What makes young women spend thousands to transform their bodies? Burke takes a warts and all look at the ever more ugly beauty industry
Kathy Burke’s All Woman with Megan Barton-Hanson from Love Island. Photograph: Flicker Productions TV/Chanel 4
Kathy Burke, the actor and self-described “lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes”, investigating the concept of beauty in the new Channel 4 series Kathy Burke’s All Woman, is endlessly quotable. Not in a family newspaper, alas, but let’s just say that a number of summations issue forth that are refreshing and bracingly succinct. Her response to the reverential quotation of Lucian Freud by Sue Tilley, one of his most famous muses – “He used to say that libraries should be renamed beauty parlours because what you learned made you beautiful” – is worth the price of admission alone. It could be valuably deployed in response to much of what you hear artists, especially the extra-libidinous kind, say.
Not that Burke is a one-trick presenting pony. Although she has surely been chosen as a straight-talking outsider to the beauty industry and to the modern, Instagrammed pressures accreting around younger generations, it is her concerned “nana side” (as she puts it) that draws out the fears of the young people she interviews.
The picture they paint is not pretty. Megan Barton-Hanson talks through the £40,000 worth of procedures that turned her into the Love Island babe-standard we have come to know, over a picture of her as a lovely-looking pre-surgery girl. You either use filters and editing apps online, she explains, or you do it in real life. The targeted ads on social media for surgery effectively tell you so. It is perhaps why she didn’t expect the vilification she experienced from the public and the media when she appeared on the show for “daring” to transform her looks.
At the more quotidian end of the scale, Burke meets 20-year-old Laura, who is preparing for a boob job at a clinic that offers payment plans for those who cannot manage a lump sum. (I’m sorry about the pun. There was no choice. It was between this or “upfront”, you see.) “You can never sort of win on a level of confidence,” she says quietly, as she and Burke go through some social media posts on her phone. “You just want to be as perfect as possible, whatever it takes. [The operation is] a bit scary, but I think it’s going to make me happy.”
What if it doesn’t make her feel better, wonders Burke gently.
There is a pause. “I really can’t imagine what I’ll do,” says Laura.
You cannot help but want to mourn this sprawling loss. Never, perhaps, has there been a time when youth is more wasted on the young.
An interview with the 26-year-old rapper Nadia Rose, who seems to have more successfully resisted the external pressures of her generation and her industry, gives you back some hope, but still has tales of friends driven almost to suicide by their peers. “The world needs to change,” she says. “It feels very unbalanced right now. If you are a person – you’re beautiful. Done.”
It was a much-needed shot of cheer that highlighted the great weakness of Kathy Burke’s All Woman, which was the lack of any sense of the systemic nature of the problem. There was no real follow-through on any of the many points raised. Nothing was pushed: no dots were joined. Burke didn’t examine the inconsistency, for example, of Barton-Hanson’s claim: “My thing is, I don’t want young girls growing up with unrealistic images like I did,” in the midst of hours-long preparation involving dressers and hair and makeup artists for her appearance at the Pride of Britain awards. How had Rose managed to resist what her peers had not?
The problem with keeping to individual case studies is that you are hampered by not wanting – of course – to hurt anyone’s feelings or be seen to blame them personally. But somewhere, somehow you need to introduce a wider view – talk to someone about who and what is being served by keeping women uncertain about their looks, by defining beauty so narrowly and requiring its acquisition and maintenance to be such an effort. Why does beauty still have such power, and is still so lucrative? If, as Burke claims in passing, it is a knock-on effect of when beauty was the only currency women had, why does it still persist so strongly in the world of (we are told) increasing opportunity? Overall, while Burke herself was the tonic she always is, the show’s conflation of so many issues – and the scattershot approach to illuminating and answering them – was a frustratingly incoherent response to a world shown to be even uglier than we suspected.