Every February, New York City hosts an international extravaganza of fashion. Year after year, despite an increasing amount of public protest and outrage about the lack of size diversity among the models, the images associated with Fashion Week remain unchanged. Recently, however, Israel decided to ban models who have a BMI under 18.5%, Denmark is considering the same course of action, and fashion shows in Madrid and Milan have disallowed models on the runway with BMIs below 18 and 18.5 respectively, citing that a 5’8″ model with a BMI of 18.5 would weigh about 119 pounds; sustaining that weight may demand disordered eating behaviors. These restrictions hope to curtail the increasing percentage of young women who suffer from eating disorders.
Granted, correlation does not always mean causation nor is the use of BMI as a measure of health without controversy, but there is a belief that the unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty in fashion magazines has resulted in a marked increase of young girls developing eating disorders.
So I suppose because of those advancements, I had been hopeful that more size diversity would be represented this year other than the typical token token plus-sized model. Sadly, I found that the facial expressions of the models continued to be surly, their affect appeared even more detached, and exposed cheek, rib, and collarbones were more pronounced than ever.
Another annual tradition in February is the New York Times’ special fashion magazine section insert illustrating the highlights of Fashion Week. This year was no exception and was predictably filled with page after page of photographs featuring redundantly identical looking models clad in the creations of the major international fashion houses. As I thumbed through this big, glossy publication looking and hoping for any exceptions to the rule, none were found.
I flashed back to my teenage years when I would go through this same ritual in my living room in New York feeling desperate to grow six inches taller and lose fifty pounds so that I too could look like the women in the magazine. There was not one model who came close to resembling my short, curvy body, which meant I was destined to NEVER be fashionable. EVER. It is amazing how tangible and painful those memories still feel decades later, and I winced when I thought about all the years I suffered trying to conform.
I don’t always look at the magazine anymore, but this year I was optimistic. Maybe because of the Israeli decision or maybe because in my work exposes me to incremental advances in size acceptance, I wanted to see if these changes were evident in a more mainstream publication. Mostly, though, it was because I had hoped that what I saw on the cover of the magazine was a harbinger of what I would find inside the Feb. 17, 2013 issue.
- In a milieu where the average age of models appears to be predominantly teens with a smattering of geriatrics in their early twenties, seeing the 79 year old grand dame Lee Radziwill, sister of Jaqueline Kennedy-Onassis, unapologetically looking her age in a fashion magazine; well, it was a delightful change. Yes, she was tall, rail thin, and hence labeled elegant, but perhaps this would be just one image of many challenging the stereotype of the fashion model having to be one age range and one size; it was a hope that dissipated rapidly.
R(Age) Before Beauty
I lead workshops for women on body image, redefining beauty, and eating disorder prevention and one of the topics that emerges each and every time is how right alongside the pressure by the media for women to be thin is the demand to be young. Aging, the unavoidable result of not dying, is being sold as the enemy of beauty and hence the enemy of women’s self-esteem and perception of efficacy in a world that still equates beauty and success as inseparable. In the race to generate money, the amount being made by selling self-hate manifested by natural signs of aging is galloping down the home stretch, neck and wrinkled neck with the money being made by selling fat hate. Creams, lotions, diet/nutritional tips, no-fail exercise regimens, and of course surgery, all promise to reclaim and retain the youthful appearance women are desperate to maintain. And while the increase in eating disorders among men is sadly growing, it is important to differentiate how weight problems are discussed when it comes to men and women.
Working out to justify eating the foods you love. Foods may include but are not limited to: Bacon, nachos, and burgers. Did we mention bacon? So tasty! Are you on a guyet?
Mr. Meggisson writes eloquently about the phenomenon in The Ethical Adman:
“‘Guyet’ is a way of life. It’s not about indulging in crappy food all the time, it’s about exercising properly so you can rationalize eating things you love, like burgers with bacon,” he says of the insight behind the campaign. The key line: “This isn’t some diet – and this isn’t some diet beer.”
He continues to clarify:
There’s a very simple thing going on here: things associated with women are NOT-FOR-MEN, so anything that rings feminine must be covered in bacon, dipped in beer batter, and fried-masculinized.
…Importantly, this isn’t just about maintaining a strong distinction between men and women, it’s about maintaining gender inequality. We disparage and demean femininity, which is why men want to avoid it. Dieting is stupid ’cause girls and everything associated with girls is stupid. Guyeting is awesome ’cause guys are awesome.
…This is a layer of gender inequality above and beyond sexism, the privileging of men over women; it’s androcentrism, the privileging of the masculine over the feminine.
So even though body shame is being marketed to men now, they have a shade more latitude and it’s camouflaged in attitude. My hope, of course, is that they nip and tuck it in the bud and DON’T succeed in catching up to women.
Where they still seem to be getting a “Get out of Jail Free Card” is the blatant gender-based aging bias. Nothing like Academy Awards Season to underscore the lack of roles for older women, and especially roles where the woman is not portrayed as either a sex-starved crone or a sex-crazed cougar. Men, however, continue to get roles where their romantic interest looks young enough to be their daughter. Older men are still virile and vibrant and Viagra-free! Of course, similar to the exception of a plus sized model here and there on the catwalk, there is an occasional film, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where the stereotype is challenged, but overall, men are allowed to be somewhat older, somewhat pudgier, and definitely somewhat greyer! Recently I saw a commercial that has been grating on my nerves. In this ad for hair dye for men, it promises the following:
- Comb away a little gray without getting rid of it all.
- Radically easy to use. Just comb in, wait 5 minutes, rinse out.
- Show you have experience, but still have energy.
- No damaging ammonia or peroxide.
How many hair coloring products do you think exist for women promising to leave any touch of gray on her head? That’s easy, NONE! How much gray hair is considered acceptable for women…also easy…NONE!
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to see men suffer the way that women have and continue to suffer. That is NOT equality in my book. Instead, let’s try confounding the paradigm and give women permission to celebrate the visible signs of a life well-laughed, well-cried, and well-lived. One of the biggest challenges for those of us working in the field of promoting self-acceptance is the relentlessness of the opposing view. Organizations like Miss Representation and About-Face are fierce in their campaigns to change these ageist, sizeist, and sexist paradigms. But I am still holding out hope that more men will find their voices and come out as supporters and allies for women battling to find ways to love themselves – gray, wrinkles, curves, and all. And my personal opinion is that the situation would improve remarkably if there was also a commitment made by the fashion industry to include diversity in their models and represent all natural shapes and sizes and ages.
February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month. Please do your part to spread the word.
‘Til Next Time,
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