Oyster #99: Role Models
An essay on body image and the fashion industry.
For centuries beautiful women have been admired as muses, but now their image is destroying the self-esteem of many. Samples are getting smaller, models are getting thinner (and younger), eating disorders are becoming more and more prevalent, and thinspiration blogs are disturbingly popular. How much is the fashion industry to blame?
In April this year, Vogue Italia's editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, addressed a group of students, parents and educators at a forum for the Harris Center, an eating disorder clinic at Massachusetts General. The topic of the forum was 'Health is Beauty: Defining Ourselves', and panelists shared their perspectives on beauty, the media and eating disorders, while discussing ways to encourage positive self-image across society. It's a tricky topic for the editor of a fashion magazine to approach, and Sozzani did what she had to do: she conceded that some of the blame should fall on the fashion industry. "And this is where fashion comes into play, alongside models, fashion magazines and everything regarding aesthetics," she said. "What led us to establish that thin is beautiful and that thinness is the aesthetic code we should follow? Why [has] the age of supermodels — who were beautiful and womanly — slowly started decreasing, and we now have still-undeveloped adolescents with no curves? … Today we accept such standards as the normal thing."
Sozzani spoke on the subject to raise awareness of her campaign against pro-anorexia groups, a project she has been working on for some time. It's a worthy cause, and one that Tumblr and Pinterest have recently got behind, putting in place user regulations in an attempt to police thinspiration imagery. The petition that is currently on Vogue.it features photos of curvy women such as Beyoncé, Daisy Lowe and Cindy Crawford (back in the day). Two recent shoots from the magazine, however, are (understandably) omitted. One is a Steven Meisel cover shoot of Stella Tennant, whose waist looks as though it had been corseted to within an inch of its life, and the other is a Karlie Kloss shoot (Meisel again) in which she looks like she has the lower body of a twelve-year-old gymnast. Both images happened to find their way onto the very sites that Sozzani is so vehemently against, and both shoots elicited a negative response among readers and journalists alike. Some comments about Kloss' shoot on Fashionista's Facebook page: "Shouldn't the credits say 'Photoshopped' by Steven Meisel?" "She must be starving her ass to dead [sic]!!!!!"
I don't know how much Photoshop was done on each image, or if Kloss is indeed starving to death, but I did meet her recently at Paris Fashion Week and she seemed just fine — terrifyingly, freakishly tall and long-limbed, but not near death. She busted a move with Jourdan Dunn for most of the night and was smiling the whole time. Seeing her in person, though, really affected me, and I began to think more about the point I wanted to make in this piece: Kloss, like most models, is an anomaly. She literally towered above me, and it pains me to say that her arms (which were in proportion to the rest of her body) were probably longer than my legs.
Models are, for the most part, six feet tall and an Australian size six — a genetic rarity, to say the least. But genetics aside, their success depends upon their looking a certain way. That means their full-time job, much like an athlete, is to make sure they are in top form — daily workouts, careful dieting, and beauty treatments you and I don't even know exist. Sozzani actually said of Kloss on the day of her talk (though it was omitted from her transcription), "She's a dancer! She's very muscular. Have you seen her butt?" I think we've all seen her butt, and yes, it is in great shape, but Sozzani's point is that Kloss works hard at it, and if you're not trying to earn an obscene amount of money by walking down the runway in underwear and wings (which, PS, sounds like hell), why would you bother to do the same?
Earlier this year we got an insight into Victoria's Secret Angel Adriana Lima's supposed pre-show diet. According to Lima's trainer she works out twice a day for three weeks in the lead-up to the show, and for the last nine days she survives solely on powdered shakes. Though she denied this report after the (inevitable) backlash, I would say it's not far from the truth. I've been on many shoots, and the majority of these girls don't eat that much — and, if they do, they are very, very careful about how much and what they put in their mouths. Lima's fellow Angel Miranda Kerr is a good example of the sacrifice models make for their career. Kerr has time and time again listed her ultimate indulgence as dark chocolate–covered Goji berries. Have you ever tried those things? Not exactly 'last meal' material.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the amount of work that goes into these shoots. The hair, the make-up, the stylist, the lighting, the photographer, the post-production — colour grading, art direction, Photoshop… In truth the end result is an illusion, a fantasy. It is not an everyday, accessible image, even for the aforementioned genetically blessed — and, many editors would argue, it's not meant to be. Before real-life models, fashion magazines featured illustrations of women in the latest fashions. Much like art throughout the ages (the Greek and Roman statues, Botticelli's angels, even Jean-Paul Goude's Amazonian nineties woman), these women were not real — they were to be admired, sure, but not imitated. Something has changed, though, and it's naïve for us to think that people won't compare themselves to today's more modern muses.
When I was researching this piece, Louise Adams, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist who specialises in weight management, eating disorders and body image, sent me some scary statistics. Over a recent ten-year period in Australia, the prevalence of eating disorders increased two-fold among both male and females aged 15 years and older. If images of women in the media have become thinner, is life now imitating art? The healthy, sporty physiques of the nineties supermodels set them up as stars of fitness videos. Today's models don't seem to have the same responsible approach.
Natalia Vodianova spoke at the British Vogue festival in April, and (unfortunately for her) the two hours she spent on stage were whittled down into one little quote: "It's better to be thin than fat." Within hours journalists were tearing Vodianova apart, and she was compelled to put a notice on her Facebook Wall in response: "It makes me feel even more sad that so much has been taken out of contexts [sic] by tabloid media … Our industry is scrutinised for giving false image and criteria of beauty and provoking eating disorders, however there are other industries that might be even more to blame, like [the] food industry that [is] constantly reinventing ways of pushing food on us … Yes, I choose to do more and eat less. Sorry world economy, I am a bad client!"
I do sympathise with Vodianova to some extent, but it's irresponsible of her to think that anything she says on a stage in front of 700 people — many of whom are journalists — won't be scrutinised. Now more than ever, people need to be careful about the language they use. There is no such thing as a throwaway line anymore. Had Vodianova said, "It's better to be slim than to be obese," would there have been such a backlash? I doubt it. But I'm also not sure the general public want a supermodel telling them what's what about life — because a supermodel is an exception, and the average woman is so different.
We consider models with equal amounts fascination and resentment. Much like the muses of great artists these women are idolised, but are they role models? No. They are the physical embodiment of what Western society, in general, has decided is appealing. And that needs to be addressed, but in addition to fighting for the minimum age of working models to be increased and samples to go up a dress size, perhaps we need to alter the way people process these images as well. Models are alternate beings: they are there to sell a dream, a lifestyle, a pair of shoes; if we all looked like them and had those things already then something else would need to be sold.
Perhaps the strangest thing, I think, is that it seems to be women who put this pressure on each other. It's women who buy the 'stars without their make-up' magazines, it's women who comment on blogs and fashion websites and, on the flipside, it's women who are equally compelled to comment when women who are too thin. (Props to Alexa Chung, who recently made her Instagram and Twitter accounts private after her followers commented on her weight.) Is it possible that we care about how we look because of what other women think? Because, to be honest, I don't think men care about women's bodies as much as women do. In fact, a 2011 study at Germany's University of Regensburg found that women have more of a preference for narrower waists and longer legs than men do — great news for women whose legs are shorter than Karlie Kloss' arms. Serious dieting (unless necessary and prescribed by a doctor) isn't all that attractive to the opposite sex either — or to other women, for that matter. I remember once being out to dinner with a group of people, and a woman we were with kept saying "eating is cheating" when asked why she hadn't ordered anything. She was evidently sacrificing not just her health but also her personality for the sake of thinness — much like when Kate Moss, who rarely says anything in the media, said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." It's stupendous to think that this will be the one line the world will remember her by.
Someone who is both a model and a role model is Alek Wek. Wek was born in Southern Sudan, and before moving to the UK with her family she knew what hunger was — as she once told The Daily Beast, "My parents, my eight siblings and I survived on food our mother had grown in the yard: vegetables, grains, peanuts. We shared what little we had with the neighbours — those who hadn't disappeared. It's an awful feeling, being hungry." In London Wek was discovered by an agent, and through modelling she witnessed a different kind of starvation. "In this world, I found, many people were hungry too, but for different reasons. They wanted their bodies to look a certain way, whether their bodies were meant to or not. They chose not to eat."
It saddens me to think that I work in an industry that has the potential to make people feel bad, but I hope we are ultimately creating something that makes the majority of people feel good about themselves. Now that you are at the end of our issue (unless you have started at the back of the magazine) you have read about more than 25 women and enjoyed the work of many more. I hope that you have found the experience inspiring.
Fashion is many things: an escape, an artistic outlet, a guilty pleasure and, at the end of the day, a big business. But if we're not in the business of making hundreds of thousands of dollars as a model, then please, let's not try and be like them. All the dark chocolate–covered Goji berries in the world would never make up for the other things we would have to miss out on.