Debate: Putting lipstick on a skeleton?
The debate over the use of ultra-thin fashion models has spread to Britain, which is currently recovering from London Fashion Week. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of Culture in Tony Blair's Cabinet, has called for London designers to follow the example of Spain by banning underweight models. The British Fashion Council, led by Stuart Rose, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, has responded by saying it would not interfere with the designers’ aesthetic including which models they use. Public debate about the issue has revolved around the question of whether fashion shows are responsible for an unhealthy image of beauty and thus encourage eating disorders among women.
Unlike Maps, who likes synthetic beige trousers and still relies on his mother to buy his clothes, I know something about fashion. I've worked in the industry on and off for ten years, and been to a fair few shows in that time. I've seen girls whose bones stick out and look like they could snap: girls who are obviously unhealthy and probably suffering from an eating disorder. What message are we sending to young girls and women, who will try to emulate these ultra-thin models?
One memory that has always stuck in my mind concerns the model castings at Australian Fashion Week. At these events hundreds of models have about thirty seconds to make an impact on a group of designers who are picking models to show their latest collections. I remember how brutal some of the comments designers were making in front of these very thin, young and beautiful girls. "Lift up your top, I need to measure your waist, you may be too big,” “no, thighs are too fat,” “too short,’ “walks like a giraffe,” – you get the picture. These designers only saw the models as clotheshorses for their garments - they had no feeling for the models as people. Such comments only reinforced the idea that models and young women have to be stick-thin to get work and be perceived as beautiful.
Another worrying trend is that the models are getting younger - some are now pre-pubescent - and they are entering an industry that sexualizes models and also objectifies them. What does that do to the girls' self esteem and body image? It also portrays an unrealistic ‘girl’ body shape that real adult woman cannot achieve (but try to, when they see these thin images in fashion magazines and media).
Is this 'thin look' even attractive? The average woman is a size 14-16 so there isn’t even a large market for the clothes and lifestyle that the fashion shows are trying to portray. The 'thin look' is only perpetuating self-loathing behaviour in women as they try and get down to a thin size, instead of being happy with who they are. There are “plus” size models available, these are woman from size 12 – 18 who are still tall, toned and in proportion and beautiful (all the qualities important to modeling) but who do not worry if they aren’t ultra-thin.
Quick comment from Maps: I agree completely with the criticisms of the cult of starvation chic which the fashion industry seems to be hellbent on pursuing.
(And, faced with an industry so nasty that makes the neighbourhood P dealer seem like a social worker by comparison, is it any wonder that decent blokes like myself defer to their mothers, when it comes to clothes? Why is it shameful to wear beige trousers made in the 1980s, rather than the output of the sick minds whose wares were on display at the recent Auckland Fashion Week? Just thought I'd ask...)
I disagree with Skyler, though, if she thinks that the Bliar government can have anything to do with a solution to the madness of starvation chic. Jowell's proposal sounds like typical Third Way practice - instead of dealing with the underlying causes of a problem, the government wades in with some rhetoric and a few petty and ultimately unworkable restrictions (think ABSOs, or the new stickybeak programme which will monitor from birth the parents of poor children judged to be 'at risk' of becoming criminals here). The entire fashion industry has to be challenged, not just given a few restrictions, but of course Jowell has no interest in doing this. She merely wants to put lipstick on a skeleton.
What's needed is not this 'humanitarian intervention' in the fashion industry by Bliar and his team, but a revolution in the attitudes of women, and young women in particular, towards the industry and towards the whole notion of what a woman should look like. Such a revolution occurred in the 1960s and '70s, when women inspired by the first wave of feminism rejected a similarly oppressive set of standards. It's fashionable in some circle to denigrate 'hairy-legged feminists' today, but if you ask me hairy legs are sexier than jutting ribs. Hopefully the revival of left-wing politics amongst the young, evident in the anti-globalisation and more recently the anti-war movement, will lead to a revival of interest in alternatives to the hegemonic and profoundly unhealthy body image created by the fashion industry and its big business patrons. Until them I'm letting my mother buy my clothes...