The Skinny of Fashion’s Body-Image Issue

By Summer Rayne Oakes

A funny quote popped up in my personal trainer’s Facebook feed the other day: “Skinny girls look good in clothes; fit girls look better naked.”

I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

As the daughter of a health-obsessed, grow-your-own-food family (my mother was an aerobics, tap, jazz and ballet instructor; my dad was a dock worker most of his life; both are avid gardeners), it was impossible not to pick up their healthy habits. Sports and outdoor activities were a huge part of my life. And even though my days of team sports are behind me, I have maintained an inveterate joy in movement. No doubt my active lifestyle and views on body, mind and spirit stemmed from a good upbringing that emphasized a healthy and holistic approach to life. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why it’s always been interesting for me to navigate the self-obsessed world of fashion, where you are not (at least initially) measured on your merit, mind or healthy habits — but by the measurements of your bust/waist/hips. It’s one of the obvious reasons the industry is an easy target when it comes to body image issues.

One can argue that the business has done very little to shed its unhealthy stigma. In 2006, the international fashion community took reactive steps to safeguard against unhealthy body image. I say reactive because the rules were passed in response to the untimely death of two models, 22-year-old Luisel Ramos and 21-year-old Ana Carolina Reston, both of whom suffered from complications due to eating disorders. Since that time, Spain, São Paulo, Brazil, Italy and Israel have passed bills that prohibit models from working with a Body Mass Index (BMI) — a measure of body fat based on height and weight — below 18.5. The UK, France and the U.S. chose less-compulsory routes, which range from education campaigns, pledges to promote “healthy-looking” girls and non-binding charters.

The pressure to be unreasonably thin is a reality. In fact, over the last 20 years, the size 6-8 models that once graced the runway soon whittled down to 0-2s. “In 1991, I was on the small side of a 4-6 and more closer to a 2-4,” remarked Kate Dillon, a good friend and highly successful model, now a size 10, who was the first woman over a size 8 to be featured in Vogue. She has since graced a number of magazines, runways and campaigns for the better part of 20 years. “When Kate Moss came on the scene in 1992, I was all of a sudden considered too big.” This marked change in body size over the past two decades is just enough to dip under a healthy BMI.

The National Eating Disorders Association reported that twenty years ago, the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman (129 pounds vs. 140 pounds). Today, the average woman is 160 pounds and the typical model weighs 23 percent less (123 pounds). This may not seem like a huge jump, but for a 5’10” woman (a typical model height), 129 pounds would have just made the 18.5 BMI cut-off and 123 pounds would be considered underweight. Keep in mind that these are averages; the unsaid reality is that young women in the industry are often encouraged to lose “ten pounds,” sometimes without the information as to whether that should be done in the first place — or how to do it while keeping one’s health in mind.

Model Anne-Marie Van Dijk started a new initiative last year called CLEANSE, which is a tool kit that offers wellness plans and classes for models covering topics like health, nutrition, exercise and meditation. “I started CLEANSE to find a way for models to achieve their body goals in a healthy and sustainable way, and also meet the requirements of their agency,” she told me. “Those are both very different things. As a human being, you have your own needs on a physical, emotional and spiritual level and as an agency you have certain requirements on a professional level. CLEANSE seeks to build that bridge between a model’s health and the needs of the agency.” I took one of CLEANSE’s classes — Beat your Sugar Cravings — since I have a raging sweet tooth. It was very informative and quite fun, and I can imagine classes like these could be intensely empowering for young women to get together to talk about health, wellness and nutrition. Too often young women in the industry shrink under insecurity and pressure to maintain an ideal that isn’t realistic for their own bodies, especially as they mature.

In a recent conversation with Dillon she confessed that the industry was really a mirror asking her, ‘Is this who I want to be?’ during a time when she was trying to maintain an unhealthy body weight for her 5’11” frame. “It’s not that I hated the industry,” she told me: It’s just that I didn’t fit the ideal at the time.  I wanted to be true to myself and I didn’t want to become part of something that was telling women they had to be something that not even I could maintain. In a way it was a business that forced me to really closely look at myself. At the end of the day we’re the image-setters [and we have to ask] what is the impact that my image is having on the culture? My own early experiences in the industry also revealed an undercurrent of suggestive and insidious behavior around weight. I am a size 4-6. Though my body has changed, my weight has remained the same since I was a sophomore in high school. “A telltale sign that you’re the weight you’re supposed to be,” my doctor told me on my annual physical last month. If I were being put against the BMI tests given in places like Spain, Italy, or São Paulo, I would ring in at around a 19.8.

My first agency, as I highlighted before in a previous article, was very upfront with me from the beginning. Due to my measurements, ‘Eighty percent of the jobs will not be available to you.’ The booker was referring to the fact that I was not an industry standard of 0-2, like the majority of the girls. His statement could clearly have detrimental effects on young, uninformed, impressionable women, who throw their lives into modeling or wanting to emulate models. “The thing about fashion, high fashion in particular,” Dillon recounted to me during an earlier interview is that people take it very seriously. If a model shows up at a job and cannot fit into the clothes, it’s shameful. That is what was hardest for me. I was treated like a failure for not fitting into some clothes. I know some girls resorted to drug use. I was an exercise fanatic and cigarette smoker. I would go to the gym and couldn’t eat for like ten days. I saw an editor from Harper’s Bazaar and he told me I looked fabulous. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s what I have to do to make it?’ It’s very sad. I never compromised my own health, but early on I was somehow always made aware of my choice to maintain my physique, as if it were a handicap that I lived with all my life.

I recall a fitting at Nicole Miller where I tried to shimmy into a dress two sizes too small. The dress sat awkwardly against my body, as taut as a banjo string around my hips. I remember thinking, “Shit, I wish they had a dress that actually fit.” Turns out, however, that it didn’t matter this time around. The man hiring wanted to work with me, so in the end, he made it work. There were times, however, that weren’t so pleasant. One day I had a casting that required all ladies to get down to their bra and panties. That might be alarming for some but it is not unusual, particularly for a lingerie client, which this was. “You look really good but you need to lose some weight,” the client said with a scrutinizing glance. I recall giving him a hard look, which spurred him to inch closer to me and tweak my side with his thick fingers. “If you can grab it, you can lose it,” he said assuredly. What was more apparent after that was the reason why he said it. Within five minutes, he proceeded to ask me on a date-and it was clear to me that these types of tactics were used not only to make girls feel bad about themselves, but also as a power move to get girls to sleep with them. All I could think was, “Wow, this guy is a total scumbag!”

Accounts like those above happen to girls-particularly young girls-more often than not. I’ve learned to shrug it off because I have confidence and a solid upbringing, but it’s hard not to feel ostracized at least some of the time, especially when one is constantly barraged with body-image reminders on the job, in the media, at stores and across the web. What might not help the situation is another under-addressed topic, which is the unhealthy growth in the opposite direction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 36 percent of American adults over the age of 20 are obese and 33 percent of us are considered overweight. That means that 69 percent of America needs to lose weight in order to achieve optimal health. This is also reflected in women’s view of themselves. A recent Gallup poll reveals that the average woman today feels as if she is 22 pounds over her “ideal weight,” up nine pounds from 20 years ago. How then should designers and brands be portraying themselves, particularly if more of their customers are, on average, bigger than what they were years ago? ”

[In the fashion industry] when you are selling clothes, you want it to be about the clothes, so it’s customary that you want the model to disappear,” Dillon said during our discussion. “A lot of times they try to asexualize it to a hanger. It’s harder to fit things to a curve and easier to fit clothes to a straight line.” But perhaps it’s worth the effort, especially now that the average woman is a size 14. For Kate Dillon and myself, we think that the acceptance of a diversity of looks that celebrate the healthy image of women is a good start. “It’s fashion,” admits Dillon. “It’s important to keep a level of fantasy,” but we both agree that doesn’t mean it has to be a fantasy that intentionally harms a human being. We need a greater push from all members of the style community: advertisers, clients, designers, agents, models, media and consumers. As more leaders lead, it will get easier for followers to follow. Though fashion can’t take all the blame for all insecurities of body image that plague the world, it does fall into the sociocultural factor that influences women and the way we view our bodies. It is a part of the problem, but it can also be a part of the solution. If we have the chance to help and use our images and voice for the better, then we should.


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