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On beauty: Special K adverts, body dysmorphic disorder, and Lupita Nyong'o

None of us can escape from the vicious reality of our cultural obsession with 'beauty', but I was lucky to survive my body dysmorphic disorder. Part of Transformation's politics of mental health series. Content warning: suicide attempt, self harm.

A still from Special K's "Fight Fat Talk" ad campaign. Credit: Youtube.

I’ve always cried easily. I cried at the end of the film Ice Age. I wept with emotion during the British Royal Wedding, despite my staunch anti-monarchy views.

And to my embarrassment, I once became hysterical watching a cereal advert.

The ad in question was for Special K, a wheat bran and red berry cereal laced with synthetic vitamins. It opened with a shot of three young girls skipping happily through the sea, bathed in a warm nostalgic light. “Remember when you didn’t worry about your body?” the sultry voiceover asked. We then saw the three girls as adults sitting around self-consciously in kaftans, looking longingly towards the ocean.

Then the voiceover said that the women had completed the Special K diet, replacing two of their daily meals with a bowl of cereal. Donned in the brands’ hallmark red swimming costumes, the three women ran merrily through the waves once more.

My tears began as a guffaw of disbelief, my normal cynical reaction to all television commercials. But its narrative made me realise that I couldn’t remember a time when I did not worry about my body. I gazed with envy and longing at the slender women in their red swimming costumes, at their dazzling, white toothed smiles.

This advert ‘reminded’ me that happy women were slim women with perfectly symmetrical faces. I desperately longed for happiness and I saw it as only being achievable through physical beauty. This is the idea that countless adverts sell us.

The global diet foods market is set to exceed $200bn by 2015, while the cosmetic surgery industry was worth an estimated $40.1bn in 2013. These are industries that capitalise at best on insecurity and at worst on chronic mental illness.

Sufferers of Body Dysmorphic Disorder - an estimated 1 in 100 people - have an excessive preoccupation with a perceived defect of their physical appearance. The condition can be so disabling that nearly half of such patients consider suicide.

Despite its prevalence and gravity as an illness, it is an understudied condition.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with depression, and put on a course of SSRI antidepressants. For a long time, I had been consumed by self-hatred. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw something that I despised: my ‘fat’ body and ‘ugly’ face were a physical manifestation of all of my failings.

The health professionals that I came into contact with were initially unhelpful when I complained to them about being ugly. “You’re a good looking girl,” the student counsellor offered. “You are not overweight,” said my doctor. These well-meaning comments validated to me the idea that my looks were important.

One evening, I took part in a free ‘Find Your Ideal Weight’ test, desperate in the hope that the internet would tell me that my body was a desirable one. Then I would know that my insecurities were in my head, and I could begin to get better.

Instead, the website told me that- in spite of my ‘healthy’ BMI - my ideal weight was one and a half stone lighter.

That wasn’t just a few inches off my waist. That was every bit of hated flesh that I had ever held in my hands, pulled at and cut at during hours of agonizing in front of the mirror. I paid the £60 joining fee, and spent the last ten pounds in my bank account on an extensive list of tasteless, low calorie foods. I would get better, by getting rid of the ‘excess fat’ that I saw as being a barrier to wider personal achievement. 

One night, after a Dukan Diet Plan® meal of cottage cheese and black pepper, I went to my bedroom, climbed into my bed, and decided that I was going to make an attempt on my life.

Although I had been losing weight under the gruelling regime of the diet, my body felt the same unbearable heaviness. My face, drawn from a lack of sleep and a lack of properly sustaining food, looked uglier to me than ever before. I had had enough.

I was lucky enough to survive my suicide attempt. I was held in A&E overnight, unable to sleep, and when I was discharged I was left on an armchair in a room full of very old, very frail patients to wait for an appointment with a psychiatrist. Ironically, I even read a fashion magazine to keep myself occupied. I was shivering severely, feeling nauseous and repulsive, and, most of all, utterly alone. 

During that one hour with the psychiatrist I was barely able to touch on the extent of my pain. I was too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t think life was worth living because I saw myself as unattractive. The mystery surrounding B.D.D. means that it is often left undiagnosed. Sufferers remain untreated, often with tragic consequences. 

I would have been completely lost without the support of my family and friends. They believed the poison in my brain was not simply a chemical imbalance that could be redressed with medication.

Psychiatry professor Katharine A. Phillips is an expert on B.D.D. She argues that societal emphasis on looks is not an important factor of the condition, but told The Telegraph: “It is possible that the rate of B.D.D. is increasing as women get bombarded with media images of perfection. Lots of studies have shown that the more you see images of perfection around you, and the more you compare yourself with those images, the worse you tend to feel about yourself.” 

My family and friends felt that my B.D.D. was culturally aggravated. Women (and to a lesser extent men) are evaluated by their appearance; thin is fetishized and photoshopping faces to fit one specific standard is the norm.

In a recent speech on beauty, Oscar Winning actor Lupita Nyong'o told the audience at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood event that screen media and advertising makes women feel inadequate by failing to reflect our diversity.

“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful,” she said. “I put on the TV and only saw pale skin […] my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.”

Styling women of colour so that they appear more white is commonplace: even the most successful black women have been subject to this practice. The skin whitening cream industry is worth multiple billions of dollars. Unilever, one of the largest corporations in the world, is behind multiple skin whitening ranges

Rather than reflecting a demand for diversity, the beauty industry perpetrates a more homogenous ideal than ever before. Just look at these stills, taken from three fashion commercials. In it, three Oscar Winning actors - with an average age of 46 - are barely distinguishable from each other. The narrower the ideal, the more women there are who feel they are inadequate, and the more women there will be who will spend a significant proportion of their income to try and conform.

Cate Blanchett still

Nicole Kidman still

Kate Winslet still Three Oscar Winning actors - indistinguishable from each other. Credit: Youtube.

The particularly pernicious irony of the state of the beauty industry at present is that it claims to embrace ‘natural’ beauty. Beauty companies have even begun to co-opt the terminology of emancipatory politics to pump their products: Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty and Special K’s FightFatTalk are particularly insidious examples.

In the FightFatTalk ad, unsuspecting members of the public come into a shop to browse through its clothing aisles. There are signs dotted about the shop with some rather strange slogans: “Feeling so disgusted with my figure at the moment #cow” and “I have a muffin top”. The women, understandably, react with shock and anger at seeing these slogans. 

When they are told (off camera) that they are part of an experiment set up by Special K to examine ‘women’s self-esteem problem’, they invariably get tears in their eyes, and renounce a lifetime of so called ‘Fat Talk’, smiling to the camera and promising to make a change.

For people coping with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, ‘Fat Talk’ and its equivalent is a daily, constant reality. The irony of a major diet foods company claiming to be against it is almost too huge.

Itemising our body insecurities is an integral part of female bonding, especially when we are teenagers. When we make jokes at the expense of our bodies to our friends, they are laughed at, not understood for what they are: little pockets of self-hatred that grow with each appreciative giggle. 

Blogger Gayle Force summed it up perfectly when she said that B.D.D. “feels like the disorder of horrendous privilege and anti-feminism.” For sufferers, the temptation to ‘Fat Talk’ in front of your friends is too strong to deny, even when objectively you know how incredibly harming this behaviour is.

You intellectualize the problem and accept that you wear a clothing size smaller than your friends’, but you still won’t stop going on about horrifically fat you are to her. You spend an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing other women’s bodies and comparing them to your own. I felt as though my illness had meant I had failed in the battle against the patriarchy.

The only way for me to begin to recover from B.D.D. was to deny that my body existed. I deleted my Facebook, because I was spending hours a day looking through photos of myself and agonizing over how hideous I was. I took out all mirrors from my room. I asked my friends not to talk about my looks, even if I bought them up in conversation. I eventually agreed to go on a course of CBT, and, amazingly, I now have an almost healthy relationship with my body. 

Yet relapses of my B.D.D. are common and often triggered by something as innocuous as a flick through London newspaper The Evening Standard or sitting through a fashion advert in the cinema.

None of us can escape from the vicious reality of our culture’s obsession with ‘beauty’: even reading supposedly progressive blogs and magazines, we are bombarded with images of ‘ideal’ bodies and high fashion faces. But non normative beauty icons can boost our confidence. Lupita Nyong’o says that she was able to overcome her hatred of her black skin when South Sudanese model Alek Wek became world famous.

B.D.D. is not an illness that has been created by industry. Even so, the industries that benefit from B.D.D. must be held to account. Refusing narrow beauty ideals is a good first step, but we can also attempt to deny that attractiveness should be the first standard by which we are judged. 


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