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MP Lynne Featherstone on diversity in fashion

Lynne Featherstone MP joins Debra Bourne and Caryn Franklin at the launch of Britain's first Centre for Diversity. Photo: Annabel Staff

Lynne Featherstone joined Caryn Franklin and Debra Bourne from All Walks Beyond The Catwalk at Graduate Fashion Week 2011 for the launch of the first educational centre in Britain to be devoted to the promotion of diverse body shapes. The aim of the centre is to encourage the designers of the future (and the educators who guide them) to embrace a wider concept of beauty.

Featherstone - the government Minister for Equalities - is already a vocal opponent of impossible stereotypes, co-founding the Campaign for Body Confidence last year in order to battle beauty standards which are damaging.

We caught up with Lynne to find out more about her involvement.

Have you enjoyed coming to Graduate Fashion Week?
"The waves of creativity from fashion students are fantastic. It's always inspiring. From what we were doing today with the educators - if they can inspire these wonderful young students to think in a different way... We have been enslaved by conformity. There's only one singular impossibly perfect beautiful image and if we don't obtain that - which nobody can -we've failed. What we're finding from the work the YMCA does and the Centre for Appearance Research is that it's having a really serious effect on our sense of self worth, low self esteem and some contribution towards eating disorders and depression. We always feel we're not quite making it in some way.

"This is not saying appearance doesn't matter because that would be ridiculous. It's about saying we shouldn't be enslaved by conformity. We want diversity. For fashion students, designing for different body shapes and difficult body shapes is far more challenging than the size 10 - mind you they go down to size zero but obviously I don't approve of size zero."

So how is the government involved?
"Where the government kicks in on this is we have our Campaign for Body Confidence as part of our programme on health and wellbeing. It's at the core of the government message about health - making the most of yourself without feeling constricted by having to be one thing, one colour, one age, one form. All Walks have been the most tremendous partners in what is our mission taking this agenda forward. Their event today is where they have the chance to influence the fashion designers of tomorrow to think in a different way and no longer be constrained. We know the effects of celebrities, of fashion magazines, and the food industry and the beauty industry all pushing in one direction and we're saying: 'Hey, come on guys - life is more interesting and varied than that and you can make money at it. Most of the market is not size zero!'"

Has there been a positive response from educators?
"Tremendously. Everyone's kind of known [about this issue] - anyone who is a parent has felt it, anyone who hasn't conformed to that single image themselves has thought about it. I think what's happened now is there's been enough [people like] All Walks - and the government, even - stepping out there and saying enough is enough. The pendulum has swung far too far.

"In the room today amongst the educators it was as if something's really shifted. I've been talking on behalf of the government to the food, fashion and beauty industries and they're all beginning to shift. The Advertising Standards Agency have introduced a responsibility code - everyone is beginning to make those steps forward. I think it will be many years before the last 2000 years of pressuring us into one shape has gone but this is the fight back and it's about being healthy and saying we are more interesting as a nation than just one image."

Has there been any resistance from more established designers?
"All Walks who lead this mission are the ones working with designers. I don't think it behoves anyone if a government minister comes in and wags their finger and says you must do this! Caryn and Debra and Erin know the industry and are respected by the industry and they have this mission at their heart and it's how they work."

Do you find yourself under pressure to conform to an ideal aesthetic as someone in the public eye?
"There's always pressure being in the public eye. I always try and look relatively clean and relatively presentable [laughs] and I do need to cut my fringe so I can see so there's a practical basis for some of these things!

"There's always pressure and the pressure is always somewhat unfair on women. Women will have their clothes or shoes or face commented on a great deal more than men but men too are feeling the pressure. There are boys who now would consider taking steroids to change their body shape. I think there's always pressure if you're in public and that goes with the territory but you can fight back and say 'I'm just going to be myself and be the best me I can be and whatever I am that's okay.'"