The Tyranny of Aspiration

rs_634x890-140115075550-634.Lena-Dunham-Vogue-Cover-Annie.jl.011514Last week I had two entirely separate Twitter conversations that essentially boiled down to the same thing: In the words of Beyoncé, pretty hurts.

The first conversation was based on a much maligned piece in The Guardian on how dreamy romantic leads in YA fiction might damage the esteem of male readers. The second was a response to the earth-splitting revelation that ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham has been photo-shopped in Vogue. Neither Stephenie Meyer (for it is ‘Twilight’ that seems to come under attack in the article) or Anna Wintour are presenting the world as it really is – no acne, no braces, no bulges, no body hair, no-one over a size eight.

Of course, fashion magazines, with little actual proof on either side, have been singled out as causing mental health problems in teenage girls for decades. Attacking fictional beautiful people is a new one however, especially those who exist in the imaginations of YA fans.

In Being A Boy, I wrote at length about the effects of media images on young men, but this is a gender neutral problem. Both young men and women are bombarded with ‘impossible standards of beauty’. They are impossible because of Photoshop. But here’s the thing – EVERY professional photo has been retouched. ALL OF THEM. Dark shadows are removed, bits thinned, bits thickened, pores and blemishes are removed. YouTube is bloated with time-lapse videos of legs being stretched and eyes moved so far outwards, women start to resemble bugs. It effects men and women, and now female models are even being retouched to look less thin.

City_of_BonesThe well-worn argument is that people look to these aspirational images and feel bad about their own realistic appearances. Vogue and Twilight are making young people feel bad about themselves. If that’s true, that sucks. You tell me, dear reader. Did Edward Cullen make you feel inadequate as a man? Does Karlie Kloss make you hate your regular-length legs?

However, in my book, the message was simple: Such images aren’t real. Young adults, even young children, are more than capable of understand how digital photography has changed beauty for all of us. Who doesn’t filter the living shit out of iPhone snaps? They understand Star Wars is fiction, they understand Photoshop creates fiction. My problem is that this very simple lesson is not on the National Curriculum. Indeed, PSHE isn’t even mandatory. That’s my issue: this could so easily be taught. Many schools do teach it already, probably most, but it should be made a requirement.

A detour here on steroids. I also think schools should be teaching young men about steroid abuse. I’m not going to name names, but you know THOSE bodies aren’t just from the gym right? Readily available in any gym changing room but no-one tells you about the shrinking testicles, back acne or ‘roid rage. This detour would also be appropriate for cosmetic surgery. Beauty is a two-tier system. We could all look like supermodels if we had the money.

Back on track. Why not just place restrictions on Vogue? Why not limit the use of Photoshop under some trade descriptions act? Basically, I don’t think it’d make a scrap of difference. It’s about that key word: ASPIRATIONAL. When I was writing Hollow Pike, that word came up at several points in editorial meetings. The characters should be aspirational. And yes, fictional love-interest Danny Marriott, although he has his flaws, is also the gorgeous captain of the rugby team.

And why not? We all aspire to something. How can we not? I go to the gym four times a week for this reason. If Photoshop was outlawed tomorrow, I would still go to the gym and see guys who look like the models on the front of our romance novels. I would still want bigger arms, better definition and broader shoulders. Despite knowing it is physically impossible, I would still want to be six foot two and have wider set eyes. It’s fantasy, and fantasy cannot be censored. The heart wants what it wants. We can dance around a flaming pyre of Vogue and Men’s Health but I’ll still have my eyes and I’ll still compare myself to other men.

I honestly believe it’s easier to get mad at Vogue than it is to enter into discussion about physical aspiration. It feels like heresy to even whisper we might have a built-in archetype of beauty. Don’t get me wrong, we all have different types – anyone who knows me can spot my type at a hundred paces. I favour a larger ‘rugby build’ in my boyfriends (see Danny Marriott) and to each their own. But would it be fair to say there’s a standard deviation of beauty? Like is anyone going to look at Brad Pitt and say ‘he’s ugly’? Is anyone going to look at Natalie Portman and gag? No, probably not.

michelangelo-david12I suppose we’re left with a high-fashion chicken and egg. Which came first, the aspiration to look like a model or a fashion magazine? With slight variations, in the West, we’ve more or less agreed on beauty forever. Plato suggested ‘Forms’ of beauty that developed into archetypes. Evidence of early corsets has been linked to ancient Crete. Look at Michelangelo’s David, look at Botticelli’s Venus (they were tweaked by the artist a la Photoshop too). Look at Josephine Baker and Beyoncé. Look at James Dean and Ryan Gosling. Look at Farrah Fawcett and Blake Lively. There have always been aspirational faces and bodies and they predate both YA fiction and fashion magazines.

Evolutionary anthropologists suggest that we’re pre-programmed to look for healthy sexual partners and that this health is worn outwardly. Athletic, strong bodies with glowing skin, thick hair and decent muscle mass would suggest you’d provide good baby DNA I guess. Perhaps our aspirations are linked with our own desires and our desire to be desired. Say that ten times fast. Before I’m accused of being a body fascist, I loosely subscribe to Caitlin Moran’s ‘Human Shape’ idea. Moran writes that weight doesn’t matter (and is no-one else’s business anyway) until you stop resembling a human – i.e. morbidly obese or dangerously thin – a sign of poor health, which is just sad. (Some other time I’ll write about growing up skinny – that’ll be a long one).

It would perhaps be nicer to see greater physical diversity in magazines, TV and film. But wait – isn’t that what Vogue was trying with Dunham and they couldn’t do right for doing wrong. TV shows and films are full of ‘real’ looking people, too many to list here, but I still aspire to Chris Hemsworth’s body over, say, Michael Cera’s. Sorry! Please don’t burn me at the stake!

Rather than banning Photoshop, all journalists could sign a moratorium on describing women’s bodies. It’s shit journalism and a fairy dies every time the Sidebar of Shame is updated. It’s a nice idea but it won’t stop aspiration will it? I still want to be six foot two and built like a brick shithouse. After thirty-two years I’m content that that want is ever-present.

It’s not about shame it’s about blame. We need to stop looking around for things to blame, even if they are problematic, and refocus the time and energy on the never-ending quest to individual contentment. While we do that, I know I enjoy the escapism and fantasy of beauty. Yeah, sorry, but I really want to read YA novels about gorgeous werewolves, geeks who become models and girls who cry tears to another dimension.


Straight, White, Male Role Models

As writer and presenter Dawn O’Porter pointed out at an event we did last year, she HATES being called a ‘role model’ because she (rightly) feels men are never held responsible for their actions in the way that women are. When Kate Winslet has three babies to three partners, she gets dragged through the streets on the back of a cart, when Eddie Murphy does the same, no-one bats an eyelid.

I think, however, that men from minority groups ARE called upon to be role models. I myself am a Role Model (capital R, capital M) for gay rights group Stonewall. Men of colour and gay and bisexual men are frequently called upon to be visible for others to follow their example. This is a lot of pressure – being a ‘good example’ is hard work, being a ‘bad example’ is grossly unfair. Tom Daley, who hasn’t even defined his sexuality, can now expect to be the media’s poster boy for all things gay. Every outfit, relationship and career move with be scrutinised and tied back to his sexuality. Daily shit merchants The Daily Mail last week commented on Boyzone’s Keith Duffy stripping down to his Speedos ‘under the watchful eye of Tom Daley’. He can expect more of that snide reporting.

Why is it that straight, white men aren’t held account as ‘examples’ for other young men? It the classic issue of privilege. As the most powerful group on earth, no one is calling out straight, white men for their bad behaviour. It’s an extension of an unspoken international boy’s club.

This is a bad thing. Not only because it’s unfair, but because young white, straight boys are badly in need of GOOD role models, a side-effect of not exposing bad role models. When promoting BEING A BOY people have often asked me, ‘who do you think are good role models for young men?’ and I’ve dodged the question or ranted about the pressure of being a role model, but I spent some time thinking about straight, white men who we should be talking about in schools and at home.

Why do we need role models at all? It’s about aspiration. Trans role model Laverne Cox of Orange Is The New Black recently spoke about being a ‘Possibility Model’ to young trans people and I think she hit the nail on the head. It’s about presenting possibilities to young people and saying ‘if I did this, you can too’. Clearly, young white, straight boys need this just as much as LGBTQ or young men of colour. This is supported by education figures showing that white working class boys are now the lowest attaining socioeconomic group in the UK (2008).

But first a word on role models. Anyone can be a role model. You can’t help who inspires you. For some young men, Mitt Romney will be a role model. Many young men (and this is somewhat stereotypical) like footballers. I’m not a big fan. They’re often grotesquely overpaid, arrogant and removed from school with no qualifications. However, like it or not, they’re aspirational. There’s a silver lining – the one thing footballers have in common – they’ve massively sacrificed and worked bloody hard. That’s a good message for young men. If you want something, you have to WERK. No lie ins for them.

Onto my list. I think now I’m ready for the next radio presenter who asks me about GOOD MALE ROLE MODELS.

51-ben-drew-13498838561. Ben Drew AKA Plan B

The reason I like Drew is that despite the future not looking bright (he was expelled from school and sent to a Pupil Referral Unit), he’s gone on to succeed as a musician, actor and director. Best of all, he’s self-taught. A native Londoner, Drew comes from a single parent family and is about as far away from stage-school privilege as you can get.



Russell-Brand_1534181c2. Russell Brand

YES, he’s a controversial figure, but as well as being flamboyant and funny, he’s eloquent, intelligent and outspoken. He’s a rebel and he sometimes gets things wrong. His history is colourful to say the least but I think there’s a message in overcoming the addiction problems he has had. Brand uses his fame to talk about things other than himself and his projects. Rare indeed, whether you agree with his opinions or not.


Ben_Cohen_20113. Ben Cohen

A sportsperson it’s OK to like. Committed family man Cohen, a retired rugby pro, has now started a second career as a charity campaigner. After his father was killed in a homophobic attack, Cohen now campaigns for better tolerance in sport. Furthermore, his recent stint on Strictly Come Dancing shows he’s not taking himself too seriously.



Rob-and-Paul-Forcan4. Rob and Paul Forkan

These brothers were orphaned in the 2004 tsunami. Luckily, the Forkan’s had family back in London, unlike so many other victims. Years later, they wanted to do something to honour their parent’s memory AND help orphans who weren’t as fortunate as they were. They started trendy flip-flop company Gandy’s with a percentage of the profits going towards building orphanages.



Carnegie-Hall-John-and-Hank-Green-signing-small-credit-Andrea-Fischman5. John (and Hank) Green

Best-selling author Green writes jolly good books but he’s equally well known for the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel he shares with his brother. A community of Nerdfighters rose up around these blogs, committed to the shared goal of reducing ‘World Suck’. These campaigns are often environmental, social or charitable.



Photo(201)6. Mark Ruffalo

Now instantly recognisable as The Hulk, actor Ruffalo uses his platform to campaign against war, torture, and, more recently, fracking. On the topic of abortion, Ruffalo said ‘I don’t want to turn back the hands of time to when women shuttled across state lines in the thick of night to resolve an unwanted pregnancy, in a cheap hotel room’.



Finally, I’m not presenting these role models as PERFECT MEN. A final problem with the whole concept of role models is the idea of perfection. No one is perfect and idolising people as such is setting them up for an almighty fall from grace (and how the media loves that). Part of the what makes us human is making mistakes and how we go about rectifying them. There’s a lesson in that too.

Do You Know What Makes My Blood Boil?

intern1-1024x645Unpaid ‘internships’.

For one thing, in the UK, they’re pretty much illegal. Unless you’re on a work placement as part of a course or school based work experience you should be getting paid. EVEN IF there’s an understanding that work should follow an internship, you should still be getting minimum wage. You are only a voluntary worker if you’re working for a charity AND you’re getting your travel and lunch paid for.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. If you’re working for a company, you deserve to get paid. Call me cray cray, but if you’re turning up and working, you should be compensated. Internship culture should have been dug out years ago before it took root. I mean how did this even begin? ‘Oh we’re very busy.’ ‘Let’s get someone in to help.’ OK, but we can’t pay them anything. ‘OK, sounds good!’ HOW?! HOW DID THIS CONVERSATION EVER HAPPEN.

It deeply saddens me when I read about unpaid ‘interns’ working in children’s and YA publishing. I’ve even seen authors genuinely taking on their readers to be their unpaid assistants. Frankly, I hope each of them winds up with the Kathy Bates character from Misery. It’s all they’d deserve.

You hear a lot of people talking about how it’s the ‘only way to get started’, well that sounds like Stockholm Syndrome if ever I heard it. Yes, publishing is a great world to work in and, as I’ve said many times, I have the best job in the world – but as with ANYTHING, it’s not worth selling your voice to the Sea Witch to get on the inside.

Let’s also be honest, there are more internships than there are careers in children’s and YA publishing, so there’s absolutely no guarantee of a paid role at the end of a placement. Feeding on that aspiration and desire to break into a much-desired industry leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Let’s be clear, companies and individuals are exploiting the desirability of our profession.

My biggest niggle with unpaid internships is that they create a terrible stagnation in the types of people working in creative, sought-after fields (fashion and TV are as bad as, if not worse than, publishing). Only graduates with family cash behind them can afford to work for free for extended periods. Very often such roles benefit London-based graduates who can live with their London-based families. To me, that shuts out THE BEST PERSON FOR THE JOB, someone who (like 90% of the UK) probably can’t afford to work for nothing.

That’s another sad reality – young people feel powerless to ask for pay because they know full-well there are ten people behind them on the stairs just waiting to get in. Companies bank on this to aid the exploitation.

Laws in the US and overseas will plainly be different, but the current generation of graduates (and I know that’s a lot of YOU, or soon will be) need to call BULLSHIT on this behaviour. You can actually report a UK employer for not paying their workers under so-called internships HERE and claim back pay you are owed.

To conclude, it’s the companies that need to change. They need to be fair. To be clear, work experience is different: shadowing a professional for a set number of weeks to gain insight into a profession is not the same as being put to unpaid work.

INTERN AWARE, a national campaign to ban unpaid internships and claim back pay is well worth a look too. I’d be interested to hear from you if you’ve done and internship, are doing one now or what the situation is like outside the UK.