Should we be looking to the Vogue Health Initiative to address body issues anyway?

Or are we looking in the wrong place for a solution to a much bigger problem?
Publish date:
July 31, 2012
eating disorders, body image, vogue health initiative

[It's been three months since Vogue UK launched the Vogue Health Initiative in its June issue. I asked Grace to look at what the campaign has achieved so far. And here I've also asked Olivia to let us know how effective she thinks the initiative is, from the point of view of someone recovering from an eating disorder... --Rebecca]

I really fucking love Kate Moss. I grew up in the 90s, when she was all but everywhere, I stuck by her when she had a coke problem because she still looked bloody great in that video, and that was all she was to me: a babe.

I remember seeing her about in person a few times and being distinctly disappointed because she looked very tired and a bit older than I expected (aka not 19) - but that was OK because I have seen her many more times on magazine covers and on catwalks looking amazing.

For me, fashion has always been aspirational, and she has always encapsulated that; she looks good in good clothes. What she certainly doesn't encapsulate, nor does she claim to, is healthy living; she's a Croydon born-and-bred party girl.

Kate Moss - both my screensaver, and apparently now the poster girl for healthy living...

Which is why it was kind of weird when British Vogue announced that June was the month of their 'health initiative', that she appeared on the cover. The Americans got a bevvy of (presumably very healthy) Olympians, and we got Kate.

Over the past few years, increasing pressure has been put on the fashion industry to explore their role in perpetuating unhealthy body images for women. And June was the big month for Conde Nast, who officially published a desire to be 'wise and helpful' around the healthy living of their models.

Some of the points in their health initiative are pretty cool; a determined stance, for example, on not hiring underage models and ID-checking to ensure vigilance.

Some seem pretty vague: 'encouraging designers to consider the consequences of unrealistically small sample sizes' (encourage how? By refusing to photograph their clothes? With a card from Clintons?).

And the one that seems faintly ridiculous: 'we will be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.' I don't expect Vogue to turn into a health magazine, and nor do I want it to, because for me, fashion and health are distinctly different arenas.

And I also don't want to be fed a very transparent spiel and be expected to swallow it just because 'Vogue believes that good health is beautiful'- however snappy a tagline.

I have a vested interest in this stuff. I am in recovery from a lifelong eating disorder, and I get crazily excitable when there is a suggestion that 'normal people' (anyone other than me) think about food or their bodies more than I consider to be acceptable for me (never).

But I am also, finally, fairly aware that my eating disorder has very little to do with what my body looks like. If it did, my goals wouldn't have gotten lower and lower as my weight did.

My bulimia would have been irresolute, because I am aware of how ineffectual it is as a weight loss technique.

And the Vogue Health Initiative seems to be putting a lot of emphasis on our bodies, and the bodies of the models we pass judgement on as 'healthy' or 'not healthy'.

There is no such thing as looking like you have healthy body image - I know models who love their bodies, models who want to lose a few pounds, those who want to put a couple on, and they all look the same in a Versace dress: good.

Now, Kate could feel great about her body on the cover, or she could feel terrible, and Vogue could have had some therapists in to quiz her all about it before they decided to cast her but I doubt it.

They probably worked out that Kate sells magazines, and even in the launch month of their new campaign, placed importance of their new stance below the importance of their print sales.

Anyway, where my own body image is concerned, it doesn't really make a difference what size the model on the cover is: Vogue Italia had a blinding cover last June, featuring models on the curvier side of the spectrum. But, entrenched in an eating disorder, it didn't make me feel okay with my body as it was (smaller than theirs at the time).

It made me want Tara Lynn's lips , and then spend time trying to work out if I could divert spending money on my drug habit to fund collagen implants - because I just wasn't happy with myself, and that unhappiness was going to manifest itself in any part of my body it could find to dislike.

For me, an eating disorder, a healthy body image and an ability to love myself as a woman extend beyond the narrow spectrum of what a fashion magazine could offer, but it can operate as a convenient societal scapegoat.

I could hate my stomach today because it's not as flat as Kate's, my lips because they aren't as full as Tara's, but it is only through recognising that my reality, as a woman with a disordered perspective on food and my body, isn't actually anything to do with food or my body, that I find empowerment.

I'm not claiming that the images of women, distorted by photoshop into an idea of 'perfection' that became my own, necessarily help the situation.

But I do think that we are asking the wrong questions, that we are misdirecting our attention, because the real problem goes deeper than that which we choose to acknowledge, and is rooted in something more devastating than a prevalence of skinny ladies lining the walls of newsagents.

My health is not about my body size, or weight, or mass index. It is about how I feel, how my body feels to me, how I understand and respond to it.

I am glad that Vogue has pledged to offer its models healthy food backstage at shoots, because all workers ought be entitled to a healthy and safe working environment but I am not overwhelmingly excited by how their lunch choices could affect my own.

It all seems a little confusing; Vogue are promising us healthier models to quieten demands for a more diverse representation of beauty, whilst simultaneously offering us the long-standing face of heroin chic on their cover.

While I also don't know who should be a poster girl for healthy living and body image, I have a funny feeling that Kate doesn't quite fit the bill, nor does she appear to have been chosen in alignment with the new promises.

It feels hollow to me, a shallow response to superficial demands, but I'm reluctant to harshly criticise Vogue for not answering what is, in my opinion, a misdirected question about the root causes of distorted body image.

It seems more important to look towards more concrete solutions, towards the underfunded initiatives provided to help those diagnosed with eating disorders, towards the NHS 'Healthy Start' campaigning, towards sufficient provisions for mental health.

However, these solutions are more draining, both emotionally and financially, to both those offering and those receiving. So maybe it's a lot easier to point at the catwalks than at ourselves.