Sunday, July 07, 2013

"Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn't."

Kirstie Clements is the latest fashion-industry honcho to have a public sad about the fact that models are emaciated minors. More on that in a moment.

First, as I've said on many occasions, I believe the 'think of the models' line of thought misses the big picture when it comes to women and weight. Think of the models as underage/unpaid/exploited workers, yes, absolutely. And thinking of their plight and that of ordinary women is anything but mutually exclusive - perhaps everyone stands to benefit if the ideal look isn't 12 and starving. (More on that, too, in a moment.)

But at least when a model tries to remain artificially slim, or worries tremendously about aging, this is because of her career. "Not every model has an eating disorder, but I would suggest that every model is not eating as much as she would like to," writes Clements. Replace "model" with "woman," and what changes? There are so, so many women who would never in a million years be models, often if for no other reason than they're decades past the cutoff age and far shorter than 5'10", obsessing about their food intake, simply because they feel they must, that this is what it is to be a woman. Not because there's any kind of prize for them at the end of it. My sense is that the intense focus on the models themselves comes from this being a more, well, photogenic problem. A normal-looking 38-year-old (or 88-year-old) woman struggling to maintain 130 when she'd be healthier at 150 just doesn't say Fashion, or something. The daintily young-and-tragic are, it seems, the ones even very concerned readers prefer to hear about.

Anyway, Clements's article is part exposé (of what everyone already knew - models may be naturally thin, but not naturally that thin), part damage-control. She doesn't want to accept the blame for the skinny-model problem. She seems to have it in for Anna Wintour, although that bit of the piece feels quite gratuitous and tacked-on. 

One is clearly supposed to read the article as a somber revelation about a serious issue, maybe even the stirrings before a revolution of sorts. But I just can't seem to do so.

For me, the trouble began with this bit: "When I first began dealing with models in the late 1980s we were generally drawing from a pool of local girls, who were naturally willowy and slim, had glowing skin, shiny hair and loads of energy."

I mean, maybe? If this is simply to contrast how it once was with the rise of heroin chic, perhaps. There are more women naturally built like supermodel-era Cindy Crawford than like Anonymous Slavic Waif #302. But a) not everyone with an eating disorder looks all that emaciated, and b) any time you have people getting paid to be "willowy and slim," you can expect artifice contributing to that cause. "Glowing skin" might well mean tanning beds, and good products can make hair shine. Just because the model look is relatively attainable doesn't mean that those who have it (again, all the more so if it's their job) aren't going to dangerous lengths to achieve it. I mean, having lived through the 1990s, I guarantee that the supposedly 'healthy' supermodels in media images contributed to making women and girls plenty insecure about their appearances.

Also, "girls"? Why should models of clothing for adults be "girls"?

And here, though, Clements really lost me: "It cannot be denied that visually, clothes fall better on a slimmer frame, but there is slim, and then there is scary skinny."

Sure it can. Here's how: visually, clothes fall better on a frame the clothing is cut to fit. If designers recognized breasts and hips the way the seem capable of recognizing limbs, we'd be getting somewhere. (An E-cup bra isn't going to "fall" so well on an A-cup woman.) That, or we're looking at a circular argument about thinness being more attractive. I mean, it's been defined as more attractive, so those who are thinner are, at this moment in time, at an advantage. But it's not some kind of essential fact. 

And Clements continues along those lines, as if it's objectively true that chic only works for a certain build:
As a Vogue editor I was of the opinion that we didn't necessarily need to feature size 14-plus models in every issue. It is a fashion magazine; we are showcasing the clothes. I am of the belief that an intelligent reader understands that a model is chosen because she carries clothes well. Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn't. I see no problem with presenting a healthy, toned, Australian size 10 [UK 8-10].
This is already sending us down the wrong road. Once "fashion" and "showcasing the clothes" requires the non-having of curves, that rules out not merely the overweight (who - to be clear - should not be ruled out in the first place), but also the vast majority of thin women. How is it possible to read this without thinking that "healthy" and "toned" are just euphemisms for straight-up-and-down? Is a non-vanity-sizing size 6 (what I take this to mean, in US terms) on a very tall woman the epitome of "healthy" or "toned," or is it more like the extreme edge of that, as in, a few women will be those things at that size, but a lot would be healthier and more toned if a good bit wider?

As long as a typical female build is defined as ruinous to clothes, as long as models must be incredibly tall and a dress size commonly worn by thin women nearly a foot shorter than they are, what changes? Well, what changes is, the "ideal" goes up by about five pounds, two years, with everyone all the more convinced that there's something edgy and exciting about those younger and slimmer than what the mags allow. With everyone all the more convinced that it's desirable to look like a skeletal preadolescent.

Which is, after all, what's driving this. Many women want to look younger and thinner, so even if few women really want to look like starving children, a starving child (in expensive clothes; preferably without the daughter from "All in the Family" asking for donations) brings out whichever insecurities, and thus the credit cards.

Clements apparently doesn't object to the notion that models should remain a very specific and mostly unattainable size, only that the size is as small as it is:
A model who puts on a few kilos can't get into a sample size on a casting and gets reprimanded by her agency. She begins to diet, loses the weight, and is praised by all for how good she looks. But instead of staying at that weight, and trying to maintain it through a sensible diet and exercise, she thinks losing more will make her even more desirable. And no one tells her to stop.
To me, this sounds like utter nonsense. If the desired weight was below the girl/woman's natural set point, there's nothing "sensible" she can do to maintain it. As every adolescent girl on a diet in the history of adolescent girls on diets knows, once you split what you eat from what you feel like eating (plus more vegetables than you might prefer, because health), anything goes. I'm not sure how easy it is to diet down to some artificial point, and then maintain that weight, rather than yoyo-ing all over the place, even if kale and green juices are involved, and caffeine and nicotine avoided. Indeed, one reason some grown women choose not to diet is... vanity. If you're comfortable at a certain weight, struggling to weigh just a bit less may well backfire and cause you to weigh however much more.

And in any case, is it really that much better to idolize the 5'10" and 110 lbs than the 5'10" and 105? It may make it a little bit more likely that the models themselves are in good health (although plenty maintain that size via dangerous artifice), but does it make that much of a difference for ordinary women, who will look nothing like these women (girls) regardless?

In a perverse sense, knowing that the "ideal" is so ridiculously not-gonna-happen, knowing that there are maybe three dozen good reasons why we're not it, before we even get to questions like whether or not we are, in ordinary situations, easy on the eyes, is something of a relief. It's all been Photoshopped, the models are like seven years old, and they're not even allowed pasta. It all just feels so irrelevant.

It's difficult to come away from the piece without wondering if Clements's main objection to the current width of models isn't that maintaining it actually makes them bad models - lacking the energy and other physical attributes (hair-shininess, good skin) needed for the job. That, or I'm far too cynical where this particular issue is concerned.

1 comment:

Petey said...

"the models are like seven years old, and they're not even allowed pasta"

Can't we just contact Child Protective Services on that basis alone?

It really does seem worth a public sad...