Emma Cowing: Celebrity reality check is heartening

Rebecca Adlington OBE broke down in tears during a discussion about body image. Picture: Getty
Rebecca Adlington OBE broke down in tears during a discussion about body image. Picture: Getty
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HAVING a brain capacity marginally larger than that of a sandfly, I don’t usually watch I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, feeling instead that there must be something more productive I could be doing with my time – posting pictures of cats on the internet possibly, or fashioning teapots made out of the finest Lindt chocolate.

But last week, laid low by a stomach bug and not quite feeling up to the intellectual challenge that is Lizard Lick Towing on Dave+1, I found myself watching the annual sweaty ego-fest that is, I am sorry to say, one of the country’s most watched television programmes.

At first glance, it was pretty much business as usual down at I’m A Celebrity base camp. Ant and Dec gurning and giggling like the naughty schoolboys they have not been for many a long year; D-list celebrities that would struggle to be household names in their own households never mind anyone else’s, striding about in wildly unflattering hats; and a “trial” (so named, I suspect, because they are generally something of a trial to watch) that involved the massacre of several thousand blameless insects, sacrificed at the altar of light entertainment.

But halfway through the programme, something rather strange happened. Rebecca Adlington, one of the few members of the cast who is in fact hugely impressive, given that she is an Olympic gold medallist with an OBE, and is still only 24, broke down in tears during a discussion about body image.

With eyes wide as saucers, she tearfully related to two other women in the camp – Lucy Pargeter, a soap star, and Amy Willerton, Miss Universe GB – how she regularly got abuse for, in her words, not being “one of the pretty ones”. Willerton, who is a stunning young woman with clouds of thick blonde hair, impossibly smooth skin, cheekbones up to her eyelashes and a tall, willowy figure, responded by telling her that “people say nasty things and you have to drive your inner confidence”.

Pargeter, who is 36 and perhaps a little wiser than either younger woman, jumped in: “Yeah,” she said doubtfully, “but if you look like you that’s an awful lot easier than for someone who is self-doubting.”

It was a statement as painful as it is true, so much so that I punched the air with delight. Because while I may not be the target audience for I’m A Celebrity, teenagers most definitely are. They watch it in their droves, simultaneously chattering about it on social media sites, its sheer banality often the very thing that drives its appeal. Put simply: on a show like this, statements like that matter.

This is partly because I’m A Celebrity is a TV programme that has done much to promote a certain type of female body image to a young and impressionable audience. Usually that body belongs to a professional model, one, preferably, who is willing to strip down to her bikini on a regular basis and take long slow showers that allow the salivating camera operators to get as many different angled shots of her curves as possible.

When it comes to shows that perpetuate the message that a woman’s worth has everything to do with their appearance, I’m sorry to say that it’s not far off the competition that made Willerton’s name, Miss Universe.

What was refreshing about watching these three women debating the problems around body image – that Adlington felt under pressure to look a certain way, that Willerton didn’t entirely understand that because she’s always looked the way she is expected to – was the fact that we were able to watch it at all.

So often, these debates play out in the pages of newspapers, magazines and websites most teenagers rarely look at, and certainly don’t take their social cues from. For young people to see, on screen, the very real consequences of a woman who has been subjected to endless jibes about her looks (Frankie Boyle once, disgustingly, remarked that Adlington looked like a dolphin) can only be a good thing, something that might not only make some young women insecure in their own looks feel like they are not alone, but also might make those who dish out the comments see that their actions are not without consequences.

Being a young woman today is hard. Thank goodness such mainstream shows as I’m A Celebrity are now starting to highlight that.