An Odd Body of Work

A Total Bettie
This week in Australia, cheapest one of our stateswomen has enjoyed a good fluffing by the world’s press. No. Not our new Prime Minister. In the case you hadn’t heard, prescription last week, a gal called Julia Gillard joined an international club of just over one dozen female heads of government. It’s not her they’re talking about any more. It’s a youngish woman called Kate Ellis.

We’re a small and uniquely dull country and it’s not too often the international press find us worthy of scrutiny. However, the announcement by one of our junior female Ministers that she was doing her bit to save men and women from negative body image gained global attention.

Personally, I’m pretty crapped off by the tokenism of it all so I thought the matter deserved a little discussion in the online realm. Let me tell you about Kate Ellis and her plan to save us from self-loathing.

Ms Kate Ellis is the Minister for Youth. After her party’s win in 2007, she became the youngest person in our nation’s history to hold a ministerial portfolio.

She also has a killer rack.

Oh, no you di’int.

I did. And I do have grounds.

As Ellis, presumably, hopes to declare in her newest “action on body image“, the itch to assess the merits of a woman based on her appearance is one we shouldn’t scratch.

However, context allows for exception.

The response would not be without motive, for example, in judging a beauty pageant. These contestants have agreed to be judged on appearances alone. It’s also defensible if we find a minister bound in skin-tight leather, Gucci stilettos and the fancy of stylists from a hateful magazine. She has agreed to be judged on appearances alone.

Last April, Ellis posed for the pages of Grazia. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible of female self-loathing, here’s a crib: drop 10 dress sizes by Tuesday; spend all the money you don’t earn on a Marc Jacobs purse and cram this full of a yawning need for approval.

Ellis, who can now add “The Only Parliamentarian Who Looks Good In Python-Tight Hide” to her range of unique achievements, agreed to pose for the magazine’s “body” issue. And, it must be said, she looked steaming hot poured into her bondage frock. The Karen Millen dress wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Mapplethorpe shoot. The Minister wouldn’t have looked out of place as an extra from Sex and the City.

Apparently, Ellis enjoyed her makeover. “I didn’t think it would be so much fun – I didn’t want it to stop!” she told the dungeon-masters at Grazia.

Well. What girl doesn’t relish the chance to don high-end duds, professional make-up and the endorsement of a picky fashion editor? Once, I wore Armani Privé and a La Perla bustier for Vogue and forced everyone I know to use me as a screensaver for months. When your hair has been blow-dried by a genius called Tyrone, it’s wonderful to be judged on appearances alone.

Like Ellis, I adored all the grooming and “I didn’t want it to stop”. Unlike Ellis, I did not suppose that I was smashing the devious mirror of a sexist visual culture.

“I can help fashion magazines to promote a healthy body image,” the Minister said of her decision to pose in snug couture. This claim might have had more weight if Ellis had, well, more weight. Or, at least, a walking stick, untended facial hair or any damn thing that distinguished her from the print media parade of beautiful, young, able-bodied white women.

When all was said, done and air-brushed, Ellis had served no purpose higher than that of vanity. Or political ambition; which is pretty much the same thing. And exactly the same could be said of her newly announced “action” on “body image”. Except, in this case, her vanity will cost us half a million bucks.

This week, several of these dollars were disbursed on launching the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image and its attendant Body Image Friendly Awards. In short, businesses and publications that demonstrate diversity in their understanding and depiction of bodies will get a “tick” a la the Heart Foundation.

Apparently, I’m the nation’s only Op Ed writer who has previously declared Ellis’s National Body Image Advisory Council a crock.

Given that just about every other taxpayer seems content to fund You Go Girl (TM) afternoons of finger clicking, back slapping and disingenuous squawking, I thought it prudent to call it all a crock again.

This scheme, cheery as it seems, has a shaky foundation. It finds one of its bases in the idea that mass media produces body dysmorphic disorders like anorexia. Such illnesses and the compulsion to control one’s weight precede our era of mass communications.

The “fasting girl” was a fact of Victorian life; the practice we’d now call bulimia was almost mandatory for the Roman elite. Scholars have written about the holy anorexia of Joan of Arc and other female saints whose obsession with fat loss was informed not by Grazia magazine but by the desire to escape the perceived prison of the body.

When Mia Freedman, the chair of Ellis’ Advisory Council, recently wrote about the “Shame, panic, fear, self-loathing, despair…” she felt after gaining 11 kilograms, she attributes this, presumably, to our contemporary visual culture. Actually, we Westerners, and women in particular, have had revulsion for our bodies for some time.

While I concede that fat, as the adage goes, is a feminist issue and certainly an important one, I find myself frustrated that policy makers, and the journalists who inform them, overrate the impact of media and underrate the weight of Western thought which starts, more or less, with Plato and roughly proceeds, with all apologies to students of philosophy, “Body bad, mind good. Woman has more body, less mind. Therefore, woman bad.”

The body, as it is socially marked, is a complicated thing. We can’t hope to alter our relationship to it with a government-endorsed logo.

But, I guess we can airbrush it with a handful of tame initiatives from a snap-happy minister. In the past few days, Ellis has received worldwide recognition for her code.

She looks good. I’m sure she doesn’t want it to end.

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