Rebecca Adlington's body image anxiety mirrors that of most women | Daisy Buchanan

The I'm a Celebrity contestant and champion swimmer should be an inspiration for what her body does. But instead, the focus is on what it looks like

Monday night's episode of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, started with a scene that had already played out a hundred thousand times that day, in offices, gyms, bedrooms and staff rooms up and down the country. "Oh God, I look so awful," grimaced Miss GB winner Amy Willerton, as she squinted into the mirror on waking. This was followed by a Greek chorus comprising Rebecca Adlington and Lucy Pargeter, who wailed that they looked much, much worse. TV doesn't have a great reputation for accurately representing women and the way they feel about their bodies, but in this instance, the scene was alarmingly accurate.

Later, Adlington decided against wearing a bikini, because she was anxious about doing so next to Willerton, who was already sunbathing in her two-piece. Adlington is an Olympic double gold medallist, and as such, a professional wearer of swimsuits, and yet the idea of baring flesh in this context made her feel self-conscious.

I'm sure I wasn't the only woman watching who found it easy to identify with Adlington. Women aren't socialised in a way that helps us to celebrate our strengths and achievements, but we'll happily do ourselves down, especially when we're trying to make friends. We are not encouraged to be confident in our own appearance either. Beauty and health products are sold to us as ways to fix flaws: even the best adjusted among us will watch a few too many adverts and start wondering whether we do need to cover those greys, order a course of weight-reducing ready meals, or mask the natural odour of our genitals.

Yet there's a strange double standard when it comes to being natural. Viewers of this summer's Celebrity Big Brother were quick to criticise Courtney Stodden for her unnatural breast implants, but they were horrified when Geordie Shore star Charlotte Crosby wet the bed. Likewise, the I'm A Celebrity contestants were appalled when Adlington explained that sometimes she needs to pee in the pool to save time when training. The celebrated idea of naturalness is purely aesthetic; women are ripped apart when they dare to age, urinate or menstruate.

As we have been trained to constantly analyse our own appearances, we've been taught to do it to other women too. In a quick Twitter search for Adlington's name, very nearly every comment is a remark about her body or face, with no mention of her astonishing achievements. It's not that women aren't well represented on TV as much as we rarely see them displaying their own agency. It's as if we can't be expected to relate to them without hearing or seeing a body criticism.

The prevalence of makeover shows is testament to this. Programmes from Extreme Makeover to Gok's Style Secrets are geared at forcing us to focus on the flaws of strangers, and enjoy their "journey", as they are made to claim their readjusted mental attitude is a positive result of the external changes they have been forced to undergo. The most insidiously evil programme on the schedule – Snog, Marry, Avoid – claims to encourage young women to realise that they don't need implants and hair extensions "for confidence", but actually tells them to lose their individualism, dresses them as Duchess of Cambridge clones and claims the transformation has been successful if it means that more men are attracted to them post-makeover.

If a double gold medallist, a woman whose body is emblematic of the strength, dedication and skill, is glancingly dismissive of her physique, it's time to put the brakes on. When it comes to perfection, we've seen everything. Rebecca Adlington should inspire us all because she has achieved so much – but I admire her because she's brave enough to take herself and her body off its pedestal. Let's hear from more inspiring women who want to talk about what their bodies do, and not just how they look.

Contributor

Daisy Buchanan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Comment is free readers on … body image | The people's panel

The people's panel: As an inquiry into self-image coincides with a protest against dieting, five readers tell us their experience

The people's panel

19, Jan, 2012 @1:05 PM

Article image
Body image is a bigger issue than many people realise
The 25-year-old who forced Topshop into a U-turn over its use of ultra tall and skinny mannequins says the battle is not finished

Laura Berry

01, Aug, 2015 @3:34 PM

Article image
Body Gossip puts spotlight on models and body image

Jane Martinson: The campaign group is challenging clothes retailers to use a wider range of models and government to do more to support young people

Jane Martinson

11, Oct, 2013 @11:04 AM

Article image
Obsessed By My Body review: at last I know why bodybuilders smear themselves with fake tan
Welcome to the world of teenage bodybuilding – a hotbed of preening and paranoia. Plus, The Secret Life of the Zoo; time to rethink meerkats – they’re not as cute as they look

Sam Wollaston

03, Feb, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Yes, Barbie has got bigger. But her old body-image message endures | Afua Hirsch
The Fashionista range is meant to depict ‘ordinary’ women, but my daughter’s reaction shows that the original, abnormally thin Barbie is still idealised

Afua Hirsch

16, May, 2017 @3:12 PM

Article image
Talk to your children about body image – it’s not worth dying for | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Eloise Parry took illegal diet pills in pursuit of an unachievable body image ideal, and it killed her. Society should tackle the problem at its root

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

24, Jul, 2015 @10:13 AM

Breasts are not always best for body image | Letter
Letter: Cancer resulted in my losing both breasts. Without them I feel positively transformed, younger than my 70 years and happy with my body for the first time since childhood

Letters

23, May, 2016 @6:40 PM

Article image
Sorry, guys, you can’t be an actor and moan about body image | Suzanne Moore
Richard Madden is the latest actor to reveal the stress of having to achieve a certain body type. Isn’t that his job, asks Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore

Suzanne Moore

10, Apr, 2019 @5:37 PM

Article image
The imperfect but honest image of a woman's body

Kira Cochrane: Beth Whaanga's photographs of her cancer scars, Jade Beall's images of 'pregnancy stretchmarks' and Gabi Gregg's 'fat women in swimwear' could change our view of 'perfection'

Kira Cochrane

12, Feb, 2014 @7:24 PM

Article image
Reality TV fuels body anxiety in young people, says survey
Study by Mental Health Foundation finds 24% say shows cause body image issues

Mattha Busby

02, Jun, 2019 @11:00 PM