By Deirdre Cowman, Director of Endangered Bodies Ireland
Happy New Year! (Can I get away with saying that right through January?) Over the last 12 months I have been reaching out to other women in Ireland who have had enough of the toxic culture of body hatred, who are tired of the lack of diversity of size, shape, age and colour that they see in the mainstream media, who are sick of hearing their friends counting calories and worrying about their weight when they should be enjoying their lives, and who don’t want their children to grow up in a world where they will be judged on their appearance instead of all the wonderful qualities they bring to the world. Through tweets and Facebook posts, email conversations and phone calls, discussion groups and chats over cups of tea, we are finding our voices and finding strength in one other. We know that we are not alone and we believe in change. As we start into a new year, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on EB Ireland’s journey so far.
Sometimes the hardest part of a journey can be that first step out the door, and getting Endangered Bodies Ireland off the ground has been no exception. As a lifelong avoider of confrontation, I feared that putting myself out there as a body image activist in public (and scarier still, on the Internet) would result in lack of understanding and merciless trolling. As an Irish person, I feared that any attempt to discuss a very sensitive and personal issue would result in a typical Irish response of “sure, we’re grand!” or in other words, let’s ignore this and hope it will go away. However, my fears were unfounded and irrational and I am pleased to report that the response to Endangered Bodies Ireland has been overwhelmingly positive. Our Facebook page is popular and active. My post about ditching dieting on Irish news site The Journal was met with mostly positive, encouraging comments. As the EB Ireland team distributed body positive flyers at the Women’s Mini-Marathon (a gathering of 40,000 women in Dublin) we were greeted with interest, discussion and thanks.
Most encouraging of all, has been the response to the series of discussion groups we organized throughout the year. We planned these groups with the intention of giving women a supportive space to talk about body image and related issues. While the turn-out for these events has always been smaller than we hoped, the discussion has been hugely engaging and inspiring. As a group, we have talked about the role of various industries in our culture’s increasing obsession with weight and what we can do to protect ourselves from harmful and unhealthy messages. Over the course of several weeks, a number of women joined us and shared their personal stories of dealing with body insecurities. While we have applauded hearing women talk about their dissatisfaction with the empty images the media feed us, we also noted that there is still a huge tendency for women to apologise and discount their experiences. This highlights the need for campaigns like Endangered Bodies that make it ok for all of us to stop apologising for the way we feel and to take notice of the real motives behind the industries that drive our insecurities.
Most recently, we met in a community centre in Dublin for a screening of one of Jean Kilbourne’s excellent documentaries about the representation of women’s bodies in advertising. The film was really powerful and afterwards we immediately broke into an intense discussion about the role of the media in body image. We were really delighted when two women from the community centre who had been working on an art project at the back of the room, came over to join our discussion. Even though they were there for completely other reasons, they could relate to what we were talking about and were eager to have their say. By the end of the evening we were all united in our pledges to avoid women’s magazines and products that used unhealthy or demeaning images of women in their advertising. This reminded me that sadly, the unrealistic standard set for us by our current visual culture is a topic that touches many of us but on the flipside it’s so encouraging to see that once people know that they are not the only ones feeling the pressure, they are willing to talk about it and take action.
Finally, one key thing that makes me optimistic for change in Ireland is the general growth in activism that this country has seen in recent months. Last May, some of the Endangered Bodies Ireland team attended the Irish Feminist Network conference on ‘Feminist activism in Ireland: Past, present and future’. It was inspiring to see different generations of Irish women (and some men) coming together to learn from each other, celebrate our past and consider the many challenges that still remained. There was an overwhelming sense that immediate change was needed and discussion focussed on a range of issues including political representation, rights of immigrant women, access to abortion, the limited representation of women in the media and of course body image. The past couple of months have seen a huge surge of feminist activism in Ireland. In response to the death of Savita Halappanavar (who died as a result of being denied a termination in an Irish hospital) many Irish people, all over the country and in cities around the world, have been coming together to demand change to Irish legislation. Pro-choice organizations have organized huge rallies and started a number of creative online campaigns (for example, this brilliant video by ProChoice Dublin). While it is heart-breaking that it has taken a tragedy to bring people together on this issue, it is encouraging to see that the right to choose is no longer being side-lined as a feminist issue or a women’s issue, but is being treated a very real problem that affects everyone in the country. The outcome of this movement is by no means certain, and there is still strong opposition from some parts of Irish society but it is great to see that groups and individuals are actively fighting for change. At its core, the pro-choice movement is about women taking ownership of their own bodies so there is a huge overlap with the aims of Endangered Bodies campaign. I look forward to a day when Irish women not only have the right to complete control over what happens to their bodies, but they are also no longer encouraged to hate their bodies by industries that profit by promoting body hatred.