Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

Whether you conform to society’s current physical ideal or not, you can only gain from opting out of the rush to look like the latest image of perfection and taking the time to find your own beauty – whatever it looks like.

Hungry but chic. What does that mean to you? Think about it for a moment while I give you some context.

This week, I was blithely staring out of the window of the bus as we jerked through the 11th arrondissement of Paris when I saw a poster that made me sit up and take note – literally, I wrote down what I saw. It was a picture of a woman crouched down before a slightly open refrigerator, eating what appears to be a yoghurt. She’s nicely dressed and perfectly coiffed, but her eyes suggest we have surprised her in some kind of clandestine food-fest. Below her floats one of high-street retailer Kookai’s new advertising slogans: hungry but chic.

A widespread trend

I have to say that, living in France, you get somewhat used to slightly sexist advertising (I have never understood the need for naked women in TV ads for yoghurt) and provocative billboards. But this really did stun me, so I went online to see if anyone else had noticed the ad. I remember when I was a student, the university women’s group successfully campaigned against another of Kookai’s ads – a woman in a bikini with a miniature man pushing a lawnmower trimming stray pubic hairs – on the grounds that it depicted a judgemental and violent image of a woman’s body. I assumed that the web would be filled with outraged blog posts and perhaps even an online petition. I was wrong.

I found a couple of French blogs that echoed some of my own shock, but nothing that really interpreted the ad the same way I did. So, I checked with the beloved. He’s a down-to-earth guy with a naturally unsexist attitude but very little actual engagement in any kind of feminist debate. I figured if he could see what was wrong with this, I wasn’t over-reacting. His analysis? “Well, it kind of sounds like they’re saying it’s ok to starve yourself, as long as you look good doing it.” Then, warming to his subject, “It’s almost encouraging or at least condoning eating disorders, isn’t it?” Aha! This had been my exact reaction, and I wasn’t the only one! I read that slogan and immediately saw: this woman doesn’t eat enough and is always hungry, but you shouldn’t feel bad for her, she’s chic so it’s OK. Her perpetual hunger isn’t a problem, it’s for a good cause!

The vital statistics

B-eat currently estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and 6.4% of adults display signs of disordered eating. The National Centre for Eating Disorders has found that over half of all dieters are not actually overweight, which means that 1 in every 2 people on a diet does not need to be. In a time when weight and eating issues – anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, excessive dieting and even the flipside, obesity – are so much in the news and on our minds, Kookai’s choice of advertising seems at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous.

I’m not suggesting that seeing this one advert will instantly provoke the development of eating disorders up and down the country, but this kind of message does contribute to our society’s continuing cult of skinniness which it has been proved is indeed having an effect on women (and men – 11% of people with an eating disorder in the UK are male). Between the proliferation of dieting products offered in pharmacies (terrifying to behold in France, I have to say), the size-tiny actresses coming out of Hollywood, the increasing acceptability of cosmetic surgery to “correct” natural body shapes, catwalks displaying ill-looking models, and the insidiously generalised attitude that certain foods are bad and that we all have to “be careful” all the time, it’s true that Kookai’s nasty little contribution is but a drop in the ocean.

For me, though, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. I write regularly about self-acceptance, being kind to ourselves, and learning to treat ourselves as we do other people. But seeing this advert made me seriously think about my own capacity occasionally to beat myself up for not being thin enough, willowy enough, this enough, that enough. Messages just like Kookai’s abound in our society, and I for one have had enough.

The ideal prison

The path to self-love and contentment doesn’t start with internalising someone else’s – or society’s – version of what is good and attractive and acceptable and then spending your life trying to conform to it and judging yourself by it. It starts with making sure you’re healthy and then celebrating your body and your looks, enjoying the way you are, flaunting your assets and playing to your strengths instead of lamenting “cankles” and “bingo wings” (that we have actually given names to perceived bodily imperfections is horrifying). Happiness cannot take root in an attitude of “I’m not thin like the models, but that’s ok” as that upholds the notion that the models are an ideal of how we all should be. Happiness comes from throwing away the supposed ideals and the notions of what’s right and perfect and revelling in our different shapes and sizes, seeing beauty in more than one physical type, and deciding on our own what we find attractive and how we want to look.

I intend to start down my own path to self-respect and self-love by no longer shopping in Kookai. It’s a shame as I often like their styles, but until they produce advertising that shows me and all women more respect, I’ll celebrate myself elsewhere.

Seeking inner strengths

Seeking inner strengths

We may not always see the qualities other people value in us, but our strengths are there – we just need to see ourselves from the right angle.

If you had asked me what a manga was nine years ago, before I had lived in France, I probably would have guessed it was some inedible and potentially poisonous cousin of the mango fruit. Or I might have supposed it was an up-and-coming couture house (think Prada, Escada, Kenzo… Manga would fit right it). Given time, I could have come up with quite a few ideas but I never would have guessed that some day I would be taking life advice from one.

Affirmative action

Earlier this week, I was discussing the development of self-esteem with a French friend, Elodie, and the role that affirmations of one’s strengths and qualities could play in helping to shore up a shaky sense of self-worth. Modern life coaching techniques include the use of a positive personal affirmation that you can call upon when tempted to negatively compare yourself to others or minimise your own value. Obviously, the first step in developing such a personal statement is to identify your strengths – something a lot of people have a hard time doing. It’s often easy to look at others and pronounce confidently, “Oh, he’s always so generous”, or “She’s such an insightful soul”, but when asked where our own strengths lie, we hum and haw, eventually muttering something like, “Well, I guess I’m pretty punctual…”

Manga psychology

Why do we do this? What makes us so reluctant or incapable of appreciating ourselves? Well, according to Elodie, mangas have the answer. Now, for those who don’t know, mangas are neither fruit nor designer handbags – they are Japanese comic books, created for children and adults alike. They are wildly popular in France, and for the last eight years, I have resisted the Beloved’s attempts to get me to read them. I never saw the attraction (partly because his mangas all seem to be about warrior heros fighting with magical forces), but now Elodie has piqued my interest.

As we sat discussing lofty questions of self-esteem and personal growth, Elodie had one of those lightbulb moments, jumping up from the couch and running to rifle through her bookshelves. She returned, triumphant and recounted an episode not from Freud or Jung but from her favourite manga… and it’s all about Asian fast food. Yes, readers, today’s wisdom comes in the form of Japanese rice balls.

The story of Kyo-kun

In the manga story, there is a girl called Kyo-kun who is deeply kind, but who can’t seem to like herself. One day, a friend of hers tells her that people are just like onigiris – Japanese convenience food in the form of rice balls. The rice balls are often filled with umeboshi (pickled plums). The balls are formed in such as way that you can only see the filling from one side, the same way you can see the spot where jam has been pumped into a doughnut. Kyo-kun’s friend tells her:
If you think of someone’s good qualities as the umeboshi in an onigiri, it’s as if their qualities are stuck to their back. People all around the world are like onigiri. Everyone has an umeboshi with a different shape and colour and flavour. But because it’s stuck on their back, they can’t always see it. We think, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m just white rice”. But that’s not true – there is an umeboshi – on your back. Maybe the reason people get jealous of each other is because they can see so clearly the umeboshi on other people’s backs. I can see them, too. I can see them perfectly. There’s an amazing umeboshi on your back, Kyo-kun.

Our own sweet filling

It’s hard to see our own special qualities, often because to us they are just a normal part of who we are, but it’s important to stop and see them for the strengths they really are. Our qualities are our allies, helping us through life’s challenges. When we start appreciating instead of denying them or assuming that other people’s qualities are better, more numerous, or more valuable, we strengthen them and can draw on their full power.

Whether it takes a good friend to help you see the umeboshi stuck to your back, or a manga comic book, or even a 360° mirror, the benefits of identifying, knowing and owning your best self are multifold.