For decades social activists, wellness crusaders and ordinary women the world over have waged war against the unrealistic body standards perpetuated by the advertising media, used to sell us fashion. The images are powerful and dangerous, designed to send – and sell – the message that whatever you see in them is to be desired. It’s a double-edged sword, for as these images typically present a narrow definition of appeal, they imply that anything falling outside of the often implausible parameters can be (or should be?) viewed as undesirable, or worse, unacceptable. Contrarily, fashion today seems to celebrate individuality through style and progressively, in body types. Are we finally beginning to see cracks in the fun house mirror that is fashion’s body ideal?
French Designer Jean Patou was the first to choose models based on the lifestyle and body shape of his desired customer in 1924; using lean, athletic American models for a sport collection. He was met with disapproval when he brought them over for a show in Europe, but was emulated over the next few years by many of his peers. Presenting your customer with a relatable model was the norm before presenting her with an unattainable fantasy became the ‘rule’. My earliest memory of fashion’s deference of common, ordinary physiques in favour of the slightest limbs and the tiniest waists is an old tabloid picture of Kate Moss. A skinny girl with her head down and hand up, walking away from photographers is framed by a loud, sensational headline. She had a slender frame, blonde hair, arresting eyes and cheekbones that would not quit (and still haven’t). She was intriguing, unconventional, and provocative. She was and is a darling of the fashion world, but for all our envy and discontent, even Kate Moss is not perfect by their standards. At 1.68 meters Kate’s not that tall… she’s not short either, but fashion’s immoderate height and size standards mean that she doesn’t have as many runway meters under her belt as some of her supermodel peers.
The problems don’t stop with size and height. They continue into the area of ethnicity where the colour of your skin or the texture of your hair can mean the difference between being ushered into the high fashion sect or having the door slammed in your supposedly substandard face. Non-Caucasian models are all too familiar with this particular brand of discrimination, an issue that has gotten a lot of attention over the past few seasons. There is also the issue of irregularities- ranging from simple markings on the skin to malformed and paralyzed limbs, present in and on many women, but never represented in advertising because someone(s) decided that an imperfection cannot be beautiful. Don’t even get me started on body proportions: considering the myriad of shapes represented in the female population, the product offering that serves any shape other than the flavour of the decade is outrageously sparse.
These are problems we know we can no longer leave unaddressed. If a model is the average height, or complexion, or shape of the customer, why wouldn’t you put her in your show? Isn’t the point to make your customer want your product rather than having her spend all her time and energy pining for a body she may never have? Isn’t a designer’s bottom line better served by a model the customer can actually relate to?
Overall, I see a crack in the mirror. It is small, but it is there. It is in the Diesel campaign featuring a paraplegic fashion blogger. It is in the unaltered photos of a model who wouldn’t meet most industry standards in the new Aerie Lingerie campaign. The definition of ‘ideal’ is widening and will continue to because people won’t let it close up again; shutting out beauty that doesn’t check all the boxes of whatever ridiculously specific list is hot this decade. Here’s the kicker though: wider cracks will not solve the problem. Truth is, we are all comfortable with the idea of having a body ideal. We are unmindful of any other way to be, but there isn’t a single reason we should need or even want a universal standard for a beautiful body at all. We’re trying to break up the mirror and give everyone a piece, when what we should really do is smash it, Jimi Hendricks style. The day we toss out the idea of a beauty standard and go back to the point – reflect the product’s market demographic to itself – is the day we start to change our industry; the day we start undoing the damage done to the self-confidence of women everywhere.
This article was written and submitted by Modupe Oloruntoba Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Modupe was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.