Northern Soul chats to Lauren Coulman, founder of Free to Be OK with Me about anxiety, acceptance and activism
Last year, I lost two stone. I wasn’t on some elaborate weight-loss routine, or hitting the gym, I was unwell and the illness prompted my anxiety to spiral like a cyclone. Anxiety tends to curb my appetite. When I finally got better, I’d gone from a size 12 to an 8. I looked gaunt, pale, and sharp-edged, but acquaintances would tell me I “looked well”. In other words, I looked thin. And in our distorted society, thinness suggests wellness.
As a thirty-something woman, constantly bombarded by media images of what constitutes the ‘perfect’ body (currently, that’s being thin, eating clean and being the proud owner of a ‘bubble butt’), it’s tough to loosen the reins. I’ve swapped strict cardio for yoga, and I now run for the benefits it affords my health, rather than to watch the pounds fall off. I take care of my body, rather than punish it. But watching the dial on the scales rise can be difficult, and even though I know it’s healthier, the softness returning to my figure does occasionally bother me.
So, why am I telling you something so personal?
Recently, I came across Free to Be OK with Me. I’d been invited to a PechaKucha talk, a creative networking platform, where I saw the campaign’s founder, Lauren Coulman sharing her journey with her body positive collective. I instantly recognised my thoughts – and conversations I’ve had with friends – in her words. Sure, our experiences are different, but there’s something about someone baring their soul that immediately makes you feel inspired. If we’d been in an indie flick, we’d all stand up and, one-by-one, reveal our deepest insecurities. But it wasn’t a film, it was just another Thursday night in Manchester.
Fast-forward to a few weeks later, and I’m sitting opposite Lauren Coulman in Manchester’s Common.
“I started struggling with anxiety about three years ago,” she reveals. “I was in a work culture that didn’t suit me and I didn’t feel good about work or me. I put on a lot of weight over the course of a couple of years.”
“I’ve never been raised in a house where the way you looked was important,” she continues. “It was more about being comfortable, self-expression and finding your own style.”
“I knew that there was a lot of noise around the way people should look, especially women,” states Coulman. “But I hadn’t been impacted by it other than seeing, and being quite irritated, by things like dieting and weight loss, or weight gain, and being slightly perplexed by the whole thing.”
“And then I got fat and people close to me were incredibly subtle in their critique.”
But there was a critique?
“Certain members of my family commented on things like my thighs and followed it up with, “Oh, well you’re obviously happy though” like I wanted to be fat,” she shares. “And then there were other things like when the guys vomited in the canal who were obviously very vocal.”
Coulman is referring to a particularly disgusting incident where she was accosted by men who proceeded to tell her she made them feel sick as she was running along a canal. I know, right? Charming.
“And then there was one day,” she continues. “When I was going to the gym in my gym gear and someone shouted, “Hey, fatty” at me. And then, I was on a night out in London and these guys were harassing women through a cab window and I shouted back that it wasn’t okay, and their response was about how disgusting I was. All of which were painful, but I am lucky that I recognise my self-worth outside of my appearance.”
I want to be shocked but after occasionally challenging someone (usually drunk, usually in a bar), I’ve often been met by a derogatory comment on my appearance. It seems to be the go-to weapon to bring someone down.
“I started to recognise that this wasn’t the case for everyone,” Coulman continues. “It wasn’t just fat that was the issue, it was all bodies that don’t confirm to a certain norm.”
“So, it was just pure coincidence that I was organising Ladyfest at the same time, and a few people dropped out of doing talks, and because I work in social impact consultancy, I was then asked to do some chats. The response was so overwhelming.”
“The research threw up so many things that people don’t think about, that it made sense to do something, even from the very simple level of giving people a platform to talk about it.”
The platform involves a (closed – because, trolls don’t live under bridges anymore, they tap at keyboards) Facebook forum and a regular meet-up. But, did she expect the response?
“I nearly cried on the first meeting when about 25 people showed up,” she admits. “The entire process was surprising because, outside the body politics community, there hasn’t been much noise other than brands jumping on the bandwagon and making token gestures.”
We’ve only got to look at the likes of Forever21, ASOS and M&S to realise what Coulman is referring to. Then there’s Zara’s questionable Love Your Curves jeans campaign, depicting minuscule models in tight jeans (all hail Twitter for the hilarious comebacks, though). I’m not thin-shaming, I’m just urging brands to be more realistic. We aren’t stupid and consumers want to see people of all body shapes modelling clothes.
“It’s hard when you talk about brands, because on one hand it’s great that they are trying to normalise real bodies – and I say, ‘real bodies’ in inverted commas because there are so many different body types,” Coulman states.
She goes on to tell me about a campaign by H&M which ran around the theme of the Tom Jones song She’s a Lady, and featured women of all sizes and age. But at the same time, most H&M stores don’t feature plus size collections on the shop floor or you can only purchase these items online. It seems like they want to jump on the ‘body politics’ trend, but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they fall short.
And then we come to Boohoo, the brand with a penchant for bobbing a ‘fat-tax’ on their items. For a while, the brand made a huge fuss and set about recruiting ‘plus sized’ models, yet still sells larger sizes at an inflated prize.
“I wonder if brands are learning from their mistakes?” muses Coulman, after we reel off a list of well-known names who have been inclusive of diverse body types in their advertisements. “Or if they’re just jumping on the trend bandwagon?”
It’s difficult to know when we’re met with headlines like “Boobs are back!” and you wonder when they ever went away? As though a woman can simply go and release their big baps from storage now small knockers are passé. It’s hard not be cynical when it comes to advertising campaigns which aim to be inclusive, yet are still very white, and feature very slight models.
In a society where people rapidly fluctuate from one weight goal to another so they fit into an idealised shape, we should stop commenting on appearance, and focus more on the root course of such yo-yo extremes.
“There’s not a huge amount of research into obesity and mental health,” agrees Coulman. “So, when people are looking at thin bodies or fat bodies, and deciding what’s not ok and what is ok, they aren’t often aware of the story behind that person. And not understanding that it has a lot to do with mental health issues. It’s treated very separately. We tend to moralise issues to do with food and drink in a very different way.”
I’m always perplexed by this attitude. A dramatic shift towards either end of the weight spectrum should be met with concern, not kudos if you’re underweight, or disdain if you’re overweight.
“Not one person asked me why,” she reveals. “No one ever said, “Are you ok?” and it’s only through me opening up, and through the group, that I have felt like I can explore those topics and the reasons why. It’s something that, with time, I will open about.”
Does she agree that storytelling serves as a powerful medium for social change?
“Absolutely,” she says, followed by another sincere smile.
Free to Be OK is not simply a feminist collective, although – like me – Coulman identifies as a feminist. Rather, it’s an inclusive group of people who want to make a difference.
With the possibility of a TEDx talk on the horizon, not to mention a festival in the pipeline (“We’re thinking of doing it in January,” she reveals. “When everyone’s miserable about their bodies.”), as well as a host of umbrella projects occurring in the next few months, Free to Be OK is going to be one to watch.
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