Monday 25 September 2017

A role model who doesn't eat? No thanks!

Everyone loves Joanna Lumley - she's gorgeous, talented and a tireless campaigner. But we shouldn't applaud her for admitting she hardly eats

Food for thought: Joanna Lumley's comments are more like something Patsy from Ab Fab might say.
Food for thought: Joanna Lumley's comments are more like something Patsy from Ab Fab might say.
Joanna Lumley as Patsy from Ab Fab.

Radhika Sanghani

Joanna Lumley is the kind of role model we all warm to. She's an incredibly successful actress, a comedy legend, and perhaps most impressively, she's dedicated much of her life to human rights.

Her campaigning for Gurkhas was so effective that she was described as Nepal's "national treasure", and Lumley achieved the rare feat of having the British public beg for her to stand for parliament (she said no).

But now she's admitted to something that seems at odds this public persona; Lumley has said that she doesn't eat.

In an interview at the weekend, the 68-year-old said: "I don't eat any meals. I eat a bit throughout the day if I'm hungry, but not a big meal. I'll have some nuts or maybe some crisps and that's enough. I have no idea how to cook because I don't eat."

It's the sort of thing you'd expect Ab Fab's Patsy to say rather than Lumley herself. Her on-screen character would do anything to look good, and chances are she wouldn't even know what a Gurkha is, let alone spend so much time fighting for their rights.

But Lumley the human being comes across as so well-rounded that it's strange, and rather sad, to think that she might be an extreme dieter. She does so much - a patron to six charities, she's about to appear on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off (even though she hates dessert), and is an advocate for animal-welfare groups and vegetarianism - that it's uncomfortable to think of her doing all of that without eating properly.

I felt similarly when I read Lena Dunham's autobiography Not That Kind Of Girl and was met with page after page of her 'food diary' detailing everything she ate that day. Even though she portrayed herself as someone who was comfortable in her body, and spoke about the importance of body-image awareness, her book revealed the truth: she is an extreme dieter. It changed my perception of her as a possible role model.

Likewise, I've always thought of Lumley as different to the wannabe Hollywood starlets following the unofficial diet of water, nuts and not much else.

She's one of those rare celebs who doesn't give into the pressures, who knows that there are issues in the world more important than calorie-counting, and doesn't really give a shit what other people think. She says what she wants, and does what she wants.

Right?

This food news (or lack thereof) suggests otherwise. Perhaps Lumley isn't as 'above it all' as I'd assumed. After all, she did grow up in the 50s and 60s - the era where women had tiny bird-like waists, aspired to Audrey Hepburn's figure, and smoked their way through meals rather than consuming calories at the pace we do now.

Recent studies show that our bodies have changed since 1951- our waists grew seven inches to 34 inches in 2013, and we became 7.5lbs heavier. Much of it is a result of changing diets. With the rise of supermarkets and accessible food, we swapped fresh vegetables and home-made food for processed meals.

Lumley was raised in a different era, starting her career in the 60s, when 27-inch waists were the norm. She must have faced intense pressure to look a certain way, which is something that's easy to forget now she comes across as this inimitable paragon of success.

And, of course, she's a woman. Like the rest of us, she's probably been influenced in some way by the mass marketing and advertising that constantly portrays an unattainable body shape as the norm.

Her revelation about her snacking diet - which nutritionists have claimed is far from balanced - suggests that Lumley isn't a woman extraordinaire; she's a woman who's been affected by social pressures just like the rest of us.

It shows a different side to Lumley - one where she's vulnerable to expectations about what women should look like - and it's one that's understandable, given what we know about the pressures that actresses face.

But it's also something we shouldn't be too blithe about. Because as a role model, Lumley holds sway. There's a real worry that her words could inspire other young girls or women to follow in her footsteps, or justify their unhealthy eating habits.

The fact that Lumley was so casual in her admission is also uncomfortable. She seems to think it's perfectly OK to survive on lettuce and nuts alone, when that's clearly not the case.

We might listen avidly to most things Lumley says, particularly when she's telling us to remember those whose human rights aren't being met, but this is one instance where she needs to listen up.

She may be giving in to pressures, or only eating when she's hungry, or just following a diet of a different era, but that's still not OK. So while we should continue to respect and admire her for her amazing work and everything she's achieved, perhaps we need to remind Lumley that it's really not healthy or normal to "not eat" - no matter what Patsy would say.

Irish Independent

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