Jo Swinson says there is nothing wrong with a company using a slim, blonde woman to promote a product — the problem arises when everybody does it
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I SPEAK with Jo Swinson, the former Lib Dem junior equalities minister, on the day Charli Howard’s open letter to her modelling agency goes viral. Howard, a 23-year-old waif who is 85% cheekbones, hit out at the unnamed agency which told her, at 5ft 8in and size 6, she had to lose weight.
“I will no longer allow you to dictate to me what’s wrong with my looks and what I need to change in order to be ‘beautiful’ (like losing one f****** inch off my hips), in the hope it might force you to find me work,” wrote Howard, who began modelling six years ago.
“I refuse to feel ashamed and upset on a daily basis for not meeting your ridiculous, unobtainable beauty standards . . . The more you force us to lose weight and be small, the more designers have to make clothes to fit our sizes, and the more young girls are being made ill. It’s no longer an image I choose to represent. In case you hadn’t realised, I am a woman.”
It’s a kind of show-and-tell demonstration of what Swinson, who co-founded the Campaign for Body Confidence, has spent the past decade campaigning against; the kind of thing she would have brought up on the floor of the House of Commons, her air of controlled indignation silencing any pin-striped dinosaur who dared to cross her.
“It’s sadly far too common an experience in that industry because of the unrealistic standards people have of what it means to be ‘desirable’, and I think changing the mindset on that is really important,” she says of Howard’s plight.
Canadian academic Ben Barry which suggests that using a diverse range of models more reflective of the consumer is not just better for body image but better for business
Yet Swinson, once tipped as a future Lib Dem leader, is no longer an MP, losing her East Dunbartonshire seat to the former BBC journalist John Nicolson in the great Scottish Nationalist surge in May. It is little consolation that more people voted for her in May than in 2005, when she first won the seat with 41.8% of the vote.
Her husband Duncan Hames lost Chippenham for the Lib Dems on the same night. It’s not as though they didn’t see it coming, but with a toddler — Andrew, whose second birthday is three days before Christmas — it cannot be an easy adjustment.
Swinson, whose head-girl efficiency and cheerful tenacity brought her to the attention of the Lib Dem hierarchy almost as soon as she landed at Westminster as the “baby of the house” at the age of 25, does not rule out a return to politics — but she has no intention of standing for Holyrood, as Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, suggested she might in the aftermath of the general election.
Instead she has lost no time in creating a portfolio career based around the issues she championed as equalities minister: maternity rights, gender equality, body image, diversity and digital initiatives. A non-executive director of the hot Glasgow-based tech company Clear Returns, she is also chairwoman of the charity Maternity Action, which in the next few weeks will publish research, commissioned when Swinson was equalities minister, on pregnancy discrimination. The initial finding is that an estimated 54,000 women are dismissed or forced out of their jobs each year, and the situation has deteriorated in the past decade.
Once the scourge of the retail industry — “We’ve had many discussions over the years with Jo when she was a minister,” says a British Retail Consortium spokesman wearily — Swinson now plans to work with companies to improve the diversity of their senior management. She is in the process of setting up a company to do so. She is also writing a book on power, equality and women in society. It seems a classic case of gamekeeper turned poacher.
“Having been minister for women, I recognise that government has limitations on addressing these issues,” she says. “You are working against centuries of ingrained inequality in society, and the only way we can properly create the change that we need is if people in all different parts of society — bosses, colleagues in the workplace, parents, and consumers — use their power.”
She adds: “Business recognises the problem. We have got to 25% women on boards but that has not been straightforward and, in doing so, many companies have recognised that if they look down the executive talent pipeline, they have a real problem. We also have the gender pay transparency legislation coming in next year for large organisations, and companies are going to have to respond to that. It’s an opportunity to look at putting in place initiatives to improve the gender pay gap and the diversity of the talent pipeline.”
But what about women such as Howard? The Campaign for Body Confidence, co-founded by Swinson and her parliamentary colleague Lynne Featherstone, is now the charity Be Real, which works to change attitudes to body image and promote health. Swinson stepped down from day-to-day involvement when she became a minister in 2012.
She is not in favour of going down the French route of banning models from working if they have a low body mass index (BMI). “I have a slight wariness,” she says. “BMI is a tool that is used but it is not a foolproof mechanism that anybody below a certain level is automatically unhealthy, unless you set that level incredibly low. It is a bit of a blunt instrument. I do think there is a responsibility within the industry to look after the wellbeing of the people working in it, particularly given that some of them will be under the age of 18.”
Swinson points to work carried out by the Canadian academic Ben Barry which suggests that using a diverse range of models more reflective of the consumer is not just better for body image but better for business. Barry looked at shopping habits of North American and Chinese women and found US consumers increased their purchase intentions when the models reflected their age, size and ethnicity.
“It’s not just in terms of size, but there is a lack of ethnic diversity and age as well,” says Swinson. “Women in their forties and fifties are an incredibly valuable demographic. Companies can sell more clothes if they use more realistic models.” When you see an Asian woman in advertising, she is often in a sari and standing beside an elephant, she adds.
The problem for government, feels Swanson, is the mercurial nature of the industry. What is in vogue one day is out of fashion the next. Legislating effectively in these circumstances is virtually impossible. Then there is the fact it is the collective use of idealised images that does the most damage.
“There is nothing wrong with a company using a 19-year-old, slim young woman with long blonde hair to advertise a product,” she says. “The difficulty is if all of the products are promoted using the exact same kind of model. That can be quite damaging in the pressure it puts on women and girls, and increasingly men and boys, to conform to an ideal.”
Change is happening slowly, she believes. Marketing directors have bowed to public pressure and ditched the extreme retouching of models. The Advertising Standards Authority has introduced guidelines on retouching, and actresses such as Kate Winslet have condemned highly airbrushed images of themselves in magazines.
Yet now the selfie generation is in on the game, taking multiple photographs and using filters to recreate idealised images of themselves for Instagram. Swinson does not believe this “democratisation” helps things.
“The image is powerful even if you know it is not real,” she says. “If you see a friend upload a picture and you know that is not what she really looks like, it still plays into the ideal. It creates a dissonance between what you see in the mirror and what you feel the standard is. We’ve seen the rise in eating disorders and certainly incredibly common rates of disordered eating and low self-esteem.”
Brought up in Milngavie and educated at Douglas Academy, Swinson was always going to be a high achiever. The school debating champion, she went on to get a first-class degree in management from the London School of Economics. Her interest in politics was piqued as a sixth-former by the 1997 general election. She stayed up all night to watch it after the rest of her family had gone to bed, thinking that next time she would get in pizza and make a night of it with her friends. Next time, however, she was standing as a the Lib Dem candidate against John Prescott in Hull.
Despite becoming an MP at just 25, she bristles at the notion she is a career politician, citing her years spent in marketing with Viking FM and the Glasgow company Space and People as evidence of a hinterland.
It is not surprising that, as a former minister, she sounds a bit disillusioned with, and all too aware of, the limitations of government. However, unlike many of her former parliamentary colleagues, unceremoniously ousted in the great Commons shake-up of May 2015, she is unlikely to struggle to make her mark in the outside world.
She has always had a strong work ethic and a prodigious output. One of the things that irks her most about the selfie generation is the sheer waste of time spent gawking for the camera. “Think what could be achieved in that time,” she wails.
Whether she can change the fashion and retail industries by working with businesses, rather than legislating against their practices, remains to be seen. I can’t help feeling Howard’s heartfelt, wounded letter is the more powerful agent of potential change. Yet there is no denying Swinson’s determination. “I still want to change the world,” she says.