The I’m a Celebrity contestant and champion swimmer should be an inspiration for what her body does. But instead, the focus is on what it looks like
Monday night’s episode of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, started with a scene that had already played out a hundred thousand times that day, in offices, gyms, bedrooms and staff rooms up and down the country. “Oh God, I look so awful,” grimaced Miss GB winner Amy Willerton, as she squinted into the mirror on waking. This was followed by a Greek chorus comprising Rebecca Adlington and Lucy Pargeter, who wailed that they looked much, much worse. TV doesn’t have a great reputation for accurately representing women and the way they feel about their bodies, but in this instance, the scene was alarmingly accurate.
Later, Adlington decided against wearing a bikini, because she was anxious about doing so next to Willerton, who was already sunbathing in her two-piece. Adlington is an Olympic double gold medallist, and as such, a professional wearer of swimsuits, and yet the idea of baring flesh in this context made her feel self-conscious.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only woman watching who found it easy to identify with Adlington. Women aren’t socialised in a way that helps us to celebrate our strengths and achievements, but we’ll happily do ourselves down, especially when we’re trying to make friends. We are not encouraged to be confident in our own appearance either. Beauty and health products are sold to us as ways to fix flaws: even the best adjusted among us will watch a few too many adverts and start wondering whether we do need to cover those greys, order a course of weight-reducing ready meals, or mask the natural odour of our genitals.
Yet there’s a strange double standard when it comes to being natural. Viewers of this summer’s Celebrity Big Brother were quick to criticise Courtney Stodden for her unnatural breast implants, but they were horrified when Geordie Shore star Charlotte Crosby wet the bed. Likewise, the I’m A Celebrity contestants were appalled when Adlington explained that sometimes she needs to pee in the pool to save time when training. The celebrated idea of naturalness is purely aesthetic; women are ripped apart when they dare to age, urinate or menstruate.
As we have been trained to constantly analyse our own appearances, we’ve been taught to do it to other women too. In a quick Twitter search for Adlington’s name, very nearly every comment is a remark about her body or face, with no mention of her astonishing achievements. It’s not that women aren’t well represented on TV as much as we rarely see them displaying their own agency. It’s as if we can’t be expected to relate to them without hearing or seeing a body criticism.
The prevalence of makeover shows is testament to this. Programmes from Extreme Makeover to Gok’s Style Secrets are geared at forcing us to focus on the flaws of strangers, and enjoy their “journey”, as they are made to claim their readjusted mental attitude is a positive result of the external changes they have been forced to undergo. The most insidiously evil programme on the schedule – Snog, Marry, Avoid – claims to encourage young women to realise that they don’t need implants and hair extensions “for confidence”, but actually tells them to lose their individualism, dresses them as Duchess of Cambridge clones and claims the transformation has been successful if it means that more men are attracted to them post-makeover.
If a double gold medallist, a woman whose body is emblematic of the strength, dedication and skill, is glancingly dismissive of her physique, it’s time to put the brakes on. When it comes to perfection, we’ve seen everything. Rebecca Adlington should inspire us all because she has achieved so much – but I admire her because she’s brave enough to take herself and her body off its pedestal. Let’s hear from more inspiring women who want to talk about what their bodies do, and not just how they look.