I’ve just watched a 2007 documentary called The Truth About Size Zero. It’s really wound me up – I don’t know when I’ve seen a more half-baked, feeble attempt at quasi-investigative journalism.
The documentary featured Louise Redknapp, ex British girl group member and long-time favourite of British lads’ mags. When the programme was made she was busy with various television presenting roles, and was married to Jamie Redknapp, with one son (she’s since had another). Louise had decided that she was deeply concerned about the way in which size zero was being seen as an aspirational female body shape, so she decided that the best way to find out more was to put herself through a punishing 30 day regime and attempt to become a size zero herself. When the 30 days began she was a British size eight (which is a US size four), so she was attempting to shrink down two dress sizes, to a British size four/US size zero.
Long story short (and you can read an account of the programme here): she managed to stick to the regime and was able to fit a size zero dress, which she then consigned to the rubbish bin before going out for dinner with her best friends. Along the way, we saw her become moody, irritable, unhappy and very unhealthy. On several occasions her doctor, who was supervising this ill-advised scheme, advised her to stop and warned her that she ran the risk of causing serious and lasting damage, but she repeatedly said that she felt so strongly about the size zero issue that she was determined to see the project through to its bitter end. She lost nearly a stone (and she was tiny to start with), reducing her body mass index from a just-healthy 19.4 to a seriously unhealthy 17.6. Here’s a ‘before and after’ image from the programme (which is blurry, I’m afraid, but you’ll get the general idea):
On the face of it this sounded like a reasonably interesting study of the pressures to be very thin – she met teenagers recovering from anorexia, spoke to models about the way in which they’re forced to stay underweight, and chatted to fellow British celebrities Denise Van Outen and Melanie Chisholm about their experiences (Denise refused to lose weight when she moved to LA; Mel C suffered from a serious eating disorder during most of her time with The Spice Girls). But overall I thought this was a misguided and fairly irresponsible attempt to cover a very serious issue, for a number of reasons.
For starters, I’m skeptical about why Louise Redknapp wanted to tackle the project. I’m sure that she was interested in exposing the dangers of extreme dieting, but I also believe that she really wanted to see whether she could become size zero herself. The big give-away, for me, was her comments early on in the programme, when she was having her ‘before’ photos taken: she knew that they wouldn’t be Photoshopped (and talked as if every photo ever published of her is Photoshopped, which I’m sure is the case, given the way that modern magazines behave), and she was seriously unimpressed with the images of her own body. She looked at them and immediately said “I look like I need to lose some weight”. Of course, she didn’t – she looked fine – but it made me think that this wasn’t a woman who was as secure about her current size as she was leading us to believe.
This also brought up another big frustration: the fact that Redknapp, and the people making the documentary, totally failed to comment on that trend of Photoshopping celebrity photos. There was plenty said about the dangers of celebrities being too skinny – how they set a bad example to impressionable young girls and make everybody feel bad about themselves (which I would dispute: I don’t feel bad about myself when I see a photo of somebody who has dieted themselves down to virtually nothing: I feel sad for that person), and also how the magazines are bad for commenting negatively when a woman does gain a bit of weight. Again, that was seen as behaviour that sets a terrible example to women of a normal size. But at no point did anybody mention that, by allowing magazines to, as she described it, “stretch her out” in photos, celebrities like Louise Redknapp are part of the problem – by rejoicing in the fact that every magazine image of her is false, she’s colluding in the presentation of unrealistic ideals to women everywhere. Incidentally, this issue was covered very well in a documentary featuring Alesha Dixon (ex girl band member herself, and later a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, and now on Britain’s Got Talent, I think), where she challenged a magazine to use her images without any Photoshopping.
I also thought that Louise’s determination to stick to the regime until the end, even in the face of serious medical advice, presented a very damaging message. The entire point of the documentary was supposed to be that the size zero body shape is, for 99.9% of people, too unhealthy to contemplate. If she had taken medical advice and called off the experiment, citing the fact that her long-term health was too valuable to play around with in this manner, I think that she would have made her point very well. Instead, Louise stuck to the regime and was ‘rewarded’ by fitting into her size zero dress after 30 days. Yes, she made it clear that this came at a big cost – she was miserable, felt ill, and lacked concentration – but I’m not sure that those impressionable young girls we’re all worrying about will have cared about that bit: they may well have just seen ‘stick to the regime and you’ll get there in the end – it’s worth it’. That’s an awful example to set.
I found it equally damaging that we were treated to a few minutes of interviews with young models, all of whom were very thin and all of whom described being told that they needed to lose weight in order to get work in their industry. These interviews took place at The Clothes Show in Birmingham, as Louise was presenting there. She did speak to a model manager who defended the pressure on models to be very thin; he justified it by saying that a model can make a fortune during a short time, so it’s probably worth them losing a few inches of their hips if that’s what it takes to get booked. At no point did Louise or anybody else confront the root of the problem in the fashion industry: the designers who insist that their creations be shown on the runway only on incredibly thin bodies. The model agent perpetuated the myth thatof courseclothes look better on tall, skinny frames and Louise, to her discredit, didn’t make any attempt to contradict it – it just hung out there, for people to take as gospel. Isn’t that brilliant.
Any if she was participating in The Clothes Show, surely she would have had some access to the clients in the fashion industry – the people who tell these girls that they’re too fat? Why didn’t Louise talk to them? She she put a lot of energy into worrying about the potential negative impact of the size zero trend on impressionable young girls, but chose to do nothing to help the actual young girls – the models – who are definitely victims of the trend. It almost seems like we’re not supposed to care about models, because they are considered to be beautiful and also because they can make a lot of money, but that’s a ridiculous attitude. The girls who get into that industry are often cruelly treated in a wide variety of ways – being told that they’re fat is just the tip of an iceberg that might also include having earnings withheld, being sexually assaulted, being left to fend for themselves in foreign cities from an unsuitably young age by the agency staff who have pledged to look after them, and many other things that most normal people wouldn’t want to see as elements of any young woman’s life. Within the industry there have now been charities and support groups set up, to protect the interests of models. They are the ultimate proof that you’re not immune to difficulty and unpleasantness, solely because you might be considered attractive.
Of course, if models were permitted to be a healthy size, the whole issue of the ungodly influence that fashion images have on the rest of the female population would diminish significantly. The only way to solve the ‘size zero is fashionable’ problem is for the fashion media to stop covering and presenting to the world the products created by designers who insist upon showing their clothes on unhealthily thin girls. The nonsense that magazines spout on this issue – things like ‘we have to book thin girls for editorial shoots because the designers only send us tiny sample sizes of their clothes’ – is nonsensical and just continues the trend of everybody passing the buck. If a shoe designer only sent shoes that were several sizes too small for the models, the magazines would report back that they couldn’t feature that designer’s product in any shots, because they didn’t fit. The same could apply with clothes, surely?
To end my litany of complaints about this documentary, my biggest issue was the way in which it spelled out, in some detail, what took to become a size zero. We learned about what Louise ate and how much exercise she did each day. In other words, we were given a ‘how to’ guide for becoming a size zero. Again, is this is good and helpful thing to share with people who might already feel inclined to tackle a severe diet?
(And sure enough; when I googled for the ‘before and after’ image that I’ve used earlier in this post, I found it on a few blogs that praised the documentary… and on one ‘thinspiration’ blog, in the company of many photos of seriously ill girls who have proudly shared images of their anorexia through ‘before and after’ shots of their own. The title was ‘If they can do it, so can you & I!!!’)