She’s a picture of perfection: a girl becoming a woman. Sitting in the corner of our local café, the young teenager is lost in her sketches.
My seven-year-old daughter, intrigued, wanders over to ask what she’s drawing. “Well, this girl is happy, because she’s skinny,” she replies, pointing to one figure. “And this girl is sad, ‘cos she’s fat.” Welcome to the world of the young western woman, where fat is a fate worse than death. It starts young: in a study last year at Knox College, Illinois, girls aged three to five were asked to choose a game piece – thin, average, or big – to represent themselves. They all grabbed the thin pieces. “Some girls refused to even touch the ‘chubbier’ game piece, making comments such as, ‘I hate her, she has a fat stomach’,” according toan article in The Atlantic. Former broadcaster Adam Spencer took aim at this scourge in his viral tweet recently: “This week on the covers of Who, Famous, NW & OK! 12 body image stories – 4 mags, 12 stories covers alone #Disgraceful https://twitter.com/adambspencer/status/461284921898582016 In the same week, Myer was petitioned to remove a doll from its shelves because it has, “legs so skinny, she looked like the images I’ve seen of holocaust prisoners close to starvation”, according to one father. Mark Chenery was with his four-year-old daughter in the toy department of the store, on Sydney’s northern beaches, when he saw boxes containing Winx dolls. Based on an Italian TV series, these crime-fighting fairies have attracted criticism for their sexualised poses. (Some say their name is a combination of minx and winks.)
“I don’t want her thinking that she has to look ‘perfect’ to fit in,” Mark says. And I certainly don’t want her thinking that being perfect means being painfully skinny.”At first blush, Winx appear to be pin-up girls for ‘thinspiration’. But body image educator, and co-author of Loveability, Dannielle Miller, isn’t so sure. “Waif thin dolls aren’t helpful, yet at least in this instance they’re supposed to be representing fantasy characters,” she says. “Barbie and the Bratz gals are more aspirational as they’re ‘playing at grown-ups’.” Still, she believes Barbie isn’t a problem if girls think for themselves – deconstructing the not-so-fantastic plastic. “Honestly, I’m more concerned about the waif thin models girls are presented with on catwalks in magazines.”
Experts are divided about the influence of these images on the development of eating disorders, with some psychologists blaming anxiety, control, and perfectionism. Last year, 27-year-old Jacqueline Jones told News Corp: “I would not say the media in any way caused my eating disorder but I would definitely say that they contributed greatly to its duration and its strength. When I was in the throes of an eating disorder I would spend a lot of time looking at magazines and looking online, and cutting out pictures of models and pasting them up on a dreamboard, so I could have something to aspire to and think how much I’d like to look like that.” The editors of Famous, Who, and NW magazines – which were featured in Adam Spencer’s tweet – were all unavailable for comment. So, I guess it comes down to us. They’ll keep printing this shit, as long as we keep buying it. There has to be a point where we stand up and say, “No!” While Mark’s protest has garnered hundreds of signatures, his calls to Myer remain unanswered. “I’m genuinely shocked that a respectable store like Myer would stock such an exaggeratedly skinny doll,” he says. When I called corporate affairs, the spokeswoman seemed bemused. “They’re supposed to be fairies with magical powers,” she says. “When dolls are based on supernatural creatures, a bit of licence is necessary. It’s not of grave concern to us.” Well, it is to me.
Despite never talking about dieting/fat/weight around my daughter, she has body image issues. Are they from emaciated dolls, magazine covers, or other girls at school? I really don’t know, but conversations with screwed up teenagers in cafés certainly don’t help. Nor do magazine editors, department stores, and toy manufacturers who dismiss the legitimate concerns of parents. Watch Jane Waterhouse discuss the issue with the Studio 10 panel: