Twitter has been aflame this morning with jokes about David Cameron going topless on the beach on holiday. Like many people, particularly those in non-physical jobs, he isn’t in the best possible shape. Many of those on the left who would shout loudest about body fascism and about not judging women on their physical attributes have gleefully joined in. Hey, he’s a Tory, so anything goes right?
As I have argued before, politician of all parties have a right to take a holiday (all of us have the right to paid leave thanks to Labour legislation). And on those holidays, they have a right to behave and act as we all do. To walk around in beachwear while not looking like a professional model without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
We see this with our politicians a lot. Eric Pickles – for example – is frequently criticised not just for what he says, but for being overweight while saying it. And we gleefully join in, because we don’t like what he’s saying and we like saying nasty things about our political enemies. But we shouldn’t. It diminishes us and it diminishes our arguments.
Eric Pickles is wrong because he is presiding over a department that obsesses with bin collection while presiding over the largest drop in house building since the 1920s. That’s got nothing to do with what he looks like. David Cameron is wrong because he is trying (and failing) to rebuild the economy on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, while running down the very public services they rely on. His beach bod has nothing to do with it.
When we employ this kind of rhetoric it makes us look cheap and tawdry. In fact, it makes us cheap and tawdry.
It also has an impact far wider than the intended targets. It tells those of us who do not look as we might wish that our political opinions count for less than our bodily appearance.
I will never forget a friend telling me of her ex-husband once saying of me “why does that fat cow get to go to Ten Downing Street”. As if my weight problem affected my political judgement so severely that I should be kept away from polite political society. Or the time when I was just starting out as a blogger and commentator and appeared on a with the notorious Old Holborn who went on to describe me as “some fat ecoloon Labourlist man hating lezzer”. Knowing from that early in my blogging path that this was the kind of attack that would live on the internet about me forever was frightening for me. It nearly dissuaded me from continuing. Why would I deliberately and continuously choose to put myself through this?
And although I wasn’t dissuaded, imagine how many people are. Those of us who feel particularly insecure about our bodies and allow that insecurity to seep through into our belief in our right to a voice and a place in the political discussion are many. Some push through and learn not to show how much it hurts us. Some are frightened off. The job of their detractors in silencing them done.
But it is not just our detractors who hurt us. It is everyone who counts this as an acceptable part of the “rough and tumble” of politics. When Labour people say these things about Eric Pickles, they open up the space for our political opponents to say them about me and others. That’s not just disappointing; it’s not just hurtful; it’s damaging to our national conversation.