Body language

explores our developing attitudes towards body image and identity at ‘Shaping the Body’, a new exhibition at the York Castle Museum

two corsets

All images: Anthony Chappell-Ross for York Castle Museum

It’s 8.30 in the morning. York Castle Museum hasn’t opened its doors to the public yet, but I’m sat in a large, atmospheric hall surrounded by headless mannequins dressed in a range of clothing from 400 years ago right up to the present day. It’s a little unsettling, but I’m here to talk with Collections Facilitator Dr M Faye Prior about the Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Shaping the Body’, in light of its opening earlier this year and Mental Health Awareness Week in May.

The exhibition documents the ways in which people have used fashion, food and fitness to shape their bodies over the last 400 years. Dr Prior explains that one aim is to show how “changing your body shape to look a different way isn’t a brand-new 21st century thing; it’s been going on for centuries,” and ‘Shaping the Body’ considers fashion, diet and lifestyle “in a multidisciplinary way” to explore these concepts.

questions of body image are growing ever more prevalent in our society with each passing day

Naturally, however, these topics bring with them a whole host of difficult issues. In 2015, a report commissioned by the charity Beat estimated that over 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED). Meanwhile, the NHS estimates that approximately one per cent of the UK population suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Tackling topics like fashion, diet and fitness, and how people manipulate these as tools to shape their bodies, is therefore a much more complex challenge than it perhaps first appears.

With the rise of social media and the ‘selfie generation’, questions of body image are growing ever more prevalent in our society with each passing day. There’s an awkward line to tread between health advocacy and body positivity campaigns, perhaps most recently demonstrated by Facebook’s removal of an advert featuring size-26 model Tess Holliday as it was against their guidelines.

The advert was promoting Australian feminist talkshow group Cherchez la Femme’s event ‘Feminism and Fat’, and featured a photograph of Holliday wearing a bikini. The group said that Facebook claimed that the image was against their “health and fitness policy” as it showed a body weight that was “extremely undesirable”. Facebook later rectified this decision and approved the advert, though not before social media and journalistic backlash ensued.

Body-positive campaigners argue that it is these kinds of decisions – removing photographs of, for example, fatter bodies, rather than posting them – which make people feel bad about themselves. It is this particular shaming of overweight bodies, or very thin ones, which drives people to starve themselves or binge-eat. The mental impact of judgemental body-shaming, too, can be incredibly significant and debilitating.

Thankfully, ‘Shaping the Body’ doesn’t hold back, actively addressing these issues head on. As someone who has struggled with body image issues for many years, this was something I was particularly interested in, both when I went to look around the exhibition some weeks ago and during my conversation with Dr Prior. She explains that the curators’ aim to be “body-positive” was established in the very first conversation about the exhibition.

“We didn’t want anybody to feel bad about themselves by coming here,” Dr Prior stresses. “We wanted people to come in and think about their bodies – but not in a ‘that corset is so tight, I’d never fit into that!’ sort of way; instead, in more of a sympathetic way towards themselves.”

something that evolves

The exhibition achieves this by encouraging that introspective thinking through interactive elements. Alongside the opportunity to dress up in fashion from across time, there is a quiz for individuals to find out how much they follow typical ‘fashion’, the data for which is collated by the Museum. Visitors can also submit their own ideas for the board featuring beauty ideals from around the world.

Dr Prior explains how important including other kinds of beauty standards was to the team: “What we didn’t want to do was to say ‘European beauty is the only beauty!’ because that would be completely wrong. Represented in the fashion room are many different kinds of ideal beauty.” For the Museum it’s important that visitors can engage in a dialogue with the questions of the exhibition: “We want it to be something that evolves.”

It was important to Dr Prior and her team that ‘Shaping the Body’ is more than looking at beautiful articles of clothing. She references the Victorian arsenic gown, a stunning and distinctive dress; its colour was created using a particular green dye called arsenic green because in that time arsenic was used to enhance colours. “It has a very complicated history because the dressmakers who worked with arsenic green tended to get horrible lesions – some of them died because of it,” she tells me. She settles on the gown as her favourite “because it has such a complicated and difficult history”. Her passion for this complexity is clear: “Fashion doesn’t exist as just this pretty thing to be looked at; it’s so much more intrinsic to our culture than that.”

Arsenic Victorian dress c1870, York Castle Museum 2

Alongside the clothes, which include an 18th century man’s wedding suit and a mourning gown worn by Queen Victoria, the exhibition also explores the history of fitness. In this section, visitors can look at silhouettes of different athletic bodies to figure out which one they’re most similar to. For Dr Prior, this was important in the notion of body-positivity; she explains how some athletes, such as weightlifters or shotputters, tend to carry quite a bit of weight. As a result, “you can be an Olympic athlete and technically be obese according to the BMI scale at the same time”.

For me, the most powerful interactive element was a mannequin on which members of the public can attach a short note saying how they feel about their body at the time of visiting. It comes right before visitors leave the fashion room, which is the most introspective section of the exhibition, and allows space for people to apply the questions ‘Shaping the Body’ asks to their own bodies and minds. Looking through the hundreds of messages, you’re greeted with some beautiful notes of positivity, contentment and happiness, but others – especially those written in children’s handwriting – are harrowing, and serve to demonstrate the inherent ways in which society shames bodies which don’t fit the ideal beauty – and even those that do.

we found ourselves in a rammed Charing Cross Station in our bikinis

Blogger Fiona Longmuir is all too familiar with this body-negativity. Last spring she led a short campaign against health store Protein World’s now-infamous ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ advert. The ad in question featured fitness model Renee Somerfield wearing a bikini. Many felt that the tagline suggested that only women with bodies like Somerfield’s could be considered ‘beach body ready’, and that the advert aimed to shame women into feeling like they needed to lose weight to enjoy the beach.

“I saw the advert on the London tube and it had really gotten my hackles up,” explains Longmuir of the origins of her campaign, which led to her meeting fellow blogger Tara Costello over social media. “Less than 48 hours later, we found ourselves in a rammed Charing Cross Station in our bikinis!” The women posed in front of the Protein World advert, aiming to show two other body types alongside Somerfield’s. Later, the bloggers decided to host a larger event for the public, which Longmuir describes as “a big body positive beach party in Hyde Park”.

She adds that today it isn’t just celebrities who portray an image of having the ‘perfect’ body or life: “it’s people who portray themselves as completely ordinary”. For Longmuir, one of her greatest frustrations with the Protein World advert was “the suggestion that looking like the gorgeous supermodel was the bare minimum, that looking like her would make you ‘ready’ to be looked at by the world”.

This sense of one beauty ideal is openly criticised by ‘Shaping the Body’, and it focuses on inclusiveness of all ages, genders and body types. The ‘Body Stories’ section, which takes up one corner of the fashion room, focuses on people for whom clothing forms a significant part of their identities. It is the result of an appeal by the Museum asking people to be filmed telling their stories, and these clips are played on a continuous loop for public viewing, alongside donated articles of clothing from the individuals.

Some of the participants dress a certain way for fashion, such as Carmel who wears vintage 1940s clothing. Others have medical reasons; Dr Prior refers to Jane who had a double mastectomy after breast cancer and donated the prostheses she was given following the surgery. “After Jane had breast cancer, she decided not to have reconstruction and not to wear prostheses because she felt more natural without them,” explains Dr Prior. “That’s a very interesting, very intimate story that really emphasises how identity and body shape are very closely tied up.”

dramatic corset

Another ‘Body Stories’ participant is Lisa, a trans woman. “She’s actually lent us for the exhibition the first outfit she wore after she transitioned where she truly felt that she passed [as a woman].” For the curators, it was important that ‘Shaping the Body’ engaged the public in a dialogue about body and identity. “We were hoping to make people think about their own identity and how they think about themselves,” Dr Prior tells me, but also to “encourage them to have a bit more empathy and be able to understand people a bit better from the inside out.”

It’s an attitude that will be welcomed by Longmuir: “People make instant and often very wrong assumptions about women based on our bodies and I think how we respond to those assumptions definitely shapes us.” Although it’s very clear from statistics about eating disorders and BDD that body image and mental health are inextricably linked, she comments that for many “it’s easy to write off low self-esteem as trivial,” and that “attitudes like the one espoused by the Protein World advert aren’t just causing hurt feelings; they’re killing young people at an ever-increasing rate.”

‘Shaping the Body’, therefore, has to tread a careful line between directly tackling issues of body image and mental health while not having a negative impact on people for whom these topics are difficult. Dr Prior tells me how they took this into consideration: “We didn’t want [the exhibition] to be triggering for people, because if you have that kind of issue and something triggers you it will ruin your day.”

At the entrance to the exhibition, there is a notice that effectively functions as content advice, letting visitors know that what they are about to see will refer to difficult issues. The notice was a result of numerous conversations with participants in the ‘Body Stories’ project as well as the curators’ own experiences and those of their friends and family. The key, Dr Prior tells me, was “to put together something where people won’t feel that they’re being patronised, but we do want people to feel that they’re being forewarned”.

high heels were exclusively for men

‘Shaping the Body’ asks a lot of its audience. It poses many questions but does not attempt to provide clear-cut answers, because its curators understand that everyone’s relationship with their body is different. Equally, the exhibition is aware of the link between body and identity and the ways in which each of these is shaped by the other. All of us are in some way affected by our bodies, and Dr Prior notes that everyone considers how they look or display themselves to other people: “Even if you make the conscious decision that you’re not going to engage in fashion, that’s still a conscious decision to look a certain way.”

The exhibition also considers the crucial role of class and gender in body shaping. The vast majority of the clothes in the fashion room were worn by the upper classes, because working class people’s clothes have fallen apart or been lost, considered not important enough to keep. Clothes were a clear way of displaying wealth: “Pink and pastel colours, they were for the aristocracy, and more earthy colours were for poorer people because pastels are incredibly difficult to clean and keep clean,” explains Dr Prior.

She also recognises the ways in which clothing is heavily gendered throughout history. “Women’s body shapes tend to be determined by their underwear,” she reveals, “whereas men’s body shapes – their outline – tend to be determined by their outerwear.” She tells me how high heels were originally exclusively for men, but over time this switched; today men wearing high heels are often ridiculed, which angers Dr Prior: “Because of the really inherent misogyny in western culture, they became a thing that men could not wear without feeling like it denigrated them.”

Pair of women’s shoes, brocaded silk 1730 1750

These kinds of debates are going on all around us today. I ask Dr Prior about the ‘Let Clothes Be Clothes’ campaign, which runs alongside others such as ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ and ‘Let Books Be Books’. All of these campaigns are fighting for gender neutral clothes, toys and books for children.

They ask why society tells young boys they can’t play with dolls, or why clothes companies rarely put images of cars, superheroes or dinosaurs on clothing for little girls. Dr Prior knows exactly where she stands: “Kids should wear what they want to wear. Who cares if they’re not fitting into this arbitrary culture of sanctioned gender roles?”

pink was not denied to boys in the 18th century

“I personally feel it’s really harmful to force kids into gender roles – we shouldn’t treat them as girls and boys, we should treat them as children.” The exhibition, too, raises these kinds of questions: “Pink was not denied to boys back in the 18th century,” Dr Prior argues. She believes that boxing children into gender roles from such a young age “helps to construct this culture of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny where people don’t feel they can be themselves”. The key is the word ‘people’: these issues affect and impact all genders.

The curators “didn’t want to force people into certain answers”, but I’m incredibly impressed that ‘Shaping the Body’ has had no qualms about raising these issues for the general public to consider. It strikes me as a powerful move towards both body-positivity and physical health, and the direct engagement with visitors to encourage them into the debate is very important. We need to be having these discussions, raising them in society and in our university bubble too, in order for us to become more accepting of those who differ from us in their choices about how they look and who they want to be.

It’s the kind of statement that Longmuir and others like her can get on board with. “Some of the most inspiring women I know stuck two fingers right up at the idea that they should be a certain way because of their body shape,” she passionately tells me, “and the simple act of making that choice has made them brave, resilient and fierce.”

Leave a comment