If British girls’ mental health is at crisis point, why are we still refusing to change our schools?

Britain’s girls are at crisis point. In terms of their mental wellbeing and self-esteem, this is no exaggeration – and their parents are ill-equipped to realise the signs.

First published by The Independent, 24th August 2015

Britain’s girls are at crisis point. In terms of their mental wellbeing and self-esteem, this is no exaggeration – and their parents are ill-equipped to realise the signs. Research released today by Girlguiding UK has found that girls as young as seven are experiencing mental health problems, and these issues only grow more common throughout secondary school and into early adulthood.

The findings show that for girls aged 11 to 21, self-harming is one of the biggest health concerns, followed by cyber-bullying and mental illness. Out of the 1,574 girls surveyed, nearly half (46 per cent) reported having mental health issues, while even more (62 per cent) said they knew someone who’d suffered from a mental health problem. These figures should be shocking, but they aren’t, because the pressures facing young women are more pronounced and numerous than ever.

It’s not enough to get a string of perfect GCSEs or A Levels nowadays, you see. You need the Instagram-worthy group of friends, the attentive and good-looking boyfriend, the lips of Kylie Jenner, the curves of Jennifer Lawrence, the doe eyes of Zoella, and the reputation of being sexy and desirable without being a ‘slut’.

If your life isn’t perfectly cultivated online and offline, then woe betide you in a group of your peers. My sixteen year old fears about my MySpace profile not being customized adequately seem positively antique next to current worries about cyber-bullying and the phenomenon of ask.fm, where participants can be deluged in some of the most vile and disturbing anonymous abuse available online. Some of the abuse that teenage girls pile on each other in the virtual world make 4chan look like a unicorn’s rainbow playground.

And it doesn’t stop with aggressive ‘thinspiration’, either. There’s a strong sexual dimension to the online concerns of young women, particularly as many girls are pressured into sending explicit pictures and videos to boyfriends or would-be boyfriends, only to have them widely disseminated online or shared round school. Some girls are forced to disrupt their education and move schools after being publically shamed in this way. According to the same Girlguiding report, in the last week, 75 per cent of girls agree that anxiety about sexual harassment has a negative impact on their lives. It’s a perfect storm of aggression, isolation, harassment and misery.

So where do young girls turn when mired in this high-pressure environment? It seems that our medical services are ill-equipped to cope with the culture we’ve created. Deep cuts (8 per cent in real terms) have affected existing mental health services, despite a 20 per cent increase in demand. Meanwhile, only 13 per cent of NHS funding is allocated to mental health treatment, even though mental illness accounts for more than a fifth of the disease burden. Lack of information in schools, social stigma, long waiting lists, and GPs ill-equipped to spot early warning signs of mental illness are all barriers to young people getting the treatment they need.

We can help our young women. We can do so by opposing further butchering of mental health services by the current government. We can teach girls to mistrust images of perfection, in advertising, pop culture, and on social media, and let them know that from an academic perspective, their best is always good enough. Simple efforts like media lessons that point out how to spot Photoshopping, or expanding extracurricular activities alongside academia, can help to deconstruct poisonous beliefs about inadequacy.

Alongside this, we can campaign for comprehensive sex and relationship education that focuses on consent, respect, and healthy relationships between young men and women to tackle the culture of harassment and sexual abuse that often starts in schools. And above all, we can do what’s truly radical: listen to girls, and believe them when they tell us about their experiences.

How Borderline Personality Disorder Put an End to My Party Days

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine.

First published by Vice, 10th August 2015

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine. By my second year, my good-time friends had had enough of me. I was no longer invited out, and became very isolated and increasingly unhappy. I got into an abusive relationship and attempted suicide another two times. I was also bulimic – vomiting everything that touched my lips.

During the first year of my undergraduate degree I reduced my calorie intake to 250 a day – about two and a half slices of bread or five medium apples – and started to go slowly insane. I drank, took drugs and went to clubs with a religious fervour. My body started to cave in. I was starving and my hair started to fall out. My nails went blue. My skin turned to flaking scales. I once ate a burger after a night out and forced myself to run up and down the stairs until I actually passed out to “make up for it”. I went to my campus GP and told him I needed help. At five and a half stone, he said I wasn’t sick enough to warrant eating disorders treatment, and Borderline Personality Disorder was never even mentioned.

People couldn’t keep up with my impulsive behaviour, the manic phases and the fits of crying. The labels of “drama queen”, “attention seeker” and “total fucking mess” followed me around like a bad smell. I tried to conceal it, but being called those things hurt. I didn’t know how to explain that all the stuff I was doing was an attempt to manage my out-of-control emotions, because when I’m going through a bad patch it feels like being on a sickening rollercoaster – only, I can’t get off.

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Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, describes BPD as “a very broad diagnosis that can include lots of different people with very different experiences”. He told me that BPD can involve experiencing a number of symptoms for extended periods of time, including “feeling worried that people might abandon you; feeling very intense emotions that are also very changeable; feeling like you don’t have a strong sense of who you are; finding it hard to make and maintain relationships; acting impulsively; having suicidal thoughts or self-harming; feeling angry; feeling paranoid, having psychotic experiences; feeling numb; or feeling empty or alone a lot of the time”.

To me, it was more like going from feeling suicidal and totally despairing, to reasonably positive within an hour. The intense mood swings were terrifying because they were – and still are – coupled with impulsive urges to harm myself or do things I know I’ll later regret. The negative emotions I have are immobilising. They crash over me like huge waves, knocking the wind out of me and forcing me underwater. It means living with a devious voice in my mind that whispers ugly thoughts and orders. It tells me that I’m a shitty person, don’t deserve to exist and that my life is meaningless.

Author, pictured right.

According to the NHS, personality disorders often become apparent during a person’s teenage years and are commonly associated with childhood trauma, with eight out of ten people with BPD experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood, or parental neglect.

I wasn’t neglected by my parents. I had a very happy childhood up until I started secondary school. It was the kind of school that concerned middle-class parents tend not to send their kids to. Discipline in classrooms was practically nil and I was bullied badly, branded a “lezzer” and a “dyke”, greeted with laughter whenever I entered the room, pelted with chewing gum, dismissed by boys as a “rat” and a “dog” that “no man would ever want to touch”. Girls would pretend to be scared of me in the swimming pool changing rooms because I hadn’t realised, age 11, that I was meant to shave my legs.

This continued for about two years, and by the time I was 14, I’d become completely disconnected from myself and overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness and anger. This was when my impulsive behaviour kicked in, and I started self-harming, drinking, taking drugs like cocaine, mephedrone and speed, and looking for attention from dubious men. I didn’t know what Borderline Personality Disorder was. I began limiting myself to 1,000 calories a day and visiting pro-anorexia websites. I told myself that I’d feel calmer and people would like me and the raging hurt would leave me if I just became thin enough.

It wasn’t until the end of my second year of university – when I was finally accepted on to an eating disorders treatment programme – that I was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I did a course of Compassion Focused Therapy, which is designed for people with high levels of shame and self-criticism. I learned more about how to navigate my overwhelming emotions, and not listen to the hateful voice that pushed me to starve myself and hurt my body. The therapy was coupled with medication to help me sleep and negate some of the crushing depression that so often accompanies BPD.

Some BPD sufferers hear voices outside their heads, usually with instructions to harm themselves or others, and at the more extreme end of the spectrum, some sufferers also experience prolonged delusions or beliefs that they cannot be talked out of. Others – like Rachel Rowan Olive, a girl I talked to who also suffers from BPD – tend to disassociate or shut down when their emotions become too difficult to deal with. “BPD is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t have it. I never liked the label ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. It’s the kind of term that makes people back away slowly. I used to think that a lot of the criteria for BPD didn’t apply to me, but as time has gone on, I can connect things that have always been part of me to the diagnosis.

“My main problem is self-harm and that’s the most outward and obvious symptom of my BPD. I experience a lot of anxiety, so I feel like if I’m going to be frightened anyway for absolutely no reason, I might as well make myself frightened of something that’s real and within my control. I experience a level of emotional dysregulation, where I end up feeling really empty a lot of the time. I think a big part of it for me is finding it hard to tell the difference between my emotions and other people’s. I notice it even with fiction – if I’m reading or watching TV I can end up getting panicky because it’s like I’m feeling what all the different characters are feeling at once and I don’t know which emotions are mine any more.”

Nowadays, I try to keep my environment as calm as possible, and use distracting and soothing techniques to mitigate the effects of bad episodes. Most of the time I keep my emotions under control, but there are still times when I swing between crying and not being able to get out of bed, hyper productivity and manic states where I’m tempted to be super-impulsive.

I still have a hard time forming long-lasting friendships. The majority of my friends from school and university are no longer in my life. Part of BPD is forming intense relationships that don’t last very long, and the illness ends up being very isolating. My emotions are so overwhelming that other people find it hard to understand why I’m laughing and bouncing around for no reason, and then suddenly in floods of tears. I don’t usually tell people that I have BPD because I’m afraid they’ll judge me.

Managing Borderline Personality Disorder usually involves a combination of medication and talking therapy. There’s no drug specifically licensed to treat BPD but mood stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics (all of which I take) are commonly used. Rachel uses Dialectical Behavioural Therapy to manage her BPD, coupled with art therapy at a studio in Hackney. She will also plan her week out in advance to give herself a sense of structure and control.

The stigma that surrounds all mental illness is vastly unhelpful, does much to damage sufferers and can prevent them from getting help. As a “personality disorder”, BPD gets more than its fair share of social stigma. People with BPD aren’t cold and emotionless, as Rachel felt others perceived her to be, or attention-seeking and deserving of social isolation, as I was dubbed at university. They are merely trying to manage an illness that’s every bit as real as a physical condition, with the tools they have at their disposal.

It’s very easy to succumb to feelings of frustration and hopelessness when you’re stuck on a waiting list and it might be six months to a year before you even get an assessment appointment for any kind of therapy. Despite this, it’s essential that anyone experiencing BPD-like symptoms informs their GP. No one should have to get to such a breaking point with their mental health that they try to end their life. It’s five years since I was unconscious in intensive care, unable to breathe, with a nurse washing my hair because of all the sweat that had run into it. I owe it to my partner, my parents, my sister and myself not to end up back there.

Eating disorder sufferers are not always young, white, and painfully thin — and they do not choose to be ill

Eating disorders are not a personal choice. They are not about seeking attention from others. They can affect women of all ages, social classes, races and body types. They also affect men.

First Published by Independent Voices for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, 24th February 2015

I was taught early on by a friend and mentor that I shouldn’t give too much of myself away in my writing. Confessional journalism can lead to journalists of colour, women, and LGBT writers being typecast, having the topics they can cover restricted and feeling emotionally exhausted by their work.

However, when it comes to writing about eating disorders and raising awareness, I need to be willing to share. I have suffered, with varying degrees of severity, from an eating disorder for nine years. Four years were spent in and out of treatment programs. My family was devastated by the impact of the illness and I lost the majority of my friends. I missed out on a first class degree. I have the brittle bones of a woman in her 70s, muscle wastage in my arms and legs, and a funny heartbeat.

Eating disorders are not a personal choice. They are not about seeking attention from others. They can affect women of all ages, social classes, races and body types. They also affect men. Eating disorders destroy relationships, tear families apart, and have profound physiological effects. They can completely change your personality, and increase vulnerability to other mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

According to a conservative estimate by the charity Beat, 1.6 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder. It’s difficult to collect accurate statistics on EDs because so many people fly under the medical radar with their condition.

Local services for eating disorders are largely inadequate and under-funded. It’s normal to wait six months for an initial assessment appointment. When I was in my first year of university and at a very low point in my illness, I was told by a well-meaning GP that I just needed to ‘eat a baked potato’ and ‘pull myself together’. Truly sensible advice for someone at five and a half stone, with their hair falling out in handfuls and their extremities blue with cold, even in the summer months.

This GP was convinced that I wasn’t ill enough for proper treatment, allowing me to leave the surgery and get much sicker. Too few GPs know how to spot the signs of an eating disorder, and the limited number of places in NHS clinics means that sufferers must exhibit serious outward signs of a disorder before they are taken seriously and given a referral.

The longer you have an eating disorder, the more difficult it is to recover.  If the NHS is serious about tackling eating disorders, it needs to expand the scope of care and start educating GPs so they can catch the symptoms of an eating disorder early on. If you are treated early, there’s a better chance that your body will escape long-term physical damage.

The misinformation and confusion that surrounds eating disorders for many people is extremely dangerous. The media likes to present ED sufferers as young, white and eye-wateringly thin women, when this image is not relevant for many grappling with disordered eating. In the cases of binge eating disorder, bulimia and emotional eating disorder, a thin body type isn’t a prerequisite. Bulimia is extremely dangerous and can lead to an electrolyte imbalance that may cause cardiac arrhythmia, cardiac arrest and death. Despite this, bulimia has a huge social stigma still attached to it, and sufferers are often viewed as ‘greedy’ and ‘lacking in self-control’. Due to shame and the belief that sufferers are not thin enough to warrant medical intervention, bulimia often goes untreated.

We need to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, against eating disorders and their destructive effects. This means that if you’re worried that someone you love is suffering, learn how to spot the signs, talk to them, and encourage them to see a health professional. If you find that food and weight preoccupy you to the extent that you can focus on little else, that you restrict or binge or purge or abuse laxatives or compulsively exercise, you should feel no shame in reaching out for help.

Recovery is really, really tough and you’ll make a lot of missteps, but it’s one of the most worthwhile things you’ll ever do because it allows you to get your life back. Take it from someone who knows.

Victoria’s Secret ‘Perfect Body’ advertisement is dangerous thinspiration

I’m so glad that Victoria’s Secret have set me straight on what constitutes the “perfect body”. There I was, blithely believing that all bodies are equally valuable and their differences make them equally perfect, but the US lingerie company has come to the rescue and corrected my ignorance.

First published by Independent Voices, 29th October 2014

I’m so glad that Victoria’s Secret have set me straight on what constitutes the “perfect body”. There I was, blithely believing that all bodies are equally valuable and their differences make them equally perfect, but the US lingerie company has come to the rescue and corrected my ignorance.

The Victoria’s Secret campaign for its new range of ‘body’ lingerie shows ten VS models (or ‘Angels’ as they are known) with the words THE PERFECT ‘BODY’ emblazoned over their bra-and-knicker-clad forms. Clearly, the joke is meant to be that the bra (‘body’) is the ‘perfect’ fit, but rather than this very clever play on words, the first thing that struck me about this ad was that the ‘perfect bodies’ on display were a row of identical scantily-clad woman that are all the same. Identical. They are the same height and the same brand of super-skinny. Their legs and stomachs are interchangeable. Save for variations in hair and skin colour, they could be clones. Every single model (apart from the woman who has turned to show the racer-back of her bra) has visible ribs, and a couple show clearly visible hip-bones. Very clever, VS.I consider myself recovered from an eight-year eating disorder, but I blanched at the ad. It wouldn’t look out of place on a pro-anorexic site, and if the creators of the ad had done even a cursory search, they would’ve found that VS Angels have been used as ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ by users of online forums that discuss eating disorders as lifestyle choices. This connection serves to make their ‘perfect “body’” message even more distasteful.

There is already a Change.org petition, started by a Leeds student, calling for Victoria’s Secret to “apologise and take responsibility for the unhealthy and damaging message that their ‘Perfect Body’ campaign is sending out about women’s bodies and how they should be judged”. At the time of writing, it has reached over 2,200 signatures.

But why should we care about yet another cynically controversial ad campaign? We see enough of them already, and the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency has banned promotional material from many brands and designers.

It’s important because the Victoria’s Secret campaign follows the release of new research from the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey. It found that almost 10 million women in the UK ‘feel depressed’ because of the way they look. The issue of body image in Britain is clearly one of epidemic proportions, and adverts like this do little to help.

According to a 2014 global study compiled by the Children’s Society, one in seven 10-13 year olds in Britain are worried about they look, and their concerns only increase with age. There is a marked gender divide, with girls twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies as their male counterparts. The government-backed Be Real initiative, designed to tackle bad body image, has found that a third of children say that they often worry about the way they look and appearance is the largest cause of bullying in schools.

In an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace, brands seem to work on the assumption that any publicity is good publicity. Just as American Apparel must surely be fully aware of the value of the press generated by their highly sexualized advertisements, one wonders if it’s possible that Victoria’s Secret’s ad team designed the campaign to attract attention by sparking controversy.

If so, they’ve succeeded in their aim, but at what cost? Their campaign doesn’t take account of the experiences of women and young girls who are already struggling with harmful, rigid and often conflicting messages about what their bodies should look like and the value than society places on appearance.

For their next campaign, I’d like to see Victoria’s Secret drawing inspiration from the existing variety of female bodies and throw the weight of their popular and successful brand behind sending out positive and healthy messages to their target market.

Victoria’s Secret can keep their idea of what the ‘perfect body’ looks like, resplendent in its exclusive, poisonous homogeny. I’ll be buying my lingerie elsewhere.

The Ex-Anorexic’s Guide to Shopping

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.

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.

Today Debenhams unveils Size 16 mannequins. But fashion superstars like Karl Lagerfeld keep letting women down

Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer and creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own label fashion house, has had a complaint filed against him by a French organization called Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and Okay With It) for making unpleasant comments about larger women.

First published in Independent Voices, 6th November 2013

Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer and creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own label fashion house, has had a complaint filed against him by a French organization called Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and Okay With It) for making unpleasant comments about larger women. When interviewed on the French television show ‘Le Grand 8’, Lagerfeld said that the country’s health care system was struggling due to “all the diseases caught by people who are too fat”. He added that “nobody wants to see round women on the catwalk”, just in case anyone was unsure about why he has such a bee in his bonnet about people heavier than him. Can’t have those pesky realistic bodies infiltrating the runway! Maybe it’s time that someone sat down with Karl and explained that using your public platform to body-shame women isn’t particularly pleasant.

It’s too easy to brush Lagerfeld off as an eccentric, particularly as he expressed interest in marrying his cat Choupette if it were legal and said he hated all children in an interview with a Hong Kong magazine. I’d have no problem laughing off his latest bought of word-vomit if Lagerfeld wasn’t so synonymous with high fashion and still hailed as some kind of hallowed authority on style, artistry and women’s bodies. He’s respected in an industry that is notorious for making women feel really shitty about themselves and that has major issues with size and shape.

We cannot pretend that Lagerfeld’s comments lack context because all is not as shiny and beautiful in the world of high fashion as one might immediately assume. The catwalks are still overwhelmingly populated by women with matching heights and identical jutting hipbones and ribs and spines. They don’t look like anyone I’ve ever met outside my eating disorder clinic, where my peers and I weren’t being given the cultural validation of a brightly-lit runway and thousands of pounds worth of haute couture clothes. During my illness I was obsessed with the size of models. Anyone who says, as Lagerfeld has, that anorexia has nothing to do with high fashion, only has to look at a pro-anorexia website. They are crammed with pictures of fashion models and ‘catwalk diets’ because the model physique at its current, homogenous size-emaciated is what sick women and girls hold up as an example of perfection, of something to strive for.

In 2006, fashion model Luisel Ramos died from complications arising from her anorexia. In 2007 it was Eliana Ramos and Hila Elmalich. Last month Georgina Wilkin, who has modelled collections for Topshop, Gap and Giles Deacon, spoke out about her anorexia and how she was booked for shoots even as her organs were failing and her lips and fingers were blue. She stresses that hers is not an isolated case and this is not surprising. When put on the spot, the modelling agencies cry ‘oh but designers make miniature clothes so we must find women to fit’ and designers wail ‘oh but the agencies send us such thin models that we must make clothes to fit’. The buck has to stop somewhere. 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.

The problems of representing only one, specific body type, of forcing women to compare themselves with an unrealistic (for most of the population) body ideal, and of the widespread nature eating disorders within modelling, are not going to magically disappear. Small gains have been made, with H&M using size 12 model Jennie Runk in their 2013 beachwear campaign and refusing to label the collection ‘plus-size’. The retailer Debenhams has become the first mainstream UK store to use size 16 mannequins in their window displays, and will unveil the new mannequins today in their flagship Oxford Street store. However, positive steps towards inclusion and realistic representation of female bodies are undermined when fashion’s big guns, like Lagerfeld, go around preaching distaste for people who are not size zero.

Lagerfeld is doing a pretty good job of representing the worst of fashion; its bitchy exclusivity, its disconnection from reality, and its distain for anyone who doesn’t fit into a very narrow ideal of what beauty means. Stop it please, Karl. Your comments are irresponsible and offensive and you’re letting women down.

Beware of the dangerous fetishising of fitness on social media

‘Thinspo’ or ‘thinspiration’ is an image or collection of images that show an extremely thin, usually female body, sometimes accompanied by a pleasant motivational message, variations of which include ‘stay strong, starve on’, ‘do you really want that cake?’, ‘keep calm and the hunger will pass’ and ‘stop stuffing your fat face’.

First published in The Telegraph 14th October 2013

‘Thinspo’ or ‘thinspiration’ is an image or collection of images that show an extremely thin, usually female body, sometimes accompanied by a pleasant motivational message, variations of which include ‘stay strong, starve on’, ‘do you really want that cake?’, ‘keep calm and the hunger will pass’ and ‘stop stuffing your fat face’. Thinspiration is a reliable feature of any pro-ana blog (a site that promotes anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness) and is used to provide those suffering from eating disorders with goals to strive and pictorial representations of the ‘perfect body’ that they can purportedly achieve through starvation.
The images also work by instilling a sense of shame in the viewer for indulging in food. During my struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I would regularly visit pro-ana sites and I idolised Nicole Richie, Mary Kate Olsen and Kate Moss as my personal ‘thinspo’ heroines. I felt accountable to these sites with their demanding slogans, overwhelmed with guilt even at five and a half stone, the hair on my head coming out in handfuls. ‘Thinspo’ is made by sick people and keeps other sick people in the grip of their eating disorders.
Tumblr has already clamped down on the sharing of ‘thinspo’ images as part of a ban on blogs that promote self-harming behaviours, including eating disorders. And the photo-collecting site Pinterest duly followed suit. Instagram’s updated user guidelines state that accounts “encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide” will be disabled. The hashtags ‘thinspiration’, ‘proanorexia’ and ‘probulimia’ are no longer searchable.
So, ‘thinspo’ is bad and damaging and it promotes mental and physical illness. Social networking and picture sharing sites are recognising this. However, there’s a new hashtag trending in town. The craze on Instagram and Tumblr within the last year has been for blogs and accounts devoted to ‘fitspo’ or ‘fitspiration’.

Fit and healthy bodies in the real world come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They are often more muscular than thin. The images found under the tag of ‘fitspo’ do not reflect this, they are virtually identical to ‘thinspo’ pictures, save for the addition of a set of weights or a sports bra. The same flat bellies, sharp hip bones and obvious thigh gaps are present, along with the captions that promise happiness, love and success just as soon as you look like the girl in the picture. The idea that there is one body ideal that all women should strive for, be it through restricting food, vomiting or compulsive exercise, is both unrealistic and causes women to feel devalued and not good enough.Similarly to ‘thinspiration’, ‘fitspiration’ encourages an obsession with diet, exercise and weight. It is about the external appearance of thinness rather than internal health. Its motivational value lies in urging the viewer to push themselves that little bit harder when exercising, something that is actually discouraged by professional trainers because it can cause injury and prevent trainees reaching their fitness goals.

The way ‘thinspo’ can so easily be rebranded and passed off as something ‘health conscious’ is unsettling. I contacted Instagram to discuss the current proliferation of ‘fitspo’ hashtags, but they declined to make any meaningful comments on record.

A popular Tumblr account that describes itself as ‘healthy fitspiration’ and ‘body positive’ is paradoxically filled with near-emaciated bodies and one of them is mine, which I submitted as a test. My body is permanently damaged by anorexia and I am medically advised against any exercise other than brisk walking. The idea that ‘fitspo’ images have anything to do with health or fitness is entirely spurious and the use of my picture is proof of this. Thin does not necessarily mean healthy and neither does it mean fit.

There is no meaningful difference between ‘fitspo’ and ‘thinspo’. Both terms glorify a body ideal that is unrealistic for the majority of women and is unlikely to be achieved merely through exercise. So please don’t be fooled by ‘fitspo’, it’s merely a sneaky rebranding of something inexplicably linked to illness, disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.