“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Thank God for Gok!

In these enlightened times, it is no longer acceptable to be racist, or sexist, or to discriminate against another person on account of their age or disability. This is not to say that prejudice about these things has died out, but it is not acceptable.

But there is one last bastion of prejudice which is alive and well - it seems to be quite acceptable to be sizist, or fattist, in other words, to judge someone by how much (or little) they weigh. It is commonly recognised that first impressions are important, and that, rightly or wrongly, most people do judge others by appearances. And it is endemic in our celebrity-obsessed society.

I've watched three programmes this week, all of which give different angles on this issue. The first was America's Next Top Model, a reality show in which a group of girls in their late teens or early twenties learn the skills of modelling (and there is a lot more to it than meets the eye) and are eliminated one by one, until the winner is awarded the title of America's Next Top Model. The current series is Cycle 15. The show has spawned many franchised imitations, the world over. Most of the girls are very slim, if not downright thin, and there have been incidents of girls passing out because they are not looking after themselves properly (i.e. eating and drinking enough to keep body and soul together).

To be fair to Tyra Banks, the originator and chief judge of the series, she is very concerned to teach the girls about the need to look after themselves. Indeed, at the beginning of the current series, one girl was sent home for being too thin, as the judges (quite rightly) thought that this didn't send the right message about healthy eating to the show's legion fans, many of whom are young girls themselves.

At the other end of the scale was Biggest Loser USA, another reality show in which a number of morbidly-obese contestants are taken out of their everyday lives, and taught to eat healthily and subjected to a ferocious exercise regime under the supervision of two excellent, but very demanding coaches. The amount some of these people weigh at the beginning of the series is phenomenal (one guy weighed over 500 pounds or 35 stones) and their rate of weight loss is similarly phenomenal - the same man has currently lost 129 pounds in nine weeks! But it's all done under medical supervision, and the contestants' lives are transformed by the process.

These are just two of the many reality shows on TV which are centred around physical appearance, the desirability of fitting in to some "ideal". Others include shows like 10 Years Younger, in which a woman (it is usually a woman) has her appearance transformed by a combination of cosmetic surgery, dentistry, makeover (hair and make-up) and dress. At the beginning of the show, 100 passers-by are asked her age, and the average is taken, and then again at the end, after the transformation.

We seem to be obsessed by physical appearance. It is not just TV shows, it is also endemic in magazines, worst of which are the "celebrity" ones such as OK, Closer and Hello, which seem to exist to show us endless pictures of A-Z list celebrities either at their air-brushed best (or more interestingly still to many readers) at their worst. The appetite for such things appears to be bottomless.

As a Unitarian, I firmly believe that there is "that of God in everyone", a divine spark that makes each person unique and worthy of respect as a human being, regardless of age, sex or personal appearance.

Which is why I thank God for crusaders such as Trinny and Susannah, hosts of What Not To Wear, and Gok Wan, host of How To Look Good Naked (the third programme I watched this week), who have quite a different message about physical appearance. While granting that physical appearance (looking your best) is important, the whole rationale behind What Not To Wear was to enable women (and men) to learn about their body shapes, and about what colours and clothes styles suit them best, to enable them to "make the best" of what they've got, and to be happy with themselves. Gok Wan has gone even further down this road, preaching a message that all women are beautiful, no matter what their shape, size or complexion.

It is a vitally important message, particularly for younger girls. It has taken me many years to be content with my weight - I started to obsess about it in my teens, and it was only through watching Trinny & Susannah, and reading their books, that I have learned how to dress appropriately for my body shape, to make the best of my assets, and to be content.

So Thank God for Trinny & Susannah, and for Gok, and for all people who can help insecure women who believe all the media hype about physical perfection, to be happy with the bodies they've got and concentrate on more important things.

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