The battle against the reigning thin ideal: Can politicians, celebrities, media and the fashion industry beat decades of brainwashing?
It is not supermodel Kate Moss’s fault Naomi (not her real name) developed an eating disorder. But photographs of the ubiquitous British fashion icon certainly did not help. Neither for that matter do the countless other images of waif-thin models Naomi is inundated with repeatedly thanks to the fashion industry, beauty magazines, television, the Internet and advertisements. “I hate to admit it because I know I’m a smart, critical and curious girl with a hell of a lot going for me besides my looks, but I do look at models and judge myself against them; I’m not tall enough, my legs are stumpy, yes my waist is small, but it’s round and not flat.” lamented the 22-year-old.
Naomi is a senior honours student majoring in feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and understands there is a degree of digital “artistry” applied to most professional photographs. Weighing approximately 105 pounds – 107, if you add the mound of uncontrollable blonde spirals atop her head – and measuring 5 feet 4 inches, Naomi is not what you’d describe as fat &- far from it. The Montreal native has a body mass index of 18 (the World Health Organization deems BMIs between 18.5- 24.9 normal). Nevertheless, Naomi has been struggling with medically diagnosed anorexia for years, citing perfectionism and stress amongst a plethora of other reasons. She refuses to blame the media and fashion industry entirely, but says the idealistic body images surrounding her become yet another unattainable standard to strive for in her debilitating quest for perfection. “They give statistics like less than two per cent of American women look the way models do, but that’s precisely the wrong thing to say to a perfectionist, because they’ll just say “less than two per cent look like that?’ Well I’m damn well going to be in that top two per cent if it’s something difficult and ideal to work towards.”
According to findings by the Douglas Mental Health Institute, an affiliate of McGill University, 70 per cent of Canadian women are on a diet, and in Quebec alone, three per cent of females ages 13 to 30 have an eating disorder. This number can triple if we take into account the partial forms of these disorders that have a huge impact on people. In the States, 10 million women have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia based on statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association.
Like Naomi, Dr. Howard Steiger, chief of the eating disorders program at the Douglas, won’t hold the media and fashion industry fully accountable for eating disorders, but acknowledged their significant role during a Nov. 17 lecture called “The “Skinny’ on Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa: What’s new in Eating Disorders?” He explained eating disorders are caused by various neurobiological, developmental and genetic factors, but the one thing that sets off those factors is a social environment that causes individuals to diet. ” You cannot develop an eating disorder unless you diet,” said Steiger.
Coming off of a summer living and working in global fashion capital and media mecca &- Manhattan, Naomi says she’s fed up with visuals of identical size zero models who make her ongoing battle with food that much tougher. Despite spending three months in 2007 undergoing day treatment at the Douglas, the effervescent blonde admits that in New York, she couldn’t help but feel “like a dwarfed little girl admiring and idealizing these unrealistic women.” Naomi is ready for a change &- and she’s not alone. Certain members of the media, fashion industry, politicians, celebrities and models have taken major steps recently to fight the reigning one-dimensional beauty ideal propagated by the media and fashion industry. But can these and other initiatives realistically change our perceptions?
On Oct. 16, Dr. Steiger, along with Quebec Minister of Culture Communications and the Status of Women Christine St-Pierre and journalist Esther BÃ©gin, released the Quebec Charter for a Healthy and Realistic Body Image &- the first of its kind in North America. Created in collaboration with over 30 experts, the voluntary charter lays out seven articles urging the media and fashion industry to actively promote diversity, endorse healthy eating habits and act as agents of change by encouraging others to get involved in the fight against extreme thinness. “Using this brand new charter, whose goal is to reduce social pressures that encourage body dissatisfaction, I hope that we can create a society that sees variations in body shapes as normal,” said Steiger in a press release regarding the charter.
In September, American women’s magazine Glamour, made international headlines for featuring a photograph of a near-naked plus size model in an issue. With her natural belly roll, and size 12-14 figure, 21-year-old Lizzie Miller is the same size as the average North American woman. The overwhelming response generated by the photo prompted the magazine to devote a two-page spread to seven plus-size models in its November issue. Editor-in-chief, Cindi Leive, announced the magazine’s long-term commitment to having a wider range of body types in future issues. “In the real world, women of all body types … have sex appeal, full, fabulous lives, and men drooling all over them. Our pages should tell the same … diverse story,” she wrote. While not quite as impressive as November, the January issue has a spread dedicated to curvaceous socialite Kim Kardashian, and another featuring coat styles for plus-size women.
Meanwhile, Project Runway Canada winner, Sunny Fong, proved fashion isn’t exclusive by employing size two and size 14 models while presenting his Spring/Summer ’10 clothing collection during Toronto Fashion Week. At London Fashion Week, designers Mark Fast and Joanna Sykes also made a point of using a range of models. Celebrities like Kate Winslet, Jessica Simpson and Scarlett Johansson have taken a stance by publicly denouncing our culture’s obsession with perfection. Top grossing plus-size model Crystal Renn recently published Hungry, a memoir about her struggles as an anorexic model, and her eventual realization you don’t have to fight your curves to be successful.
In France, 50 politicians announced in September they want a law forcing members of the media to publish a health warning alongside airbrushed images. Campaigning MP ValÃ©rie Boyer, from President Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party, said the warning should read: “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance.” Boyer previously wrote a report on anorexia and told the Telegraph: “many young people, particularly girls, do not know the difference between the virtual and reality, and can develop complexes from a very young age.” It remains to be seen whether the legislation will be passed.
Some say the ball got rolling in Madrid in September 2006, when the regional government banned models from participating in Madrid Fashion Week if their BMI was below 18. “Fashion is a mirror and many teenagers imitate what they see on the catwalk,” regional official Concha Guerra told Reuters. Italy followed suite, and went a step further in 2007 during Milan Fashion Week. Across the country, there were billboards featuring a skeletal 70-pound Isabelle Caro. The French model was battling anorexia at the time.
The question is why now?
From the ultra voluptuous Venus of Willendorf circa 25,000 B.C to Marilyn Monroe’s curves in the 40s and 50s, to 60s icon tiny Twiggy, athletic Christie Brinkley and lately, the waifish Kate Moss &- society’s definition of the ideal body has evolved over time. It’s also become increasingly unattainable.
Earlier this year, Canadian entrepreneur, and PhD student Ben Barry co-authored a study in conjunction with the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School looking at how women in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom respond to advertising. Over 3,000 women were questioned and the survey indicated women are more likely to buy a fashion product if the model directly resembles them. “I think over the past ten years women have been bombarded with one ideal of beauty,” said Barry. “While she wants to participate in a fashion environment, she’s also aware that she’ll never look like the one beauty ideal that’s presented to her. The consumer has become quite savvy and skeptical of the fantasy of fashion.”
Concordia University marketing professor Jordan Le Bel, specializes in consumer psychology, and gave a possible explanation for this recent shift in women’s mindsets. “If you hit consumers over the head too often with things they don’t want to see, they’re going to put up shutters,” he said. “The use of skinny models is such that with rising rates of obesity, a consumer who doesn’t fit that model, might block it because the discrepancy is so big it reminds [them] that [they] haven’t been eating healthy or that [they] should go on a diet.”
Roadblock # 1: Discriminating Designers
In 2004, Karl Lagerfeld’s collection for H&M sold out within hours of its arrival. Despite its success, the infamous Chanel designer said he was insulted by the company’s decision to sell the clothing in larger sizes. “What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people,” said Lagerfeld who vowed never to work with the chain again.
Unfortunately, Lagerfeld is joined by many brand-name designers who fear the beauty of their fashions will be compromised if worn by a “larger” consumer. “There remains a deep stigma against going plus-size in the high-end fashion market,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry analysis for the market research firm NPD told Glamour.
In short, until the majority of high-end designers start manufacturing sizes to fit the average North American woman, any all-encompassing beauty message will be lost. “It’s a huge problem because these brands are ignoring over 50 per cent of the population,” said Barry, who, aside from working towards a PhD, is the owner of a Toronto modeling agency dedicated to representing diverse models.
Moreover, even if more designers begin making clothing in sizes 12 and up, it’s unlikely the public will get to see them modeled by plus-size girls in magazines and advertisements. The reason being magazines relay on sample sizes in order to showcase clothing that won’t hit stores before the issue reachesnewsstands. And a sample size is typically a two or four &- not a 12.
All this to say, magazines like Glamour will have trouble practicing what they preach until designers make some adjustments. According to The Times, the dire situation forced British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, to pen a letter to designers in June. “We have now reached the point where many of the sample sizes don’t fit comfortably on the established star models,” she wrote in her memo.
Roadblock #2: Living a Fantasy
Over the last few decades, advertising empires have made their fortunes by essentially selling fantasy to consumers. “The industry is operated based on this idea of selling unattainable aspiration,” explained Barry. “You present an image that no one looks like, in the hope that by buying the product you can actually transform yourself into that image. But you won’t, and demand is stimulated by insecurity.”
Yet there are those who argue featuring plus-size models will ruin the fantasy aspect the industry relies so heavily on. “I don’t know if consumers will buy more if they see people who look like themselves,” said Hakkyun Kim, a Concordia marketing professor specializing in consumer behavior, branding, and decision-making. Kim argues the reason people buy certain items is because the company’s brand image appeals to them. If a fashion house like Louis Vuitton or Chanel were to use average models, Kim says it would go against the label’s association with exclusivity and may lead to a drop in sales.
But Barry isn’t buying it. “Unattainable aspiration is an old way of thinking,” he said. “There’s a way of promoting a positive and healthy image of your consumer and still make money.” For Barry, the key is to apply the same level of artistry to images of “normal” size women as the industry does with thin models. “You can sell an image that actually reflects the consumer, but it’s still an aspirational image &- it’s a fantasy you can achieve.”
As for whether publishing health warnings next to airbrushed photographs will kill the fantasy, marketing professor, Le Bel, says it’s likely. “There are a lot of people who live in an advertising world. They’ll cut out ads, put them in their locker and fantasize about owning whatever it is. Would they do this if the model depicted looked like them? &- I don’t think so.”
Roadblock #3: Overlooking Obesity
While most people applauded the Glamour photograph of Lizzie Miller, there were some who took issue with it given the staggering rates of obesity (1 billion adults are obese according to the WHO). “We have enough problems with obesity in the U.S. and don’t need your magazine promoting any more of it. Shame on Glamour for thinking this was sexy!” wrote one reader. The magazine responded by writing, “at 5 feet 11 inches, and 180 pounds, Miller, who exercises and eats a balanced diet is just slightly overweight based on her BMI.”
Le Bel, who is also an expert in food and obesity marketing, says the issue is still unchartered territory and not enough research has been done on the link between plus-size models and obesity. However, he predicts changing certain social norms, including the types of models used in advertising will signal obesity is acceptable, and may mean it becomes a common occurrence. To clarify, he’s all for replacing models with jutting bones for a healthy alternative, but cautions against using plus-size models in some cases. “For example, in a country like Australia, the average person is overweight, therefore if you keep moving where the average is, there are potentially some negative consequences,” he said.
Bare in mind, however, plus-size models today aren’t particularly “plus.” We rarely see plus-size models over a size 12-14, the size of the average woman. Dr. Steiger, didn’t seem too concerned about this, saying so long as we maintain a balanced lifestyle, our bodies will find their natural weight, and being a size 12-14 is better than developing a complex. In fact, the problem lays in the term “plus-size,” which carries a negative connotation and ought to be changed to “normal size,” suggested Barry.
Where do we realistically stand?
While it’s hard to deny our society is making strides in attempting to shift our ideas about body image, it would be naÃ¯ve to say the goal has been met. “It’s a new idea and new ideas take time, but change is starting to happen,” said Barry.
Conversely, Kim, maintains it’s harder than we think to change society’s perceptions. “We know why we see those kinds of initiatives &- it’s more about health than beauty,” said Kim. “Even if we are told what healthy standards are, it won’t change what we believe to be attractive.”
Does this mean we have to do away with thin models? “If you don’t put size two models, you’re ignoring all the women who are a size two,” said Barry. “You cannot be inclusive by being exclusive.” If your target market is women size 2-14, Barry says from a business perspective it’s imperative to represent the diversity of your consumer in ad campaigns. “It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity.” In addition, he says consumers have more power than they realize, and it’s in their hands to support the brands that represent them in an authentic way, and to make their voices known to those that don’t.
According to Le Bel, we’re still in the “theory” phase. He makes a connection to healthy eating, saying while surveys indicate people want to eliminate junk food from their diet, junk-food sales remain high. The same can be applied to people who say they will not support brands or magazines that employ skinny models. The marketing professor thinks real change happens when policy makers join forces with industry leaders to implement laws. Right now, however, there’s not enough agreement. “You want at least a consolidated show of faith and a consistent message being sent to the consumer saying we as an industry think this is a big issue and we can’t solve it all, but it’s important enough that we’re going to try.”
Naomi is a big advocate of making tangible changes, recounting how during her treatment at the Douglas, she was told that while you can talk to your therapist all you want, sometimes you need to do the concrete action like eating a plate of pasta. She applauds efforts like setting a base BMI for models because it gives you something to work from &- “it’s a positive place to start,” she said. “At minimum, I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling the same way I did, and if these endeavors will start that journey &- I’m all for it.”
By the numbers
70 per cent of Canadian women are on a diet
10 million women in the United States and 1 million men suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
3 per cent of Quebec women ages 13 to 30 have an eating disorder (This number can triple if we take into account the partial forms of these disorders that have a huge impact on people)
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illnes
The World Health Organization deems a Body Mass Index of 18.5-24 as normal. In 2006, the regional government in Madrid banned models from participating in Madrid Fashion Week if their BMI was below 18 i.e. slightly below normal.