THE great thing about Katniss Everdeen, the powerful, yet slightly unhinged hero of The Hunger Games trilogy, is that she’s not flawless.
She’s strong, loyal and adventurous, but she can also be moody and impetuous. In other words, she’s a fully fledged human being. A great role model for young women, she is never vapid, but she does have moments of idiocy, moments when she acts rashly with no thought of the consequences.
All in all, she has a lot in common with Jennifer Lawrence, the actor who brought her to life on the big screen. Lawrence too is a great female role model. Starting her career in Winter’s Bone, a film in which she plays the only capable member of a dysfunctional mountain family, and winning an Oscar for her role as a young widow suffering from depression in Silver Playbook Linings, she has eschewed easy glamorous roles in favour of interesting, multi-faceted ones. Moreover, she has used the platform success has brought her to speak out on issues that matter to her: mental health, the vacuity of celebrity and the way super-models and airbrushing drive women to obsess over their own body image.
Lawrence is sweary, she likes fart jokes and has no airs and graces. You get the impression she’d be fun to be out on the town with. But, like Everdeen, she has been known to shoot from the hip. When asked for her opinion, she is willing to share it in a forthright manner and without much reflection. While this is refreshing in many ways – it’s a joy to hear her enthuse about chips and pizza – it does mean she has been known to say things which are a little bit left-field. Last week, for example, during an interview with US broadcaster Barbara Walters, who had named Lawrence as one of the ten most fascinating people of 2013 (along with Hillary Clinton, Pope Francis and, er, William and Kate’s baby, Prince George), she said calling someone fat on television should be illegal. The rallying cry was barely out of her mouth before howls of protest started going up. “How can you possibly outlaw a word?” shrieked the this-is-political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. “What next? Will we ban ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘attention-seeking’? Will we start jailing people for being mildly unpleasant?”
Of course, the naysayers are right, even if they are taking her a bit too literally. I guess Lawrence, who is only 23, didn’t give much thought to the complexities of the freedom of expression argument when she made her off-the-cuff comment about “fat shaming”. Nor to the difficulties of policing such a harsh diktat.
It’s too easy, though, just to dismiss her views as ridiculous and outlandish or to criticise her for interfering in matters that don’t concern her. This is an actor who has personal experience of the celebrity world’s obsession with stick-thin stars; an actor who, even after her Oscar win, was told by one director that she wouldn’t get the part if she didn’t lose a few pounds. She has seen the toll a poor body image has on young women. And so have we. Earlier this year, Rebecca Adlington broke down in the I’m A Celebrity jungle as she talked about the taunts she had received about her own looks. Later, this woman whose body is so finely tuned she has won gold medals for swimming, refused to put on a bikini because she was intimidated by Miss GB Amy Willerton’s trimmer physique.
In a world where thinness and a certain shallow version of beauty is prized more than intelligence, courage or goodness, we need people like Lawrence to take a stand. Her refusal to lose weight to play Everdeen and the fact she talks openly about her enthusiasm for eating and her hatred of exercise is hugely liberating for anyone who has ever been made to feel they are XXL. And her plea is heartfelt. “Why is humiliating people funny?” she asks. “And I get it. I do it too. We all do it. The media needs to take responsibility for the effect it has on our younger generation, on these girls who are watching these television shows and picking up how to talk and how to be cool.”
Where Lawrence’s argument, and the “size acceptance” campaign generally, falls down, however, is in the failure to recognise that when it comes to weight there is a tipping point beyond which you are no longer merely rebelling against society’s fixation with the undernourished, but are obese.
While some young women bombarded with images of supermodels are at risk of falling prey to eating disorders, others are more likely to become overweight. According to recent figures, a quarter of all adult Scots are now obese. Suggesting this is not a problem either for individuals or for society at large does us all a disservice. While calling someone who is overweight fat is unlikely to have a positive impact, promoting the idea that any body shape is OK is likely to reinforce the problem.
Lawrence may not understand this. Even if she is considered “fat” in Tinseltown, to the rest of the world she’s enviably formed. Perhaps she doesn’t get that some people who worry about their weight really ought to be encouraged to do something about it, not told they look fine. Still we shouldn’t be too hard on her. Rare these days is the celebrity who takes their responsibility as a role model so seriously or who uses their fame to speak out about something they believe in. With her brave, if slightly misguided, intervention into the body image debate she has more than earned her place on Walter’s prestigious, celebratory list.