Meet Clementine Prendergast, the brains behind the hands-on platform using chatbots and workshops to combat body image issues and build up young girls digital resilience
At only 25, Londoner Clementine Prendergast is at the forefront of a neoteric body neutrality movement, crusading for self-acceptance, body confidence and positive self-esteem amidst a negative body image climate. Last year, Prendergast set up her Fat Girl initiative – an online platform which explores body politics with the aim of helping girls who struggle with eating disorders and body image issues. “Having struggled with an eating disorder for the best part of a decade, I wanted to find a way to leverage learnings from my negative experiences in a humorous, accessible yet intelligible way,” says Prendergast. “In recent years there has been a lot of “consciousness raising” and awareness of eating disorders and mental health issues, which is totally brilliant, but sometimes distracts from actually doing anything about these issues.” Prendergast is currently developing materials for a series of school workshops with the aim of teaching young people, particularly girls, about digital resilience and body image, building on evidence-based research. She’s also working on developing a Fat Girl chatbot and exploring options combining CBT and other behavioural change techniques with analytics to create a therapy app which is targeted to body image and disordered eating.
Last month, Prendergast also launched the #FakeBodies campaign, to coincide with World Mental Health Day. “It asks the UK government to change the laws on Photoshopping following recent legislation passed in France and Israel,” she says. This would mean that all digitally manipulated images would have to declare that they have been altered with a warning marker. We caught up with Clementine to discuss her views on how technology is impacting the way we see beauty, the drive behind her campaign, as well as her aspirations on giving young women of today a healthier sense of self.
What’s the story behind Fat Girl?
Clementine Prendergast: The idea was to create something that would’ve appealed to my teenage self which was just as ‘cool’ and aspirational as the fashion magazines myself and many other teen girls (tragically) lusted after. Fat Girl is a community seeking to create positive social change.
What was the drive behind launching Fat Girl?
Clementine Prendergast: At a basic level, as I educated myself in recovery from my eating disorder, I realised that every woman I know has a complex and slightly unhealthy relationship to their body which channels itself through obsessive exercise (‘disciplining’ the body), strange diets and semi-religious practices around cleansing and fasting. I feel, culturally, we have a very strange relationship to bodies, we see them as simply physical vessels, we criminalise those that are larger and celebrate those that are thinner. However, the way we use and relate to our bodies is far more nuanced than this. In the ten years I’ve had an eating disorder, I have not been underweight nor overweight, in fact my weight has largely stayed the stay in a ‘healthy’ BMI range. Yet, I’ve spent this time obsessed with exercising, on every diet imaginable, abusing laxatives etc., I had a bizarre and alienating relationship to my own body which from the outside looked totally ‘healthy’. So, Fat Girl endeavours to encourage us to question some of the practices, attitudes and behaviours around bodies, food and beauty we have come to accept as normal. I feel we spend far too much time obsessing about thinness, spinning classes and how many carbs we have eaten when we could be spending that time reading, writing, having sex... living - activities which would bring us far more fulfilment, joy and purpose.
What are your feelings about beauty in the modern day?
Clementine Prendergast: I think much like our current political system, beauty in the modern day is increasingly polarised and rather confusing. On the one hand, there is, what I find to be, a slightly frightening tribe – the ‘Kardashianisation’ of beauty which is heavily constructed, homogeneous – reliant on surgeries, personal trainers, green juices and make-up to project an aesthetic which appears flawless without imperfection. On the other hand, there are the ‘positive’ subcultures, which some could say are just as extreme, the body positivity, skin positivity, the radical acceptance and celebration of fatness, of acne, of body hair – those communities rejecting the dominant Kardashian narrative and seeking to reclaim their marginalised selves.
In some ways, given the ferocity of many of the images we are sold in advertising, I think it is in some ways this acceptance of imperfect is just as unrealistic as the attainment of perfection.
Fashion is embracing ‘plus-size’ models, but it’s rare to see plus size faces in beauty, what are your thoughts on this? How can we change this?
Clementine Prendergast: If ‘plus size” means ‘larger than the average’, this is problematic because it begs the question of what is average? I think it would be preferable to think of beauty beyond labels and appreciate different aesthetics for their uniqueness. If the question is how do we get people to recognize ‘plus size beauty’ as beautiful it goes back to greater diversity in fashion/ advertising. If beauty is largely a cultural construct (I’m sure the evolutionary psychologists would disagree) and psychology teaches us social norms are the most powerful thing in changing attitudes, we just have to change the social norm. Vogue needs to put ‘plus size’ faces on their cover for us to start finding them beautiful.
There was a moment when talking about eating disorders was very topical, but that seems to somewhat have died down. We now talk about depression and anxiety or diversity. How can we stop these topics becoming subject to trend?
Clementine Prendergast: We can’t! Humans are incredibly impressionable, subject to herd mentality. Our behaviours follow our peers and this follows the ideas and images we are sold in advertising and society-at-large.
Further to this, social media has heightened the speed at which we have access to these innovations which means information travels between us quicker than ever before. There is a great irony in that while mental health and more socially inclusive issues are now on the cultural agenda, given the rise of these technologies the narratives around them are also constantly changing – meaning that we are left with a confusion as to whether having depression is the hot topic. I am being facetious, but I think it’s true.
While I don’t think we can stop these subjects becoming trends because its the nature of the beast, I do believe the more these subjects are normalised the more nuanced the conversation around mental health, eating disorders and body politics will become. What is fundamental though, is to keep having conversations and heterodox debates around these issues to try our best to understand them from as many perspectives as possible and from there work out what the best steps forward are.
Re your #FakeBodies campaign, how do you think advances in technology have impacted body image perceptions?
Clementine Prendergast: In her book Alone Together, psychoanalyst Sherry Turkle says technology distorts our understanding of connection and enables us to escape experiencing authenticity or a real sense of intimacy in our lives. “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities,” she writes. I think this is a really powerful statement which relates very closely to body image. Technology has allowed us to change and manipulate our bodies in whatever ways we want. While this is a wonderful thing for our sense of control I find it problematic from a purely aesthetic perspective because it can divorce us from many important psychological processes, the human vulnerabilities, our desire for love, connection, acceptance, validation, worth, purpose – all of the things we know contribute to positive body image.
Regarding the campaign, there is a growing body of research which is illuminating the effects of that strange phenomenon, social media, on body image and mental health (Guardian, JAMA, Children’s Society). Given the largely visual nature of these platforms, social media encourage us to become defined by our physical self - making us into our marketing machines. Research shows this is dangerous, particularly for young girls, who are more vulnerable to social comparison, than young boys.
While we cannot get rid of these digital enhancement tools, we can aim to reduce the effect of their impact on young girls. The campaign follows recent legislation passed in France and Israel which made it a legal requirement for photoshopped images to come with a written warning (like those common on cigarette packets) - calling out that images have been altered. Academic papers suggest these types of warnings could have a positive effect in helping people understand what is real and what is not.
Do you think there are any positive innovations at the intersection of beauty and technology right now?
Clementine Prendergast: Absolutely!! Disclaimer: I am a techno-optimist! I work in innovation by day and think technology is a wonderful thing in enlightening us! I think anything to do with personalisation is great - skin matching style apps. It might be a curveball answer but I believe beauty is more nuanced and technology can potentially give us the tools for greater introspection and understanding of ourselves as humans. With this, we are able to have a more 360 degree understanding and appreciation of what beauty means for us.
What measures can we take to mitigate the bad influences of the digital age on beauty ideals?
Clementine Prendergast: Well, sign the #FakeBodies petition and try to change the law on photoshopping to get us some clarity on what is real and what is not! But more seriously, I think I answer more with respect to mitigating the bad influences in the world. The effects of the digital age are probably no better or worse than previous eras, they simply manifest in different ways. It is about teaching young people critical thinking, mental resilience, emotional intelligence, introspection. Encouraging people to question what they see, encourage and teach them the set of tools to accept their minds, their bodies, their negative feelings and experiences as quickly as possible. We are never not going to have beauty standards – to be human is to desire beauty – we just have to be critical in the messages society feeds us and develop the resilience to all of the rubbish the world throws us!
What does the future of beauty look like to you?
Clementine Prendergast: I think social media is going to continue to encourage young people to self-objectify – I am interested to see the evolution of the ‘selfie’. I fear for the rise in surgeries and pseudo-science diets – the ability to transform our physical selves into any shape/ any aesthetic we want. While I think we will increasingly live in a hyper-real, hyper-happy, hyper-filtered world I also think we will see the rise of subcultures subverting and questions these norms (a la Dazed Beauty!).
What lies in the future for yourself and Fat Girl?
Clementine Prendergast: I am planning on self-publishing a book at some point in the new year exploring the practice of embodiment – how we ingest and project and understand our emotional selves through our own bodies, with a particular emphasis in exploring this in the digital age. I am also going to start teaching body image and digital resilience workshops in schools to help young people to prepare for a life lived online and continue planning on how to develop the Fat Girl chatbot and turn it into a more sophisticated piece of technology which can be used as a therapy tool specifically targeted to those struggling with body image and eating disorder issues. Then when I get to about 50, I will train to be a therapist.