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Opinion: The Urban Outfitters ‘thigh gap’ ad sparked a rage in me – have we learned nothing?

As my little girl inevitably becomes more and more aware of the world around her, an awareness of her own shape and size is only just around the corner.

Claire Micks

WHEN I HAPPENED upon the story earlier this week about Urban Outfitters and their now infamous ‘thigh gap’ photograph, the image in question sparked a visceral, irrational rage inside of me that is hard to describe. As my little girl inevitably becomes more and more aware of the world around her, and where and how she fits into that world, I realise that an awareness of her own shape and size is only just around the corner. And what hope has she if this is still the kind of image that is being projected as ‘the norm’? Why in 2015 have we not learned anything or moved on an iota? Why are we still being conditioned to believe that thin is the norm, when it clearly isn’t?

At present, my little girl judges people purely on the basis of how kind they are to her, and how much fun she has with them. Her eye may be occasionally turned by how much pink someone happens to be wearing, or by a particularly sparkly earring, but, by and large, she is still blissfully unaware of any other criteria by which to assess her fellow little (and big) beings.

However, over time she will start to notice. To compare. To judge. And I for one would prefer if the comparative images all around her reflected the world she actually lives in, rather than some fictional nirvana where every woman is comprised of ‘perfect 10’ proportions and non-existent thighs. ‘Dream on, Mummy’, I hear you say, ‘It has always been thus, and thus it will always be…’

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But what if this generation could be different? What if their expectations and ideals could be reprogrammed? What if the imagery that is routinely projected at them could be consciously adapted to reflect the world they actually live in, not the one they are expected to aspire to? Because can you imagine all the good that could do?

If her formative years were focused on the development of her own little personality, rather than being unnecessarily preoccupied with the seemingly timeless lure of just ‘being thin’. How different a life she might lead, undistracted by preoccupations with size, shape and weight? Think how she might be allowed to flourish as an individual if the instinct to stunt her own physical mass was not indelibly implanted into her psyche by the time she was 12? What if she didn’t need to worry about morphing her body into something it never wanted to be? Now, that really would be heaven.

I have a very clear memory of the opening scene of ‘Pretty Woman’ where Julia Roberts (or possibly her body double) are filmed lying on their side in a bed. Hip bones positively scream out for attention from the screen, tanned skin stretched taut against bone, skeleton clearly visible with just the slightest amount of flesh allowed to differentiate that actress from one whose body had been entirely ravaged by some parasitic disease or famine.

I remember that scene because, as a chubby 15 year old, for weeks on end I used it as an ‘inspiration’ to lose weight. The message that was conveyed to me was strikingly simple. Pretty equals thin. You are not thin, therefore you are not pretty. Therefore thin is something you need to become.

And so my young mind lapped it up, and 20-odd years later has never really lost that hang up, like so many of us out there. The time we have available to devote to such vacuous endeavours as ‘being thin’ may have dwindled enormously as a result of the onslaught of life and career and kids – and the importance we attach to success on that scale may have reduced with maturity – but can any of us truly say that it ever really left us? I for one still carry an element of that neurosis around in my handbag, no matter how many achievements I have under my belt that tell me I am worth more than the fit of my jeans. How fantastic would it be if we didn’t lumber the next generation with similar infatuations with their weight?

This is not ‘thin-bashing’ – this about creating a platform for all body sizes

It’s not that I want to ‘thin bash’. Some of us are born that way, and bully for them, but the point is that most of us are not. And nowhere is the realities of our bodies reflected anywhere in the many mirrors held up all around us everywhere we turn other than in the one we dread within our own homes. As our models continue to remain the elusive size 8, they get more and more out of touch with the girl on the street. And far from inspiring, it becomes just plain depressing. Clearly in the interests of our own health, we shouldn’t all be aspiring to be a size 16 plus, but routinely pretending that we are all a size 8 does nothing to alleviate that problem.

We went shopping for a Christmas dress for my daughter before Christmas. I felt a rising sense of panic as we went up and up in size and I simply couldn’t get the waist to close on the style she had chosen. I scanned for any signs of upset on her part – for the potential for an any more significant issue to rear its ugly head over and above the simple fact that she couldn’t get the one she wanted. The fingers promptly went into the mouth and the eyes averted from both me and the many mirrors around her.

We settled for some leggings and a sparkly top instead. Avoided any ‘structured’ look. But that moment took me back to my own adolescence. And when I saw that ad earlier this week my maternal instinct just wanted to lash out at whomever it is that decides what size is ‘normal’. And show them that ominous image of my little girl sucking her fingers in the corner of a Marks & Spencer changing room.

As a society we bear collective responsibility

But then who decides what’s normal? Am I not just as bad for worrying about it at all? For feeling prickly whenever a comment is made about her fine ‘healthy’ thighs. For being foolish enough to pick up on it when someone mentions that I’d ‘want to watch that…’, or worse still, the patronising reassurances to ‘worry not’, that no doubt she’ll soon ‘take a stretch’. Maybe as a parent it’s my job to shield her from all that? Ensure that she’s comfortable enough within her own skin that it simply doesn’t matter?

Well I’m sorry, but that is just not possible. As a society we bear collective responsibility to ensure that the images that are projected back at our children are diverse and real and appropriate. That there isn’t some form of social Darwinism at work whereby only the elite of the species are reflected back at them whenever they turn on the telly, or look at a billboard, or play with their dolls. Why should parents have to shoulder this burden alone? Why should we be forced to fight against a rising tide where all around us our children are flooded with unrealistic messages around how they ‘should’ look?

Children are inherently naive. Easily influenced. Impressionable. It is all our responsibility what impressions are left on young, sensitive minds and what lasting effect those impressions have. Not just mine alone. The reality is that the Barbie in her hand or the skinny lady on the telly have as much influence upon her as what her silly old Mum’s got to say. And that kind of damaging influence has got to be acknowledged and changed. For her sake, not for mine. My mind was already made up back in 1991. And there’s no undoing that, unfortunately.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for TheJournal.ie here.

Read: Urban Outfitters forced to remove ‘thigh gap’ photo from website following ASA ruling

Read: Urban Outfitters criticised over ‘drunk Irish’ themed clothing

Also: Urban Outfitters apologises and removes blood-spattered sweatshirt from sale after criticism

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Claire Micks

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