now to have a boss who will give me manageable admin tasks rather than energetic sales, or will allow me different working hours. I part-manage a team who are willing to work around my episodes, l relying on each other for help which means I don’t have to interact as much, and they generally learn a lot during these times”.

However, opening up to colleagues isn’t always a rosy experience, and nor should it be portrayed as such. Katie’s previous role in recruitment involved her work peers making comments like “let’s get her completely drunk and see if she goes manic” and her boss making inappropriate sexual advances. She describes ‘over-sexualisation’ and a lack of boundaries as part of her diagnosis, something that was exploited by her employer. She says that his behaviour “extended to a night out with a client when we went to a bar in the Netherlands and the client wanted to teach me salsa. He became far too intimate and my boss told me to do whatever it took to make the client happy and that it would teach me the importance of client retention in business. He also said that he wouldn’t tell my boyfriend if it won us further business.”

This is a case of serious discrimination on the grounds of sex and disability. It’s unlikely that Katie’s boss would have behaved in the same way with a male subordinate, or with a female employee who wasn’t vulnerable. Katie left her job soon afterwards.

Many people who struggle with mental health issues choose not to disclose their illness due to the stigma they believe will accompany the admission, just as Wax suggest in her ill-advised comments to the Times. Alex* is a fellow journalist and he has kept his mental health problems quiet in the workplace because “I’d hate to be branded as someone with ‘mental health issues’. There’s too much misinformation and too much pity, and I wouldn’t want to risk it going on some sort of mental permanent record in the mind of a superior. People in journalism TALK like none I’ve ever seen, probably because people move around from company to company so much, so it’s difficult to escape a reputation if you have one.”

Anti-discrimination legislation exists to protect those who have both physical and mental illnesses because no one who is sick deserves to be penalized for it. Unfortunately, many people are caught in an ugly catch 22 situation where they’re too embarrassed or scared of being stigmatized to tell their manager or supervisor about their mental health problems, and because no reasonable adjustments have been made, they perform poorly in the workplace. The frustration of not being able to fulfil your potential at work because illness is getting in the way is hugely demoralizing.

Mental health issues don’t exist in a vacuum. They can have a profound impact on how people are able to cope and function at work, but it’s also important to remember that working, and the sense of community, identity and achievement that comes with it, can be crucial to improving and maintaining good mental health. We’ve come a long way in terms of battling the unnecessary stigma attached to mental health, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, attested by the latest figures on suicide in the UK and Ireland.

Mental health can and should be regarded in the same way as physical health by employers and colleagues, and one of the most important ways to ensure this happens is to ask for help when you need it in the workplace. Ruby Wax’s disappointing comments feed into a culture of shame and silence around mental health and work, when we should be striving to open up the conversation and better equip employers to make reasonable adjustments that allow people to fulfil their professional potential. Let’s refuse to be ashamed.

*Names have been changed

Every time I visit the job centre, the staff treat me like a subhuman

First published by New Statesman 29th January 2015

After three months of freelancing and looking for work and essentially living on less than £30 a week, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to sign on and collect Job Seeker’s Allowance.
Claiming benefits wasn’t a position I wanted to find myself in, but I wasn’t making enough money writing to support myself. I’d taken the very first job I was offered after completing my MA, it was completely unsuited to me and I was desperately ill and unhappy. The company agreed to allow me to work from home on a “freelance” basis. Being naïve, I didn’t ask for the agreement in writing, and after a couple of months, they stopped replying to my emails and the work dried up. The money I’d saved from working full time in the office dried up. I wanted to be in journalism, but there was no chance of me raising the money to move to London, where the media resides, to intern for free at a newspaper until I was maybe offered a staff job at some unspecified point in the future. Jobseeker’s Allowance seemed to be my best bet until I found something that I could do, and which had at leastsomething to do with the two very expensive degrees I’d spent four years of my life studying for.

Despite living in the centre of Manchester, two minutes from Piccadilly train station, the nearest job centre was miles away, in a part of Salford I’d never visited before. I arrived for my initial assessment after a 55-minute walk. They refused to let me use the toilet or have a glass of water – basic amenities in a public building.

Throughout the process, I felt like I’d fallen into the pages of Kafka’s The Trial. The process of receiving a benefit seemed to be peppered with vague and arbitrary rules that no one explained, and my treatment at the job centre made me wonder if I’d committed an imaginary crime. A small excerpt, on the subject of travel costs to the job centre and whether or not they are able to reimburse you:

Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days, just when you come for advisor meetings.
Me: Why is that?
Advisor: Well it’s because you HAVE to come in for sign-on day or you don’t get any money, but we’d just PREFER you to come in for your advisor meetings.
Me: So I could do my advisor meetings over the phone?
Advisor: No, you have to come in for you advisor meetings.
Me: So what’s the difference between advisor meetings and sign-on days?
Advisor: We don’t pay your travel on sign-on days.
Me: Right.

Recently, I spoke to Lee Healey, the managing director of IncomeMAX, an organisation that helps people to maximise their income and improve their financial situation. Healey says that “most people ‘stumble’ on to the benefits they receive without truly understanding why they receive them, how they are worked out or exactly what their responsibilities for claiming are. The letters benefits claimants receive are also really complex which don’t help. It is also worth remembering that most people claim benefits at a very difficult stage in their life; unemployment, sickness, retirement, disability, separation, children coming along, bereavement etc. I think that most people ‘get there in the end’ through a combination of looking online, talking to friends and family, getting advice and talking to the relevant government departments but it isn’t easy and many miss out on their full entitlement. Billions of benefits go unclaimed every year.”

On each visit to the job centre, there were more members of the security team in the building than claimants. Three uniformed G4S employees manned the door. There were more security guards than in a club or in front of a particularly troublesome pub when there’s a football match on. I was instructed to sit down on a bench and wait, with a member of the G4S security team hovering behind me, as though I required some kind of supervision. I wondered if they’d been told that smiling was not permitted, and if the advisors had been briefed to speak to claimants in comically slow voices. It was as if they’d decided that anyone claiming benefits must be either monumentally stupid or a criminal, or some unfortunate mixture of the two.

I saw advisors taking personal phone calls at their desks on more than one occasion when people were waiting to see them and the job centre was unusually busy. My advisor cancelled my claim by accident because she “didn’t really use computers”. I also heard a member of staff telling someone who had called the job centre, clearly distressed, that nothing could be done and they should try a food bank.  I was aggressively reprimanded for “wandering around” by an intimidating member of the security team after being told to go through into the next room by an advisor.

Neil Bateman, a welfare rights advisor, describes the punitive atmosphere of some job centres as entirely deliberate. “I know ex-DWP staff who have been admonished by managers for spending time giving advice. Some DWP staff get a perverse sense of achievement by being unpleasant to claimants,” he says. “It’s truly disgusting and one only has to hear some of the office banter to know what is going on.”

The portrayal of benefit claimants in the right-wing press seemed to link very closely to how I and many, many others have been treated at job centres around the country. Both experts I spoke to described this portrayal by the government and certain sections of the media as “completely unacceptable” and they believe it is based on biased views largely lacking in real evidence. Lee Healey notes that “support for Jobseeker’s is under 8 per cent of total welfare spend so it’s ridiculous that unemployed people are portrayed in the media as undeserving of support and a drain on public resources”.

The toxic blend of a highly complex benefits system, unhelpful advisors and the coalition government’s ideological approach to sanctions means that it’s very easy to lose your benefit altogether, and not even be aware of the reason why. Lee Healey sees the sanctions as an attack on the most vulnerable people. “Jobseeker’s and ESA claimants will generally be on the very lowest incomes; literally receiving a top up to take their income to a government set ‘amount they need to live on’ – when this ‘top up’ is sanctioned, by benefits being stopped or reduced it hits claimants hard. In many cases it will leave claimants with no money”. In the last two years, over 2 million people have had their benefits stopped through the coalition government’s sanction regime.

As someone who has spent 40 years working with claimants referred through voluntary organisations, Neil Bateman now spends more time “sorting out stupid and nasty benefit decisions and they take ages to resolve”. Lee Healey reports helping 13,000 households this year, a 50 per cent increase on last year, and says that the demand for his services is growing.

I came away every week feeling furious about being belittled again by staff members who seemed to hold only distaste for me. On entering the job centre, my qualifications, internships, published achievements and public speaking successes were wiped away. I was basically a sub-human who couldn’t be trusted to use the toilet or have a glass of water or sit on a bench without someone in uniform standing over me. These small experiences serve to illustrate the hostile and mistrustful atmosphere of the job centre and the disrespect with which claimants are treated.

My job centre experiences are not unique, nor are they particularly extreme. Benefit sanctions, the unnecessary complexity of the system and the behaviour of some job centre employees are harming some of the most vulnerable members of society. Between March 2013 and March 2014, there was a 580 per cent rise in sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people. More than one million people received food parcels from Trussell Trust food banks last year. Benefit sanctions were used to ‘massage’ unemployment figures, as the coalition government conveniently excluded around 500,000 people on JSA from their statistics. Those people effectively did not exist, purely for the purpose of making a political point. It is essential that we, as a society, rediscover our compassion because something is very wrong here.

Fashion’s Lolita moment: why are campaigns so keen to fetishize young girls?

First published by New Statesman, 2nd October 2014

If you weren’t already aware, little girls are in. Socially, we remain mired in a seemingly unbreakable obsession with youth, particularly when it comes to women. Fashion prizes young girls; repeatedly running advertising campaigns that feature teenage stars, insisting on the use of teenage models,  and pushing childish garments that infantilize adult women. Men can age gracefully and become distinguished, but women are only worth celebrating when they are young.

Young girls have been fashion favourites for a long time, but this trend was made particularly explicit in the early 90s with the ushering in of “heroin chic”. A waifish Kate Moss was snapped topless at sixteen, and topless straddling a shirtless Mark Wahlberg a few years later for Calvin Klein’s infamous 1993 jeans advert. Moss brought her youthful, boyish thinness to the world of modelling, and the tired, circled eyes and vacant expressions of the “heroin chic” craze followed. Curves were out, flat chests and non-existent hips were in, and models got younger and their bodies stayed regressively little-girl in order to fit the trend. Despite the recent gains in fashion regarding the protection of young models and the push to see more diverse body shapes on the runways, youth still reigns supreme and little girls remain fashion’s first choice.

The US clothing site Dolls Kill runs several “looks” on every season. One is titled “La Femme Matilda” and features a model dressed in clothes inspired by the 1994 film Leon: The Professional. The title is a play on both Leon and director Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita. Matilda, played by a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman, is a twelve year old who smokes, curses and tries to initiate a sexual relationship with Leon, played by Jean Reno who was 46 when the film was released.

Dolls Kill’s look for “La Femme Matilda” includes crop tops, short dungarees with a rainbow applique on the chest, combat boots, fetish-style chokers, and tiny denim shorts bearing the legend “Lolita”. The clothes are for adult women, but inspired by a twelve year old character. The model used can be seen lounging in hotpants, wearing a heavy-duty leather collar, and clutching the stuffed rabbit that Matilda treasures in the film.

The character of Matilda is inappropriately sexual and wishes to mimic grown adult relationships, despite not having even entered her teenage years. This is how Besson communicates to his audience that Matilda is damaged by her physically and emotionally abusive upbringing, and the bloodbath that results in the loss of her family. In the film, Matilda’s sexual precociousness is poignant, but Dolls Kill makes it sexy, stylish and a desirable ‘look’ for adult women. Dolls Kill did not respond to requests for comment.

Fashion’s obsession with young girls has caused trouble with the censors. In 2011, the British Advertising Standards Agency banned the ad for Marc Jacobs’ Lola perfume. It featured Dakota Fanning posing with a giant, phallic-looking perfume bottle in her lap. The ASA ruled on the ad due to the fact that Fanning looked to be under the age of 16, coupled with the sexualised pose. It’s strange that fashion advertisements are not banned because they continue to feature eroticised teenage boys. Correct me if I’m wrong, but pubescent and pre-pubescent men are not culturally salivated over in the same way.

Roger David, a men’s clothing brand, was also slammed for using a highly sexualised image of a young girl in an advertisement, with a UPC code stamped on her shoulder reading “SLAVE”. True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld was fourteen when she appeared in a Miu Miu ad. She was depicted on a railway track, appearing to wipe one eye as if in tears. The ad was banned for showing a child in a hazardous situation, although the real question is why an adult brand like Miu Miu needed to use a fourteen year old to model their clothing.

American Apparel, a serial offender when it comes to controversial advertising, was recently forced to remove a schoolwear-themed advertisement that showed a model bending over in a tartan skirt, exposing her buttocks. The ASA banned the advertisement on the grounds that “the images imitated voyeuristic ‘up-skirt’ shots which had been taken without the subject’s consent or knowledge which, in the context of an ad for a skirt marketed to young women, we considered had the potential to normalise a predatory sexual behaviour.” It baffles me that these kind of advertisements get through the design process unscathed. Why is no one saying “hang on a minute, this might not be an okay message to send”? Or is American Apparel so cynical that they are willing to throw out sexist images that they know will cause offense, simply to gain notoriety for their brand? If you’re not convinced that AA adverts are sexist, check out the difference between how the unisex tartan shirt is styled on male and female models.

It might be sensible to ascribe the Dolls Kill look to the current popularity of 90s fashion and retro items that those in their twenties and thirties remember wearing as children and younger teens. The plastic backpacks, My Little Pony printed t-shirts and pleated school skirts are having a real fashion moment right now. There’s nothing wrong with looking back to retro styles, but there’s also something very strange about explicitly childish clothes on grown women. Monster highstreet retailer Primark currently has a whole hosiery section devoted to frilly-topped socks, reminiscent of those I was forced into as a six and seven year old (despite denouncing them to my mum as “too girly”).

The problem with fetishising and sexualising young girls is that it sends the message that all females, regardless of their age or developmental maturity, are fair sexual game. The Daily Mail is one of the most shameless offenders, referring to the eight-year-old daughter of Heidi Klum as a“leggy beauty” who “showed off her best model walk”. The paper also released articles drooling over the bodies of Elle Fanning and Chloe Grace Moretz who were both 14 at the time of publication. The “Daily Mail Reporter” turns teenage girls under the age of consent into knowing temptresses,describing Kylie Jenner (then also 14) as “displaying her trim figure for her two million Twitter followers to ogle at”. The article helpfully provides the pictures so that readers can also “ogle”.Guardian columnist Owen Jones started a change.org petition demanding that the Daily Mail stop sexualising children and introduce stricter guidelines regarding editorial style. Referring to teenagers and children as unafraid to “dance suggestively in skimpy bikinis” or displaying a “maturity and a lifestyle far beyond their years” is distasteful at best and positively paedophilic at worst.

Halloween is fast approaching, and there will be no shortage of teenagers and adult women dressed as sexualised schoolgirls, with little interrogation over the cultural messages that these costumes are sending. Adult women aping childhood fashions is perhaps symbolic of how far our social obsession with young girls has really gone. Is it because we’re looking back with fascination at 90s styles? Partly. But it’s doubtful that American Apparel would have deliberately sexualized a pleated school-style skirt if they weren’t playing, one step removed through the women who buy their clothes, to a heterosexual male audience. Schoolgirls are sexy. Teenaged Chloe Grace Moretz and Natalie Portman and Kylie and Kendall Jenner and Dakota and Elle Fanning are sexy. They weren’t even legal when they were being eroticised and fetishised, but that’s kind of the point.

Fashion shouldn’t need to use the bodies of teenage girls to sell clothing, particularly clothing aimed at women. It’s turning all of us into Humbert Humberts, and I for one am done with this Lolita moment.

The Ex-Anorexic’s Guide to Shopping

First published by New Statesman 9th September 2014

I love shopping, but it’s stressful. It’s particularly stressful because I’m an ex-anorexic and bulimic, and I can trace the pattern of my almost ten year struggle with food and weight in the clothing I’ve bought over that period.
I had a pair of denim shorts that were so small that they cut off the blood supply to my lower half, and I was determined to fit them comfortably. Fitting into the shorts became a symbol for all the stuff I thought would come when I was thin enough. I would be loved and beautiful and perfect. I would have THE body and THE career, friends and partner to go with it. I would finally feel alright.
However, there’s no such thing as “thin enough” to someone with anorexia, and the eating disorder left me with none of the prizes it promised me. Just a trail of broken relationships and a broken body of a much, much older woman than my 23 years. In case you’re wondering, I eventually cut the shorts up with kitchen scissors and put the pieces in the bin.

If the tone of this column seems excessively light-hearted, it’s because writing it was very painful. Even though I consider myself to be recovered, something as trivial as flipping through a rack of t-shirts is incredibly triggering. My eating disorder no longer takes up all my headspace, but sits in the corner of my vision, quietly sulking. Many recovered women share the perspective that it never fully leaves, particularly when faced with a potentially triggering situation, like clothes or food shopping, or a trip to the beach.

1. The nightmare of sizing

When I was very sick, I oscillated between buying two sizes of clothing. One was the very smallest the shop had to offer (usually a UK size 4) and the other was large, or as large as I could physically get away with, without the garments trailing on the floor or flapping behind me like a flag. I swung between flaunting my thinness in crops and tiny skirts that wouldn’t have fitted a ten year old, and swamping myself in baggy t-shirts, ill-fitting boyfriend jeans and shapeless jumpers.
When I got into recovery and my body changed, I clung to the oversized clothing to conceal my newly-elephantine (or so I believed) shape. As time passed, I realised I had to get used to this new body shit, and accept that my size was a 6-8. (That is small, I hear you cry. Try telling that to an ex-anorexic who wants to wear kiddie-sized clothes.)
I’ve found that the best way to deal with the sizing nightmare is just to pretend that the triggering, eating-disordered-me sizes don’t exist. And repeat the helpful mantra in your head that, despite all social messages to the contrary, the size of the jeans you’re buying does not define you as a human being. Head in the air, I now ignore the tiny sizes with the icy pride usually reserved for blanking an unpleasant ex-boyfriend in a bar. Sometimes I’m even tempted to hiss “you’re not for me” when I’m browsing the Topshop sale rail and see the odd, lonely size 4 playsuit, but I don’t because I don’t want the staff to think I’m completely insane.

2. The horror of the changing rooms

Once you’ve selected an item, it’s time to brave the changing rooms and try the damn thing on. Many women are suspicious of shop changing rooms at the best of times, even if their body issues don’t make them officially eating disordered. The harsh lighting (it’s always harsh, isn’t it?) and the abundance of unforgiving mirrors always show the body in the most unflattering relief. I don’t know whether this is a conspiracy on behalf of the retailer to make you look awful and more inclined to “improve” yourself by purchasing their wares, or simply the result of cheap lights and mirrors. Away from high street chains, independent clothes shops sometimes have a more “your bedroom at home” feel to their changing rooms, which is a little more comforting.
It’s essential to remember that shop lighting and shop mirrors rarely make anyone look good. They are evil, fun house mirrors, designed to distort your body. They can’t be trusted.
If you’re still experiencing a degree of body dysmorphia (where your body looks and feels very different to how it actually is), this effect may be more severe. Body dysmorphia can turn every reflective surface into a minefield, bearing a distorted image that does not correlate with reality. This side effect of anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS (a mixture of the two conditions) can be very frightening and disorientating because it means that you are unable to trust your own eyes.
In order to survive the changing room ordeal virtually unscathed, it might be helpful to expect the bare minimum from the fit of your clothes. This means that if the jeans go over your hips comfortably, buy them. If the top fits your boobs inside without gaping open, buy it. You can deal with the minutiae of whether or not an item makes you look a little bit more like Beyoncé when you get home, using familiar mirrors. This is why shops have return policies.

3. The models and mannequins

Clothing shops, by their very nature, are filled with seriously triggering, larger-than-life advertisement posters featuring really thin women. You can avoid fashion magazines all you like, but in clothing retailers you literally cannot get away from depictions of super-skinny models. The mannequins are just as bad. I don’t know who they were initially modelled on, but it wasn’t any human person I’ve ever seen in real life.
We all know that photoshopping and the manipulation of fashion images is something that happens, but it’s especially important to bear this in mind in clothes shops. The ads you’re subjected to in-store are the product of hours of hair, makeup, special lighting and computer retouching. This means that they aren’t technically “real” or organic. And no amount of relapsing is going to make you look like Cara Delevingne in the latest Topshop campaign. Wellness is too precious to be chucked away for something as mean and pernicious as the way fashion images might make you feel.

One of the best ways to combat the horror of shopping as an ex-anorexic is to take a sympathetic friend or family member along with you. I usually pick my sister, because she artfully highlights the ridiculousness of the situation, so that I come away laughing rather than in tears. If I start mooning over pictures of models in-store or the fact that ASOS now stocks a UK size 2 for adult women, she reminds me that I have brittle bones and my spine is technically crumbling, as a direct result of my eating disorder. And that she, and everyone else who matters in my life, will love me whatever size jeans I wear.

Model workers: The clothes shops that only hire beautiful people

First published by New Statesman, 18th July 2014

If you work in a sales position, you might have a uniform. It may be a T-shirt, branded with the company’s logo. Or it might be the garments that your workplace sells, which always takes a chunk out of your pay cheque. You’ll be required to look presentable, with clean teeth and hair and clothes. However, several clothing retailers operating in Britain – including American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Burberry – take their required standards of appearance much further.

Tom* started to work for Burberry in 2012. Before he was offered a sales position on the shop floor, he was photographed. Snaps of his face, profile and full body were attached to his CV. During training he describes a “constant stress on appearance, being fresh-faced and clean-cut”. His work guide contained an appearance manual, with rules about hair, facial hair, make-up and glasses. He says “there were many incidents in-store where sales associates were told to wear more make-up and go home to wash their hair or shave their beards. One memory that sticks in my mind was when the womenswear manager joked that if her saleswomen put on weight then she would send them to work for menswear”. Tom worked in womenswear and noted that all his sales colleagues were slim, tall and conventionally attractive. He occasionally returns to the store to see old workmates and adds that women are now required to wear heels for the majority of the day and trousers are banned. (Burberry was approached for comment on this article, but has yet to respond.)

An internal email leaked to Gawker in 2010 outlines the strict personal grooming standards expected from American Apparel sales staff. The guide stipulates that “makeup is to be kept to a minimum – please take this very seriously” and that having a fringe is “not part of the direction we’re moving in”. Another rule is that “hair must be kept your natural colour” and “long, healthy, natural hair” is encouraged, meaning that “excessive blow-drying” is banned. There are notes on mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, blusher, foundation, lip gloss, and eyebrow plucking.

Liquid foundation is banned, so you have to show your skin imperfections every day that you work in store. If you’re a female with short hair, you won’t be hired at American Apparel. It doesn’t fit in with their image. If you dye your hair, you won’t be working at American Apparel. You get the idea.

According to the leaked memo, “American Apparel is a retailer that celebrates natural beauty. We encourage employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state”. The word “natural” is cropping up quite a lot here. I can only surmise that by ‘natural’ they mean ‘born this way’. There are always some who fit in better with what we, as a society, believe conventional ‘natural beauty’ to be than others, which makes the “everyone is naturally beautiful” argument completely meaningless. American Apparel’s appearance standards eradicate personal expression and could encourage discrimination against women of colour, epitomised by the statement of a former manager, who was told to “find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair” and turn away “trashy” black women who applied for sales positions.

An anonymous contributor to xojane described her experiences of working for American Apparel in 2012. She wrote “we turned away a lot of competent people, based on the fact that they had too many piercings or just didn’t quite look the part – that is, thin, well groomed and conventionally attractive”. This doesn’t seem like a particularly sound business strategy. Surely the best qualified and most competent people should be hired for the position they’re interested in?

The logic behind these appearance standards is that they are aspirational. It’s the same logic which is behind fashion advertisements that use tall, thin, beautiful models to sell clothes. In places like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel, the lines between selling the clothes and modelling the clothes have become so blurred that doing your job properly has taken a backseat in favour of looking a certain way. This devalues the labour and skills involved in retail work. Retail is not modelling; it’s not about wearing clothes and posing in them. It’s about treating customers with respect, helping customers find what they’re looking for, and making them feel comfortable and welcome while shopping. Having a piercing or dyed hair or plucked eyebrows doesn’t have any impact on how well you’re able to do this.

Rosie, a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee in Florida, recalls that “once when I was working, a girl who wasn’t the ‘Abercrombie look’ (she was black, and not wearing preppy clothes) came in and filled out an application, which my manager then tossed into the trash without even glancing at it after she left”. She says “we were instructed not to be too helpful, not to approach the customers when they were walking around the store” and welcoming staff at the front of the shop were told to talk about fun, aspirational things like where they were going on Spring Break. Rosie states unequivocally that “exclusivity and sales were tied together” adding “isn’t that the whole brand? Sexy, all-American white teenagers?”

Abercrombie & Fitch’s UK sales staff are referred to as “models” on the application section of their website. If you’re not a model, you’re part of the “impact” team (they fill shelves and work in the stockroom). The company was taken to employment tribunal in 2009 by Riam Dean, a former employee who was forced to work in the London store’s stockroom because she was born with the lower part of her arm missing. This didn’t fit in with A&F’s “look policy”. American Abercrombie & Fitch employees have also filed lawsuits against the company for refusing to allow them to wear the hijab while they work in-store.

In the UK, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the grounds of age (unless the job legally requires you to be of a certain age, for example if it involves serving alcohol), sex, religion, gender (including gender reassignment), race, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and marriage. Employment Discrimination laws in the United States protect employees and prospective employees from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, physical disability, age, and national origin.
Discrimination – defined as bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment – is not illegal unless it is related specifically to race, age, or gender. This, however, doesn’t make the practices of certain clothing retailers any less distasteful.

Clothing companies like American Apparel are able to hire staff according to appearance-based prejudices that would be virtually unheard of for other kinds of sale positions. This championing of homogeneity is merely an extension of the worst values of fashion. It taps into that sense of “not good enough”, “must be better”, “maybe buying the clothes will help” that fashion advertisements are so adept at creating.

The narrow beauty ideals favoured by these clothing brands are both exclusionary and deeply boring. Tall, skinny, white people wearing nice clothes? It’s been done. Next.

Children’s bodies in adult clothes: fashion’s love affair with youth and size zero

First published by New Statesman, 22nd May 2014

High fashion consistently chooses a very specific type of person to stride the catwalks and appear in the pages of style publications. Where do these women come from, with their height and thinness and angular features? Do they appear, fully-formed, with the correct measurements at age 18, as if emerging from an industry-standard chrysalis? They don’t. The most famous and highest-earning models are often scouted when they are children, adolescents under the age of 16. They are pressured to keep the same measurements as they grow older, and when this doesn’t happen, they are kicked to the curb.

Gemma Ward was discovered in Perth, aged 14, at an Australian modelling competition called Search for a Supermodel. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she described her scouting as aggressive and unexpected. “When the scout came up to me, I said, ‘No, thank you’. They forged my mum’s signature [for mandatory parental consent], and pushed me in front of the cameras.” She appeared on the cover of American Vogue at 16. Her fragile body, large, wide-set eyes and blonde hair seemed to be a winning formula, and Ward’s career took off spectacularly. At 17 she appeared on 20 New York runways for designers including Calvin Klein, Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta. She was hired for top campaigns including Burberry and Valentino, and replaced Kate Moss as the face of CK’s Obsession Night.

Then her body changed, and all bitchy hell broke loose. In 2007, Ward walked a Chanel show in a denim bikini and fashion media and industry insiders couldn’t handle it. An anonymous editor called her “big, almost bloated” and style headlines sneered “Chanel Spring ’08 Embraces the Big Girl”.Articles dubbed her outfit the “not so itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny Chanel bikini”. She was 19 at the time. She no longer looked like a 14 or 16 year old and fashion thought this was unacceptable.
The highest-earning models in the world were discovered at similarly young ages: Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Lily Cole were scouted at 14, 15 and 14 respectively. The 16-year-old Moss was famously shot by Corinne Day for British magazine The Face, ushering in the popularity of ‘heroin chic’. Campbell got her first British ELLE cover age 15 and Cole her first British Vogue cover age 16. They couldn’t vote or drink or buy fireworks, kitchen knives or cigarettes, and yet they graced the covers of adult fashion magazines, where were aimed at an adult demographic and showcased adult clothes.

The fact that fashion favours young girls is intensely problematic. Younger models may not realise that they have the option of saying “no” when asked, for example, to pose topless, or in a sexually suggestive manner with a male model. In 2012, Kate Moss said that she hated posing nude when she was a teenager. “I see a 16-year-old now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird. But they were like, If you don’t do it, then we’re not going to book you again. So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it,” she told Vanity Fair.

The Model Alliance is a non-profit labour organisation that represents American models. Deputy director Alexandra Simmerson spoke to me about fashion’s preference for younger girls. She said: “Most fashion models begin their careers in their early teens, and the choices they make as children may have long-lasting repercussions. These children are often working in adult environments with adult pressures that they may not have the maturity to handle on their own.”

It may be too much of a supposition to state that fashion favours 14 and 15-year-olds, like Lily Cole, Lara Stone and Natalia Vodianova at the beginning of their careers, because they are more pliable and easily influenced. However, it’s important to recognise that manipulation and exploitation are much more likely to occur when children are operating unprotected in an industry populated by adult photographers, designers and casting agents.

I spoke to ex-model and freelance graphic designer Meredith Hattan, who said that “all models have very few protections in the fashion industry”. This is particularly problematic when it comes to younger models, who may not be as knowledgeable about their legal rights or as confident about speaking up when something is unacceptable. “Models are technically independent contractors, but are signed to exclusive contracts with agencies, which means they are unable to report sexual harassment by employers, get paid in an orderly fashion, and have a regulated workplace,” she explained. Meredith added that “public opinion sometimes holds the mentality of ‘well, no one was holding a gun to her head’, but as a model, you truly feel powerless sometimes. It takes a long time to learn you have a voice of your own – and use it”.

If you are a child-model of under 16 or even under 18, you will be praised for having particular body measurements. You may feel that these measurements are preferable to any other, as they bring modelling work and the promise of recognition. You may then resist the natural changes that occur in your body, and feel pressured to maintain your adolescent body shape as you grow older. It’s not difficult to imagine that this pressure acts as an incubator for the development of eating disorders. In our interview, Meredith Hattam described in-demand models as being “lambasted for becoming ‘fat’ when they grow up – which, in the modelling world, is the equivalent of a dress size”.

The expectations placed on models to maintain their measurements in order to get work are well-documented. Kirstie Clements, former editor of Vogue Australia, describes lunch with an agent who told her that “the top casting directors are demanding that they be thinner and thinner. I’ve got four girls in hospital. And a couple of the others have resorted to eating tissues. Apparently they swell up and fill your stomach”. The fashion industry has come under more serious scrutiny since 2006, when Luisel Ramos collapsed on the catwalk and died of heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa.
Conde Nast International, owner of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour and GQ, responded in May 2012 by creating a six-point pact that included the agreement that Vogue would not work with any model under 16, in any of its editions. This suggests Conde Nast and Vogue itself understands that there is a relationship between the proliferation of size zero models, anorexia nervosa, and the use of girls under 16.

Vogue has violated this agreement three times to date, using Ondria Hardin in the August 2012 issue of Vogue China, Sarah Kees in the September 2012 issue of Vogue Italia and Julia Borawksa in the November 2013 issue of Vogue Mexico. All these girls were 15 years old. Thairine Garcia, age 14, was shot for the September 2012 issue of Vogue Japan, although her editorial never made it to print. With regard to the latest violation, Kelly Talamas, the editor in chief of Vogue Mexico, toldFashionista that the magazine “did not cast any models for this shoot, and was not involved in any manner with the production.” The story and photographs were bought from photographer Kevin Sinclair, who admitted to being aware of Conde Nast’s Health Initiative but pleaded ignorance of Julia Borawska’s age. It’s strange that Sinclair didn’t think to make a cursory Google search, for this would have brought him to Borawska’s Fashion Model Directory Profile, her Polish model agency website or her Instagram page. Her age is clearly displayed in all of these sources.

Autumn and Winter 2012 saw the proliferation of under 16s on the catwalks for New York Fashion Week. Photographer David Urbanke tweeted: “I’ve stopped counting the number of underage girls I’ve photographed that have walked shows this season.” Ondria Hardin and Thairine Garcia, both 14, walked the Marc Jacobs Fall 2012 runway. When questioned about his use of underage models,Jacobs responded: “I do the show the way I think it should be and not the way somebody tells me it should be.” This remark perfectly sums up fashion’s problem. The creative “vision” of designers and photographers has been permitted to override everything else, including the health, well-being and physical safety of models. Jacobs is the “little emperor” of his fashion kingdom and he doesn’t care who he uses as long as his show goes the way he thinks it should. The directors of The Model Alliance believe that this kind of behaviour has gone on too long.

The Model Alliance has tackled the problem of unprotected young models by successfully campaigning for models under the age of 18 to be classed as “child performers” under New York’s labour laws. This came into effect in November 2013 and NY employers in the fashion industry must now make sure that child models have valid work permits, follow restricted working hours, allow breaks for every four hours of work and show evidence that they have placed 15 per cent of the child’s earnings in a trust account. New York law stipulates that models must meet certain health standards before they can gain the required child model permit.

This victory for The Model Alliance should be used as an international standard. It’s disappointing that other fashion capitals, including London, Paris and Milan, are falling behind when it comes to the rights of models under 18. Alexandra Simmerson adds that “all child labourers, workers under the age of 18 or the age of majority depending on the jurisdiction, should be adequately protected by child labour laws no matter the country they perform services in or the industry in which they work”.
Models should be able to work in an environment where they are safe and protected, and this is particularly important for those under the age of 18. It is wrong to use the bodies of under 16s to model adult clothes. I will say this without hesitancy and without exception. Fashion publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazar and ELLE are aimed at and consumed by adult women, and it is adults who should model the clothes shown on their pages. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine that being exposed to pictures of adolescent bodies will make adult women feel inadequate. Add some airbrushing, hours in hair and make-up and thousands of pounds worth of couture clothes, and you’ve got a great recipe for body dissatisfaction and increased numbers of those suffering from debilitating eating disorders.

The use of children and child-like body shapes on catwalks and in the pages of adult fashion magazines feeds into an industry culture that glorifies youth and thinness to the point of sickness. This obsession on the part of fashion puts the health of models and those who consume fashion media at risk. The work that organisations like The Model Alliance do is key to reversing this trend and protecting the women who work in the fashion industry. As Alexandra Simmerson says at the end of our interview: “If children are not cast as ‘adults’, and if young models must be deemed physically fit in order to work, there will hopefully be less pressure on the models to maintain the undeveloped body type of an early teenager, and the images we see on the runway will be of women, and not children.”

Are ultra-thin fashion bloggers encouraging young women to starve themselves?

First published by the New Statesman 14th April 2014

Content note: This piece discusses eating disorders and contains images which sufferers may find distressing.

The world of fashion blogging has many upsides. Anyone with access to the internet and an eye for style can get involved. It allows you to enter fashion journalism without slogging away at unpaid internships, and you don’t need to have wealthy parents to support you while you work in London, for free, for an undisclosed amount of time. Hugely successful bloggers such as Bip Ling and Susie Lau have transformed their online blogs into legit fashion careers. Bip Ling has signed with Storm Models, while Susie Lau is a FROW regular in London and New York. Both women were chosen asCompany magazine cover girls in 2012. The most popular fashion blogs offer catwalk news, summaries of season style, DIY fashion tips, outfit inspiration and product reviews. Some are like miniature magazines, run by a single writer and style lover. Fashion blogging is the democratic and inclusive route into fashion writing, and the popularity of plus-size blogs demonstrates that many of fashion’s repressive beauty ideals are not immediately transferred to the blogosphere.

However, there are a relatively small number of bloggers who not only conform to the fashion industry’s super-skinny standard, but take it to the extreme. Their bodies are reminiscent not only of the skeletal figures striding the major catwalks, but of young women all over the country who are currently hospitalised or receiving outpatient treatment for anorexia. Whether or not they are healthy themselves, are they encouraging others to be unhealthy? And are their legions of adoring fans encouraging them to stay the way they like to see them, whether or not they are damaging their health by doing so?

When talking about ultra-thin fashion bloggers, there are two examples who spring immediately to mind: Felice Fawn and Violet E Both are wildly popular: Felice Fawn’s “public figure” page has over 178,000 likes on Facebook and she has more than 51,000 Twitter followers. Violet E currently has 90,000 Facebook likes and over 5,000 Instagram followers. Felice Fawn describes herself as a gothic model and blogger, and Violet as a blogger and photographer. Despite their differing approaches to fashion, these two bloggers are united by their super-skinny body shapes. Their pictures regularly end up on pro-anorexic pages on Tumblr and Instagram, and are tagged as “thinspiration” or “thigh gap”. The most-shared image of Felice with the tag “thinspo” can be found on the page of a blog that begins “I have built this website to help inspire me and others to lose weight”. The image has 1,459 “notes”, which includes likes, reblogs and comments.

Violet E offers no written content at all on her blog. She doesn’t talk about how to put outfits together, where she gets her clothes from or how she styles her hair. She doesn’t review products or catwalk trends. Her posts are largely restricted to pictures of herself, an indication that it is these images that generate her following. She’s a Pre-Raphaelite grunge princess, and very, very thin. Her pictures on Facebook are peppered with comments about how her body is “perfection” and how other women wish they were as skinny as her. The occasional comments that encourage her to eat are met with replies from Violet, including “go fuck yourself” and “I hope you die soon”.

From Violet E’s public Facebook page.

MSc student Sophie*, a current ED sufferer, says that she finds the ultra-thin bodies of such bloggers much more upsetting than those of models in fashion magazines, because “they are more like real people, with social lives and drama and success stories”. She adds that “they provide something real and desirable and this can inspire me to keep going, keep restricting, keep vomiting – because it is associated with a glamorous lifestyle, a life that is so interesting that people from around the world want to follow it”.
Ebony Nash, a fashion blogger and English Literature student, describes ultra-thin bloggers as a niche within the blogosphere, although she adds that “there is a correlation between the skinniest ones and their popularity”. Ebony has recovered from her eating disorder, but is clear about the fact she feels triggered by some other bloggers. “Half of me hates her [Violet E] and the other half really admires her – but that’s the sixteen-year-old, eating disordered part of me talking”.
Violet has never spoken about whether or not she suffers, or has suffered, from an eating disorder. By contrast, Felice Fawn has spoken publically about her struggle with anorexia in a blog post entitled “A Response to Weight Critics” (now deleted) and was willing to chat to me for this article. She describes herself as “practically recovered” and says “I know many females struggling with eating disorders who are triggered by larger women and images of bigger bodies, but neither myself or any of these girls would expect larger women/bloggers to censor themselves”.
Felice adds that “trigger warnings and censorship will not solve mental health issues or eating disorders. It’s impossible to censor everything in the world that could possibly be a trigger to someone, so it’s an unrealistic and irrational expectation”. She advocates the use of helpful informational links on super-skinny content, such as “links to scientific research, care centres and help forums instead of just ‘trigger warning’” in order to raise awareness.

Felice does not currently provide either trigger warnings or links to information about eating disorders on her underwear snaps, where her protruding ribs and hipbones take prominence. She’s right that “skinny bloggers should be treated like human beings, and should be allowed to live their lives just like anyone else” but to refuse to acknowledge the effect that certain content has on others seems to run counter to the “compassion, empathy and understanding” that Felice calls for during our interview.

During my eight-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I oscillated between hiding my body beneath layers of baggy clothing and flaunting my thigh gap and protruding ribs, in the hope of receiving words of admiration and encouragement from my peers. Both Felice Fawn and Violet E are gaining this validation from their many thousands of followers, every single day. Eventually I was called out on my behaviour by a friend, who told me that the pictures I posted to social media were triggering and upsetting to her. I was hurt and angry at first, but I realised that she was absolutely right to challenge me. My sickness and the sharing of images of my emaciated body were hurting others. I had to take responsibility for this.

Grace is a 16-year-old who has experienced the damaging effect that eating disorders can have on a family for most of her life. With regard to Violet and Felice, she says “it’s sickening to see so many comments glorifying their skeletal forms on her social media accounts; anyone can access their pictures without any kind of trigger warning, there’s no sensitivity to people suffering or recovering from eating disorders”.

Violet E’s response to a critic of her weight

Leanne Thorndyke, Head of Communications at the eating disorder charity b-Eat, says that “there is nothing wrong with celebrating your body and being body confident. It is skeletal or emaciated images which can be so distressing and triggering for eating disorder sufferers”. She says images on some fashion blogs “are not different to the images we find on thinspiration sites”.
Fashion bloggers who suffer from eating disorders should be encouraged to seek professional help, like anyone else. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and to remain a sufferer is very dangerous. Whether super-skinny bloggers intend to present anorexia in a glamorous light or not, it’s clear their images are attracting a certain fan base and finding their way on to pro-anorexia sites or Tumblrs. It is hard to control where images end up once they are released on to the internet, but it only takes a quick Google search to find a wealth of thinspo and pro-ana sites hosting content from Felice and Violet. If you are aware your content is being used in a potentially harmful way, does it becomes your responsibility to combat this?

There is another dimension to this: the feedback fashion bloggers get from their adoring public. It is harder to convince someone with an eating disorder to change their unhealthy habits when they are receiving thousands of “likes” for their super-skinny pictures.
So what now? To say that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to show their bodies on the internet raises the thorny question of censorship. It seems counterintuitive and repressive in the extreme to ban those with certain body shapes from expressing themselves online. People with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders should not be shamed into hiding themselves, whether they are high-profile bloggers or not, but it’s important to consider the effect that ultra-thin content has on those who view it.
Facebook’s community guidelines state that content that promotes self-harm, including eating disorders, will be removed. In 2012, Tumblr placed a ban on “blogs that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders; self-mutilation; or suicide.” Instagram has since made the hashtags “proanorexia”, “probulimia” and “thinspiration” unsearchable.

The good this has done is entirely debatable (not least because it is hard to decide what is a a pro-ana image, and what is merely a photograph of a thin person). Leanne Thorndyke of b-Eat says: “We remain concerned about the ease with which users can still post, search and access photos that promote starvation and impossible body standards. It’s worrying that with the powerful medium of social networking, people are able to easily access images that encourage the individual to believe that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and to avoid treatment.” She adds that “individuals should be pointed towards pro recovery sites, providing acceptance and support throughout society so that these alternative sites are no longer the only refuge a person feels they can seek”.

Popular bloggers are in a privileged position in that their large fan bases allow them to influence others, for good or otherwise. I hope that fashion bloggers who are currently suffering from eating disorders get the help that they need, and in the meantime consider taking a more sensitive approach to the content they post. There’s nothing wrong with skinny, as long as it isn’t achieved through sickness.

How many models will speak out against Terry Richardson before the fashion industry cares?

First published in the New Statesman 4th February 2014

Terry Richardson is the fashion world’s open secret. You might not know his name, but you’ll probably have seen his trademark celebrity snaps: slightly overexposed against a white background. He’s shot everyone, from Barack Obama to Justin Bieber, and he’s worked on campaigns with dozens of high end fashion labels. But that’s not the whole story.
In the last few months, I’ve spoken to several women who worked with Richardson and were unhappy with the experience. Take Sarah Hilker, who was 17 when she first met the photographer in 2004. Brandishing a fake ID, she went to a “model search” party for the alternative pin-up community Suicide Girls, where Richardson was shooting.
She tells me that he surveyed the scene, and decided “he was probably the worst type of person to photograph me . . . the images he chose to take at the event were very crass and lewd”. She describes a weird production line, where girls were pushed to undress and play with Richardson for the camera. “There were young women so drunk they could barely stand, never mind be of sound mind to sign a model release form.”

Hilker previously told Jezebel that she was uncomfortable with what she was pressured to do at the event. “In one corner there was a literal pile of SG bras and panties and the other was a small table with model release forms. Some stranger immediately grabbed me and whisked me over to the panties pile meanwhile, another person came over to me and shoved a model release form in my face. They had no interest in seeing my I.D. or even asking me any questions. I was being pushed towards the front of the line to go shoot with their panties and a blank model release form in my hands. I hadn’t even had time to get undressed to put them on.”

Although she has since shot nude, she decided that she did not want to be a part of what was happening, and she did not speak to Richardson at the event. “I feel rather strongly that agencies and companies should not affiliate themselves with a person that mistreats women, who are their biggest consumers,” she told me. “That being said, I also wish that more women were educated and prepared to deal with the hardships that come along with the industry’s coldness, the power of saying the word, ‘No’, with the conviction of walking away, and not regretting it.”
Then there’s Canadian model Liskula Cohen, who walked off a Vogue shoot with Richardson after his requests got more and more explicit. The men joining her on the shoot were not models or actors, they were friends of Richardson. She told me that “he wanted me to be completely naked and pretend to give one of the men a blow job, while he was also naked”.
Cohen says that after she walked off set, she was replaced by another model who gave blow jobs to both men and “they apparently had no qualms ejaculating on her for Terry’s images”. It’s possible that Vogue did not know what was happening on the shoot – although given Richardson’s reputation, they might have been able to guess. “Needless to say I have never shared the images or this story with anyone. I live with this guilt inside of me, that I did something terribly wrong,” she told the blogGirlie Girl Army. “In 24 years of modelling I have only walked out once. He made me feel as if I was a prostitute, a whore or even less then if possible. . . I want other girls who read this to know that if you do something like this, you will survive, but it will haunt you. I have scoured the internet for these images and thankfully they are nowhere to be found. But it haunts me in my own mind. I would hate for my daughter to see these images. . .  That shoot was nearly 12 years ago and it still outrages me, makes me feel queasy, and makes me feel ashamed. I am a 41-year-old mother and this is how my work experience with Terry has left me.”
In a 2010 The Gloss article, ex-model Jamie Peck describes a shoot with Richardson where he asked her to remove her tampon so he could play with it. When she refused, he decided to get naked. “Before I could say “whoa, whoa, whoa!” dude was wearing only his tattoos and waggling the biggest dick I’d ever seen dangerously close to my unclothed person”.
Danish model Rie Rasmussen told Jezebel in 2012 that the girls who work with Richardson “are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves”. Another model who didn’t wish to be named describes Richardson’s ‘creepy demands’ in the same Jezebel post. “Eventually, he had me go down on him and took pictures of him coming on my face, which I had never done before, and when I went to the bathroom to clean up I could hear him and an assistant joking about it, which is when I decided to never tell anyone”.

On paper, Richardson’s CV looks great. He has photographed celebrities including Madonna, Kate Moss, Miley Cyrus, Chloe Sevigny, Mila Kunis, the Olsen twins, Beyoncé, the casts of Gossip Girland Glee, Emily Ratajkowski (one of the models in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video), and Lady Gaga. His work has been published in Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Vanity Fair, GQ, i-D, Rolling Stoneand Vice, and he has been hired by YSL, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Diesel, H&M, Mango, Supreme, Aldo, Jimmy Choo, Sisley and Gucci. The big names want to pose for him, publish him and use his services, this much is clear. The question is why.
It’s difficult to buy the line that top fashion publications and designers aren’t aware of the allegations against Richardson. It’s more likely that they simply don’t want to engage with them when his style is so commercially successful. According to one fashion insider, everyone in the business is aware of the behaviour of “Uncle Terry”, but no one wants to say anything – particularly not teenagers and twentysomethings in an industry where models work freelance with no job security, their next booking dependent on a tight-knit world where everyone knows everyone else.
Terry Richardson famously remarked “it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow. I don’t have a hole in my jeans for nothing”. His non-celebrity pictures, largely using young, unknown models, are often pornographic in nature. He has blurred the boundaries between pornography and fashion advertising more than any other living photographer, and the companies and magazines that work with him know that this is part of his appeal.

Whatever you think of porn, however, it is an industry which is beginning to be more aware of the potential pitfalls of asking young women to work for older, powerful men. I asked adult performer Zara DuRose about the standards in the industry, and she told me that when she is booked for a job, what goes on in a scene is agreed, in detail and in writing, beforehand. She confirms that “you have to sign a model release and they take copies of two IDs to confirm that you’re over 18 and a copy of your up-to-date health certificates”. She adds: “I’m not afraid to say if there’s something I don’t want to do. People can talk openly about what they want and how they expect things to work. This way you know where you stand and there are no surprises on the day.” In the supposedly more sweet and innocent fashion industry, comparable standards are not always observed.
By all accounts, Terry Richardson is treating models in a way that would be unacceptable in the adult industry, where explicit material is the order of the day. And top fashion brands, big companies and mainstream publications are condoning his behaviour by continuing to use him. Beyoncé, who has spoken of her feminism, has been both photographed by Richardson and used him to direct her music videos. Richardson is protected by his powerful fashion friends, who keep offering him work and publishing his pictures, while the women he has allegedly abused remain voiceless, despite having shared their stories. (In this 2004 New York Observer piece, Vice‘s co-founder Gavin McInnes dismisses objectors to Richardson as “first-year feminist types” before asking of a meth-addicted sex worker with black eyes photographed in Richardson’s show: “How is old she? You think she’d mind if her tits were on display?”)

There is currently an 20,000 signature-strong change.org petition calling on big brands to stop using Richardson. H&M have stated that they have no plans to use Richardson now or in the future. Lena Dunham, who has shot and socialised with Richardson in the past, denounced him in a recentGuardian article as an “alleged sexual predator” who she does not count as a friend. Richardson has consistently refused to comment on the allegations made against him.

A jobbing model who needs to work might not have the luxury of turning down a shoot with Richardson. In that case, Liskula Cohen’s advice is “bring a body guard, keep your clothes on, and if he exposes himself call the police”.
The fashion commentator Caryn Franklin describes Richardson as someone who “appears to leverage his postion to ignore professional boundaries when he posts images of himself having explicit sex with young women”.  She says that fashion is an industry that “shows very little concern for the wellbeing of its young models. Agents, editors and designers ignore the online accounts of his predatory behaviour and in refusing to address his dysfunctional approach they are endorsing something that is profoundly wrong”.
Liskula Cohen adds that “as for Vogue and all of his clients, I have no idea why they continue to use him”.

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