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Wednesday 26 June 2019

'We don't realise the damage we’re doing to the next generation of girls' - Straight/Curve documentary reveals how to be more body positive

New York based Irish director and producer Jenny McQuaile on her film Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image

Jenny McQuaile (l)
Jenny McQuaile (l)
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

In 2017, fans of Lifetime reality series Project Runway would have noticed a tweak to the formula which had remained unchanged for the previous 15 seasons. The models used by the competing designers in their challenges were suddenly strikingly diverse in race, size, and age. It was a significant change, reflecting how the landscape is slowly changing in the wider fashion industry, and one which was, in part, due to the work of an Irish filmmaker.

Irish born but New York based producer and director Jenny McQuaile spent five years working on Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image, a documentary charting the work of leading figures in the body positive community who are advocating for increased diversity and representation within the fashion industry and the media. She interviewed the legendary Tim Gunn, mentor to the Project Runway contestants for 16 seasons, for the film.

“He is a huge advocate for women, and women of different sizes, races, and ages.  After the interview we talked about him going back to the producers and really pushing hard to try and get different sized models.  It happened a few months later,” reveals Jenny.  “It shows that if you get to talk to these high level people who are actually out there doing it in the industry, and have real conversations, you can effect change.”

Effecting change within the fashion industry and media is the overarching aim of the documentary.  It is within those realms that our body image issues are rooted, argues Jenny.  “They are completely and entirely to blame.  If we want change to happen it has to happen in the fashion industry and be reflected in the media,” she says.

Jenny McQuaile Good Morning America
Jenny McQuaile Good Morning America

The ideal body is a fallacy we’ve been sold since the beginning of time but these days the message that skinny, young, and white equals ‘perfect’ is so insidious and ubiquitous in our everyday lives that the notion of challenging it, never mind changing it, seems overwhelming. 

However, there are many women, and men, leading the charge for change, some of whom feature in the film, from model Iskra Lawrence, who is a National Eating Disorders Association brand ambassador in the UK, to model, author and body activist Charli Howard, Nicola Griffin, who began modelling at 53, and model and activist Philomena Kwao.

British model Iskra Lawrence arrives for the Warner Bros. and In Style 20th annual post Golden Globes party at the Oasis Courtyard of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Jean-Baptiste LACROIX / AFP)
British model Iskra Lawrence arrives for the Warner Bros. and In Style 20th annual post Golden Globes party at the Oasis Courtyard of the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Jean-Baptiste LACROIX / AFP)

However, it is the testimony of regular teenage girls which is the most powerful.  Ninety percent of women and young girls say they do not feel represented in the fashion industry or in media, and that the imagery they consume on a daily basis makes them feel "disgusting" and "less than".  Since the film was first broadcast in the US in 2017 (it’s now available here on iTunes), Jenny has been travelling to high schools and colleges across the US to discuss the film and the issues.

“The people who need to see it the most are teenage girls,” she says.  “The teenage girls in the film talk to us about feeling ‘disgusting’ and ‘less than’ because of images they are seeing out there in the world.  They really are the heart of the film and when you sit there and hear a 15 year old girl saying that you can no longer deny this is a massive problem.”

Nicola Griffin stars in the Swimsuits for All campaign. Picture: Sports Illustrated
Nicola Griffin stars in the Swimsuits for All campaign. Picture: Sports Illustrated

She adds, "We’re not realising the damage we’re doing to the next generation of girls constantly perpetuating the idea that everybody has to look a certain way – thin and white.  It’s toxic and dangerous.  We need to shift the conversation away from that to showing young girls they can be whatever they want to be."

While the film tackles tough, and toxic, issues, it is ultimately a positive film and over the course of the five years during which it was being made, there was something of a sea change.

"The film definitely evolved as the industry was evolving," says Jenny.  "We were watching designers make clothes for larger women, seeing make-up brands hire women of colour.  It seems crazy we even have to have a conversation about that but we do.  I think that as we were filming it was definitely changing and that was the great thing – to be there filming while the industry was organically moving in the right direction."

The influence of images of 'perfection' cannot be underestimated in the age of social media.  Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds are crammed with not only the airbrushed, impossibly perfect images created by brands, but also images from regular teenagers and women which have been augmented by apps to project an unrealistic image of themselves.  However, Jenny feels the negative can be counterbalanced with the positive aspects of social media.  Personal responsibility comes into play.

Jenny McQuaile
Jenny McQuaile

"I feel like its become my platform to talk about the positive influence of social media.  In this film we absolutely look at social media.  Some of the models are talking about their younger sisters and what the media is pushing on them.  We also have people talking about how social media now is a tool we did not have ten years ago," she explains.

"I always say you are completely in charge of curating your feed.  That’s the first thing we forget to talk about.  Everything you’re seeing, your kids are seeing, is by choice.  Equally you can choose to diversify your feed, choose to make it more reflecting of you or your child.  That’s one of the critical points. 

"Myself, personally, when I started making this film I started following people in the body positive community and I started seeing women who looked a bit more like me – with thigh dimples and cellulite – and it just crept in.  In the same way the negative creeps in, so does the positive.  It made me feel better about myself."

Another powerful aspect of social media is the connection it gives consumers to brands.

Jenny McQuaile (centre)
Jenny McQuaile (centre)

"People do not realise that brands and magazines and everybody who has a platform on social media, they have hired people to specifically read the comments.  That’s their job every single day," says Jenny.

"And those comments are going right back to the top of that company.  That means you have a direct line as a consumer to a brand in a way you never had before.  You can tell them, ‘I didn’t really like this random advertising.  How about you use someone of a different size or race?’.  That messaging is getting through and we never used to have that direct line.  Maybe we don’t know but we need to start using that as a community.  Your voice is being heard in a way now that it never was before."

For Jenny, creating content that is "forward thinking and positive" is a better way to create change than "wallowing in what's wrong".  Having studied journalism at DCU, before working at The Mirror in Ireland and the UK, Jenny embarked on a mammoth four year travelling stint during which she encountered compelling stories she felt would be best told via the medium of film and which prompted her to pursue a career in documentary-making in New York.

Just two years into that career she began working on Straight/Curve, with a positive mission.

"For me the point of Straight/Curve was to show how people are fighting back against society’s narrow beauty standards.  There are people in the world who do not accept this, that lead by example, so it’s kind of a call to action for the rest of the fashion industry to companies and photographers and magazines.  I feel like once people see other people doing it it’s easier to follow along."

But what about the boys, you might ask, as did many of the people Jenny has encountered in the course of making this film.  Her next project is a documentary series on masculinity.

"Men suffer these issues too so it's really important to have a look at that and in the #MeToo era looking at masculinity in general. What does it mean to be a man?"

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