Serena Freewomyn

Weighing In: The Skinny on Fashion & Body Image

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | July 21, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, The Movement
Tags: Anna Wintour, anorexia, body image, fashion sense, Jennifer Hudson, Project Runway, Vogue

I originally wrote this piece last year for G-Spot Magazine, but after watching this week's premiere of season 5 of Project Runway, I thought I'd revisit the topic of fashion and body image. This season's designers are the typical collection of uber-skinny women and gay men. Although I'm going to watch the show as I always do, I have zero hope that any of the designers will design clothes for real women, the exception being the fabulous Korto Momolu from Liberia.

I don't know why I subject myself to this. I will gladly admit that I'm addicted to fashion. I used to subscribed to Vogue, along with several other fashion magazines. However, the April 2007 issue left me feeling very empty, and it was the final push I needed to cancel my subscriptions and obstain from obsessing over the photos and my own waist line.

The April issue of Vogue is typically called "The Body Issue." Each year, the magazine explores the topic of body image. In her letter from the editor, Anna Wintour claims that "we annually celebrate how fashion can be worn and loved by women with beautiful and diverse bodies." Wintour states that the April issue is timely, given that The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) adopted industry guidelines after two Brazilian models died in January from anorexia. Nevertheless, Wintour balks at the argument that the fashion industry is responsible for these deaths. "Many other fields," she says, "such as movies, ballet, and rock music, could equally be said to be promote a thin ideal."

However, choosing Scarlett Johansson for the cover seems a disingenuous choice. While Johansson is hardly a waif, she is certainly not full figured. And as usual, the vast majority of the women photographed in the April issue were a size 0. That's because, "it's a fact: Clothes look better on a thin person. Models are, therefore, by definition, thinner than the average person. Always have been, always will be." (Rebecca Johnson, "Walking a Thin Line," Vogue, April 2007, p. 382)

But don't make the mistake of drawing a connection between the models on the runway and the low self-image of the modern American woman. Wintour argues that "eating disorders are complex psychological and physiological conditions: The slimmest girl on a runway may have a naturally high metabolism and healthy eating habits, while a slightly heavier young woman who has a higher body mass index might be in the throes of a terrible disease." Translation: get your fat ass off the couch and get to the gym. And follow the advice of Carrie from "Sex and the City." When given the choice between buying food or purchasing Vogue, choose the latter. It will feed your soul, and it's fat free.

jen_hudson_vogue1.jpgUnfortunately, my disappointment with Vogue is not limited to the body issue. I was shocked by the picture of Jennifer Hudson on the cover of the March 2007 issue. The choice of Jennifer Hudson is to be applauded. She is only the third African American woman to grace the cover and her recent rise to success can account for the selection. This was Vogue's chance to show that full figured women are a more realistic ideal of beauty. Sadly, Hudson' picture was airbrushed and she was posed so that her collar bones would stick out so that she would appear thinner. She also has her mouth wide open, like she is waiting to taking a bite out of a cheeseburger. The red Carolina Herrera dress might be glamorous, but the cover shot is far from it.

Despite Wintour's claims to the contrary, the connection between fashion and self-image has been well documented. According to a 1990 study of 162 college women, exposure to thin models was related to lower self-evaluations, regardless of the level of self-reported bulimic symptoms. (Turner, et al, Adolescence, Fall 1997) In a later study, Turner found that "although the two groups of women . . . did not differ significantly in height or weight, those who read fashion magazines prior to completing a body image satisfaction survey desired to weigh less and perceived themselves more negatively than did those who read news magazines. Exposure to fashion magazines was related to women's greater preoccupation with being thin, dissatisfaction with their bodies, frustration about weight, and fear about deviating from the thin standard."

We do have to give the worldwide fashion industry snaps (albeit small ones) for adopting new hiring standards for runway shows. Some of the guidelines adopted by the CFDA include:

  • Keeping models under 16 off the runway and don't allow models under 18 to work at fittings or photo shoots past midnight.
  • Educating those in the industry to identify the early warning signs of eating disorders.
  • Requiring models identified as having an eating disorder to receive professional help and only allow those models to continue with approval from that professional.
  • Developing workshops on the causes and effects of eating disorders, and raising awareness of the effects of smoking and tobacco-related diseases.
  • During fashion shows, providing healthy meals and snacks, while prohibiting smoking and alcohol.

Not surprisingly, the guidelines are only suggestions and are not binding for the industry. Furthermore, the guidelines contain no mention of body mass index, a measurement of a person's height-to-weight ratio. The World Health organization considers someone with a BMI of 18.5 to be underweight, and the DSM-IV states that a person who is 15% below the expected weight for their height and age should be diagnosed as having anorexia nervosa.

2007_1_14_thin_models.jpgAmerican designers may be dragging their feet, but other countries have adopted tougher standards for runway models. Spain requires models to have a BMI of 20 to grace the catwalk. For a 5'9" model, that means she must weigh 125 pounds. And Italy requires models to produce a medical certificate in order to work. Is an age restriction of 16 really the best the US can do?

Cleo Glyde, style director for Marie Claire, doesn't seem to think so. In the April issue she explains that in her runway days, she subsisted on a diet of green grapes: "three for breakfast, two for snacks, six for binges." At 6'2", she had to battle against the forces of genetics in order to fit into the skintight clothing she was expected to wear. "There were always more Marlboro reds and rancid champagne backstage than food, and we were all dieting together--food deprivation was a badge of honor . . . The more I punished myself, the more fashion rewarded me."

Glyde eventually gave up the war on her body and is now a much healthier size 12. "There is such a thing as a healthy model--a girl who got dealt the thin card. But as sunken-cheeked chic creates an undertow that drags regular-shaped women into a loosing battle that only models used to have to fight, I believe a mantra of self-acceptance needs to be put out there. Once you make peace with who you naturally are, life is an incredible feast."

As a former anorexic, I can attest to the importance of changing one's self-image. Learning to love my body has become the foundation of my path to recovery. In their book The Courage to Heal, therapists Ellen Bass and Laura Davis suggest that, "if switching from self-hatred to self-love seems impossible to you, begin one inch at a time. Think about one inch of your body that you feel is quite lovely . . . simply one inch you feel good about . . . For the next week, pay attention to that part of your body . . . The following week, expand that inch to an adjacent inch and do the same thing. Repeat this process, slowly increasing the reclaimed territory of your body, inch by precious inch." (p. 218)

For me, this has been an important exercise. I started with my feet. I began each day by giving myself a foot massage and saying that I was thankful for my feet. They carry me everywhere I need to go. Because of my feet, I can dance or walk along the beach. And I can buy cute shoes for them to wear. After that, I began to affirm my legs each day and I am slowly making my way up my body. Although I now make a conscious decision to eat, changing my distorted thought processes is something that I will work on for some time. But I can't think of anything that is more important.

I will have to give Anna Wintour some amount of credit. Eating disorders are complex and multi-faceted. My anorexia was a coping mechanism that I developed as a result of childhood sexual abuse. I wonder how many thirteen year old girls from Eastern Europe who strut the runway have been sexually assaulted. Reading fashion magazines may not be the cause of my poor body image, but it certainly contributes to my lack of body confidence. The solution, however, is not as simple as canceling my subscription to Vogue. Thankfully, I have finally started to learn to love myself exactly as I am.

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I like that picture of Jennifer Hudson. I didn't think her mouth was open for a cheesburger, but more of a "Hell yeah, look at me!" whoop.

I agree with Wintour though that the fashion industry isn't solely responsible for the thin mania. She's correct. You don't see a lot of fat movie stars, rock stars or dancers. Hell, for women you don't even see mid-sized movie stars or dancers often! The fashion industry can only be part of the solution - although since they provide the fashion for the other industries, they're the most important piece of the puzzle.

Great article!

Reminds me of this scene from an episode of "Judging Amy" in which Judge Amy Gray's daughter, Lauren, asks her grandmother Maxine what anorexia is. The elder Gray replies, "It's a disease women get from reading magazines."

"The fashion industry can only be part of the solution - although since they provide the fashion for the other industries, they're the most important piece of the puzzle." (bil @ 21 2128 Jul)

Well said. Greatly emphasises the point that the fashion industry does in fact lend the most weight in both circumscribing and perpetuating various impossible ideals of acceptable body image.

Fashion is only part of the problem, but they're an important part.

But would people still buy those magazines if they featured regular-sized women on the cover? Is the problem the fashion industry or the consumers?

Probably both, but they are a good place to start.