Susie Orbach: Well, it's never been the case before that six-year-olds or 70-year-olds from all classes are required to look a certain way. The democratisation of beauty and appearance is very new. This is a very different period.
Terri Apter: Well, if you look at girls' diaries circa 1890 and 1990, they're always talking about self-improvement. In 1890 they're talking about being better people, being more helpful, being more considerate. Whereas in 1990, when they talk about self-improvement, they're talking about their bodies: "I'm going to diet, I'm going to work out." Their body is a project and it's something they have to work on. So you can actually track the difference in that way. Yes, beauty or attractiveness is something that humans have forever enjoyed and responded to very positively. But that's very different, as Susie says, from saying, "This is something you must be in order to be an important person."
Robin Smith: I agree. I think it's about conformity. I question whether it really is about beauty. I don't think it's beautiful. I've been in advertisingfor 25 years. And I've spent a lot of time as an art director in the studios cutting bodies and seeing bodies cut: Cherie Blair, 30lb off her hips. She probably didn't know it was happening. It's just the normal process. The manipulation that women live with now and have done for the last 15-20 years is just huge, and it's becoming more and more normal. It's not even artistic any more; it's certainly not beautiful. It's just machined.
Kiki Kendrick: What I saw when I was in advertising was that if you tell a woman she's old, fat and ugly she'll spend a fortune making herself young, thin and beautiful. Tell a woman she's absolutely fine and she won't spend a penny. I remember distinctly there were these green gloves to get rid of cellulite. Cellulite! I'd never even heard of cellulite but suddenly it was all around. But because they were selling these green gloves I thought, "Oh, that's what they do." It's this way of putting women down, making them feel uncomfortable, of lowering their self-esteem so they're more susceptible to the brands and the images.
SO: One of the tragedies nowadays is that young women have no experience of being OK in their bodies. Even though they're told they're beautiful, it makes no impact. That sense of confidence which they project is not their inner experience.
Gwyneth Harrison: Yeah, I definitely agree with that idea of young women not enjoying themselves. I definitely think there's an attitude now among young women that says perfection is attainable: you can be thinner, you could have your hair differently, you can change your face, you can change what nature gave you. That seems much more attainable than it has done before. And then, when you're bombarded with images of people having makeovers and undergoing dramatic weight loss and dramatic plastic surgery, it seems much more normal and it seems something that you should strive for. A friend of mine who's much older said it baffled her the way that all women are meant to be now is good-looking, and that they're not meant to develop any other facet of their personality. I have a good degree; I'm intelligent. But it's still really important to me that people think I'm good-looking in a way that's determined by society. I'm intelligent enough to know that that's not the most important thing about me but still, on some level, it affects you.
EJ: Why does the fashion industry persist in using skinny models when everyone seems to agree, even within the industry, that it's not helpful or necessary?
GH: Having been a model myself, still being a model but having been like a high fashion model, I've absolutely no idea. I really don't. There are so many reasons bandied around and from the inside there's not one that rings true. That's just how it is. That just is what size you need to be, and it's got smaller.
EJ: It's not because the clothes look better on skinnier models?
GH: Personally, I don't think as a designer you're doing your job if your clothes only look good on women who are shaped like this. You have a job to do. Certain styles, yes, because as women we all know certain things suit you and certain things don't. You wear what suits you. So obviously there are some designers whose clothes will look better on really tall, really skinny girls. There are certain clothes where women with busts and hips and bums are going to look better. It's all relative. I did a show on Monday and I'm a UK size 8-10. But next to these girls, I look size 14. I'm not a size 14. Not saying there's anything wrong with being size 14 – I'm just not. Compared to those girls I look big. Even my mum says, "You look big in those pictures." Because if you put me next to a girl who's half the size of me, it's all perspective. I definitely do think it has got worse. I remember flicking through a magazine and there was an old picture of Cindy Crawford and my first thought was "Man, her thigh looks fat." And then I had to check myself: "This is not a fat woman. She's athletic." But then Naomi Campbell looked like a big woman compared to these girls and she isn't.
KK: Every year they've got thinner and thinner and thinner. It's like, "What shall we do this year? What's going to get us on the front page? Ah, I know, let's go down a size." I saw some pictures today on a website and I just couldn't believe it. They looked like a friend of mine did, just before she died. I did a fashion shoot once and the models fainted because the photographer wouldn't let them eat. Now, I think that needs to happen more. If that happened then maybe if somebody would sit up and go, "God, what are we doing?" Because actually those women look sick, ill. They've got no life. They look dead. They've got no expression. They've got no vitality.
TA: So why is it that we like the look of them?
KK: We don't. I don't think we do. I think a lot of people are turning their backs on it. And I think women in general have had enough. There's so many people who feel the same way. I feel like the fashion industry can't be like Mubarak any more. The fashion industry has got to listen. Because if they don't listen they're going to die like a dodo. And I think a lot of people have turned their backs on fashion magazines. I'm certain women aren't buying them as much as they used to. And yet everybody in the fashion industry is passing the buck. They're all blaming each other. The editors are probably frightened of losing their jobs.
Njide Ugboma: I'm definitely not going to justify thin girls at all. But a lot of the girls are really young. They're 15, 16. So you have to remember that it's not them actually being that thin, it's them being so young. It's when they get older and they're trying to maintain that 15-year-old body that there's a problem. But they are really young girls.
KK: It's an industry. It's selling something. They've got a responsibility. And there is no regulatory body for the fashion industry. I find that shocking. You know there's a regulatory body for cars, for technical stuff, for finance. Everything. Even gambling. Not for fashion. Now why is that?
EJ: How much do we think women are to blame themselves? Can women really see themselves as victims of this culture when they collaborate in their own self-modification in this way? Do we really think that women don't have the power to resist?
GH: I definitely think women are their own worst enemy when it comes to this. Men just don't get it. I went to an all girls school and there's definitely a sense of competitiveness as a teenager. Everybody's massively insecure and you want to fit in and be the girl who's nice and everyone likes, but also the girl that boys fancy. And you want to do well but not too well. My worries and my friends' worries about weight and how we look are usually to do with other girls – whether they be our friends, or are people you meet in the street or who you work with – and very rarely to do with men.
SO: I wouldn't phrase it as our "worst enemy". I would say that this is the field in which we live and we have to engage with it actively. And we're not just passive victims. Fashion now has too much anguish and distress and torture. I'm not 'anti' it, but I suppose for me the thing that is so distressing – I would say this because I'm a psychoanalyst – is the assault on mothers, particularly the mothers of the generation that tried to change the world and make it a bigger place for women. The assault on them to get smaller and smaller and smaller. We were trying to get bigger and take up more space economically, politically and intellectually and every which way. That has had a very debilitating impact on the daughters, so that girls are growing up seeing mothers – and it's not to blame them – with very insecure bodies. Mothers who are fretting about their bodies. Most little girls grew up hearing their mothers going, "I'm too fat. I'm not OK. I shouldn't eat this. How awful I look."
TA: But the mothers care very much. They may not have the skills to work with it because they don't quite know how it feels to feel all right with their bodies... but they still know how to say "you're gorgeous". It may not be enough but it does something.
RS: They are all dealing with forces that they cannot understand. The driving force of all marketing is aspiration. So you keep raising the game. Keeping things out of reach. You advertise the top and you sell the third down. That's how advertising works. Aspiration underpins everything in marketing. Now you couple that with women and you can understand why women are feeling pretty shit right now because they're being marketed to on a scale they've never seen before, ever. If you look at the Asian economies you see Asian people turning into Europeans, turning into Americans – smaller noses, paler skin, dyed hair. You know you see it. It's happening.
EJ: Is the big problem that, in the modern world, we believe we have the tools to attain perfection?
TA: Such a funny word: "the tools to do it." It's a marketing opportunity, this myth that we can do something about our bodies. Just as women became more powerful and good degrees became important, this kind of freedom became a marketing opportunity to say, "This is what you need. Whatever else you have, you need to be desirable in order to be something." This airbrushing, it's mechanised, it's not real. We know that when women and girls look at these magazines they will afterwards express much more dissatisfaction with their bodies. But you can train them. You can say: "This is airbrushed." Just tell them. You don't have to legislate against airbrushing; you just have to educate them. And they do become less insecure, less dissatisfied when the airbrushing is identified.
RS: You've got to be very careful. It's not airbrushing. This is skeletal manipulation. Extension of legs, cutting out, removal of skin pores, changing of skin tone and texture, putting in cheeks. It's a complete makeover in the way you used to customise a car.
SO: My experience is that even with girls who are really conscious of this, unless their whole peer group gets up and fights against it, it seeps into them. And it's far more effective than one would wish. They are always searching to feel secure in their bodies. And they're not feeling secure because there's so much crap coming at them.
NU: I think that because of the internet and because there's so much information out there, a lot of young women can see an image and know that it's been retouched. Again, I think it's about educating girls to know that they don't actually look like this. And it's also about promoting a product or a brand, not necessarily trying to make you identify with this woman. I think it's just a fantasy like you would see in a painting by Picasso or Rembrandt or any of the others. It's a portrait of someone else's fantasy, what someone else deems beautiful.
SO: But how do you answer the fact that we don't see five thousand or eight thousand or ten thousand images of Picasso a week. We see the same image ten thousand times a week.
KK: But also I think they do believe it. If they didn't believe it that 20-year-old girl [Claudia Aderotimi, a student from London who died after being injected with silicone in the United States] wouldn't have had industrial silicone injected to get a bottom like J-Lo whose bottom doesn't even look like J-Lo's because that's all retouched. I think the images we're bombarded with are really dangerous. The stronger, the more positive, the more independent women are, the more negative, the weaker and more clone-like they appear in the media. And what upsets me is it's so damaging. When I was 16 or 17 my friend had her legs shortened. She had four inches off both legs. And she was out of proportion. She never walked properly again. And just after she had it done the supermodel became fashionable. So then it was fashionable to be tall. But it was too late. She'd had her legs shortened. And fashion changes with every generation. What we see as beautiful now will not be seen as beautiful in 10 years. I nearly had a breast reduction – thank God I didn't. Five years later everyone was having breast enlargements.
EJ: We may think that girls really believe in this stuff, these images, but actually we know from Heat magazine, from the Daily Mail website, that there's a whole new culture of loving to see the un-airbrushed pictures of Madonna looking her age. We do see pictures of them warts and all. So can we really argue that we still believe that these airbrushed pictures are real?
NU: Airbrushing, you know, it's like with any other trend. A couple of years ago it was all about retouching, excessive retouching. You know you had photographers for whom it was all about digitising the image. And then recently it's all been anti-retouching. You see loads of magazines who are against retouching. My magazine, for example, has been against retouching. We wanted photographers to not rely on the use of digital technology in order to create an image.
SO: I think that the relationship between Heat and the "having to be gorgeous" is denying the whole labour process that involves the art director, the lighting person, the hairdresser, the make-up person... I mean there's a battery of people who create the image.
EJ: Let's talk cosmetic surgery. We've all probably heard that famous Girl Guide survey of half of all secondary school girls thinking that they would consider cosmetic surgery. Given the huge number of women who would now consider having cosmetic surgery as it's become easier, quicker, less invasive, do we now accept that we've almost moved on from that debate?
TA: But the idea that it's non-invasive and not dangerous is a myth. And maybe it's in that context that they think they can do it. But you know it's defacing, it's distorting. And you know you look at people who have had it and on the whole they look awful. I mean, talk about erasing the self and self-expression, the activity, the expressiveness of the body! It's this mindset of the body as a project. That's as grotesque as the surgery in itself.
SO: I still think we train these doctors to do no harm. And I'd like them to be working. Some people are wounded or really ravaged by diseases, where they need reconstruction. Cosmetic surgeons need to be taken to task about this – I'd like them all to have to work in some other market for five years and maybe rethink their priorities.
EJ: How far do you think that access to pornography is the driving factor here? If you look at how things have changed in the last decade, one of the biggest cultural changes through the internet has been the ready access of porn. We now know that British teenage boys are consuming over an hour of porn a week. There seems to be evidence that this is having an effect on what's expected of young women's bodies. And we found this report from a couple of years ago that said there was a 70% rise in the number of women having labiaplasty on the NHS.
SO: It's really complicated because young men don't care. But something is now happening in which the girls think they need to be seen in that way for them to feel sexual inside of themselves... I am very troubled about the labiaplasty stuff with young women. It is very, very, very common that it is being promoted like breast enlargements as a kind of nothing. Is it re-infantilising those girls? They look pre-adolescent. It seems to be about taking away the whole aspect of womanhood and femininity.
TA: It's idealisation and standardisation. And if you can do it for eyes, if you can do it for breasts and legs and body size, you can do it for labia. It's the great disconnection. It's a way of de-womanising them and sexualising them. You get an enormous contradiction.
EJ: The LibDems have suggested a body confidence campaign, and an airbrushing "kite mark" was one of the things that was suggested. Do you think that would change much?
NU: No, not really. I think it really does depend on the product or whatever it is they're trying to promote. I'm not sure it's going to make much of a difference. It'd be nice for people to be informed, but I think they already probably know.
GH: Yeah, I do think most people are aware of retouching. But in some ways I think the prevalence of discussion about this issue is almost propagating it. Because to go back to the Heat thing, you have articles saying, "She's not looking so great," and, "It's all about stronger bodies," and, "Look at the celebrity – she's definitely working the fuller figure look." It's all just talking about women in terms of what they look like – whether they're old, young, short, tall, fat, thin.
SO: But wouldn't it be great if the fashion industry did routinely show people in clothes that they liked to be in doing their jobs, or going about life?
NU: I think they do. When a magazine runs a feature about an inspiring businesswomen and how she got where she is, they take a portrait of her that won't be massively manipulated. But normally the celebrity or the model is. They're showing her in a completely different way because they're having to promote a product, whereas if you're showing a career woman they want you to appreciate them from a different perspective. I think within the creative industry there's so much choice out there now. I think it's true that people aren't really buying magazines any more. Everyone's going online. And when you look at all the fashion publications online, all the bloggers are kind of showing fashion in a completely different way. They're not retouching. They're putting clothes on themselves as opposed to models. They're wanting their readers to identify the clothes in a much more sort of emotional way.
KK: It's refreshing. And the campaigns like Debenhams for Diversity and New Look's Inspire range. There are things happening that are really encouraging.
RS: Yes, but there are amazing things happening in a completely different way. Take fashion. It's meant to be leading us, but it's lost that. But women in the real world, people like Alivera Kiiza who represents the KNCU farmers' cooperation in Bukoba, northern Tanzania: she worked with us. Three months later she's at the G8 in Gleneagles presenting Café Direct Fair Trade to George Bush and Blair. And it was that stuff that was coming out of her, not the stuff she looked like. That's what it's about. There are women all over the world busting through male cultures. People really believing in themselves. And they're amazing, inspirational characters. But I think we need that back.