Breaking the body image

Photo Credit: Guardian. Twitter

Photo Credit: Guardian. Twitter

In recent months, the body image debate has reared its ugly head from the depths of society, ready to snare any unprepared fifteen-year-old with the niggling feeling that his/her body isn’t up to the job. And quite frankly, I’m fed up with it.

Urban Outfitters, a store myself and many of my friends frequent, has been selling a number of products which need to be brought to public attention. The first – a t-shirt with the words ‘eat less’ scrawled over the front. Eat less. Oh my god. This top could have said ‘eat well’ or ‘be healthy’, and would probably have done just as well, but that was too easy a solution. The words screamed out that to be thin is to be perfect, and that you are able to achieve this kind of perfection by skipping a meal or two. How ridiculous. And I’m sure that the majority of people reading this comment will be confident enough to block out the sound, but I expect that this message will be heard by the thousands of young women across the country who already have issues with the way they look.

More recently, the second design-flaw disaster is a black and white crop top with the word ‘Depression’ inked all over. Depression. I can tell you from second-hand experience that this word is certainly not something that should be lurking in a clothes store. Depression is a mental illness, one that will affect the majority of us in some way during our lifetime. It is, unfortunately, greatly underestimated, and many people believe that depression is more of a choice than an illness. I am sorry to say that I was once guilty of this. I believed that depression could be switched on and off, but this mental illness is utterly overwhelming and can destroy a person from the inside without anyone else noticing until it’s too late. Why would anyone want to see this word written on anything but a self-help leaflet?

It’s unfathomable to think that the designers had no prior knowledge of how their products could affect the target audience – predominantly teenage girls – and the worst part about this whole train-wreck is that I reckon they knew exactly what they were doing. The designers of these products were most likely trying to create the ‘edgy’ vibe that Urban Outfitters so desperately clings onto. This was all for the money. Edgy sells. That much is true. But edgy can hurt too.

If you have never been uncomfortable in your own skin, close your eyes, and try to imagine what it must be like. A lifetime full of second-guessing and only being able to relax once you walk through your own front door. A lifetime of avoiding mirrors when you’re out, because one look will open the floodgates and let your insecurities surge over you like a tidal wave. A lifetime of believing that life would be better if only you had the face and body of Beyonce.

This is what we have become. A society behind a mask. We live in a world where cosmetic surgery is the norm, a world where messages like ‘eat less = better body’ are drilled into our heads from a young age, and girls and boys grow up to be designers and teachers and parents themselves, translating this skewed body image onto their own children, usually without even knowing. It’s a cross-generational disease that the majority of us forget about until someone crosses the line.

Why should we be exposed to a media-imposed body image, reflecting some over-paid London designer’s ideas of perfection? We are falling into a man-made rabbit hole, and Alice is drinking the poison, forcing us to fit an unattainable ideal like some appalling game of Hole in the Wall.

The focus is on how we look, and not how we feel. But beauty comes from within, and surely if we all felt more comfortable with our own bodies first, then we would present ourselves in a more beautiful way. These tops, glamorising mental illness and urging young girls to jump on the weighing scales, are but a representation of how far we have to go, a quick reminder that our society cares more about money than mental illness. At a time, however, where it is too easy to stumble upon self-harm and hate sites on the internet, Urban Outfitters does itself and its customers absolutely no favours.

A student from Leeds has started a petition against Urban Outfitters and their products on Change.org. This was not entirely new information. The body image debate has been running backwards for a while now, and setbacks like these are all too common. (A size 12 model was called a pig recently because her thighs touched in the middle, don’t even get me started.) The best thing we can do is remember that mental illness is a reality for many people, and they need support not suppression.

One size does not fit all.

5 comments

  1. The media certainly seems to be fat-shaming recently and it’s not helped by reports recently undertaken that claim the UK is the ‘most obese nation in Europe’

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  2. As a sufferer of depression, the first time this picture appeared in my news feed all I could feel was sick.
    As I myself know,someone with the illness tries to conceal it as much as possible as many people think it is a sign of weakness or that you’re just “over sensitive”. It isn’t, overcoming it takes huge strength. Although it is nothing to be ashamed of it is not a mechanism to grab people’s attention, and the word that represent the dark feelings and experiences shouldn’t be either.

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  3. 8 Jan ’14 at 6:23 pm

    Satirising the system.

    To me the “eat less” t-shirt in particular surely satirizes the kind of media obsession with body image that you discuss in this article. The ironic image of “eat less” emblazoned on the midriff of an emaciated model is deliberately jarring and asks the viewer to question a contemporary mainstream media whose most popular pieces have recently included “exposés” of the worst celebrity beach bodies- slamming women for any deviation from their narrow perception of normality.

    With all the recent attempts to ban something or other that seems “offensive” the default is to criticize without being critical in an inquisitive sense. Does “depression” on these shirts even refer to a mental illness? People are quick to assume it does. Yet it could equally be interpreted as a comment on the economic crisis (she can only afford three-quarters of a top after all!)

    In fact, what has struck me as interesting is how frequently those condemning the item have described the whole scenario as “depressing”, or enough to make one feel depressed. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/07/urban-outfitters-depression-shirt-controversy)

    Flippant use of that kind of language, and other terms like “mental” in casual conversation are bigger obstacles to be overcome in combating the trivialization of mental illness than an overpriced garment donned by a few out of touch attention seekers.

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  4. Having been diagnosed with severe depression, and also sectioned and kept in hospital for 3 months as a result of a 5-year battle with anorexia nervosa (which actually saved my life; unbeknownst to me, my heart and bone marrow had begun to fail and it was a toss-up whether I would survive the next few hours, let alone the week) I applaud you for the sensitivity and accuracy with which you discuss such issues.

    Not only is your article eloquently written, it also bravely and compassionately addresses a very serious issue.

    Thank you.

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  5. 8 Jan ’14 at 7:57 pm

    Serial Dieter

    I wonder exactly what is it about putting innocent words on a t-shirt that suddenly makes them grossly offensive?

    While “eat less” on a thin model does seem irresponsible, and immediately evokes the eating disorders rife within the fashion the greater health issue in society is undoubtedly obesity. To an obese person “eat less” becomes sound advice, probably prescribed by their doctor. And after the festive season “eat less” is probably what a lot of people intend to do as a means of improving their health.

    Although this is obviously a case of a brand seeking attention and publicity (which articles like this exacerbate), “eat less” is probably good advice to large proportion of the population. Putting it on a t-shirt shouldn’t really make it anymore controversial a statement.

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