Outside, on a warm morning in March, students at the University of the West of England are shading their faces with textbooks, legs rippling in the sun. Inside, in a cramped, bright room lined with ring binders labelled "Intimacy", the women who make up the world's only Centre for Appearance Research (Car) are talking quietly about perfection. I arrived here after following a trail of newspaper reports - on the effect of airbrushing in the media, on men's growing anxiety about their weight - reports used variously by politicians and educators to highlight the way our world is collapsing. It's here, with their biscuits and gentle, resigned chatter, that a team led by Professor Nichola Rumsey and Dr Diana Harcourt is compiling the research required to understand how we deal with changing attitudes to appearance, and along the way helping answer the question: why do we hate the way we look?
Two years ago I started writing a column for this magazine, illustrated by a photo of my face. At times it made me feel odd (I have never liked photos), at other times sad, often anxious. It made me more aware that I don't like the way I look, but more, I don't like the fact that I don't like it. But it's not just me. All Car's research suggests that Britain's body image is in crisis.