There are very few women who have never thought of dieting or actually gone through with it. That’s because our rolemodels, the girls in beauty magazines and those posing with the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage don’t seem to have a problem fitting into size zero jeans or top.
But are the times a-changin’ ? STORY BY RENA SMITH
Mark Fast’s decision to use 3 ‘plus size’ models in his show of 20 this season was unprecedented. Not only because it showed that curvy girls can do fashion and body on at that. More, because never before had a designer so openly and constructively challenged the currently upheld fashion statute stating size zero equals size beautiful. And he didn’t even have them wear bras. The sight of size 12 model Hayley Morley striding down the catwalk was both a breath of fresh air and a slap in the face for editors, stylists and the like, who have long been ignoring the smell of vomit wafting from gaunt girls in studios and backstage dressing rooms.
Fashion “is about illusions and dreams”. So spoke Karl Lagerfeld, arguing perhaps that as fashion is an art like any other, we need to think of a model’s body as a canvas to materialise the workings of a creative mind. But does fashion really exist in such a vacuum? Top models are literally shrinking before our eyes as beauty is pushed to ludicrous extremes we not only accept as normal, but often strive to defend.
Against a backdrop of Third World famine, cases like that of Ana Carolina Reston in 2006, of international supermodels starving themselves to death, are both shocking and surreal. In two new Ralph Lauren adverts, models were airbrushed so much that their pelvises appeared smaller than their heads. Perhaps illusion and fantasy work when designers pen cartoons on the drawing board, but the models who are asked to embody that are real people. The girl in the advert may be a fantasy for some, but she she should not represent what is healthy or attractive. Disordered eating has become the norm for almost all young women, constantly counting calories and following diet after diet. Further down the line, the number of patients suffering from anorexia admitted to NHS hospitals has risen by a startling 80% in the past decade, with most being only 15 years of age.
It is widely accepted that it is easier for fashion designers to design for thinner bodies, because whatever exposes flesh is more difficult to pull off for bigger girls. To thwart this would hinder the creative process, but curves also possess design potential according to Fast; “the way I work is organic and on the body. With the curvier girls, I was able to make clothes specifically for them.” Fast also worked on the LFW exhibition All Walks Beyond The Catwalk. Rather than working in abstract from drawing boards, designers created pieces for designated models of sizes 8 – 18. The results were no less imaginative than a size zero show; in standardizing tiny frames, designers are just as hindered as if they were limited to size 12, suggesting industry change could be positive and lasting.
Mark Fast may have done something unprecedented, but he is certainly not alone; in June, British Vogue Editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman called for an end to “miniscule” sample sizes being sent by designers for photo-shoots. It highlights how deeply set the problem is; Shulman said that we are now at a point where many of the
sample sizes don’t comfortably fit even the established star models. American Elle and German Brigitte are both making concrete moves to show more representative models in their publications too.
The answer may not be simply to throw bigger girls into the limelight; the University of Chicago’s Journal of Consumer Research produced an interesting study that showed that the majority of women respond more positively to seeing thinner models than heavier ones, either because they do not see themselves as similar to bigger girls or, when overweight themselves, they feel much too similar. As the campaign for normality on the catwalk kicks off, the body fascism of the past decades has evidently had a real impact; we are simply turned off by the kinds of figures we ourselves probably have, as too do our friends, colleagues, sisters and mothers, wanting instead to escape in fantasy and illusion.
The tiny frame of the top model has achieved almost a mythical status; Finnish top model and Glasgow University student Charlotta Poppius argues anorexic models are really only a minority; “in my experience most models are just naturally thin… People have different genes and different body types and accept yourself as you are naturally, whether that is curvy, chunky or thin.” While the sentiment is undoubtedly gallant, the curvy and the chunky are obviously far less visible on catwalks and billboards than the thin. And it seems an standardised image of the modelling industry that success means some degree of starvation; perhaps, if what Charlotta says is true, a democratization of the industry needs as much emphasis on just how natural being thin is as it does on how beautiful it is to be “chunky”.
In a highly traditional and elitist industry, size zero is also a question of status; Karl Lagerfeld sparked outrage and delight alike when he declared, “these are fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly.” A size zero frame represents membership to a tiny class of people who have won the genetic lottery ticket in life, while Victoria Beckham has famously gotten thinner as she has gotten richer. Charlotta Poppius sums it up, “the definition of high fashion is that is exclusive, rare and desirable. And there is nothing wrong with that. Let high fashion be high fashion.” It would seem the idea of fashion opening its doors to bigger body types is a problem, not with bigger bodies, but with the doors opening at all.
Where do the illusions stop and delusions start? Fashion has oft revelled in the shock factor and pushing things to the extreme; the girls in Vogue and the like are almost sculptural in their honed, toned beauty. It is escapism from the reality of nationwide obesity if ever there was one, but we are bordering dangerously on a Jekyll and Hyde mentality. Anorexia should never be reduced to a problem of simple vanity; it is a complex mental disorder compounding issues such as a need for control and the desire to feel better than the rest. When Kate Moss tells us that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, though, the lines begin to blur between beauty and starvation. The fashion industry may be in the firing line but it is really the tip of the iceberg, with society at large having a lot to answer for too in what our notions of beauty really are and the way it affects how see ourselves and each other.