Thursday, August 02, 2012

"[I]t’s a specific aesthetic—slim, muscular, flat, I loved that."

Has anyone else noticed the extent to which body type, which for the most part is a case of you've got what you've got, gets confused with style, which is about which clothes and makeup you buy and how you, well, style that? More specifically, that curviness is interpreted to be an attempt at looking sexy/obvious, whereas a slim, straight-up-and-down build is meant to be seeking out a look that's demure and understated?

It's as if these traits - naturally-occurring in most cases - conveyed intent. Not necessarily in terms of sexual behavior - we're all evolved enough to have absorbed the message that cleavage need not announce availability, or sophisticated enough to understand that buttoned-up doesn't necessarily signal unavailability - but in terms of style. A woman with an hourglass physique, whatever her bedroom activities or lack thereof, is thought to dress to please men, whereas the more straight-up-and-down have the option of dressing for other women/for themselves. Gamine insouciance vs. Snooki, this, we imagine, isn't merely styling, but is the result of a choice each woman makes about what arrangement she'd prefer her flesh to take.

No doubt this comes from some unstated starting point, that the only women up for discussion - the only of any possible interest - are the very young, or those with "gamine" builds, women who either choose to go the padding-or-silicone route or not. The only "curves" that might happen among this set of women-well-girls are those the owner of said curves actively sought out, as though "double D's" were not a naturally-occurring phenomenon, but something akin to press-on hot-pink nails, a choice for which women might be deemed uncouth. Sort of like when dark skin is understood as "tan" and thus artifice and denounced in favor of pallor, or when voluminous hair is interpreted to mean a "perm" has taken place, and those with big hair are urged to go "natural," as if on all women this will mean a subtly stringy, Kate Moss 'do.

This post, by the way, was inspired by the Into the Gloss interview with Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Amy Astley. This bit specifically:

I was a very serious ballet dancer—I was professionally trained from about age 11 until 18, and I wasn’t quite good enough to make it as a dancer. So my real icons were ballerinas—Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland, Patricia McBride, I could go on and on. I was fascinated with their stage makeup, and of course they have those bodies. That ballerina body is very thin, it’s flat-chested; it’s a specific aesthetic—slim, muscular, flat, I loved that. They were probably the ultimate beauty influence for me as a teen when I was training. I didn’t want to have a big chest, or be sexy, like other girls. It was all about being as little as you could be. I was a bunhead—Black Swan minus the drama. 
For teens to aspire to now…I think Alexa Chung gets its right. Partly because she’s an ex-model, she’s got that going for her—that lanky body that photographs really beautifully…but I just like her tossed off hair. It’s chopped, she lets her natural texture come out, she doesn’t look tortured with blow dryers or straightening irons or anything. She is sexy, obviously very sexy, but in a fresh and kind of tomboy-ish way. There’s nothing worse for me than seeing young girls trying to be sexy; it’s just so painful. 
"It was all about being as little as you could be." Shaking it up, indeed.

While it probably is liberating to some skinny, pale, and flat-haired girls that they don't need to go the Dolly Parton route, who depending their age and circumstances might not yet have picked up on the fact that their look is celebrated by the fashion industry, there's something awfully disingenuous about presenting this approach - one that effectively denies the existence of naturally voluminous young girls - as some kind of female empowerment.


caryatis said...

"No doubt this comes from some unstated starting point, that the only women up for discussion - the only of any possible interest - are the very young, or those with "gamine" builds, women who either choose to go the padding-or-silicone route or not."

And the rich--women who plausibly, perhaps with some financial sacrifice, could just buy big breasts if they wanted them, so that such women tend to think of being curvaceous as something they have _chosen_ not to do, and therefore something other women must have _chosen_ tastelessly to indulge in.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure I follow. There are rich and not-so-rich women paying for breast enlargements. Thus the women for whom the surgery would be possible, albeit with sacrifice/debt, are also choosing not to have it done. And the padded-bra approach is not especially financially prohibitive.

There's definitely a class element to all of this, though, with it being thought low-brow (or nouveau-riche) to pay for big breasts or enhance in less permanent ways, and with that notion carrying over to all large-breastedness, even that which came naturally.

caryatis said...

I was saying that poor or middle-class women would be less likely to consider plastic surgery a realistic possibility. So maybe for them the aspirational luxury is the surgery...while slightly higher on the class scale, ideas of taste come into play in order to distinguish between the people who can afford surgery versus the people who can afford surgery _but know better_.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It's an interesting idea, but it's evidently not the mostly the rich getting these surgeries in the first place.

Jame said...

One of the myriad of reasons I never looked to fashion mags as a representation of how I should look. I was excluded at birth, and my list of exclusions just kept growing. I am african american, average height, curvy, and muscular. I couldn't look like that without a body transplant.

Fashion is extremely exclusionist. On the rare occasion I see someone of my skin tone, they have crazy makeup on. I will never see someone with my body type. It is a useless pursuit.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That's precisely why personal-style and street-style blogs can be so wonderful. Not always - sometimes it's the dreaded "models off-duty" approach - but these sites can show that it's possible to have fun with self-expression-through-dress without having the build or any of the other features of runway models.