The other day, a dear friend said to me that she couldn't do what I do (keep this blog) because she couldn't bear to be confronted each day with images of models- she was referring to their extreme thinness and the feelings of inadequacy they conjure in her. This from a tall, beautiful, accomplished, clever, warm woman. It made me deeply sad, the way I always feel when I learn of friends struggling to feel acceptable and lovely as they are in the face of fashion imagery. I am not writing this from a distance, as if I have never felt loathing for my own appearance- of course I have, and I am yet to meet a girl or woman who hasn't felt that way at some time or still feels that way about herself.
As a teenager, my friends and I would pore over surfbrand catalogues in the summer. It was a love/hate exercise for me because I would be drawn to the beauty of the shoots and the possibilities of the swimwear, and yet I would feel a familiar ache as my eyes fell on the space between the models' legs, their flat stomachs, their slim arms. I couldn't look at the images without seeing myself as well- namely, the vast distance between the models' bodies and my own. I remember flushing hot with shame in the changeroom of my local sufshop as I tried on a bikini by Tigerlily and saw my reflection in the mirror while at the same time, seeing the image of the same bikini in the catalogue in my mind's eye. I felt preposterous.
I think being creative with how I dressed was sometimes my armour, actually. I could shield my 'gross' body or at least my discomfort in my own skin behind something beautiful or strange and thus divert attention away from my actual person. Susie Bubble has written about her similar experience here, though she talks more of beauty than shape, but perhaps they're just two sides to the same coin.
So where am I going with this long personal divulge? In a few directions, I think. One is to declare solidarity with any readers who see fashion images like I did, through a lens of a simultaneous desire to embody that picture of beauty and despair at the impossibility of attaining such an embodiment. I also want to apologise most heartfeltly to any readers who have ever felt grieved because of any images I have posted here. I don't believe that you have to be thin to be beautiful- far from it!- and I certainly don't want this blog to be complicit in transmitting the message that you do.
I also want to debunk the myth a bit, if you will allow:
Part of what helped to transform how I felt about myself was volunteering at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week for one of my Honours theses in 2007. I was doing fieldwork there, analysing the event using McAloon's theory on spectacle, which involved ushering, doing errands, setting up and clearing up after shows, and dressing models. Funnily enough, I remember standing backstage and feeling a wave of relief. The average age of the models was about 16 and they towered over me. They were incredibly thin, yes, but they were also really young and they looked it. Off the catwalk, they acted like any bunch of sixteen year olds that you might see at the bus stop after school. Away from the cool, collected personae they embody on the catwalk, and surrounded by non-models, they looked anomalous and I realised for the first time that these girls actually are unusual. You can hear it a hundred times but if theirs is consistently the image of beauty that you encounter then it doesn't ring true. Seeing it for myself, though, I suddenly realised how few women look like them and it was a huge relief- I could give up because it was never going to happen! Even if I starved myself to the edge of existence, I could never make myself taller, I could never alter my DNA so that I was indefinitely prepubescent. But I could give myself a break, and start to see myself as I am not how I "should" be which is a load of rubbish. I could forgive myself for looking different to them because I was different to them and I didn't have to look like them. It confirmed for me that my body is not wrong, it's just different.
What is wrong is the message presented to women that they must embody one body type to be considered beautiful. That's a lie. It's a powerful lie though, a coersive one that is oppressive for an untold number of women. It's reprehensible that the fashion industry can claim to 'celebrate womanly bodies' (see the recent chorus of praise for curves on the A/W catwalks, notably at Louis Vuitton) and then quietly continue to present, uncritiqued, extreme thinness in their editorials.
Not that high fashion has ever been about attainability, mind you- that's part of the prestige, right? It goes hand in hand with extremely expensive items that the majority of people cannot afford. Yet there is not enough critical discourse educating people about exactly how unrealistic the images published are, and promoting ways of seeing that do not impact so negatively on womens' self-perception.
We need to keep challenging the picture of beauty that is presented to women and to get real about counteracting the negative effects it has on our self-perception. What we seem to have at the moment are either token 'real women!' shoots in mid-range fashion magazines which don't engage with the problem so much as create a new one- are the bodies of really thin women not real?- or horror stories about the deaths of models or statistics about eating disorders, as if the extremely tragic cases are the only ones we need to consider. What about the millions of women are also adversely affected by fashion imagery? Those who record what they eat every day, or who have days where they can't leave the house because of the shame they feel about their appearance, or who believe, as I did for a long time, that there is something physiologically wrong with their bodies because they don't look how they are "supposed" to?
For those interested in doing further reading on this, I recommend a few titles:
-Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth
-Karen de Perthuis' (brilliant) PhD thesis Dying to be born again: mortality, immortality and the fashion model (*Unfortunately, I don't think this has been published but it's in the Rare Books section of Sydney University's library)-and, for a laugh at the absurdity of what we are being sold, a flick through Jezebel.com's Photoshop of Horrors series.
Image from frockwriter