Monday 24 October 2016

Sarah Caden: Lord Sugar's sympathy becomes Cheryl's shame

Alan Sugar unwisely weighed in on thin Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, writes Sarah Caden, when a like is safer than any comment

Sarah Caden

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Cheryl Fernandez-Versini
Cheryl Fernandez-Versini

Last Saturday night, when Alan Sugar sat down to watch X Factor and commented that Cheryl Fernandez-Versini was "now too thin", he didn't think he was body-shaming her. Despite being a smart man, a savvy man, a man who works in television - which tends to be a younger man's game - Sugar is of an age (68), where he probably thought he was paying Cheryl a compliment, or even doing her a favour.

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Goodness knows, I'm probably age-shaming Sugar now by mentioning the years he has under his belt. Am I allowed to mention his belt?

Sugar's tweet led to instant accusations of body-shaming, and during the week, Cheryl called his comments "stupid", and Myleene Klass was among the famous names who leapt to her defence.

In case you've been living under a rock, body-shaming is when you shame someone for their body type. As in, you make them feel like they are a bad person for being too fat/thin/tall/short or whatever. You use their body type or condition to characterise them, and correlate being good/bad/sexy/repellent based on how they look.

It's a safe bet that Alan Sugar didn't mean to imply that Cheryl Fernandez-Versini was a bad person because she was "now too thin". In fact, what Sugar was saying was that Cheryl has lost a lot of weight recently. He probably thought he was striking a concerned note. And it's not like Cheryl's weight hasn't been commented on elsewhere, just not so openly.

Instead, the last few months have been a steady flow of Cheryl "feeling the stress", "flaunting her slim legs" or "showing off her cheekbones". Basically, there has been a lot of talk about her being thin; just not said as plainly as Sugar put it. Or, perhaps, with the same old-fashioned note of concern.

You don't have to be Sugar's 68 years of age to be confused by what often seems to be a contradiction at work in a lot of this.

First there is the fact that everyone, celebrities and regular people alike, seems to spend an awful lot of time putting themselves on display. Not in the traditional celebrity manner of putting themselves out there, either.

Cheryl is not just a woman on the telly, she's a woman on Twitter with almost 6 million followers and almost 2 million on Instagram. On the latter, she has endless photos of her on photo shoots, in candid moments, in rehearsals, on TV and in a huge number of these photos she strikes what is now the commonplace social media pose.

It's a variation on Victoria Beckham's stock pose of one hip and one elbow forward, and head tilted to one side. It's mimicked by millions of young women and men on their Instagrams all over the world and it's a pose that's supposed to show your body at its best. Except you'd better not say they look bad in that picture, because that's not allowed.

Well, it is kind of. As in, social media etiquette dictates that it's insulting and even downright rude if you look at someone's photos and you don't 'like' them. This covers everything from dogs in Santa suits to young women in bikinis. You can like them, with a tick or a heart or a thumbs-up or whatever, but do not pass actual comment beyond "Cheryl is amazing". That's judgemental, people. Or, you could say, that's human nature.

We look, we have opinions, we do. And, it should be added Cheryl or her people only post photos that make her look good. Does that classify as body-shaming? Because that's using a person's physical appearance to suggest that they are wonderful and worth following.

When Cheryl advertises hair products, isn't the message that if you want to have hair and a life and glamour to match hers, you should buy this stuff? Isn't the message, "Look at Cheryl; she's glowingly great. Don't you wish you could have a bit of that?" You can't have it both ways, surely?

There is no denying that Cheryl Fernandez-Versini is thin at the moment. Last week, one online critic of Alan Sugar's comment on her thinness criticised him thus: "Imagine if you had a young daughter who was the same build as Cheryl and she repeatedly read she was too thin, no need to comment."

Basically, by saying that Cheryl is too thin, this person was suggesting that Sugar was criticising all girls who are thin. This overlooks that by saying "too thin now", Sugar was aware that Cheryl hasn't always been this size and might well have thought that by saying "enough" he was being female-friendly.

He probably thought he was saying that the pressure to lose weight, rather than the fact of having a thin frame, is a bad thing.

He is, after all, of an age to have some detached perspective on the sometimes baffling extent to which today's young women put themselves on show. Including Cheryl.

Some who pulled up Sugar on his 'body-shaming' of Cheryl would point out that if you replace "too thin" with "too fat" you suddenly see that both are equally offensive and judgemental.

This ignores the fact that while of course there's something off about judging someone's character by the state of their physique, this is near impossible to avoid in a world where we display our appearances endlessly and constantly.

Further, it's odd that given the problems with extreme weight loss in young women, and to a greater extent, obesity, we can't find a way to talk about unhealthy weight without being accused of body-shaming.

Lord Sugar might have been better off sticking to an emoji. He'll know better next time.

Sunday Independent

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