Buying into body image

When Dame Sally Davies, the current Chief Medical Officer, criticised the use of large mannequins in high street shops, it felt like another blow to the struggle to promote positive body image. Size 16 mannequins now appear in stores like Debenhams, and in some cases take the place of ‘normal’ size 10 mannequins. Claims that such marketing has normalised being overweight and will make society insensitive to the health risks of obesity makes one consider a retailer’s role in the promotion of positive body image. While Topshop’s skinny models promote under-eating and anorexia, and Debenham’s size 16 mannequins tell us that obesity is OK, the window for what is a positive, healthy body type gets smaller and smaller.

If we are to give retailers the responsibility of promoting an ideal body type, we should be careful what we wish for.  Hollister, a brand marketed mainly to young teenage girls, shows happy models smiling in the sun. They are all, however, extremely thin. Earlier this year, Urban Outfitters was aggressively, and rightly, attacked for selling shirts promoting ‘Eat Less’, buying into the glamorisation of eating disorders. The subliminal promotion of being under weight has been building up for over a decade, and a few larger mannequins will hardly counteract this.

What’s even more horrifying, however, is that even the models of this body type are retouched by almost all advertisers. Photoshop extends torsos, tucks thighs and smoothes the skin of the perfect bodies we see in these campaigns. The recent Target scandal saw a tall and thin model extended, distorted and cropped, all to fit a ‘perfect’ body type – that actually just looked ridiculous and alien. It is true that such images normalise, and even glamourise, an unachievable body type in which the elusive ‘thigh gap’ is made to look normal. Being thin is not only glamorous, but it is a necessary fashion accessory.

Over the years, sizing has become larger: what was a size 12 is now a size 10, meaning larger sizes do not seem quite so daunting. Although this might make a buyer less concerned about buying larger sizes, it also pushes for those tiny sizes – the 4s and 6s – to be made, and desired. What’s more, even if sizes themselves have got bigger, the trends that are paraded in Oxford Street windows favour the underweight and thin body that is an unhealthy aspiration for so many girls and women. The skimpy crop tops with small cups designated for a woman’s breasts will immediately ostracise anyone over an A cup, and skin tight high-waisted jeans only highlight the difference between a dressing room mirror reflection and photoshopped ad campaigns.

Retailers can be accused of promoting one body size over another, but to give them the responsibility of telling their audience how they should look is exactly where many body image problems arise from. Increasingly, women are told that there is one body type that they should be aspiring to. Kate Moss’s eternal and fatal words, ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ were the basis of a deadly obsession with thinness. More recent crazes that highlight fitness and strength over thinness might seem to be a healthy and welcomed improvement, but they still present the idea that there is one single body type that we must strive to. This time, it has a 6 pack and razor-sharp biceps, something that could be even more strenuous to attain than a skinny frame, albeit ‘healthier’.

It might seem that there is no acceptable path for retailers to take. The one area that American Apparel have got their advertising campaigns politically and socially correct might be in their choice of model. The models they use are healthy-looking, with no protruding bones. It is hard, however, to support a company that sexualises and objectifies women in such a way. When one positive mentality is promoted, another equally negative one is implied.

American Eagle’s lingerie brand, Aerie, have recently launched a ‘no-photoshop’ campaign. The models in their latest photoshoot have been left untouched. Their motto is, ‘no more retouching our girls and no more supermodels’, and their website is adorned with beautiful women of different shapes and sizes, but who are all happy and healthy. Of course, this is a breath of fresh air, but its success is based on its rarity. We should not be impressed that a clothing company is showing us real women – but, unfortunately, we are. The pessimist inside can’t help but wonder – do these advertising campaigns come from a true desire to promote positive body image, or are they just another way to differentiate a brand from the crowd?

Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’ campaign has been criticised in the same way that the larger mannequins have been – that is, for showing an unhealthy weight that this time is too large rather than too small. Critics who argue this point seem, to me, to be totally missing the point. Women often look to clothes as a way to make themselves feel confident and happy with the way they look, and in this way fashion retailers have a huge opportunity of empowerment and positive influence. The task of changing a person’s approach to weight is not as simple as what marketers or the media put in their shop windows. For most people, body image is as much a question of mental health as it is physical, and Dame Sally’s claims are somewhat simplistic in this respect. If a company attempts to make a woman feel more relaxed about her own body rather than agonise over its disparity with another’s, then this should be applauded and not condemned.

Top image from Style Has No Size, other sources embedded in images