Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pluses and minuses

-Assuming the new Uniqlo +J collection appearing soon in the NY store is the same one as is already available in London, I'm not impressed. Does the city really need another pair of skinny jeans that, though a nice color and cut, look like they would reveal the underwear of any woman who dared sit down while wearing them? Do non-maternity t-shirts ever benefit from this kind of flare? Is there any way this jacket would not appear simply to be missing some crucial inner-thigh-covering material when worn on anyone other than a model? Finally, does anyone who lived through the 1990s not already own some variant of this puffy vest, assuming they ever remotely wanted one? Frankly, I'm relieved that I don't like this line, because the earlier +J season could not have been better, and if I found this one the same, that would put a dent in my cheapness goals.

-The plus-size model "debate" always seems more about shock-value photographs of bad-idea bathing suits than about changing ideals from skeletal to... less skeletal? The emphasis is forever on 'the size-two model,' or her far-more-offensive 'size-zero' counterpart. When really, all the fashion industry would have to do to radically change the sorts of images we see would be to photograph women and girls who wear these sizes, but as the sizes exist in chain clothing stores. Thanks to vanity sizing, the fact that most women aren't so tall, and that clothes, even tiny ones, are typically pinned back for photo shoots, I'd venture a guess that most 2s and even 0s would photograph in a way that fashion-mag readers would interpret as "plus", given what they're used to seeing. (For a reminder of the status quo, look no further than one post below at The Cut, a "lithe" Swede, 5'11", born in 1993.)

I'm not going to be so contrarian as to say that it's a good thing models look emaciated. Clearly, this does no one any favors, least of all the models themselves. But I do think demands that models should look 'healthy' are, if well-meaning, potentially dangerous. Equating health with beauty (more than is already done outside the high-fashion world) also means equating illness with ugliness. Which, of course, means equating ugliness with illness. Images that don't encourage unhealthy behavior are one thing. But images of 'health', which can't but be conveyed in ways that have little to do with actual wellness (tanned skin, shiny hair, an athletic-1990s-supermodel build), have their own problems.

17 comments:

PG said...

I thought shiny hair was a sign of health. It is in other animals, anyway.

Phoebe said...

Shiny hair is a sign of health, yet non-shiny hair isn't necessarily a sign of non-health. Frizzy/kinky hair will never have the gloss of even the curly-hair-oriented shampoo commercials. All hair textures may have ways of indicating wellness, but not via shine, at least as shine is usually conveyed in fashion mags/ads, as sparkles forming when the sun hits glossy, straight or wavy locks. (I would think this hair-health principle would carry over to other species as well.)

Something similar is true of a 'healthy' complexion. Many people do indeed look paler when sick, but pallor does not necessarily indicate illness. But if a magazine wishes to convey health, a very pale model is unlikely. (Conversely, today's models are considered problematic not only because their pallor reminds us of the lack of models of color, but also because it's seen as contributing to their overall 'unhealthy' appearance.)

But let's say shiny hair did mean health. Do you see any danger in making the main requirement for models that they be 'healthy-looking'?

Phoebe said...

And... what I forgot to add was that just as airbrushed or otherwise difficult-to-emulate models give readers a false impression of what normal good looks look like, the same becomes true when health and beauty are equated. I remember as a kid being confused about ads re: 'healthy' hair and why, despite being in good health, this just wasn't something my hair would do without some industrial-strength conditioner. At a certain point I realized that I eat just fine, get exercise, and, in summer months at least, my hair in no way looks 'healthy.'

The main danger, though, remains that looks become far more important once beauty=health, particularly in such a health-conscious society. It's one thing to say that models shouldn't look a way that most women would need to be ill to resemble, but another entirely to say that 'healthy appearance' should be the main goal.

PG said...

I would think that if one is trying to break out of an overly culture-specific beauty model and obtain a more universalized one (which would seem to be the goal sought by using models of different races, & perhaps even models of African descent whose hair hasn't been straightened), one should try to figure out what are the few universals of human beauty. I have a vague recollection of a national news weekly running an issue on this subject about 15 years ago that claimed facial symmetry and indications of health in the sense of being able to survive for a long time (strong, non-decaying teeth; clear eyes and skin; some childbirth-favoring waist to hip ratio in women; etc.) were the closest to universal signs of beauty. Since this was probably TIME or Newsweek, the claims may have been completely non-empirical bollocks, but it's the most information I've read on the matter.

Phoebe said...

PG,

The current standard - tall and emaciated - is also, in theory, race-neutral, or close to it. There's no inherent reason only Northern and Eastern European women should make the cut, and yet that's what tends to happen. Given that past attempts at defining beauty as health (the Nazis, yes, but also the early Zionists) tended to equate well-being with ruddy, blond, and strapping, I find it hard to imagine that a switch from thin to 'healthy' would somehow eliminate these less 'universal' restrictions.

Also, the valorization of whiteness, blondness, might not be universal in the sense of that-which-men-notice-as-sign-of-health-and-fertility, but it's widespread enough in the world that it functions similarly.

Another question, of course, is whether the answer is to replace one standard with another. Beauty is in part about what most people think when they see a person, but also about individuals finding other individuals attractive. (What I babbled about here.) Thus the 'everybody's beautiful' camp (the Dove commercials, the many who deem it necessary to declare the star of Precious not only a fine actress but also physically stunning) may come off as patronizing, but kind of have a point. Most women (and men) probably are, were, or will be considered beautiful by someone at some point.

That, and everyone seems to take it as a given that images of women (men rarely enter into it) should continue to be used to sell stuff, and that it's only a matter of which women are selected.

Britta said...

Actually, thin and emaciated *is* culturally specific, and while it might not have to be (at least the emaciated part), the models who are thin in the right way tend to be from Northern/North Eastern Europe. First off, height, while not solely a Northern European trait, is not universal. If you look at average heights for women, they vary from around 5'7" to about 4'11". Sure, maybe there is one Maya Indian woman, or Thai woman who is 5'11", but given the average height is under 5 feet, it's a lot less likely than finding a 6 foot tall Dutch woman. Secondly, while all people can be emaciated, the overall skeletal shape desired (broad shoulders, relatively small hips, really narrow waist, etc.) is a shape particularly valorized in (and probably more common to) N. Europe. Of course, the boniness of runway models makes this slightly less noticeable, but a step down, the desired hourglass shape + broader shoulders and slightly narrower hips isn't a universal shape.
I actually know plenty of non-white women who are really thin (African runners, Chinese women), who are a little frustrated because, no matter how thin they are, they will never look like white models or be able to wear clothing designed for white women because they simply have the wrong body shape, one that cannot be changed with diet or exercise.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

The build excludes many, it's true, but if one includes Americans (who are often taller than their Old Country ancestors) and the good number of women from certain African countries who seem to do well as models, you're still looking at something far less exclusive than an overt Nordic or Slavic ideal. But if, as you say, the hourglass 'healthy' look is in fact ethnicity-specific, it doesn't look good for 'health' as the route to diversity on the runways.

(That, and there are some clichés about ethnicity and build that stick in the public imagination but have little relation to how people actually look. I've often seen that Jewish women are supposed to be especially "zaftig," yet if you look at American women overall, it's a tough case to make.)

I suppose I can see the frustration at not resembling models - something women are far more likely to experience than admit to - but is it really so difficult for thin, non-white women to find clothes, any more than it is for thin white women? Mass-produced clothes tend to fit exactly no one. That, or it's just my odd Jewish proportions, but I think the complaint about clothes from chain stores not fitting is fairly universal. Either way, it's an argument for dresses and leggings rather than jeans.

The real problem, I think, is in hotel shampoo. I arrived in DC to find the hotel kindly offering "volumizing" shampoo and conditioner, not something too many with 'ethnic' hair would want to use. With air travel and liquids being restricted, this is potentially a huge annoyance for many. The entire concept of 'normal' hair, as found on shampoo bottles, defines normal as white, and treats all other hair types as the ones that pose a challenge.

PG said...

But a particular height isn't particularly connected with health -- aside from actual malnutrition (which is unlikely to coincide with hips that look ready to push out a brood of kids), height is driven almost entirely by genetics, and the persistence of short-people-genes in some quite long lived populations (e.g. the Japanese) seems somewhat indicative that being tall doesn't correlate greatly with health. (Indeed, height can be a nuisance later in life due to greater strains on the heart, joints, back etc.) Emaciation is never a sign of health. Emaciation is useful to clothing designers because it minimizes the number of fleshly obstacles that the line of the clothing will encounters as it swings down from the broad shoulders. Which is why I'm sort of indifferent to ideals of beauty as indicated by high fashion runway models, and why I believe men who say they don't find couture models attractive: clothes hangers don't usually look great with the clothes off and aren't very comfortable to be pressed up against. (Victoria's Secrets models are a whole 'nother story.)

Phoebe said...

PG,

Who/what comment are you replying to re: height? What you say makes sense, but it seems you're disagreeing with something said previously, and I'm not sure with what. Anyway, I agree. Height, like shiny hair etc., can indicate health but doesn't necessarily (i.e. 6'6" indicates good childhood nutrition, whereas 5' doesn't necessarily indicate the reverse), and so a beauty ideal inspired by health would probably include height in the mix. (See: the relatively-athletic-built 1990s supermodels often cited today as pictures of health.)

I also agree that we should believe men when they say rail-thin doesn't do it for them, although I'd also add that the few women I know with this appearance don't lack for suitors. (Even if such women are not the ones likely to make men most aroused, they're still status-symbol partners, particularly if they happen to be employed as models.)

However, I can't claim to be so impervious to years' worth of seeing images of models (and real-life models) looking like, well, models that this has no impact on how I'd assess my own level of attractiveness.

Matt said...

In one of the linked articles (NY Mag, or maybe someone they were quoting) it was suggested that the models in the Mark Fast show were very unsightly. The only picture I saw was the one in the article and I thought that woman looked very nice in the outfit. (Maybe others were worse.) I agree that the bathing suit (and the weird nylons w/o pants thing) didn't look good and were for shock value. (Those two things would likely look good on very, very few people, I think!)

Phoebe said...

Matt,

Was it the journalist saying this or a commenter? Because commenters to such posts run the gamut from 'icky, fat people!' to 'real women weigh 300 pounds.' If it was Karl Lagerfeld, well, he's famous for saying inflammatory things about women who weigh over 80 pounds, and that doesn't seem to have hurt Chanel's prestige. It might even enter into it.

Agreed re: the swimsuit - that was sort of my point regarding the thing, that it's a bad-idea cut, seemingly designed (or posed) to remind the viewer that the model has rolls of fat.

PG said...

Phoebe,

Height is very strongly driven by genes, such that even a person who doesn't have optimal nutrition and is otherwise not very healthy can achieve 6 feet if the genes are there. Shiny hair is also partly genetic -- as you say, some ethnic hair types just don't get shiny -- but genes are much more insufficient in this case: a person with shiny-haired parents can have straight hair but it won't be shiny on its own if she lacks the nutrients to form strong keratin. (Treatments to infuse keratin externally into the hair might substitute.)

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm a bit confused - who or what is the height discussion here addressing? What were you initially arguing against, because from the wording it seemed you were arguing against something. I don't dispute anything you're saying, nor did I claim that shiny hair correlates to health in precisely the same numbers as does height. I think we're in full agreement here. My point was merely that both can be indicators of health, or not, but are embraced in ads and such where a 'healthy-looking' model is in order.

Britta said...

I think PG's point is that using height as an indicator of health (or beauty) necessarily excludes vast swaths of the world's population, because height is strongly genetically heritable, and there are huge parts of the world where people are simply not that tall. While it is true that people from traditionally malnourished areas tend to be taller (and bigger) when given proper nutrition, the effects of nutrition on height are asymptotic, and run up against genes. Thus, if you are, say, Thai, a good diet will not make you 6 feet tall, so any standard of beauty that privileges women over say, 5'10" is going to inherently exclude you. This is not racist in the sense that only Northern Europeans tend to be tall (there are obviously other ethnic groups that also tend to be tall), but it is in the sense that huge portions of the world will never be able to meet this height requirement.

On clothes, yes, they are impossible to find for any woman, really, but I'm talking about difficulties most white women can't imagine. Like, I have a friend from a Nigerian ethnic group, who simply doesn't have calves. Although she is a runner, she cannot develop calves to the degree necessary for a "normally" proportioned leg in mainstream white conceptions of a leg. This means she cannot wear boots, ever. Also, her thighs are "normally" sized for a runner, so she must somehow buy pants that fit her torso and thighs normally, but then hang weirdly around the bottom part of her leg. As a result, she mainly wears skirts. Her body, which is a totally normal shape and common in Nigeria, is Othered by the fashion industry the point where she cannot wear a basic category of footwear and has difficulty wearing any pants. It's not the case of searching for a right brand, as it may be for someone else like me, but simply pants, as they exist in the US, do not work for her.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I'd be the last to argue in favor of requiring that models be tall. What I want to get into are the plusses and minuses of using 'healthy' appearance to define the standard of beauty in the fashion/beauty industry, not so much which features do, in medical reality, indicate well-being. Let's say these features were isolated - should they be the beauty standard?

The clothing-cut issue is fascinating. I'd never thought about it in ethnic terms. My only personal experience with this has been finding that Uniqlo, which many complain makes clothes for the all-around small, or in unusual proportions, attributed to its being a Japanese chain with a largely Asian clientele even in the US, is the only store I regularly find stuff that fits - perhaps there's some truth to the old Jews-as-'Orientals' claim after all.

In terms of Othering, with the hotel shampoo as with boots and pants, it's hard to picture how any one thing meant to work for all could actually do so. It's not so tough to hire models of different skin colors as to make pants for the large-and-small calved and thighed of each size. Part of the problem is our very notion of clothing 'fit' - items like jeans require fairly exact measurements all around, yet are rarely made-to-measure. While shampoo sort of is what it is, and the one that works on coarser hair will make fine hair greasy, while the one that works on fine hair will make frizzy hair frizzier, and so forth, there's no reason, certainly given newer fabrics, for clothes to have to be so particular to body type, even in order to look fitted. (I'm not suggesting togas.) Perhaps there's something to be said for the much-mocked leggings and harem pants trends after all.

Still not sure what could be done about boots, though, other than offering more widths.

Matt said...

I was thinking of the comments from "A London stylist who did not want to be named" who "shared her thoughts that",

“I am sure [British knitwear designer] Mark Fast only had good intentions when he put larger girls in his skimpy, spidery knits [last year]. But, really, all I thought when I saw the girls in the clothes is that it looked ridiculous.”

Now, I only saw one picture, and maybe the other "girls" did look "ridiculous", but the one women pictured in the article looked quite nice, I thought. I suppose others could disagree about whether the outfit looked good or whether they found the woman attractive, but I find it hard to believe a reasonable person could find it "ridiculous" for that woman to wear that particular outfit (unlike the swimming suit, about which we happily agree!)

Phoebe said...

Matt,

I see. And agreed that the models in the Mark Fast show, from the photos I've seen, looked good.

That the stylist uses "girls" to describe the models is standard, if disturbing.