If anything was to challenge the attitude of NSW Australian Medical Association president Dr Brad Frankum, surely it would be Monday night’s Australian Story segment on Shape Shifters.
The episode followed the story of Australian model Robyn Lawley who has appeared on the cover of Marie Claire, Elle, and Italian Vogue. She was also the first “plus-size model” to feature in the pages of Australian Vogue and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
The 28-year-old is by all accounts extraordinarily beautiful and successful.
Yet, Lawley – 185 centimetres and size 12-14 – reveals she has been called “a pig” and “hefty” and endured a torrent of rejection that lead to the confident, “tenacious” then-teenager to inflict abuse and “hate” on herself.
“I was binge eating or starving myself, not eating enough and then going on crazy runs,” the mother-of-one revealed.
“I dabbled in bulimia but wasn’t very good at it and it was just a horrible cycle, really, of hate, you know, feeling guilty and eating normal food and then trying to throw it up, I mean that’s just a horrible … I mean it’s so disturbing.”
Lawley, of course, is not alone in the self-hate. Her modelling agent and former model, Chelsea Bonner shared that she, too, had spent a lifetime struggling to accept herself and be accepted by others.
“One night,I was walking down the street when I was surrounded by a group of men that just oinked at me, like I was, you know, trying to say I’m a pig, I’m a fat pig,” Bonner said. “Just the judgment, just the amount of judgment … People’s comments about my size started a cycle of self-abuse, really, abuse of food, abuse of prescription drugs to help me starve myself.”
There is nothing healthy or natural about such behaviour. The average Australian woman is a size 16 yet, last week Frankum claimed the use of unhealthily overweight models was “sending a message that it’s OK to be obese or severely overweight because it’s the normal state of being”.
He added: “We don’t want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed by the way they look and everybody needs to wear clothes … but there is a difference between being confident in who you are and promoting a healthy weight message.”
Dr Michelle Jongenelis, from the School of Psychology at Curtin University says what’s acceptable is very different to what’s healthy and what’s not.
Instead of suggesting only one type of body is acceptable for representation (though, Jongenelis says “morbidly obese models” like extremely emaciated models is “going too far”), we should be asking “is what’s considered acceptable actually healthy?”
“I think if we can bring the conversation back to health rather than appearance – we should be saying ‘what is healthy?’ rather than ‘what does society think looks good?’ ” Jongenelis says. “It is important to look after your body and to be eating healthily and exercising, but I don’t think pointing at someone on the catwalk is the way we go about doing that.”
As someone who has never been overweight – except in my own eyes – I know that “promoting a healthy weight message” means promoting acceptance and diversity. The reason for this is that while we hate our bodies (most women as well as a growing number of men in Australia do), we will not treat them with respect and care.
When we are consumed with misery about the way we look (which affects people of all weights) we are clueless to our body’s cues.
I maintained a vice-like control on my body for many, many years, interspersed with periods of a complete lack of control. Either way, food was punishment – withheld or abused – for my unacceptable body.
Only through many, many years of working to soften towards myself and turn my gaze not on myself, but from myself, did I learn compassion and the power of the self-hate lost its grip. Only then, regardless of my weight, did I become “healthy” and learn to eat food in a way that felt good and understand what my body needed.
Seeing the torment Lawley and Bonner inflicted on themselves – like so, so many others – was distressing.
I understand Frankum’s point. But, I also know as women, as a society, health comes from the inside out and while we drive the message that only a certain exterior fits, we drive a message that it doesn’t matter what we do to our insides to achieve that.
Neither Bonner nor Lawley, even through extremely unhealthy behaviour, could achieve that “fit”.
“It was always just another 10 kilos and she willed herself down to essentially skin and bones and even like her skeleton was just even still too big,” Lawley’s sister Shona revealed.
By showing models, by seeing beauty in all shapes and sizes, we show that we’re all OK. We show acceptance and only through that can we get to a place of health.
When Lawley and Bonner met in 2007 (at Bonner’s agency set up “for models who represent 80 per cent of the women in this country, so models over a size 10”) Lawley was finally told she didn’t need to change.
“I think that finally was what she needed to hear, which was ‘I’m fine the way I am’,” Shona said.
Lawley now works out regularly, picks vegetables from her garden to cook and writes a successful food blog. She has learnt to treat her body with respect and found health, in mind and body.
She believes women should be represented as they are in life; in all their shapes and sizes.
“I think we should be empowering women and making them feel good, but for too long we’ve been making women feel inadequate and forcing them to feel like they just hate themselves and I just get sick of that,” she said.
In a clip from a 2014 interview with Ellen DeGeneres, she added: “I’m really confident and I love my body.”
DeGeneres replied:”We need women to say that.” Don’t we just.