Role Models?

We’ve all heard the terms “fat shaming” and “thinspiration.” We’ve also heard women being scrutinized for being either “too skinny” or “too overweight” because it has been going on for decades. It is undeniable that most women in the modeling industry are very thin; thinner than 99.9 percent of the general population. More recently however, our society has introduced “plus size-modeling” which glorifies women who have fuller figures or who may be considered overweight by American standards. I think the question we should really be asking ourselves is “What kinds of messages do we want to be sending out and promoting as a culture?”
The term “thinspiration” refers to the use of a photograph as a method of inspiration for weight-loss. The images are often of dangerously underweight women. Last year, thinspiration was at the core of a pro-anorexia issue on the social networking site Pinterest. The site received accusations that it fosters an environment in which pro-anorexia supporters can too easily share dangerous content. Also last month, Franca Sozzani, the editor of Vogue Italia, admitted that the fashion industry was to blame in part for the ongoing rise of eating disorders.
So what makes a model? Ken Mok, the executive producer of America’s Next Top Model stated “It’s a happy breakthrough for us, in the sense of hoping that we can have an effect on the industry that embraces the skinny white girl.”. It has been argued that there’s room for tons of different types of people in the world to model. It has to do with certain features that a company may be looking for at any given time, being in the right place at the right time, and being able to successfully sell the product in question.
We all know that “fat-shaming” is wrong. No one should be disadvantaged or ridiculed for their weight. In recent years, high-profile cases of fattism, from Karl Lagerfeld,. A German fashion designer, to Abercrombie & Fitch, have caused public outrage. Positive progress, certainly. However, what about the flipside? : Why is skinny-shaming OK, if fat-shaming is not? When asked if he feels responsible for the health of the models he works with, the creative director replies, “I can tell you all kinds of moral tales, but fashion and reality are vaguely different.” But should they be?
What might not help the situation is another under-addressed topic, which is the unhealthy growth in the opposite direction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 36 percent of American adults over the age of 20 are obese and 33 percent of us are considered overweight. That means that 69 percent of America needs to lose weight in order to achieve optimal health. This is also reflected in women’s view of themselves. A recent Gallup poll reveals that the average woman today feels as if she is 22 pounds over her “ideal weight.” Statistics show that 60 per cent of teenage girls in this country are overweight, and 20 per cent of young mothers are obese. So the other side of the coin presents an issue not discussed as much which is the heavier side of the modeling industry. A concern that many have raised is the relative question of “What is a plus size model?” In most modeling circles, plus size is considered anything over a size 2. But couldn’t one argue that plus size shouldn’t reflect anything under a size 10 or 11, similarly to how the sizes in department stores run? Perhaps we need to redefine our terms here.
Many people who have introduced this concept have been accused repeatedly of “fat shaming” these women. But should it really be considered shaming? Our society is very quick to discuss anorexia, bulimia and the dangers that go along with being underweight or too thin, yet for some reason, the health concerns that go along with being overweight are not mentioned half as often. In many instances, being obese or overweight is considered a disability where being underweight is considered a choice. This should not be the case as both sides are undeniably a public health issue.
I was reading a story recently about a woman in her 20’s who had anonymously submitted an article to a magazine about an experience she had had a few years prior while working in publishing. In short, she described attending weekly commissioning meetings in the boardroom and there being platters of pastries along the table. She described one of her senior colleagues – a lovely woman in her 50s – would always urge her, loudly, to have a croissant. She would urge me and say: “Look, she’s nothing but skin and bone!” The fact that this woman was deeply anorexic and that her colleague was overweight was irrelevant. The writer was alluding to the sad but true fact that her colleague was drawing attention to her size in a way that would have been unacceptable had she done the same to in return. I’m well aware I’m skating on thin ice writing this article but rather than picking only one side, I am trying to draw attention to both extremes being unhealthy and throwing out the concept of health and balance to our society. When you think about it, what could be more irritating than a thin person describing another person as fat? And yet – for a moment – think about how we describe thinness: skinny, angular, emaciated, bony, skeletal, lollipop-head. These terms are tossed around in the media quite casually, without the caution we must now use in our references to fat. Just as the terms use to reference overweight people can be seen as offensive, the same goes for those who are looked upon as skinny. This woman willingly shared that in her own life, she had been called a skinny bitch, a body fascist, and a fat-Nazi and was informed regularly that men “love something to grab on to”, and that “curves” are sexier than skeletons. For her, facing up to the health consequences really helped her in the end but regardless, society in general should learn to be more compassionate because you never truly know what is going on in someone else’s life; much less in their own body.
Situations like those above happen to girls-particularly young girls-more often than not. Some women can “shrug it off” easier because they have confidence and a solid upbringing, but not everyone has been that fortunate and even for those who have, it’s hard not to feel ostracized at least some of the time, especially when one is constantly barraged with body-image reminders on the job, in the media, at stores and across the internet. The more pressing question really is “Why can’t our society promote a healthy body image while avoiding extremes on either end of the spectrum while sending out the message to young girls that it is better to create a balance when it comes to your health and your weight?” For example the Dove campaign for Real Beauty Initiative celebrates real women promotes the idea of “yes someone may need to lose a few pounds,” but for health reasons rather than vanity.
I think that the acceptance of diversity and a wide range of appearances that celebrate the healthy image of women is a fantastic start. No image that could cause harm to a human being should ever be glorified or considered glamorous. We need a greater push from all members of that industry: advertisers, clients, designers, agents, models, media and regular consumers. Though fashion can’t take all the blame for all insecurities of body image that plague the world, it does fall into the sociocultural factor that influences the way women view their bodies in society. It is a part of the problem, but it can also be a part of the solution. Here in America, we have the opportunity to use our voice and our images for the greater good but will enough people be brave enough to take a stand?

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