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Fan email: You are not alone

Lauren, a fan of this site, sent me the following article to let me know that that I am not the only person to have made some of the core arguments presented here.  Although it dates to 2002, it is worth reproducing here.  I have bolded some parts that point out some of the key issues mentioned within this site, and have added a few comments (in italics).

Fashion for the few

- Birgitte Wulff (22 December, 2002)

Women are constantly being bombarded with signals indicating that they ought to be skinny, but they risk dying in the attempt, says Dr. Petersen.

In the twenties, the typical ‘Miss America’ contestant was 1.60 metres tall and weighed 63 kilos. By 1990, she was 16 cm taller – but had lost 10 kilos. A glance at the home page of a model agency reveals that today she is not much taller – but her weight keeps going down. A typical fashion model is just under 1.80 metres, wears size 7 shoes and weighs just over 50 kilos.

One of the implications is that designers do not want to make clothes larger than a certain size, and the general conception of how we are supposed to look is changing. Models keep moving away from what is considered ‘ordinary’.

“We are gradually being given to understand that ‘medium size’ is actually too large. It gives us a distorted picture of the way our body is supposed to look,” says Tove Petersen, medical advisor to the Danish National Board of Health.

There is not much of Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot left in today’s fashion models. Big breasts and full hips went out ages ago and the ‘sticks’ that jerk their way along the catwalks all over the world would actually be judged underweight – if doctors were asked for an opinion.

Today’s models may be popular with the designers, but the boyish look has created a somewhat different image in the rest of the world. Never before have models been so skinny, and European health authorities are worried about the impact on ordinary girls’ self-perception caused by TV serials and advertising.

Bombarded with Signals

Both in the USA and in Europe, some models have gone much too far to meet the tough demands and have resorted to illegal diet products, emetics, diuretic pills and amphetamines to achieve the ‘ideal’ look of a pubescent boy. Their eating habits – or the lack of them – make them look like lollipops.

“It is unhealthy for women to be bombarded with signals indicating that they ought to be skinny, but there is a risk that they will die in the attempt,” says Dr. Petersen.

Ten years ago, Spain was unfamiliar with the term anorexia, a disease that causes girls – and boys for that matter – to starve themselves to a degree where their bodies become nothing but pricking bones. The ultimate consequence may be infertility and irreparable damage to the heart and bones.

Today there are 23 anorexia patients’ associations in Spain alone, and some 1.5 percent of all Western European women suffer it to some degree. Only half of them are ever cured; the other half will suffer from eating disorders for the rest of their lives – which for some will be very short.

Luxury of Dirt

In the eighties, magazines were filled with shapely models such as Cindy Crawford. The ideal woman was healthy and strong, models glittered and glowed, and jogging, salad and mineral water was the dish of the day.

Comment: Whereas supermodels such as Cindy Crawford were not skinny, the norm among high-fashion models in the 1980s and 1990s was skinny and skinnier than during the 1950s-1970s.  

But the nineties saw the fashion world do a U-turn. The ‘Luxury of Dirt’ became fashionable, and designers looked to crude drug environments for inspiration. The girls on the catwalk were no longer healthy and self-confident women, but skeleton-like figures with expressionless eyes and sloppy hair. It was quite a disaster when Calista Flockhart appeared as the star of the American TV serial Ally. At first she was just very slim – but later on she became so skinny that rumours had it she actually suffered from anorexia.

About the same time, major magazines replaced their front page models with film stars. As they are normally somewhat older than fashion models, they have to take more drastic measures to maintain the shape of their youth. Jennifer Aniston of Friends and Spice Girl Victoria Adams are just two of these girls who are suspected of starving their bodies to preserve their young look.

According to psychologists, the unmistakable signals emerging from TV stars and pop singers have a significant impact on young people.

Pressure from Designers

But who made the ‘dream girl’ so sickeningly abnormal?

Helene Venge, Marketing Manager of Levi Strauss, finds that designers and dressmakers are to blame:

“Fashion models always were slimmer than average. But when it suddenly becomes normal to drop all curves and to look like very young girls, this is partly due to their own perception of the model image. Nevertheless, the worst pressure comes from dressmakers and fashion designers.”

Other fashion houses attribute the trend to other factors. Says Ulrik Wang, Marketing Co-ordinator of the InWear Group: “I do not believe the pressure comes from designers. The ultra-thin look is most pronounced among actors and musicians who become models, and they have their own idea of what a model should look like. Also, they are typically older than the other models and may find it difficult to live up to the ideal.”

Comment: How many actors and models become high-fashion models?  Surely not a lot.  Liar (or fool), the actors/musicians who become slender are influenced by the skinniness of high-fashion models in the first place.

Europe is the Pioneer

When talking of anorexia in the fashion world, American movie stars are the first to come to mind. But the sinister, crude fashion picture actually emerged in Europe first:

“Europe is the pioneer of fashion, and particularly in the major cities models have been under huge pressure. But Americans are more obsessed with eternal youth, and that is probably why we see more of the extremely skinny models in the USA,” says Kaj Brøndum, Marketing Manager of Diesel.

Comment: This large study of Americans shows that they overwhelmingly find the typically skinniness of high-fashion models socially unacceptable.  The most plausible explanation of Brøndum's observation is that with a large population in the U.S., larger than any European nation, and the tendency of gays to disproportionately migrate to major metropolitan areas, places like New York City end up with a huge number of homosexuals, which makes it easier for them to more thoroughly dominate the fashion business.     

He is not surprised that the raw look has gained such popularity in the clothing industry.

“I think it is an expression of the overall trend in the nineties. Furniture, fashion and design have been characterised by minimalism and sharpness, but fortunately new signals are on the way. They have more warmth and shape.”

Comment: It is not some vague notion of minimalism, but the gay influence making itself felt more strongly.  Between the time this article was written (2002) and the present (2007), there have been no new signals suggesting a shift toward femininity; there were even some high-profile malnutrition-related deaths of high-fashion models in 2006.

He believes that every action generates a reaction and has no doubt that the skeleton-like boyish body is yesterday’s news. Once again the fashion trade dictates feminism. “As a matter of fact, clothes do not look better on these skinny models. On the contrary, a pair of jeans fits better on round buttocks, and in general the difference between models has become more important than their weight. And then they are slightly older than we have previously seen,” says Brøndum.

Comment: Unfortunately, more than four years later, the skeletal boyish body is not yesterday’s news, and authorities have had to intervene in Spain and Italy to force healthier weight standards among high-fashion models.

The InWear Group, which also markets Martinique menswear, confirms that the models of the new decade will be much stronger and more feminine than we have seen before. Comments Ulrik Wang:

“Our models must be feminine and have a twinkle in their eyes – they must have personality. Of course, they must be extremely slim, but they must have bodily shapes and not look like boys.”

Comment: Extremely slim and yet feminine?  I doubt he has this is mind.  The new decade is over two-thirds over and coming across many feminine high-fashion models remains a difficult task.

A distorted Picture

According to the InWear Group and Diesel, the new signals are partly due to the fact that the fashion trade in general has been accused of treating models badly – and particularly of encouraging a distorted picture of the female body. Fashion designers are therefore now responding by underlining the natural. And yet, as a rule, models are not natural. They may have escaped the tyranny of weight for a while, but the fight for supreme beauty is still there:

“I think that models have become less hysterical about their weight – on the other hand, we now see a lot of cosmetic operations. Bigger lips and breasts in particular,” says Inwear’s Ulrik Wang.

Comment: I don’t buy into models having become less hysterical about their weight.

Different Models

But at the same time something different has slipped into the fashion world. Alexander McQueen was one of the designers who first introduced the ‘drugs look’. Usually at the cutting edge of fashion whims, he has once again managed to create a sensation in the fashion world. Last summer, he brought fame to American disabled sports star Aimee Mullins by introducing her as a model in his big fashion show. Aimee, who has had both legs amputated at the knee, is now one of the world’s most popular models, filling the most famous magazines’ front covers despite her disability – as well being a frequent guest in several American talk shows.

Benetton has made a point of featuring special models for years; models who are not exactly classical – but rather conspicuous. And they have made an impact on the trade as such.
Supermodel Cindy Crawford has revealed that fashion magazines used to retouch photos of her to cover the birthmark at the corner of her mouth because it ‘disfigured’ her face.

Today, unexpected pictures appear in big international magazines. Models with characteristics which have never before been displayed in the otherwise spotless fashion world. Fx girls with strawberry marks in the face and artificial legs.

“British models have been in for some time, being so special with their pale skin and red hair. But now the trend is going even further. In Europe, models have to look different – either because designers want to catch people’s attention or to show us that human beings are different. Unfortunately, I tend to believe the first,” concludes Levi Strauss’ Helene Venge.

Comment: Fashion designers occasionally deviate from the norm to attract attention toward their designs.  This does not mean that they would voluntary shift, in the long-term, the central tendency among high-fashion models toward greater femininity.