Thursday 23 November 2017

Why we all need to name (and shame) body fascism

Singer Jamelia's suggestion that overweight people shouldn't be allowed to shop on the high street is body apartheid, pure and simple

Controversy: Jamelia weighs in on the body image debate
Controversy: Jamelia weighs in on the body image debate
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

A woman walks down the high street. She goes slowly, head lowered, eyes downcast, hoping no one will notice her. She knows she shouldn't be here. She can sense disapproving stares and hear the odd "tut" of annoyance that her presence causes. She prays no one confronts her. As soon as she can, she takes a quick turn to the left and breaths a sigh of relief as she finds herself on a side-street which has been dedicated to "people like her". She is safe. She is amongst her own kind. She can relax. For now.

Nope, it's not some patriarchal Middle-Eastern country which forces women to dress a certain way and keep away from male-dominated areas. It's what life would be like for people who don't conform to a specific, regular figure if that well-known medical expert Jamelia had her way. Jamelia? Jamelia who?

Exactly. Jamelia, the judge you may remember from The Voice Ireland whose biography cites her as being a "singer-songwriter, model, entertainer, actress and television presenter", is now also an expert on weight, nutrition and the rights of people who do not conform to her idea of what a human individual should look like.

On the TV chat show Loose Women, Jamelia insisted; "I do not think it's right to facilitate people living an unhealthy lifestyle. I don't believe stores should stock clothes below or above a certain weight. They should be made to feel uncomfortable when they go in and can't find a size."

Jamelia thinks that by actually providing clothes for people who are above or below her "acceptable size", shops are encouraging them to be unhealthy.

She continued: "It shouldn't be normalised in high-street stores. They should have specialist shops".

Oh dear. "They"? Who knew that people of a particular size are actually a different species?

What's next? People with chunky thighs being asked to sit at the back of the bus? Women (like me) with rather generous bosoms being told we're only allowed to wear over-sized tops? Women with post-pregnancy bodies being refused service in their local department store? Jamelia's ill-judged comments were body and fashion fascism at its most blatant, but even when she acknowledged that she had offended a lot of people she stood by her opinion, though she did add: "I didn't make it clear on the show that I was talking about extremes. I was talking about above size 20 and below size 6, those sizes being available en masse."

Oh, that's all right then. Phew. The rest of us size 12s or 8s can gang up on those we deem too fat or too thin, for their own good of course. With the rise in obesity, anorexia and corresponding health issues, we're just looking out for people who are too dim to care properly for themselves. So anyone who isn't between a size 8 and 18 should really stay at home thinking about how bad they are. By shaming them into realising that how they look just isn't acceptable to the rest of us, we're actually being cruel to be kind. We're not "facilitating their unhealthy lifestyle". Aren't we great!

But, of course, this is body apartheid at its most insidious. What's deeply troubling (or fabulously ironic, depending on your viewpoint) is that Jamelia is part of Good Morning Britain's campaign called #SelfieEsteem (celebrities post the first, often unflattering selfie that they take) and said she is trying to teach her own children about self-esteem and how important it is.

And yet she genuinely doesn't seem to realise that shaming people of high or low weight isn't really the best way to promote self- esteem. Nor does she say what they're supposed to wear if they can't find clothes to fit them. A all-encompassing tent? Or perhaps they should go naked? That'd teach them eh?

According to people like author Malcolm Gladwell, fat is the new race [issue]. Last year a report stated that fat-shaming is "the last socially acceptable form of prejudice" and should be viewed like racism and sexism. I'm not sure if this is a particularly helpful analogy - what about overweight black women? - but it does point up the fact that all prejudice stems from the same belief; that some people are superior to others, and that those others deserve to be separated from the rest of us.

The Apprentice's Katie Hopkins, for instance, has said that she would never employ an overweight person because they "look lazy". Would she say the same about a black person? Would she be allowed to get away with it? Of course she wouldn't. And yet that's exactly what people used to say about people of different races whom they thought they were superior to. It's what white-supremacist groups still think. And, rightfully, the rest of us condemn them unreservedly for it.

Yet we often judge other people whom we think have lost control over their own bodies. I know I sometimes do. I'm ashamed to admit it, but occasionally I have flippantly wondered why people who suffer health problems because of their weight don't just get help; go on a diet and get more exercise. I often do it to myself if I'm not happy with my weight or can't fit into my jeans. I criticise myself for my lack of willpower. And yet I know that it's far more complicated than that; that there are all sorts of reasons why people eat too much or too little.

I also know that many people who do not conform to Jamelia's idea of an acceptable body are perfectly healthy and happy and confident. It's good to encourage people to stay healthy and fit but shaming them into it by making them feel bad about themselves isn't just unkind, it's unwise. Whatever about fat-shaming, perhaps we need a bit of "prejudice-shaming" so that people with opinions like Jamelia know that they aren't acceptable or helpful.

Name it. Shame it.

Irish Independent

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