Skinny and Boring

First published in The Huffington Post 8th July 2013

I’ve just read the July 2013 edition of British Vogue and I’m seriously underwhelmed. Not because I don’t enjoy the pages of glossy advertisements (as much a part of the magazine’s content as the actual copy itself), the pictures of lavish clothes and jewellery that I can’t afford, or the interview with the ever-thrilling Helena Bonham Carter. It’s the models. I’m bored of them.

There’s been a nagging sense that all is not well in fashion, vocalised particularly in the last ten years and crystalised by instances such as the 2006 deaths of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston and Uruguayan model Luisa Ramos, and Alexandra Shuman’s tight-lipped refusal to comment on the eating habits of models. I’ve always been aware that the models are a bit too thin and that makes me sad, but I think I’m ready to throw my hat in the ring and state that I’ve had quite enough of this homogenous clothes-hanger culture. The models might have different hair and eye colours and be wearing different couture creations, but they’re really tall, bone-bag skinny and essentially, they all look the same. The same angular face stares back at me from every luxury brand advertisement I look at, be it Moss, Delevingne, or someone not quite so well-paid.

They don’t look like anyone I know. I’m perfectly aware of the theory that high fashion is an escape, as a beautiful, ethereal, other-worldly playground where one does not have to be grounded in reality, but hanging these clothes on extra-terrestrial models instils more than just dull envy. It creates a situation where women are forced to compare themselves with an unrealistic body ideal. Why are pro-anorexic websites crammed with pictures of catwalk models whose legs look incapable of supporting a rice cracker, never mind a human being? The answer is obvious. Because models look really thin, and thin, ill girls like to hold them up as good examples and as physical goals to strive for.
One of the best things about being alive and a human, on a planet of six billion others, is that we’re all different. The variety inherent in our humanity extends to style, taste, appearance and many, many other things. Why should high fashion be exempt from recognising, and celebrating this?

We all need clothes (even if you’re a committed nudist because everyone has to pop out to get milk and fags now and then), which suggests that clothes should be made for lots of different heights and weights. Sure, H&M might stock size XL and I can find things that look good on someone as miniature as me (5ft 2in if you were wondering) but the big fashion houses is where the high-end creativity happens. The fact that designers send out sample size 6 for someone of 5ft 9 and above sends out a very clear message: that this is the body type that they favour, the one they want to put their clothes on, the most valuable kind of body to have.

This buck-passing attitude, the ‘oh but the top agencies send us these skeletal models’ and the ‘oh but the designers only make the clothes in tiny sample sizes’ circular evasion has to stop. Someone needs to take responsibility and step up to the table on this one. My own eating disorder featured a real obsession with the size of models, their bodies were a kind of sick Holy Grail, and even at five and a half stone I didn’t feel thin enough (read: good enough) to belong to the model-girl club. I don’t want Vogue to be accompanied by a mental trigger warning but until some real change occurs, my love of high fashion will be tainted by unease and, for want of a better word, boredom.

Company Magazine’s Faux Pas

The fashion industry is constantly under fire for its perceived permissiveness with regard to the promotion of unhealthily thin female bodies, both on the catwalks and in the pages of fashion publications.

First published in The Huffington Post 31st May 2013

Reprinted with permission in ISSUES (A Level textbook)

The fashion industry is constantly under fire for its perceived permissiveness with regard to the promotion of unhealthily thin female bodies, both on the catwalks and in the pages of fashion publications. In April 2013, the head doctor at Sweden’s largest eating disorder treatment centre spoke out about modelling scouts accosting her patients, an example of the dark underside of fashion’s reputation for worshiping the super-skinny.

Research from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence states that 1.6 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder, which provides a good indication of why fashion publications (among other media sources) should do all they can to place emphasis on varied bodies, not just the thin ones.

As a devoted Company reader, it was with a mixture of disappointment and disgust that I read ‘This Is Skinny Club’, an anonymous opinion piece in their June issue. ‘Anon’ describes how she lies to close friends about what she has eaten to avoid their concern, forces herself to exercise even when watching TV, and spends 90% of her life denying herself food. T

hese behaviours are worryingly familiar to those who have experience of eating disorders, whether as sufferers or as friends and family of someone suffering. Of course, the views of the anonymous contributor do not automatically reflect that of Company itself, but the irony of their decision to print this article in the so-called ‘Feminism Issue 2013’ was not lost on readers.

Lancaster student and beauty blogger Ebony L Nash remarks that “to be so blasé about something so potentially devastating is just terrible journalism.” Her blog post can be found at http://elnfashion.com/this-is-skinny-club-company-magazine/. Eating disordered behaviour is not a ‘club’ and should not be championed in a widely-read magazine with impunity. Anon’s justification for her regimented lifestyle, that she can “parade around in a denim mini-dress with Alexa-worthy pins” serves to normalize and make desirable the kind of behaviour that those who have suffered with anorexia must spend painful years unlearning.

I expected the article to be accompanied by a message about maintaining positive body image, an encouragement to eat in a balanced and healthy manner, or at least some information on what constitutes an eating disorder and how to get help. Company provided no trigger warning or disclaimer, only a space for comment at http://www.company.co.uk/magazine-hq/theskinnymyth, encouraging readers to state whether they found the piece ‘offensive’ or ‘refreshingly honest’.

Their response, published on their Facebook page ‘The Company Collective’ after strong reactions from many readers, does little to redeem the situation. The assertion that “the girl in the story is not anorexic she is simply always watching what she eats” is small comfort when her article, filled with positive messages about eating disordered behaviour, has already reached a substantial readership.

I firmly believe that one can appreciate fashion and still take a stand against the shameless promotion of unrealistic and damaging body expectations. After struggling with a mixture of anorexia and bulimia for seven years, I am finally able to celebrate my love of clothing and style without extending that affection to the size of those who march the catwalks. In the world of fashion things are changing, H&M’s use of size 12 model Jennie Runk in their 2013 beachwear campaign and refusal to label the collection as ‘plus size’ providing a good example of this.

I remain disappointed with Company’s decision to print such an immensely triggering article, but hopeful that they will balance this out with a future feature on body confidence or the kind of support available for eating disorders. ‘Anon’ may believe that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” but she’s obviously never had my mum’s coffee and walnut cake.

Why are French Horror Films so Good?

Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Out of the seething mass of horror films I have both endured and absorbed over the last four years, it is the French titles that stand out most in my mind. They refuse to be ignored. They are visceral, shocking and innovative and they stay with me long after the final credits are over.

This is not to suggest that other countries don’t make excellent horror films or that there are no poor French horror flicks in circulation, but that the French have hit on something that makes their offering so unlike the lazy and repetitive gore of standard horror fare. The best examples of the New French Extremity movement in horror are Haute Tension (2003, dir. Alexandre Aja), Inside (2007, dir. Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo) and Martyrs (2008, dir. Pascal Laugier).All three films come with my recommendation, but perhaps not on a night when you’re feeling a bit emotionally fragile or are in need of a pleasant ending. The New French Extremity movement is associated with a diverse group of directors who represent a reworking of the horror genre, infusing transgressive content (sexual decadence, psychosis and eye-watering violence) with social and political themes. Academic Tim Palmer describes the New French Extremity movement as offering incisive social critiques, and “portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening”.

Disappointing performances and indolent stereotyping do not occur in these films. They seem to grab the viewer by the throat whilst still retaining a kind of artistry rarely seen in the horror genre. The aforementioned three films, while bloody enough to satisfy fans of exploitation horror, don’t excite a level of bland disgust in the way that something like The Human Centipede: Full Sequence (2011, dir. Tom Six) does. I wanted to scrub my eyes with bleach after seeing Mr Six’s latest film, as it provided little in the way or plot or script, lacked both tension and basic innovation, and was not even partially redeemed by the censor-driven move to monochrome.

In contrast, the originality of Martyrs forces the viewer to consider the purpose of pain and the transcendence of it, from within a cocoon of emotional rawness and liberal sprayings of blood. The film defies genre pigeon-holing as the storyline continually jackknifes back upon itself, leaving the audience vulnerable and disorientated, much like Lucie and Anna in the ugly world of manufactured martyrdom. Inside provides the most genuinely frightening and unrelenting take on the home-invasion subgenre I’ve seen to date and exploits a very human terror of childbirth and the changes that occur to the body during pregnancy, most famously exposed in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Every shot is beautifully constructed, great attention is paid to detail, seen in the patterns of blood spatter that characterize the bathroom scenes and directorial focus on the female body and point of view at no point descends into tits and arse voyeurism or dull helplessness.

These French productions are also particularly valuable because they are not afraid to address the socio-political origins of our fears, to raise fundamental questions and to prompt real ‘body responses’ during viewing. Threatened pregnancy, psychological displacement and the torture of young women are not new concepts within horror, but they are presented in such a way that emotional distance or disinterest is hardly possible. Horror films should not exclude creativity and beauty as characteristics in their pursuit of the cold sweat of an audience. Martyrs, Haute Tension and Inside embrace these qualities and it very much pays off.

The British and American horror markets could be refreshed by a move away from lazy characterization and unfocussed plot and scripting, because providing an audience with 90 minutes of banal blonde in bloodbath (usually with a lot of screaming and a masked killer) insults the intelligence. Directors Laugier, Aja, Maury and Bustillo appear to have hit upon a winning formula, keeping it graphic, bloody, tense, well-constructed and pretty damn clever.

Why I’ve Given Up Shopping at American Apparel

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive.

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive. The prices are not exactly student-friendly and I’m not sure I would be willing to pay £46 for a plain polyester sweatshirt (suspiciously similar to the type I was forced to wear at school) even if I had a real income.2. The ‘fitness’ clothes are completely impractical. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried the gym in a mesh bodysuit with a thong bottom, but I wouldn’t advise it. Also, all bodysuits on the website are modelled without bras underneath, including those made from sheer fabric… not exactly gym (or in-public) friendly.

3. Despite slogan t-shirts calling for the legalisation of gay marriage and the ‘sweatshop free’ label, there is something less than savoury about American Apparel. Founder and CEO Dov Charney has been involved in a string of sexual harassment lawsuits and in 2004, Jane magazine’s Claudine Ko reported that during an interview with Charney he received oral sex from a female employee and masturbated repeatedly.

4. I want to look at tights, not some girl’s arse. Not only do a significant proportion of the female models featured on American Apparel’s UK site look decidedly underage, but the sexualised poses and volume of flesh on show are wholly unnecessary when one considers both the context of the images and the product they are promoting. The ‘Sheer Luxe Cut-Out Pantyhose’ for £19 leave the entirety of the wearer’s bum exposed, and to put issues of design and comfort aside (because they look REALLY uncomfortable), I found myself asking why the accompanying slideshow of images needed to show the model bending over suggestively, with entirely bare breasts. There is no age restriction on accessing the site and interestingly enough, none of the male models are bending over, sucking their fingers or showing their bare bum cheeks.

5. You’re only hired if you look right. Charney’s comments regarding only employing the ‘right type of black girl’ are a particularly noxious example. Of course, this is not unique to American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch are a high profile example of a clothing retailer with a gross hiring practice, paying out $40 million in 2004 for refusing to give non-white applicants positions in-store. However, this gives lie to the progressive politics and the declaration that the company are ‘setting a new standard that others will follow’, found on their website.

6. Dov Charney doesn’t want his employees talking. In 2010 Gawker ran an article on American Apparel’s ‘At Will Employment Confidentiality Agreement’ which introduces a penalty of $1,000,000 for any American Apparel worker who speaks to the media or disparages Charney in public or online. The agreement also stipulates that when out and about, employees should not discuss the company at a volume that ‘reasonably could be overheard by a third party’. So basically, you have to whisper. Such measures certainly suggest that the company has something to hide.

Despite the seething mass of corporate paranoia, rampant misogyny and disturbing sexualisation of young models displayed by American Apparel, I still believe that we can have clothing companies that pay their workers a fair wage without negating this achievement through other types of unethical behaviour. But until Charney makes substantial changes to the way his clothing empire operates, the lurex shine has definitely worn off American Apparel.