Letter to the Times

On Saturday 28th January, the Times Style Magazine ran a front cover entitled ‘Dying to be Thin- My Life as a Size 0 Model’, alongside a glamorous picture of former model and recovering anorexic Victoire Dauxerre.

After briefly believing we had accidentally invented time travel and woken up in 1992, myself and my good friend Kelsey Osgood began exchanging messages about the contents, which were promoting Ms Dauxerre’s book. Below is the letter we sent to the Times, which was also signed by Dr Pooky Knightsmith and Dr Sharie Coombes, two days later.

We have not received an acknowledgment or a reply and so have chosen to share the contents of our letter publically, here. Do contact me on Twitter (@_NatashaDevon) if you have any thoughts:

We’re writing to express our dismay regarding the Times Magazine’s choice of cover story of January 28th, 2017, titled “Dying to Be Thin –– My Life as a Size Zero Model.”  The article itself––and, sadly to say, Victoire Dauxerre’s book––appear to contravene all eating disorder professional bodies’ guidelines for responsible reporting on the topic. 

More than twenty years have passed since the first wave of tell-all memoirs about anorexia and bulimia were published.  In the intervening time, we’ve learned a great deal about what is and isn’t helpful for those who suffer or are at risk of developing eating disorders, as well as those caring for them (those who don’t fall into any of these categories are unlikely to be interested in reading a book of this nature.) 

By gratuitously outlining exactly how much she weighed and ate at various stages of her illness, Ms. Dauxerre and her profiler, Louise France, have effectively provided concrete dieting ‘tips’ to many young, vulnerable people, rather than dissuaded them from engaging in masochistic behaviors akin to the ones the book’s author did.  Similarly, pictures like the ones Ms. Dauxerre consented to include of herself at her lowest weight will likely end up on “pro-ana” Internet forums––hubs for young people swapping tips on the best self-starvation practices––as pictorial “thin-spiration” for aspiring and actualized eating disorders sufferers. 

Furthermore, by glossing over the negative aspects of the illness, both physical and mental, and placing Ms Dauxerre on your front cover whilst making it clear in your article she still has a form of eating disorder, albeit whilst appearing to be a ‘healthy’ weight, the Times succeeded in glamorizing a dangerous condition.

Simply put, all material with this type of content, regardless of the writers’ intent, is, more often than not, appropriated to destructive ends by those either engaging in or encouraging anorexia.  The greatest care should be taken when including such details, with the ultimate goal being complete omission.  

It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for publications of a lower-brow nature to print gratuitous pieces in which the caloric intakes, lowest weights, and numbers of Instagram followers of various anorexics are touted under the guise of “raising awareness” or “eliminating stigma.”  Such spreads simply encourage trainwreck voyeurism, often of a viral and enabling nature, whilst masquerading (poorly) as altruistic in nature. However, we expected better of the Times. 

We’re sorry that Ms. Dauxerre had to suffer as she did, and we’re glad she has achieved a tentative physical health since her modeling days, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that she is culpable for creating and promoting a work which is potentially harmful to its target audience.  Yours faithfully

Kelsey Osgood, author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia

Natasha Devon, former Government Mental Health Champion

Dr Pooky Knightsmith, Vice Chair of the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Coalition

Dr Sharie Coombes, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist

 

Festive Health & Other Musings…

This year, I gave up my column in Cosmopolitan Magazine, which had run for three years, and took up a weekly column in the Times Educational Supplement. As much as that was entirely the right move, I realised I missed writing about lifestyle and fashion. So below is a little reflection, from me, on health at Christmas:

It’s that time of year again, when the entire nation embarks on what essentially can be described as a collective binge-and-purge.

In December, decadence is everywhere we look – booze and treats are on special offer and every tv and newspaper advert features something dripping in custard. And by January 1st, as if by magic, the celeb fitness DVDs hit the shelves and we’re told to snap our newly lardy arses into shape because all the lazing around eating things has rendered us physically hideous.

Working as I do in education, in various schools all over the country, my relationship with the Christmas holibobs is slightly unusual. I have learned that time is the most precious of commodities, because if you can buy yourself a little time then you can do all the things which naturally lend themselves to health – exercise, quality relaxation, cooking well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep. As Russell Brand notes in his book ‘Revolution’, the wealthy tend to do these things as a matter of course because the things that should be free to all humans have in modern times become the remit of the privileged.

As such, if you’re ever going to see me a few pounds lighter, glowing of skin, fresh back from my jog whilst downing a kale smoothie, it’s going to be during the Christmas, summer or Easter school holidays. I look forward to these times not for the indulgence (although that’s good too), but for the opportunity not to live on room service, or spend at least a third of my day on a train*

*It’s worth noting at this point that at my ‘fighting weight’, when I’m doing all the healthy things for a sustained period, I’m still a size 16 (just more of a TopShop size 16 than, say, my current size of a Simply Be 16). I don’t subscribe to the idea that a healthy lifestyle automatically renders one super-slender – I believe in Health at Any Size, as one of life’s naturally curvy people.

Towards the end of the autumn term, the lack of natural light was doing my swede. I don’t understand how anyone can not have Seasonal Affective Disorder. The all-pervading gloom at this time of year actually makes me angry. I was working ridiculous hours, spending about 3 nights a week in hotels, doing no exercise other than walking and I was starting to suffer from migraines – I believe I came dangerously close to the mythical ‘burn out’.

In the past week I’ve gone for a run, paid my friend Belle, a personal trainer, to punch her for an hour (it’s okay she was wearing pads), I’ve made a dent in my new book, I’ve been for walks for no reason and I’ve reminded myself why Bowie’s Reality is such a genius album. I cannot tell you how much better I feel. None of the things I’ve done benefit the economy, or my bank balance, but they have had an immeasurable impact on my wellbeing.

I’m not for one second saying I won’t be tucking into a Christmas roast or smothering everything in Baileys (just as Jesus would have wanted). However, for various reasons I’ve been thinking in slightly different terms about how much personal responsibility we really have over our health.

As Caitlin Moran notes in her book ‘Moranifesto’ the prevailing socio-political narrative is one that praises ‘hard work’. ‘Hard working families’ is the go-to emotional appeal for most politicians and tabloids. Hard work is imbued with a kind of morality it doesn’t really deserve, because whilst a healthy work ethic is of course a good thing, working to the exclusion of everything else spells disaster for your mental and physical health. That’s why some of our ‘top’ bankers retire in their thirties.

Yet to admit this would be to encourage us to step off the treadmill and so the ‘hard work’ ideology continues to be pushed.

I recently heard an interview with Jamie Oliver on James O’Brien’s LBC show. Jamie embarked on a magnificent rant about the lack of obligation of government to limit quantities of processed sugar in our food. He cited the example of a family of 4 who have a £40 shopping budget. That family will be forced to buy ‘budget’ food, the very same food whose lack of quality is compensated for by the overuse of sugar. Refined sugar is everywhere – it’s in bread, pasta sauces, tins of beans – and we can’t blame people on a limited budget for reaching for the cheapest option.

They could of course make their own bread and pasta sauces, but that notion leads us back to ‘hard working families’ again. Most people work long hours. Who wants to come home after a hard day, utterly knackered, and spend what could have been the limited quality time they have with their kids, or their partner, or cat, or a boxset meticulously cooking meals from scratch?

Whilst I’m not attempting to feed a family of 4, I do know what it’s like to have limited choice. Often, I turn up to whatever school-side Premier Inn I’m staying at to find the only options for dinner are a Toby Carvery and a McDonalds. And whilst in summer I’ll happily pack myself a salad the night before, in the cold winter months this is less than appealing.

So when your Carole Malones, Kirsty Allsopps and Katie Hopkins’ inevitably indulge their pet hobby – namely pointing and laughing at fat people and launching into great diatribes about ‘personal responsibility’ it irritates me because if I had the income and the sort of personal freedoms I imagine they enjoy, I’d be able to attend to my health so much more consistently.

As it is, my New Years’ Resolution is to have a better work/life balance. Hitting the gym this week has reminded me how much better exercise makes you feel, even when your every instinct is to curl up with a blanket and a hot chocolate (with Baileys) to watch Love Actually (which Lindy West’s brilliant feminist analysis has ruined for me forever, btw). My goal for 2017 is to have time and options.

Merry Christmas.

Email Addresses Please!

Hello Blog Followers!

I have sent out a copy of my report on mental health and young people to those who have provided me with their email address – That is only three people, compared with about 20 who said they wanted to see it. If you still want a copy then please private message me your email address. I cannot send it without.

Thanks!

N

Report

In July 2016 I was given what I now realise was the largely meaningless, tokenistic role of government ‘Mental Health Champion’. Almost immediately the news was announced people began ringing and emailing me – People in real distress, people who had been campaigning for years to achieve a relatively simple change which would dramatically improve their mental health, or would have prevented the loss of a loved-one to suicide and people who wanted me to come and see the wonderful work they were doing in schools.

I also at this time sought to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge, since I took the role of Mental Health Champion seriously and had been told by the DfE it was an opportunity to ‘influence policy’. At Self-Esteem Team we work with 12-18 year olds and, in collaboration with our four experts, we teach teenagers universally relevant skills for the promotion of good mental health. We might discuss specifically the four most common mental illnesses in under 21s: anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, but our remit doesn’t tend to extend beyond this.

I was not, last summer, sufficiently well informed on mental health in children under the age of 12, psychosis, or the impact of bullying. I set about doing training with Mental Health First Aid England and consulting with the Anti Bullying Alliance as well as interviewing educational and paediatric psychologists to ensure I had a level of understanding which would allow me to ‘influence policy’ in the most productive way possible.

When the Department for Education unceremoniously chucked me in May, I felt that it wasn’t just me who had been cast aside – It was all the people who had given up their time and expertise and who had shared their personal experiences with me. And it was a feeling I found difficult to live with. I had been compiling a report for DfE on ‘best practice’ in schools but, assuming they no longer wanted it, I changed the nature of the report to reflect all the aspects of policy, particularly within education, which I understood to be detrimental to pupil and teacher mental health and my recommendations for how this could be changed.

Last week, I submitted my report to Norman Lamb and to the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Commission. I also gave the report to the excellent Cathy Newman at Channel 4, who prepared a package about its contents which aired during the news this evening and to the Guardian, who are publishing excerpts on their education pages tomorrow.

In order to make my report topical and newsworthy, I included a section which revealed the details of a Subject Access Request I’d conducted after leaving DfE. These are extracts, mostly from inter-departmental emails, which reveal not only the extent of their contempt for me, but (in my opinion) how the issue of mental health is being used more broadly within government as a PR exercise and vote-winner, as opposed to something which requires tangible and immediate action. Some details from the SAR are in this week’s Times Educational Supplement, as well as in the Guardian’s piece.

But I’m also determined that the ‘Thick of It’ management style at the DfE and the (hardly shocking) news that Tory politicians apparently don’t have much of a moral compass doesn’t detract from what needs to be done. So I have reproduced below the section of my report where I give my recommendations.

If you would like to see the report in full (all 20,000 words of it) which contains details of the experts I sought guidance from in order to arrive at these conclusions, leave your email address and details of the organisation you represent (if appropriate) in the comments section below. I also welcome any feedback you have.

Please share this blog far and wide and let’s hope that something positive comes out of the whole murky experience of my dalliances with DfE.

Recommendations

  1. PHSE (Personal Health and Social Education) made mandatory, given time within the curriculum, specially qualified teachers and an appropriate budget.
  2. Ofsted use wellbeing criteria to analyse whether schools have found ways to meet children’s basic emotional needs (as defined in the report), as well as providing tier 1 and 2 support (as defined in the report) for children struggling with their mental and emotional health.
  3. However, new Ofsted wellbeing criteria should not be implemented until schools have been given appropriate resources, time and budget to implement these systems.
  4. Ofsted stop counting incidents of bullying in schools records.
  5. DfE research and implement ways to provide therapeutic and other interventions in schools for children in emotional distress who do not meet the criteria for CAMHS (and that is not ‘peer mentoring’).
  6. Government research and release up-to-date, nationwide mental health statistics.
  7. Government examine the impact of its education policy on pupil and teacher wellbeing objectively, using not only a range of independent experts but also randomly selected teachers and school staff from throughout the country, who work in both the state and independent sectors.
  8. Equal number of teachers given Mental Health First Aid training as physical first aid, either in-school or as part of their teacher training if entering the profession.
  9. A specially-appointed ‘point of contact’ in all schools for mental health in the same way as there is for safe guarding.
  10. Government ring-fence remaining investment into young people’s mental health to ensure Local Authorities do not spend it on other things.
  11. NHS examine provide more extensive ‘interim support’ for children and young people waiting for a CAMHs appointment.
  12. State schools given a budget to invest in supplementary support for their PSHE or wellbeing programmes, perhaps as part of the Local Transformation Plan initiative.
  13. Independent enquiry into the impartiality of all government advisors.
  14. DfE be honest on appointment of new Mental Health Champion i.e. admit that is merely a comms role and way to generate extra publicity for DfE initiatives, in order to manage public expectation.
  15. More investment into Educational Psychology, which has been cut recently and is fundamental in understanding how to tailor interventions according to the unique needs of every child;
  16. More importance placed on role of Teaching Assistants, who are key in providing pastoral care and often mediate the elements of school culture which are not conducive to good mental health e.g. larger class sizes and behavioural issues.
  17. Find a way to quality assure School Counsellors e.g. all must belong to a regulating body.
  18. All English school children to have access to a quality-assured school counsellor (as is the case in Wales and Northern Ireland).
  19. CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) follow up missed appointments with lots of appropriate reassurance and not allow young people to ‘drop off the radar’.
  20. CAMHS offices made more welcoming for children and young people and CAMHS workers trained specifically in how to deal with children and young people.

 

Letters to Tess

Today, the Self-Esteem Team are launching ‘Letters to Tess’, a relentless campaign which will see us write to the Prime Minister every single day for a year, or until she responds in a meaningful way.

The Self-Esteem team consists of myself, musician Grace Barrett and showbiz editor Nadia (Nadz) Mendoza. As you know, I’ve been going into schools since 2007, as well as writing about and campaigning for young people and teachers on the issues of body image and mental health. Both Grace and Nadz had experience working with children and young people, as well as of the industries which so often impact how they think and feel about themselves. So, in collaboration with four doctors with expertise in mental health and adolescence, we formed SET and have been travelling the UK’s schools and colleges since 2012 delivering workshops and presentations for teenagers on mental health, exam stress, body image and increasingly gender stereotyping and consent.

Since then, we have visited an average of four schools per week: That’s comprehensives, academies, free schools, independent schools and special needs schools in all areas of the UK and beyond. Our book ‘The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!!’ won an award which means it is now available ‘on prescription’ – free in every library in Britain for young people who are struggling and want some advice from Big Sister figures. We’re contacted every day by young people and teachers on our ever-growing online networks (run by Nadz). All of this has given us an unique insight into the needs of the education sector in supporting wellbeing.

We know that a one-off assembly or PSHE lesson on mental health isn’t enough. Wellbeing needs to be woven into the fabric of the curriculum. And for that to happen the powers that be must recognise its importance and carve out real time for it in the school day. Since 2010, our government has pushed for ‘improvement of academic standards’ in a way which means arts, sport and life skills have either been sacrificed, cut or plunged in quality owing to lack of resource and funding. The result has been a mental health crisis in under 21s. The last reliable figures we have on mental health date back to 2004. There is reticence to do another census which would accurately reflect the number of people suffering in 2016. The results would, I have no doubt, be terrifying.

Everything about the way we live our life in today’s modern world works against basic human nature – Neolibralism, individualism, consumerist capitalism and technology conspire to make us stressed, anxious and depressed. And since the revolution aint happening any time soon, it’s essential we give children and young people the tools they need to cope with a world which is constantly finding new and innovative ways to bash their self-esteem and mental health.

Teachers are already overworked and schools stretched. We know this. However, we believe just ten minutes a day spent on wellbeing could have a significant impact on the mental health of both teachers and pupils, as well as the culture of schools.

Too often, we only acknowledge mental health when someone starts outwardly showing the signs of a mental illness. In fact, mental health is universally relevant because we all have a brain. Just as we learn that eating well, exercising and drinking water will provide a basic level of physical health, there are mental health equivalents. Learning these basic skills won’t cure all mental illnesses, just as eating well can’t necessarily protect you from cancer, but it will, we believe, prevent many mental health issues and much emotional distress. It will reach out to all those young people whose symptoms aren’t severe enough for medical intervention from CAMHS but need some guidance.

In August 2015 SET launched Letters to Dave. We wrote every day to David Cameron asking for a meeting to present our ideas on how wellbeing could be incorporated more effectively into the culture of schools and done relatively simply, cost effectively and without burdening teachers with huge amounts of extra training. At letter 76 we were asked by the Department for Education to stop the campaign and offered a meeting in return. The subsequent meeting was brief, dismissive and amounted to nothing.

Undeterred, we created ‘Get SET’ – a series of ten minute wellbeing exercises we had designed. We trialled them over the summer term 2016 in a selection of schools throughout the UK and worked with University College London to measure their impact.

Now, we want Theresa May to meet with us so we can present the results of our study.

We are tired of the government’s empty promises on mental health. We’re tired of non-ring-fenced budgets which are ‘made available’ for mental health but never reach the people they were intended for. Every day, we see people in real and significant distress and so far all the government has offered them are a few pretty words and PR stunts. The average Local Authority still only spends 1% of its health budget on mental health and only half of them have increased that spending in real terms since the government’s investment was announced with so much fanfare, last summer. That is what all the talk of ‘parity of esteem’ has amounted to, in real terms. We know how many people out there are desperate for real, tangible change.

We’re tired of our views and expertise being dismissed because we’re women, because we have experience of mental health issues ourselves, because we have pink hair, an afro and several tattoos between us, because we swear occasionally, because, in short, we have all the ingredients which make us credible and interesting to the teenagers we work with. Our classes have made a genuine impact on the people they were delivered to. We have a 92% success rate of increasing pupils’ understanding of mental health and an 87% success rate of increasing their confidence to talk about their feelings and seek help if they need it. 93% of pupils leave our classes feeling more positive about themselves. We’ve created our programme without public funding and with a great deal of people determined to sneer at us. We kept going because we care. And it’s working.

But we are only three and we can’t be in every single school in the UK, all the time.

We posted the first letter today. Follow us at @_selfesteemteam or find us on Facebook (SET_HQ) to keep up to date with how we are getting on.IMG-20160816-WA0002

Reclaiming The Internet

A couple of weeks ago, I filmed a video cast on anxiety for ‘DAS Podcast’, a group of women calling on a range of voices to comment on issues relating to feminism, politics and negotiating this bizarre thing we call modern life. According to research conducted by charities, anxiety disproportionately affects women and particularly those in their 20s and 30s. It’s also steeped in stigma, often wrongly perceived as ‘weakness’ (which is why, incidentally, I thought it was important to write about my own experience of panic attacks for this month’s Cosmo, which you can read here: http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/body/health/news/a44518/natasha-devon-mental-health-campaigner-suffers-panic-attacks/)

Anyway, none of this is the point of this blog. During filming, Charlie who was interviewing me for DAS said something that gave me pause. We were talking about both belonging to a bizarre ‘sandwich’ generation of not-quite millennial enough to be proper ‘Millennials’. Charlie said you can usually determine a person’s age to by asking them whether they ‘go’ online or simply ‘are’ online. This ties in with a study conducted by Professor Rachel Thompson in 2013, in which she hypothesised that young people see social media as being just as ‘real’ as their three dimensional existences. They do not ‘dip in’ to their social media in the way people older than them do. In fact, Prof Thompson claims, they ‘dip out’ for activities like school and family meals. I remember finding that vaguely terrifying, at the time.

When professional far right-wing irritant Milo Yiannopoulos was issued a life-long ban from Twitter last week, I saw widespread evidence of the way his young followers perceive social media. Milo, for those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with his work, describes himself as a ‘Conservative Libertarian’, which in reality means he is unapologetically racist and an outspoken opponent of anything vaguely feminist. He writes and edits the website Breitbart. Breitbart’s articles make the Daily Mail look like the Guardian. After the attacks in Orlando, Milo wrote gleefully that he told us so and this is what happens when society prioritises Islam over gays. Earlier in the year, he created a Twitter poll asking his followers whether they would rather their hypothetical daughters had feminism or cancer.

According to his friends, Milo doesn’t believe anything he says and is merely cashing in on the anger of a disenfranchised demographic of frustrated young men. Indeed, Laurie Penny, who you would think would be diametrically opposed to Milo in every conceivable way, describes him as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘quite sweet, to his friends’. (She also concedes that this ‘doesn’t matter’ because ‘the damage he causes is real’.)

Milo was ultimately banned for a sustained attack on Leslie Jones, star of the new Ghostbusters movie, in which he and his followers employed racist and misogynist language ultimately deemed unacceptable by Twitter. What followed were inevitable cries of ‘free speech’ and demands for Milo to be reinstated.

Putting aside the argument over whether the right to free speech includes the right to hate speech and what differentiates the two, what struck me most was that Milo’s supporters essentially saw no difference between social media and ‘society’. Milo hasn’t been deported or thrown in the clink. Twitter is a private business owned by people who reserve the right to chuck you out if you contravene their rules and regulations. Free speech is a mute point in this context because Twitter does not have to abide by the same rules as civilisation more generally.

I’m pleased that there has been a move to ‘reclaim the internet’ and that racist, violent, misogynist and homophobic language is being taken more seriously. The people who perpetrate this kind of behaviour often argue that it’s ‘obvious’ they wouldn’t carry out their threats in reality. Whilst it might be obvious to them, one cannot ever know the full gamut of the recipient’s experiences. The chances are if they are a woman, gay or an ethnic minority, they have at one time or another felt genuinely threatened. And that’s when you lose the ability to see any of what is apparently irony or humour in so-called ‘fake’ threats on the internet.

It’s worth noting at this point that the belief that their threats won’t be taken seriously it as odds with the earlier premise of social media being inextricable from reality. But that’s a bit of cognitive dissonance for another day.

What I’m currently pondering, is that grey area in between normal social media discourse and obvious trolling. In Grazia Mag this week, I was asked to comment on the Twitter spat between Khloe Kardashian and Chloe Moretz. For those that missed it, Khloe posted a picture of Chloe in a red bikini next to a picture of a very similar looking woman, also in a red bikini, having a wardrobe malfunction and therefore her nether regions exposed. Khloe did this because of a perceived slight on her sister Kim, when Chloe waded in on the long-running dispute between Kim’s husband Kanye West and Taylor Swift (are you keeping up?).

This wasn’t trolling of the Milo persuasion, but it was bullying. It was a deliberate attempt to shame a young woman for having a perfectly legitimate opinion (namely that in today’s political climate celebs should have better things to use their multi-million user platforms for than spats about lyrics) and Chloe would have undoubtedly felt the negative effects. Like farting in a lift, Khloe’s behaviour wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t something most polite people would do.

As much as we need to educate children, who are wading into the online world ever-younger and less-prepared, about the legalities of social media, sexting and online content, I believe this is as much about manners. And it’s up to us, the social media users, to make it clear what we find acceptable, what we don’t and to lead by example.

If I was Queen of Everything the lines of acceptability would be drawn thusly:

  • You can criticise someone’s opinion, but not their gender, sexuality, race, appearance or disabilities.
  • If you must make a snidey remark about someone, don’t tag them in it.
  • Think about why you are posting – is it to make a valid point or is it a deliberate attempt to cause distress? What are you hoping to achieve and what does that say about you?
  • Quantity – If you are posting about the recipient constantly, whether you tag them or not this ultimately constitutes trolling. Also you should probably have other hobbies.

I’m not immune from the odd ‘haha! Look at this idiot!’ comment on social media, but I believe I generally adhere to the rules set out above.

For me, social media is a way to learn and connect with like-minded people but it is, above all, a means of having fun. With that in mind, it’s our responsibility to play nice.

Shades of Grey

I first appeared on television in 2009 (at which point I’d been going into schools for just over a year and felt I had something to say about young people and their self-esteem). This may surprise those who seem to be under the impression I suddenly ‘popped up from nowhere’ about a year ago (FYI this hardly ever happens. Like musicians and actors, pundits seldom suddenly get ‘discovered’).

In seven years I have, I believe, gained quite a good understanding of how media operates (although it still baffles me sometimes, to be honest). Generally, on any contentious current affairs related topic, newspapers and TV shows associate ‘balance’ with inviting pundits from the left and right, from traditional and progressive points of view, to debate a topic (slash hurl insults at one another). Think Julia Hartley Brewer –v- Owen Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos –v- Kate Smuthwaite or Kate Hopkins –v- Thinking Humans Everywhere.

It makes for great entertainment, although not always a clear understanding – since the truth so often dwells in the shades of grey between the black and white.

When it comes to body image and mental health, I find the lack of nuance or ability to portray the complexities of the situation incredibly frustrating – Never more so than last week during the debate over whether Sadiq Khan was right to ban body shaming ads from TFL.

In the red corner, we had all the usual suspects lining up to complain that this infantilizes women, that we’re smarter than that, that advertising doesn’t have the power to impact our self-esteem or our views about the world (ha!) and that this simply was not feminism. In the even redder corner, some far-right publications even went so far as to accuse Sadiq of trying to implement ‘sharia law’ in London via the back door. Both of these camps reverted to using ‘freedom of speech’ to justify their viewpoints.

In the blue corner some of us tried to point out that it just doesn’t work like that but we couldn’t because all the conversations around the move seemed to focus solely on the now infamous Protein World advert. Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll be aware of the ‘Are you Beach Body Ready?’ weight loss posters which were ‘defaced’ (read: improved) by feminist protesters on the underground last summer.

Again and again, this poster was offered up for the delectation and dissection of radio and tv pundits who declared that they ‘could not see what was wrong with it’. The woman, whilst conventionally attractive and young, appears to be healthy, they said. It’s inspiring. The women who object to it are ‘just jealous’.

So let me try and break this down for you.

First of all – advertising is not the same as ‘free speech’. Advertisers have an agenda and that is to make us feel as though our bodies, wardrobe or life is substandard. They do this so we will buy their products in an attempt to make ourselves feel better.

Quite often, advertisers play into powerful existing social narratives to do this, for example the Madonna Whore Paradigm. They didn’t invent the idea that a woman who sleeps around is a slut and men who do it are heroes, but they do consistently reinforce it.

Free speech is giving everyone a voice. Allowing multi million pound corporations to wallpaper our world with titty pictures which support the notion that the ideal woman looks a bit like Barbie is not the same as free speech. If it were, we would have been consulted on this use of our public spaces.

Which brings me onto my second point – we don’t always notice they’re doing it. 90% of the brain is unconscious. We are only aware of a tiny proportion of what our minds are taking in. So of course if you take one advert in isolation and analyse it with your rational, conscious mind you will dismiss it as inconsequential. The unconscious mind is, however, less logical. It is where our prejudices, insecurities and fears live. Advertising plays on all of these and it is everywhere we turn. Usually, when we encounter advertising it is when we are at our most relaxed – walking around, on social media, watching TV – leisure activities are not generally conducive to critical thinking.

The impact of advertising is cumulative – It has become toxic by dint of the fact that it is everywhere. If you are interested in this, I recommend watching Dr Jean Kilbourne’s Youtube documentaries ‘Killing Us Softly’, which explains how the cumulative impact of advertising impacts our views of women.

And finally, advertising does work and it does impact how we feel about ourselves because if it didn’t, they wouldn’t do it. The only thing we are programmed to value aesthetically is facial symmetry. Everything else about what we find attractive in women is pretty much programmed by our culture, which is why beauty ideals vary so dramatically from one country to the next (and interestingly, why they are beginning to align with one another since the widespread global use of social media).

The very existence of plastic surgery for purely cosmetic purposes – the fact that someone would be willing to undergo a procedure which they’d otherwise only submit to if it were a medical emergency – attests to advertising efficacy in pushing a narrow beauty ideal.

I dislike the implication that people who allow their self-esteem or ideas about what constitutes attractiveness to be influenced by advertising are stupid.

The world is broadly divided into two groups of people – those who acknowledge that a huge part of our social identity is influenced by cultural ideals and those who don’t. And whilst I’d hesitate to call the latter ‘stupid’ they are, in the words of a scientist I was speaking to recently who uses her research to help advertisers manipulate human emotions, ‘profoundly delusional’.

 

Proper Angry (Again)

At 8am this morning (Saturday) I was trending on Twitter. I know that because I woke up at 9.30am having enjoyed a glorious lie-in to find my phone blinking with about 17 text messages from various friends with sentiments which can broadly be summarised as ‘OMG ur trending on Twitter’.

On Tuesday I gave an interview to the Guardian. This morning they published it. I was pleased with the article, generally and thought it reflected the casual nature of the interview itself – Hence my employment of the phrase ‘proper angry’, something I’d usually only say at home. (And by ‘home’ I mean back in Essex at my parents’ house, whilst sitting in the specially-appointed ‘ranting chair’* drinking Ribena and furiously stoking the dog’s head).

The journalist, Decca Aitkenhead, was lovely and incredibly good at her job, in that she made me forget I was being interviewed. I trusted her (good decision) and I trust the Guardian, probably the only daily newspaper our government is still frightened of. Decca and I jawed on and put the world to rights for about 90 minutes (her poor, poor transcriber) and I left thinking I’d probably choose her as a friend.

At the end of the interview, she asked me something which took me by surprise.

What are you insecure about?”.

It was a brilliant question because most people tend to assume the answer is ‘nothing’, being as I am an advocate for self-esteem, unapologetically a bit fat and prone to ‘telling it like it is’, in what I sincerely hope is a distinctly un-Katie-Hopkins-esque way.

My response didn’t make it into the final piece but I thought I’d reproduce it here, in case you’re interested. I’m insecure about my lack of qualifications.

At A level I studied History, English, Philosophy and Theology. I have a degree in English. After leaving uni, I gained some certificates which mean I could technically practice as a paralegal in Clinical Negligence. I’ve done several psychology courses and most recently became a mental health first aider. I also attend a couple of conferences every month to keep myself abreast of the latest developments in mental health and body image.

None of that makes me an expert in mental health and I’m hyper-aware of that, which is why the Self-Esteem Team have our classes verified by four ‘in-house’ bona fide experts (including a Psychologist who worked in the NHS for 30 years and a Neuroscientist) and are currently conducting some of our own research alongside a team at UCL.

It’s worth noting, here, that my fiancé says my insecurity re my lack of official qualifications is actually a strength (that’s how much he loves me, he thinks my flaws are positives) because it means I’m constantly on a quest to increase my knowledge and understanding and am open to having my mind changed, rather than believing I know everything (which actually no one does).

I’m more than aware of where my real skills lie – I listen and I assimilate. I’m always chatting to teachers, educational psychologists, scientists, researchers and perhaps most importantly actual young people and I store what they tell me to paint an ever-spiralling picture. I’m in 3 schools per week on average, all over the UK and what the lifestyle I’ve chosen for the past almost-decade amounts to is a good overview of the challenges facing the education system, plus a summary of a variety of expert views. There’s value in what I have to offer, but it isn’t a PHD.

As I suspected it might, the Guardian article has provoked an online debate about my expertise and qualifications and therefore my suitability for the role of Mental Health Champion in the first place. Some have even stated that my status as a magazine columnist and tv pundit (about 10% of my ‘portfolio career’**), or the fact that I once posed in my underwear made me actively unsuitable.

….And it’s those comments that have bought me full circle, because they reveal troubling social attitudes. The idea that a woman who writes for magazines read by other women, or occasionally takes part in TV shows which have a lighter, entertainment style format or, most shockingly, like everyone else, is naked under her clothes must automatically be too stupid to take a view on children’s mental health is blatant misogyny, hiding beneath a cloak of intellectual snobbery.

I am, once again, proper angry.

* Every home should have one, although in my flat it’s more of a ‘ranting bean bag’

**sorry Dad if you’re reading this (he says the phrase ‘portfolio career’ makes me sound like a wanker).

Blogging Through The Fog

I’m blogging through the fog generated by the media storm in which I currently find myself (then I’m off to a friend’s house for tea, talk and general TLC because she is basically the Elton John to my pap-weary celeb).

In the Times today, a source close to the DfE said of me:

Increasingly it was felt that she was making too many controversial comments, without evidence to back them up”.

In light of that apparent concern (which was never expressed directly to me) here’s a few verified statistics which have informed my opinions over the past year, for your consideration –

Mental illness has risen by (a conservative estimate of) 70% in a generation – World Mental Health Organisation, 2015

In an average UK classroom 6 children have self-harmed in the past 12 months – Mental Health First Aid, England, 2016

Hospitalisations for eating disorders and self-harm doubled between 2012-2015, Times investigation using NHS statistics

Two thirds of teachers have considered leaving the profession in the past 12 months, NUT, 2016

Almost half of teachers have sought medical assistance for stress-related conditions in the past 12 months, with 67% saying their job had inversely impacted their mental health BBC, 2016

9 in 10 schools have had to provide more support with mental health problems in the last two years and 43% of these laid the blame for this on cuts to CAHMS services in their local area, ATL, 2015

NHS spending on children’s mental health fell by 6% in real terms between 2010 and 2015, BBC

Local Authorities in England spend just 1% of their public health budgets on mental health, Mind 2015

Among people under 65, almost half of all ill health is mental illness, Young Minds 2016

75% of mental ill health manifests by the age of 24, yet only 25% of young people receive the care they require, Young Minds, 2016

Seven children in an average classroom are likely to have been bullied, Mental Health First Aid, 2016

Teen bullying doubles the risk of adult suicide, Live Science, 2015

Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths in men aged 20-34, CALM, 2015

There are just 1.18 thousand fully qualified school nurses for 8.4million pupils, Head Teacher Update, 2015

In 2015, children were waiting up to 6 months for a mental health assessment through CAHMS, Young Minds

In 2016 the government is WORKING TOWARDS a TARGET of ‘no longer than 17 weeks’ between diagnosis and assessment in CAHMS, Alistair Burt, 2016

Childline received a 200% increase in children calling to request exam stress counselling in 2015, NSPCC

I could go on, but I think the above should be sufficient food for thought. Of course there will still be those who will refute the above amounts to a ‘crisis’ (one person’s ‘crisis’ is another’s ‘necessary sacrifice to be made under austerity because children and teachers just aren’t resilient and hardworking enough’). And of course they will use the old adage ‘you can prove anything using facts’.

And to them I say – I go into 3 schools a week, all over the UK, in both the state and private sector. Whilst the statistics above have confirmed what I was seeing and hearing on the coal face, most of my opinions are informed by conversations with real young people and those who teach them. For me, they are the most reliable evidence of all. I’ve never been the sort of person to see another human in distress and to immediately jump to the conclusion that it is their own fault, or that they’re making it up – perhaps that is where me and my critics would differ.

Thank you so much for the outpouring of support in the past few days – As I said in my column for the TES – I may not be the government’s Mental Health Champion any more, but I still want to be yours.

X

Back to School-itis

In the run up to the Easter holidays, here is what a typical day looked like for me:

3am – Wake up, make and imbibe disgusting cup of coffee using 3 spoons of instant, check day’s headlines for mental health/body image/education news, try and get in a solid hour making dent in epic email backlog before car comes to pick me up for breakfast telly.

4.30am – Go to studio, spend few hours commenting on topical education/mental health stories/arguing with Man in Suit about politics.

7am – Travel to school in some far-flung location. Spend train journey making and starting to-do list for day, spreading various notebooks and diaries across tiny train table, taking phone calls and generally annoying fellow commuters by turning carriage into mobile office.

9am – 1pm – Talk to children about their mental health.

1pm -2pm – Talk to teachers about their mental health, whilst eating biscuits.

2.30 – 4.30pm – Attempt to write about day’s happenings for column/article/blog deadline at 5 on train journey home on my blackberry without getting thumb-based RSI.

5.30pm – Continue in emailing/admin/writing/phone call cycle until fiancé arrives home from work at around 7, at which point I know he’ll extract me from my laptop with a crow bar, fling me on the couch and instruct me to SIT DOWN AND RELAX.

Evening – Intermittently tweet, worry about mental health of people I’ve seen that day, attempt to plan my wedding, try and send emails when fiancé isn’t looking, answer Watsapp work queries which arrive approximately every 30 seconds from the Self-Esteem Team, cook something vaguely nutritious and eat it, whilst ‘watching’ Masterchef.

9.30pm – collapse into entirely dreamless sleep.

During the Easter holidays (a significant proportion of which I spent at my parents’ house in the Essex countryside) this is what a typical day looked like for me:

9.30am – Wake up and take time to attempt to extrapolate any potential meaning from a lucid dream I had involving Eddie Izzard.

10am – Wander into parents’ kitchen. Flick kettle on for tea. Sit in the dog’s basket stroking her tummy for half an hour and forget what I came in for (ie to make tea).

11am – Eventually get around to having said cup of tea. Eat nutritious, hearty brunch miraculously provided by Nigella-esque mother.

12pm – 8pm throw frisbies for the dog in the garden, lay under a tree watching the sun glinting through the branches, sing along as Mum and brother playing a selection of Bowie’s greatest hits on guitar, attempt to watch but eventually fall asleep in front of rubbish film with my Dad, all whilst wearing pyjamas.

8pm – Eat another culinary masterpiece proffered by Mum whilst watching Masterchef, thus turning tv programme into pleasing, futuristic, 4D experience. Have a lengthy bath, use 9 different types of moisturiser and emerge smelling like a sweet shop. Declare that day’s activities have left me exhausted and go to bed to have more dreams about Eddie Izzard.

So, you’ll see how I’m currently a little discombobulated. Easter is a weird holiday for everyone. You’re just getting into the rhythm of a pleasing springtime mellow and suddenly it’s time to go back (people who have their GSCEs/A Levels this year excepting. You will have been frantically revising). All three of us at SET were in separate schools yesterday and each found students and teachers alike to be in a state of back-to-school-for-summer-term-itis. No one’s ready. Everyone wishes they were back sitting in the dog’s basket, thinking about making a cup of tea.