September 21, 2006

"This should be an industry of beauty and luxury, not famished-looking people that look pale and sick.”

Said David Bonnouvrier (who runs a top modeling agency). There's a lot of talk about too-thin models lately, with calls to ban models who fall outside the World Health Organizations definition of normal. There are concerns that the models are damaging their own health and that they are inspiring other women to take up health-impairing practices. I note that articles on this subject, like the linked one, always include a photograph of a super-thin models who has freakishly shaped legs.

But I'm especially interested in Bonnouvier's statement. The fashion industry invites us to indulge ourselves and spend large sums of money on beautiful clothing. But it also constantly shapes and reshapes what is seen as beautiful. If this wasn't changed all the time, we wouldn't need to buy so many new clothes. The industry must be about changing our perceptions of what clothes are beautiful, and along with that comes the ability to change what we think about how the models look. Hair, makeup, facial features, body shapes -- these are all part of fashion and all part of the idea of the beautiful that the fashion industry shapes. Most of the criticism of the ultra-thin models says that it is evil for the industry to convince us that something unhealthy is beautiful. But this kind of chiding can make thinness seem rebellious and transgressive, and that will stimulate some thinsuasts.

So let me focus on this idea that to be thin is not luxurious. It doesn't fit with the invitation to self-indulgence. We're asked to love pleasure and to deny pleasure. The very thin woman embodies extreme self-denial, discipline, and abstemiousness. If we really believed in the values her thin-seeking behavior represented, we would become skinflints about spending money on luxuries. We'd become clothing minimalists. That would not be in the interest of the fashion industry.

Instead of looking at these models and trying to think up a very extreme, rigid diet for your nutrition, why not think up an extreme, rigid diet for your wardrobe? There's much less suffering involved, and you will save time and money.

20 comments:

Goesh said...

Who couldn't love Twiggy? Yet I suppose the gist of all this hearkens back to the nasty notion of dominating a woman's body, molding it so to speak, forcing it into a certain shape and genre for profit's sake. Boney broads and bucks, what a Thursday thought.

Elizabeth said...

So Red Bull, cigarettes and cocaine aren't luxury items? Probably not very nutritious, either. When I see these famine-victim models, with their bones stretching out their skin and their candy-apple heads, I think of the elegant Audrey Hepburn, whose thinness was a result of being starved as a child in war-torn Europe. She spent her life working to fight hunger.

Ann Althouse said...

Elizabeth, according to the article, a lot of those runway models really are Eastern Europeans from a poverty stricken background, but they are now driven to abstemious ways to keep their employment.

David said...

I have long suspected that those engaged in the business of haute couture are pimping skinny teenagers for advertising purposes. Usually from the former Russian Baltic countries, these models are the carrot dangled in front of certain women who buy the fashion in a plus size (0-4) and eat sprouts.

Size zero? Give me a break. Don't buy this crap and watch shows like Project Runway with a jaundiced eye!

Fenrisulven said...

I think of the elegant Audrey Hepburn, whose thinness was a result of being starved as a child in war-torn Europe.

Never knew that, and I've been in love with her most of my life. I should read more biographies.

She spent her life working to fight hunger.

We were sent into Somolia because of her [indirectly]. Bizarre for me, but appropriate.

tcd said...

A size 0 isn't really a size 0 anymore, at least not what a size 0 was 5 years ago. A size 0 now is really a size 2, a size 2 is a size 4, etc. Retailers keep doing this size downscaling b/c they think women are so fragile and shallow , they can't handle the reality of their body size. I 'm sure the practice doesn't hurt their sales numbers either.

Gerry said...

Clothing is overrated!

HaloJonesFan said...

A comment: The thing is, "too thin" can be fixed by putting on extra clothes. One thing I've noticed is that a woman can look twenty pounds heavier depending on how she dresses...and, unless they take extreme pains to do things just right, dressing won't add less than ten. So, if a woman wants to look "average", she actually has to be ten pounds underweight. So that's why these models wind up looking so terribly thin--it's because they aren't really models, they're walking mannequins, and who wants to show their clothes on a fat mannequin?

$CAV3NG3R said...

...b/c they think women are so fragile and shallow , they can't handle the reality of their body size.

Try responding truthfully to a woman, who wants to know whether she has gained weight, you might be surprised.

George said...

If I were a clever entrepreneur I would open a
his 'n' hers Cosmetic Surgery House of Domination.

Wife gets needles stuck in her lips and brow while fat-sucking hoses hoover her thighs, eyelids, and knees. All masterfully done by a Harrison Ford lookalike doctor.

Meanwhile, hubby gets a good old-fashioned nagging from Bette Davis

For a good scare, read about NY Times reporter
Alex Kuczynski's lipo obsession here...
http://www.gawker.com/news/alex-kuczynski/

altoids1306 said...

[The fashion industry] also constantly shapes and reshapes what is seen as beautiful.

I don't think so. I think female physical attractiveness (at least from a male perspective) has remained more or less constant since the dawn of time. Clear, unwrinkled skin, symmetrical features, small, pointed jawline, all signs of high health and fertility. Long, shimmering hair - which is only possible in youth.

Lots of people have pointed out that the "ideal" woman has become thinner over the years, but there are at least two reasons to explain this. One, giving the current abundance of food, fat is no longer a survival advantage. Two, with better nutrition, women reach sexual maturity even earlier - and with pheromones and whatnot, perhaps our subconscious has, quite rationally, adjusted the "ideal" to be younger and thinner.

Basically, my point is the fashion industry is powerless to change ideals of physical beauty. It is mostly driven by biology. They can change our ideas about clothing, but not about bodies.

(Having said that, I do think culture does play some role - different cultures do emphasize different aspects of beauty. And social pressures and diet can really change the weight distribution. In many East Asian countries, if you are overweight, you may not be able to sit on the subway, since the space alloted for each seat may be too small. Yet celebrities from any culture are universially recognized as beautiful, indicating that most standards of beauty are biological.)

Christy said...

"And some designers said it was misleading to equate thinness with being unhealthy and that the standard cited by the organizers in Madrid did not take into account age and puberty, which may cause a model who is unusually tall to appear frighteningly thin."

As thin as some of these girls are I wonder if they have ever had a menstrual cycle. Do you figure that makes them permanently pre-pubescent? And I thought poor nutrition stunted growth? How did they get so tall? And how does silicon count in the BMI calculations? It adds some weight, but it isn't really body mass, is it?

David Walser said...

Years ago -- we need not go into how many -- I dated a young women whom I found very beautiful. She was obsessed with being "fat". Her "vital statistics" were exactly the same as Marilyn Monroe, so I thought I'd rent Some Like It Hot to prove to my girlfriend that she was not fat. She was voluptuous. Her reaction: Marilyn was fat! She thought one of the 20th century's sexist women was chunky.

Know what? By today's standards, Marilyn was a little chunky. I prefer yesteryear's standards. It's one of life's biggest unfairities that so many women do not understand just how beautiful they truly are.

SteveR said...

I heard a fashion person recently say in essence that the idea is for the models to be like a hanger. Don't distract with any shapeliness, just walk the outfit around.

Ann Althouse said...

SteveR: That's a very common thing to say about models. In fact, Marilyn Monroe says something very similar in "Some Like It Hot." Looking at one of the men in drag, she expresses envy at how flat-chested he/she is, because clothes hang on her. It's actually true that female curves play havoc with the lines of the clothing. You may say "great!" but the fashion designer wants you to concentrate on the clothes.

DaveL said...

In our culture, elite standards of feminine beauty correspond to the sort of beauty available only to the elite.

When tans meant you did manual labor outdoors, tans weren't fashionable. When thinness meant you were poor or diseased, fatness was fashionable.

Now, if you have a tan it means you have the leisure to acquire one. If you are thin it means you have a personal trainer and don't eat at McDonald's every day.

Fashion-beauty is all about signifiers of wealth.

Bruce Hayden said...

Hey, what does more permanent damage to a body: starving it to stay thin for modeling, or professional football? I don't know that many retired professional football players, but the ones I do know have one thing in common: permanent injuries. As noted, this is a small sample, but still...

Zach said...

I read a good point on a blog somewhere: if you look at the models who are chosen to appeal to men -- women in car and beer advertisements, models on the cover of Maxim, etc. -- they're very much still in the Marilyn Monroe mold. If they're skinnier now, it might be because breast implants allow for big boobs on a skinnier form (I have no idea if that's true, but it would be interesting to read a study on it.)

The skinny models are the ones that are supposed to sell things to women.

Ann Althouse said...

Zach: Don't assume that it's the difference between men and women. It's also the difference between clothed and naked. Skinny women make the clothes look right, fluid and hanging elegantly. They don't look that good naked though. I've done a lot of figure drawing in my time in art classes, and I've seen a lot of skinny nude models. The same goes for male models too. The fashion models are thin, but you need more flesh to look good naked. As an artist, I much preferred someone who was a little heavy to someone too thin. The well-formed muscular model never seemed to show up.

Zach said...

That's a very interesting perspective.

I wonder what observations could distinguish between the two theories in the real world. Do swimsuit models in women's magazines tend to be more fleshed out than the fashion models?