Close but Not Close Enough | Carol Phelan

The size zero debate has been on-going in the media and internally amongst the different players of the fashion industry for the best part of two decades now. From four high profile deaths of models relating to malnutrition complications to the Dawn Porter documentary Super Slim Me, the health dangers of trying to attain and maintain such a body (one which a typical seven year old child would be proud of) all in the name of beauty were brought to the masses. Even as a transition year student in 2006, I was so aware of this topic that I chose to do my main project on the topic of anorexia and bulimia. Coming across ‘thinspiration’ quotes and photos on the Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia websites became part of my daily routine for over a month all in the name of research. (Disclaimer: I love food more than life itself, in case you did not know, so not a single pound was lost on my behalf over the course of my project.)

Carol 4Marilyn Monroe – arguably the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen – was supposedly a UK size 12 and was heralded on a pedestal for her womanly curves.Nowadays, would she suffer at the hands of abuse similar to what Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera have both come to experience because they lashed out against the new ideal of skin and bone?  Lady Gaga controversially once tweeted ‘Just killed back to back spin classes. Eating a salad dreaming of a cheeseburger #PopSingersDontEat #IWasBornThisWay.’ However, she has gone back to her Italian roots of late and indulged in some pasta at her father’s restaurant, God forbid. She may have put on twenty-five pounds but her weight (or lack of) in her music videos such as Telephone was obviously not healthy. She has since revealed that she has been suffering from an eating disorder since the age of fifteen. Similarly, Aguilera claimed she had been pressured to remain unrealistically thin in a quest to become more successful. The record executives even went so far as to stage a weight intervention, but recently she told them: ‘I’m fat… deal with it.’ It had been a constant struggle to meet their expectations and she finally threw in the towel. It is her body after all. Whether it is a coincidence or not, they both made it while they were at their skinniest. Now that their brand and music are recognised worldwide, their image probably does not need to be at the top of their agendas anymore.

A huge turning point came in 2009 when Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, wrote a letter to major international fashion houses including Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Prada and Versace. Shulman complained that sample sizes sent by designers for the photo-shoots are now so ‘minuscule’ that they force fashion editors to use models with ‘jutting bones’ and ‘no breasts or hips’. Shulman went on to write: ‘Nowadays, I often ask the photographers to retouch to make the models appear larger’ rather than the other way around. (The Dove Evolution of Beauty infomercial explicitly shows the effects of traditional air-brushing – that is to make the model appear smaller and closer to the notion of perfection.) It is a ‘vicious cycle’ that has gone on for too long and would require the whole industry to work together if it was to be broken. Basically, if designers sent the sample clothes in bigger sizes, excessively skinny models would not be forced on to the pages of fashion magazines.

The industry standards had reached such a ridiculous and ever-changing low that Valentine Fillol Cordier, a former catwalk model that has to work as a stylist as she ceased to scrub up small enough, said: ‘I saw in the space of the 10 years that I modelled, my measurement didn’t change, but the clothes got smaller and I found it harder and harder to get into them… I can’t work anymore’. Apparently it is all in the hips. The perfect hip size now is 10cm less than it was in the 90s. Even Barbie has felt the pinch. There is only so much a girl can do before literally having to change the bone structure of her hips to keep her in her chosen career path. Eastern European and Brazilian women tend to have a naturally smaller frame which is why 85% of suitable catwalk models are from such an ethnicity. Furthermore, a mere 10-12% of working models would be appropriate for the catwalk in the first place. Casey Legler, a former female Olympic swimmer, was even signed exclusively as a male model because of her masculine physique.

Carol 3Crystal Renn, a 26-year-old former plus-size model, re-iterated Shulman’s plea in February 2013 by calling out for designers to change their sample sizes from the standard US zero or two (A UK four or six) to an American eight (a UK 12) after 2013 fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris.  If nothing else, it makes business sense as currently all designers have to do a collection for the catwalk and then go back to the drawing board in order for the manufacturer to completely resize the clothes. The vast majority of women would not be able to wear the catwalk clothes as the proportions would be so wrong. ‘If a really amazing model walked in who was a size zero, you would tailor the dress down to her’ rather than tailoring up for everybody else, explains Renn. Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the National Eating Disorders Awareness organisation and the Model Alliance at Pace University NY, she said: ‘There are some people who lead and Zac Posen is one of those people. Modelling is about beauty, but it’s also an energy. That’s not a size.’ (Posen uses a variety of different bodily shaped models.)

Carol 5An unidentified clothing store in Sweden is being hailed by women around the world after a photograph of two skimpily clad mannequins displaying softer stomachs and fuller thighs was posted on Facebook by a Women’s Rights blogger. For comparison purposes, most mannequins in U.S. department stores are between a size 4 or 6 – a significant departure from the average American woman who is a size 14. Modern-day mannequins have long been critiqued for having tiny proportions. In 2007, British health officials demanded that stores on London’s High Street stop using stick-thin models in an effort to reflect the wide range of shapes and sizes of British women. In 2010, Club Monaco came under fire for featuring mannequins with protruding spines and clavicles. Satirical obese mannequins have also been doing the rounds online. These are giving off an equally bad impression regarding a healthy Body Mass Index (and probably won’t entice many impulsive purchases of lingerie either) but surely a real-life proportioned one will resonate with far more shoppers than the blow-up doll shaped fiber-glass and plastic that is currently being used. Thighs that are closer together (but still not quite touching) are still a step in the right direction after all.