Thursday, May 13, 2010

A tale of suffering overcome UPDATED

The Sartorialist, reacting to a woman he's just photographed for his street-style blog: "To me, this is such a great reminder to stop obsessing about my own personal imperfections and start highlighting the little gifts."

What, one might wonder, is "imperfect" about this woman? Perhaps she weighs 400 pounds, or is elderly, or has a disfiguring skin disease? Perhaps she's been in some kind of accident? Is she - god forbid - non-Aryan? In what way does her physical appearance stray from the norms of conventional beauty? What great obstacle did she overcome through well-chosen and well-styled garments, so as to be featured on a blog devoted to the well-dressed, as opposed to the simply nice-to-look-at?

How horrible: the poor dear, a young German woman, is 5'1"* and "curvy." She's wearing a huge Freaks and Geeks-style army jacket, so you're expected to take his word re: curves; it goes without saying she's photographed from an angle that makes her height tough to determine. Her face is kind of high-fashion Angelina Jolie, and because it's the Sartorialist, she's holding a cigarette rather than, say, grocery bags. She has long, straight, shiny, light brown hair that looks to be cut by someone who knew what they were doing. If the text accompanying the image didn't shout THIS IS NOT A MODEL, 99 out of 100 observers would assume this was a photograph of a woman paid for her good looks.

The Sartorialist post is part of what could well be a trend of what might best be described as faux-body-positivity, in which classically beautiful women are presented as somehow having made it into the public eye despite an "unconventional" appearance. The runway model who was always too lanky. The slim-but-busty "real, everyday girl" (how the Sartorialist describes his subject) who can't be squeezed into a sample size. Because there are roughly two types of conventional beauty (scrawny-Estonian-preadolescent and hourglass-bee-stung-lipped-22-year-old), no one woman fits both, so it's possible to say of absolutely every model or actress that she's being featured despite not quite measuring up. And this does what, precisely, for women who are in fact of average appearance?

*Is shorter-than-average stature understood as detracting from female beauty enough for this to be a feature in spite of which a woman might be considered attractive? I would press the instantly-taller button if such a thing existed, but more because it would make riding the subway more pleasant (i.e. who likes being at armpit level or worse?) and make it easier to walk down the street without people not seeing me and walking into me and just generally make me more intimidating-looking than because I think this would improve my looks. I also find models intimidating more because of how gosh darn tall they are (especially in those heels!) than because of their facial features or slimness. Thoughts? Isabel Archer, say?


Or consider the 16-year-old model who, though taller and thinner than most could dream of, was told to lose weight if she wants to make it in the biz. I mean, yes, it sucks that skeletal is so highly valued. But maybe rather than being aghast that such a young girl is being told she has to diet, we could be bothered by the fact that 16 is the age of the 'women' modeling women's clothing? Maybe, rather than focusing body-issues discussions on women a millimeter away from perfection...


Matt said...

5'1" is short, but not so short that it even stands out that much, I'd guess. But you can tell yourself, "At least I'm not wearing such ugly, stupid looking boots."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

What's wrong with the boots? Not that I'd need such heels at the grand height of 5'2"!

Matt said...

What's wrong with the boots?

We'll, let's say they're not silver clogs. ;) More seriously, though, they look heavy and uncomfortable and like silly rave style stuff. If it's to make her look taller, I'd think that this sort of obvious over-compensation doesn't fool anyone and just draws attentions to people's hang-ups. (I also am not crazy about the sheep-dog haircut, but I guess there's a fashion for that look these days.)

Isabel Archer said...

Since I've been called specifically to respond -- yes, if there were a taller button, I'd definitely press it.

I don't think there's much beauty stigma to being a short female generally, though I do think there is one in certain segments of the fashion industry/the segment of the world that dotes on models. I've never found that my low height's much impediment in being considered attractive to actual men of my own acquaintance, for example. It may even be an advantage: women taller than me often overlook shorter men with attractive faces, etc., which works to my benefit. This has everything to do with the needs of the fashion industry -- most clothing looks best on a tall, thin frame -- and little to do with many people find otherwise attractive.

Yet I spent a lot of time feeling insecure about my height in middle and high school because I understood that fashion models were supposed to be among the most beautiful women in the world. Fashion models also had to be tall. So, by not unreasonable syllogistic logic, beautiful = tall, which I decidedly was not much to my consternation. That actual humans thought otherwise, for the reasons I alluded to above, was very much a pleasant surprise.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Isabel Archer,

Thanks for responding! (I chose you because of all the blogs I read written by women of around my height, yours was the only one where the last two posts referenced shortness specifically.) Your experience is quite similar to mine - men really don't seem to prefer tall women. I mean, some do, but I haven't found this feature a real obstacle.

As for the "most clothing looks best on a tall, thin frame" issue - I can't decide if this true in some objective sense, or if it's that somewhere along the way the industry decided this (perhaps with fabric costs in mind), and began designing clothing accordingly. But if "model" equaled a more Scarlett Johannsson-like physique, then lankier women would be complaining that fashion worked best on women who could fill out clothes properly.