Friday, December 10, 2010

Fashion, women and extreme thinness.

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's Photoshop of Horrors series.

Image from frockwriter


  1. Thanks lovely! Am super nervous about this one but I felt like it should be said... xx

  2. My issue isn't primarily with the way woman are protrayed (although, yes, I feel like a fat cow every time I open a fashion magazine; I studiously try to avoid them), but rather that clothes then seem to be designed around that model figure and scale up to larger sizes. So often I've found clothing that just won't fit because I have breasts and an arse.

  3. Blogspot ate my comment! In summary:

    Why, yes! Fashion magazines make me feel like a fat cow.

    (There was more to it, but I'm too lazy to re-type.)

  4. Ah! So it didn't. On another random note: Do you recall in art classes how we were taught about Greco-Roman body ideals (and by extension the Renaissance)? Heoric figures were protrayed as being at least eight heads tall when drawn or sculpted, and proportioned accordingly. Now, the same generally goes for heroes in graphic novels and the like. However, those figures are almost always (in the former) and usually (in the latter) male. Now, you study fashion drawing and the figures traditionally come in at nine or more heads tall, whether male or female. Slim models are then the closest match the proportions of the sketches.

    What I'd be curious to know is whether we created the modern ideal, or whether we're simply perpetuating (and exaggerating) an old myth about ideal proportions in a modern physical form? And considering how rounded many of the femakes in Greco-Roman art are, when did that ideal become so different? Was it when women started to fight for equal rights, and took on more traditonally 'masculine' qualities? A study of fashion trends would probably help, but I wonder at what point fashion drawing became like that, or was it always? I'm sure there's no direct relation, but it would certainly be interesting to see what a culture that originally had very different body ideals would come up with if asked to produce supermodel.

    P.S. Sorry about the spam.

  5. Thanks Rosie, Well written and real. It's interesting too, because most of the guys I find myself inevitably listening to, don't like skinny model types either. They all tend to prefer a fuller figured female form and yes that is often more crassly described, but it makes me wonder how the skinny model ideal has propagated. I and many other 'I-s' like women who look like woman.

  6. That's definitely not spam, M! If you had tried to sell me penis enlargement cream or to convince me that I too could earn $416 000 by simply clicking on a link, THAT would be spam. You raised some really interesting points- and what christos said underneath ties with your last point. Where does the ideal fashion body come from? It doesn't seem to reflect the normative Western desirable body type for women (if I may be allowed to generalise) and is often referred to by non-industry commenters as 'extreme' or in very emotive language- 'painfully thin' etc.
    I think there's a follow-up post waiting to happen on this question and I have some theories on this, most of which are informed by Karen de Perthuis' thesis which really is excellent. I wish it were published so I didn't have to pull marathon reading seshes in Rare Books every time I return to this issue.

    As for the clothes... I suspect that some designers deliberately tailor their line's sizing to exclude anyone who doesn't fit their brand's ideal customer profile. If you're too tall/short/not thin enough/don't have the right proportions- too bad., or so it seems. There are brands I won't go near because their clothes make me feel like a giantess. And don't even get me started on shopping for swimwear-! Despite my current comfort in my own skin (I freakin' love my body shape now!) I still can never find a bikini whose top is supportive and doesn't smack of maternity-wear and whose bottom is well-cut. And yet designers charge upwards of $200 for them even though there's more fabric in a t-shirt. (end rant.)