The Irishwoman who made a film for ‘anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and felt they’re not good enough’
The Drogheda documentary maker in New York who is fighting ‘society’s dangerous beauty standards’
Jenny McQuaile, whose documentary Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image is out now on iTunes
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I left Ireland and moved to London about 14 years ago. I was a journalist with the Irish Mirror and I was hungry for a new challenge, so I asked to be moved to Daily Mirror HQ in London. A job had just opened up on the 3AM celebrity column and I jumped at the opportunity. I was in my early 20s and partying with celebrities seemed like a really fun job. I didn’t quite realise the expectations and exhaustion that would follow, but I loved every minute of my three years in London.
Did you study in Ireland?
I did a journalism degree in DCU and I have a second degree in documentary production from Brooklyn College in New York.
Tell us about your career now.
I transitioned from being a journalist to a documentary filmmaker about seven years ago when I moved to New York. After I left London, I spent four years backpacking around the world and I met so many incredible people with fascinating stories to tell. I realised I wanted to try and tell these stories visually, rather than with words on a page. I think the power of moving pictures is transformative. After some thought, I figured the best way to do this was through documentary film, so I applied to a bunch of colleges in the US to study doc filmmaking and I got into Brooklyn College and moved to NYC seven years ago this August.
I had to start at the bottom - fetching coffee and standing on street corners making sure passers-by didn’t walk through the shot
I started working on film and TV sets. I had to start at the bottom - fetching coffee and standing on street corners making sure passers-by didn’t walk through the shot if we were filming. It was not glamorous at all, but if you’re new to an industry you have to be willing to start somewhere. I was working on fiction film and my heart was really with documentaries and telling real stories about real people. I started developing my own documentary, Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image about five years ago. And after about a year I was able to leave fiction film behind and solely work on my own documentary, which was amazing.
What is Straight/Curve about?
It’s a film for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and felt like they’re not good enough. The documentary is about our body image crisis and the people fighting society’s unrealistic and dangerous beauty standards. Over 90 per cent of women and girls don’t feel represented by the imagery they’re seeing in the fashion industry and media and that imagery is making them feel “disgusting” and “less than”. This is just unacceptable to me and I wanted to do something about it. My film is a call to action to the fashion, advertising and media industries to do better for our next generation of girls and to start using women of all different shapes, sizes, ages, races, abilities etc in magazines, on runways, in advertising campaigns and on TV. We examine eating disorders, fat shaming, issues of size and health, photoshopping, social media and other personal body image struggles in the film and it’s available in Ireland now on iTunes.
Will changing the way women feel about themselves change things?
Absolutely. If women feel more empowered and self-confident, we are able to push ourselves further. We are able to excel, compete at the top level and smash those glass ceilings. If women or young girls are crippled by insecurities they are not excelling. I learned making my film that at age 13, some 53 per cent of girls are unhappy with their bodies and by age 17 this jumps to 78 per cent. We need to do better for our next generation .
It is so vital that we see women of all sizes, ages, races etc as gorgeous.
Tell us about the women you work with in the documentary.
Podcast with Jenny McQuaile: 'If you're not a size zero, you don't belong'
In Straight/Curve we created the imagery we should be seeing more of in the fashion industry and media. We feature women of all different sizes, colours and ages to offer an alternate reality.
They are still quite gorgeous though?
That’s the point! It is so vital that we see women of all sizes, ages, races etc as gorgeous. We need to be creating imagery that pushes the definition of beauty and what is “gorgeous”. Personally, I think seeing women who look a little more like me with cellulite and belly rolls and thigh dimples is gorgeous and if we had more ad campaigns, magazines and TV programmes showing women like this it would make us all feel represented.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
As well as making my own documentaries I work as an “Impact Producer” for other films. My job is to help people get their films and message out into the world and to create real impact and change. I’m currently developing a documentary series on masculinity. While screening my last film I kept being asked ‘what about the boys?’ And it’s important we don’t ignore the boys when taking about self-image as they struggle too! I am really interested to explore issues of masculinity in our current #MeToo moment.
Do you have an average day?
I work from home, which is a real luxury, and I set my own hours. I generally work from 9am to lunchtime and then I take a yoga class and go back to work for the afternoon. I love the flexibility as I believe it’s so important to have balance with work and to take care of my physical and mental health with yoga. When I’m in production on a film it’s insane, so I enjoy these in between times.
If you wanted to come and work in Ireland what are the opportunities like for your chosen career?
I’m not sure there’s a big enough doc film world in Ireland for me. My husband also works in film. He works in the camera department for big TV shows and movies. I don’t think we would both be guaranteed the same work we are in NYC.
Is being Irish useful in New York?
I think people love Irish people all over the world. I’m losing my accent though, so not many people actually realise I’m Irish over here.
What is it like living there?
I absolutely love living in New York. I sometimes have to pinch myself when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at night and I look back at the city skyline. It is magical. It can also be exhausting and living in Brooklyn provides that escape from the big city.
Is President Trump making a difference in New York?
The conversation around President Trump is way too large to have in this Q&A. He does not affect my day to day in New York per se as I’m lucky to live in a liberal city. But just reading the news and living in this country right now can take its toll on your heart and your head.
What advice would you give to someone interested in working in New York?
I think everyone should shoot for their dreams and if working in New York is a dream then go for it. This city is not for everyone, it can be very hectic and challenging, but if you’re up for the challenge and want to move up the ladder then I say give it a try. Creating a support system when you get here is vital, whatever that might look like for you. Having people who live near you (which is hard in these sprawling five boroughs of New York) is the key. And most importantly; integrate into New York life. Do the things that make New York one of the best cities in the world. Go to outdoor movies in Bryant Park, wander the length of Manhattan, go to an opera or ballet at Lincoln Center. And find things in your own neighbourhood that helps it feel like home for you. That will make working here so much easier.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
There are not actually, all of my friends and my husband are American - from all over the country.
Is New York expensive?
In a word. Yes! But it’s like any other big city, the standard of living is high, the cost of living is high, but the wages hopefully make up for it.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I miss my family and friends, of course. Not being there for big life moments is hard and those are the times I am really forced to look at my decision to emigrate, but the US is my home now and I plan to start my own family here. I also miss Tayto, real chocolate, baked beans, three-in-ones from the Chinese and chicken fillet rolls from Spar.
Straight/Curve: Redefining Body Image is out now on iTunes.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.