Monday, February 22, 2010

One Size Fits All?

I decided to write an entry about my thoughts on the fashion industry's use of thin models. It is a topic that I think is misunderstood and I wanted to share my viewpoint on the matter.

Recently, the fashion industry has yet again been put under the spotlight for perpetuating an ideal of beauty with the adage that thinner is always better. There have been health concerns raised about anorexia becoming rampant in the modeling industry especially after Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian model, died from anorexia in 2006. Ana was certainly not the only anorexia victim and many women, not just models, suffer from the terrible disease. So, is the fashion industry to blame? Is society to blame? And what does that really mean, anyway?

There are several sides to this conflict and the debate goes something like this. There are those in the fashion industry that defend the use of thin models. One such example is the head designer of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, who famously said that the fashion world was all to do "with dreams and illusions and no one wants to see round women." Then there are those like London designer Mark Fast who are encouraging a shift in the industry from stick-thin women, to curvier, voluptuous women. In both his Spring and Fall 2010 collections, Mark used plus-sized models in his runway shows, which caused quite the stir. Yes, the women were beautiful, but the question remains, do they belong on the runway?

Crystal Renn in the Mark Fast Fall 2010 show

Here is where I stand on the issue. Modeling is like any other profession where the body is a critical component of your performance. A football player needs to be massive to be able to push other people around. A model needs to be thin to be able to properly display clothing. Have you ever sat down and thought about it? What is a model's job? Is it to be pretty and represent the ideal for beauty? No, it's to be nothing more than a human hanger. Models needs to be blank canvases on which the clothing is painted on. Curves are distracting. The designer doesn't want you looking at the model's curves instead of the garment they produced. Also, it is important to note how the fabric lays on different body types. The more three-dimensional a body is, the more difficult it is to see the garment properly. When designers make a collection, they make them in a "sample size" which is typically a size 0 or 2. The idea is to save fabric. When working with expensive fabrics, especially in couture clothing, it is more economical to use less. In the end, fashion is a business and unfortunately, money drives all industries. Magazines will keep putting thin models in their pages and designers will continue to send thin girls down the runway, as long as that is what makes them more money.

The most important point to make is that this has nothing to do with beauty. I don't think beauty comes in one size. In fact, personally, I think curves are beautiful. Plus-sized models are generally very beautiful girls. Last year, V magazine had a photo spread that had plus-sized model Crystal Renn modeling the same clothing as a typical thin model and had their photos side by side for comparison. The point they were trying to make was that both of these models look great in the clothes. I don't disagree with them. Yes, they both look great. The thin model doesn't out-model Crystal. But then why stop at just thin vs. thick? Even plus-sized models have flawless faces with perfectly sculpted features and blemish-free skin. Should the industry "embrace the normal girl" and start hiring models with crooked teeth, bad complexions and droopy eyelids?

Also, alluding back to Lagerfeld assertion that the fashion world was all to do "with dreams and illusions", it's imperative to make the distinction between the runway and the real world. The majority of us do not wear couture clothing. Designer clothing, runway shows, magazine ads; these are not representations of the world we live in. They are extensions of a fantasy world created by the minds of Galliano, Armani and Jacobs. Kelly Cutrone, a prominent fashion show producer, said that "Women shouldn't be comparing themselves with these girls. These girls are anomalies of nature. They are freaks of nature. They are not average. They are naturally thin and have incredibly long legs compared to the rest of their body. Their eyes are wide set apart. Their cheekbones high." In essence, they are part of the fantasy world. They are part of the massive performance piece that is a runway show.

Instead of attacking the fashion industry, the media, or "society" for perpetuating negative body images, remember that fashion is inherently an art form. If designers choose to have their art displayed on an unconventional canvas, that is their choice. But if the majority of designers want to use the same standard type of canvas, they shouldn't be chastised for it either. I personally think clothes look better on the runway on thin models. Although I am well aware that body image disorders are running rampant in young men and women in our society, changing the sample size of garments used in a fashion show to a size 10 is not going to solve any problems. Yes, it is important that the models remain healthy, and I absolutely believe that that is something that should be regularly monitored by their agency. But, ultimately, I think it is ridiculous to point fingers and to demand a reform of a $100 million dollar industry that is based on artistic design and personal taste.


  1. Great post. I completely agree with you on this. There is a really good documentary called "America the Beautiful." It has a more general viewpoint on beauty, not entirely on fashion, but raises some valid points about media, beauty, and the American mentality.

    Check it out

  2. I've seen the documentary and my favorite quote from the film was "Stop fixing your body, it was never broken." What I found particularly fascinating was the story of that tribe that didn't have access to television started developing eating disorders only after they started watching tv. I think Kelly Cutrone put it best when she said that models are freaks of nature and we shouldn't expect to look like them.

  3. I respectfully disagree with your position regarding model sizes and "the distinction between the runway and the real world." In fact, I find a lot of problematic language here.

    Historically, fashion trends have embraced many body types. You say fashion is an art form. Art forms tend to evolve. Furthermore, if fashion is an art form, why must every "canvas" be the same? No other art form has such strict requirements regarding what kind of surface, receptacle, or medium is worthy--I think it is a very poor art form that cannot be appreciated on anything but a size 0 woman.

    You say, "curves are distracting." If that is the case, why is there even an industry for female fashion models? Why not just use twelve year old boys and leave it at that! Most women have curves--this is a completely natural part of our biology. Like it or not, high fashion does trickle down into "normal" stores. Designers that only know how to create clothing for women who lack--either due to their genetics or, as is generally the case, an eating disorder or drug addiction--natural curves harms all women. To say that it is perfectly normal and even desirable for fashion designers to design clothing for women who fit a very narrow window in terms of height and size, and THEN to say that women must turn about and learn to distinguish the runway from reality is completely preposterous. Do you read magazines? Do you look at billboards? Do you watch television, movies? Do you consume ANY form of media? How can you say that the standards of the fashion (and entertainment) industry do not force themselves into the lives of women?

    Eating disorders are on the rise, as is fat-phobia. Almost every woman today is suffering or knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder, and we all know countless more who speak negatively about their bodies. In fact, in my experience, it is NECESSARY to speak in degrading terms about my body in order to fit in. You really think this has nothing whatever to do with the standards that have been proliferated by current fashion? The average American woman is a size 14, and yet most "straight" stores do not make clothing above a size 12-16. Why is this? The standards of fashion DO have an effect.

    You also say that the fashion industry is about personal taste. So--does every single fashion designer come to the conclusion that size 0 models are best? Are designers some kind of hive-mind? I have read many articles regarding designers who try to incorporate plus-sized models, only to face backlash and prejudice. I do not buy for one second your contention that fashion and women's self-esteem reside in spheres so different that they do not impact one another.

    As long as women are sold the idea that thin--at whatever cost--is glamorous, we will continue to spend billions pursuing it. There is a reason why "fat" is such a devastating insult to so many women: it is because "fat" does not refer only to a body type, but to so many other things: unworthiness, unattractiveness, laziness, poverty... and a myriad other things. We must ask ourselves why this is such a loaded term. We must ask ourselves why extreme thinness is viewed by so many women as the elusive ring that will solve life's problems and make us worthy of love, glamorous, and beautiful.

    Perhaps the fashion industry is not completely to blame, but it is a major part of the problem. And frankly, I for one would be overjoyed to see plus-sized models in ad campaigns. Why not? Art is subjective.

  4. Thanks for your comment.

    In regards to the "curves are distracting" issue, I think it's important to make a distinction between runway models and print models. These days, runway models have a very specific body type that designers prefer to use. They are tall (none are shorter than 5'10) and they are generally thinner than even print models. Print models don't necessarily have to be as tall (Kate Moss is 5'7 and has had many successful ad campaigns) and they don't generally have the same body type as runway girls either. They are still thin but generally not as thin as the runway models. Rarely do print models and runway models book the same jobs. Actually, Prada used some of the more famous print models such as Miranda Kerr and Lara Stone in their show in Milan last week and it caused quite the commotion since they didn't have the traditional high fashion "runway body" but Miranda has modeled for Victoria Secret and Lara is in plenty of magazines. I've written a post about Lara before since she is one of my favorite models and that girl has a banging body. Definitely has too many curves for the runway, though. Anyways, the point is, there is a distinction. The importance of that will be alluded to in a bit.

    Back to fashion as an art form and the designers choosing thin models. I'm not saying that designers have to use thin models and that every "canvas" needs to be standard. That would go against my assertion that it's up to them what they want their clothes displayed on. If they want to use plus-sized models, then that is exactly what they should do. That's what Mark Fast wanted to do in his London show last season, and he did just that. People criticized him but he did it again this season a few weeks ago, because that was his artistic choice. But then why do most designers choose freakishly tall, thin models? If you ask them, they will probably say, "because the clothes look better on them." Not because these girls are more beautiful, more glamorous, or more desirable. Again, runway models are grotesque freaks of nature. And in my opinion, not what I think of when I think "female beauty".

    And yes, high fashion does trickle down into normal stores, but it's not typically a direct from the runway to the consumer kind of thing. That's why I love Target for getting designers like John Paul Gaultier and Anna Sui to design clothes for normal girls. But keep in mind that the actual end product of the garment that you hold in your hand is not the same thing as an avant-garde Armani Prive couture gown that has hoops encircling it like planet rings (i.e. the dress Lady Gaga wore the Grammies). A high fashion runway show is the designer's opportunity to showcase their creations in an artistic forum. The primary goal for most of the designers isn't necessarily to sell clothing. It's to put on a performance.

    I may have down-played fashion's influence on young women's self esteem in my post, but that wasn't the point I was trying to highlight. I was more trying to show a different side to the adage that "fashion is evil for perpetuating negative body images" and tried to illustrate how the industry actually works and why certain limitations exist. I'm not ignorant. Obviously, I'm aware of the phenomenon of eating disorders related to poor body image. In fact, more than anything I wanted to try and make the distinction between runway models and the ideal of beauty, since in my opinion I don't believe they are one in the same. Print models might be a different story since their body requirements are not the same and there are even further distinctions based on what they're selling (make-up versus clothes, etc). Actually, I might do some more research on magazines and ad campaigns and their use of models and write a separate post about it one day.

  5. I think it's fascinating how emotional people get over this issue. It's interesting because the two years that I've been in medical school has trained me to equate "fat" with "unhealthy" and not initially "unattractive". Not to say that I don't struggle with the same feelings about my body that most females have. I think every girl battles with body image issues but I think the more I learn about the technical aspects of the fashion industry and the more I see the human body as a beautiful machine made out of flesh and bone, the less models make me feel bad about myself. I think because I've learned to separate the 2 entities as being individual worlds where one is a fantasy and one a reality, I've been able to see fashion for what it is and appreciate it as solely an art form.

    Again, this is all just my opinion. It is my blog, after all.

  6. I know it's your opinion. And my previous comment was *my* opinion! See what I did there?

    Anyway, yes, this subject makes me "emotional" (but you can rest assured that I wasn't sobbing into my coffee when I was writing that comment--just incensed).

    You keep calling models "freaks" and "unnatural." You, as a future medical professional, know that fat is unhealthy--but can you say the same about extreme thinness? I believe that some people's weights naturally settle all over the spectrum--we readily believe that some people are naturally very thin, but the idea of a naturally overweight person is anathema. Well, that's a different conversation. I suppose what I am trying to say is this: most models are not naturally unnatural. Most of them severely limit their eating. A good deal of them are on drugs.

    Certainly, it is the right of the fashion designer to do what he or she wants. What I'm saying is: the decision to naturalize the unnatural, to make normal the abnormal, to make the freakish ordinary... to say, as one designer said to model Coco Rocha, "We don't want you to BE anorexic, we just want you to look it!"--I feel that is unethical, even if the clothes look great. Even if the clothes are modeled to perfection. Because there's a human cost in health.

    As little as 30 years ago, sample sizes were 4s and 6s, not 2s and 0s. My theory is that as the nation becomes more concerned with obesity, models will become thinner. Like I said in my first post, "fat" isn't just fat. It's also ugliness, laziness, and poverty. Thin is, to a certain extent, a class thing. Fashion designers can ensure that their brands are exclusive and high-end by refusing to manufacture clothing above a size 8. And they do.

    I take your point about print models, but in this age of Photoshop, I don't think it matters if they are a few inches shorter or weigh a couple more pounds. The Ralph Lauren fiasco is evidence of that; also, every day on the way to class I pass by an ad for H&M on a bus stop--the models' legs have been shaved down so much that they look like arms. It's hard for me to see that. I would rather see curves.

    As I said before, I don't think the fashion industry is completely to blame, and I don't think you're evil for defending it (I can see that my initial comment was a bit harsh); however, I stand by my contention that it is partially--perhaps mostly--responsible for conceiving and perpetuating harmful images. These images are selling women something. They are not meant to be fantasy. Perhaps the runway shows are fantasy; I don't know. But advertising is not a fantasy. It is specifically calculated to get into our lives and makes us want something--in this case, extreme thinness. As long as we want what is unnatural (what cannot be achieved), we will always be reaching for our wallets, buying beauty products, flattering clothing, diet aids, and a host of other things, just to keep up the daily struggle to be beautiful. This is why magazines like Cosmo and Glamour run articles about how to "Love Yourself!" right next to "Lose 15 Pounds for Summer!"

    If all models were white, we would have a problem. If all models were men, we would have a problem. If they were all American, we would have a problem. Wouldn't we? We want diversity--not just for fashion shows, but for the people watching, the ones who live vicariously through escapism. Either fashion is art and subjective or it's objective and subject to rigid rules. I believe that if a designer is worth his or her weight (pun intended :), he or she will be able to flatter a variety of sizes. But silly me, expecting creativity in ~*art*~!!

  7. I agree with you about the print models and ads "selling" a certain image that is unattainable but I have to, yet again, make the distinction between ad campaigns and the runway. My initial post was about runway shows, the display of the designs and the actual garments as the form of art. The models are not the works of art, the clothes are! The production, the way the lights play off the clothes, the music choice, the model choices. All of this goes into consideration to enhance the star of the show, which is the clothing.

    "The decision to naturalize the unnatural, to make normal the abnormal, to make the freakish ordinary is unethical." Are we still talking about runway shows here? I don't believe any designer, agency, or anyone in the fashion industry is making the assertion that these 6 foot tall, 110 lb girls are normal. (I'd quote Kelly Cutrone again here but then I would just sound like a broken record).

    And when have I ever said that I think extreme thinness is healthy?! In my initial post I said that if anyone should be responsible, it should be the agency that hires the girls to make sure they are not unhealthy (starving themselves, on drugs, etc.).

    The funny thing is, both of us are essentially trying to make the same point. Artists should be allowed to use whatever medium, whatever tools, whatever motifs the want to use. Creativity means no boundaries and no rigid rules. Nobody is stopping anyone from using bigger models. It is their choice. Yet most of them choose a certain look and I was trying to explain from a technical standpoint why that choice is made.

  8. I suppose my real argument is with this:

    "Here is where I stand on the issue. Modeling is like any other profession where the body is a critical component of your performance. A football player needs to be massive to be able to push other people around. A model needs to be thin to be able to properly display clothing. Have you ever sat down and thought about it? What is a model's job? Is it to be pretty and represent the ideal for beauty? No, it's to be nothing more than a human hanger. Models needs to be blank canvases on which the clothing is painted on. Curves are distracting. The designer doesn't want you looking at the model's curves instead of the garment they produced."

    I find this statement to be wrong-headed and not a little misogynist. Clothing designed for women ought to fit women. Not human hangers. When it comes right down to it, if clothes have to hang so well... why not use ACTUAL hangers? Why objectify young women, harming their health and psyche? So no, I don't think we're arguing the same thing--I'm saying that forcing women to objectify themselves, to have arbitrary standards for the fit of clothing (which have NOT always been so rigid--models have in no way always been so alarmingly thin), to allow those standards to trickle down into the media, and ultimately, into the minds and hearts of nearly every woman in America is unethical.

    Even if only a size double-zero woman can make these clothes look good, it does not mean that these young women should be expected to sacrifice themselves for art's sake. Art is wonderful; I love art; but I would sooner throw every single beautiful dress designed by every single designer in a pile and BURN THEM than defend and industry that demands women look as though they are dying to make these clothes look good.

    Women are people. Not human hangers. I appreciate your interest in art and the fashion industry, and I do not think you must revile it. I like fashion, too. But I do not believe that your point about women needing to be thin in order to be good hangers is anything more than a contemporary, trendy take on what is beautiful and what looks good.

    That is all I was attempting to say. Thanks for the lively conversation. Again, I don't want to be contentious. I considered this an enjoyable exchange. But still: Women are people. Not hangers. One is an inanimate object. The other is a group of human beings. Never the twain shall meet.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Why not use actual hangers? Well the obvious answer is because you couldn't see how the clothes moved if they were literally on a hanger. But I guess that was a rhetorical question. Although, McQueen did use moving mannequins in one of his couture clothes which would solve the lack of mobility issue.

    Forcing women to objectify themselves? Really?! Throwing designer dresses in a pile and BURNING THEM?!? Really?!? Wow. No comment.

    I guess this is where we agree to disagree. I also enjoyed debating this issue. Clearly it's a controversial issue that I still believe is misunderstood.

  11. oops...I meant "moving mannequins in one of his couture *collections*"