As a makeup artist, I get a lot of questions about models from my non-industry friends. And most of these have to do with fashion’s requirement for thin models: Why are models so skinny? Why don’t they use more normal looking models? Why is the fashion beauty ideal super thin anyway?
Now, I’d have to be blind not to notice that models have been getting thinner over the last several years. Some of the younger girls are so insectlike, it’s not an army of perfection – it’s an infestation. But models, even the superskinny ones, don’t just express the choices of fashion designers who hire them; they also reflect values within the culture that criticizes them. How? Having worked Inside, I’ve got a few ideas:
1: Thin is Youthful.
There is no denying that we live in a culture that is absolutely obsessed with youth. And youth is good-looking! But in a culture saturated with media images of all things youthful, things can get out of hand. As the mildly stimulant coca leaf can be cooked down into crack, the media ideal of youth can get way too condensed. Models as young as fourteen show up in New York from Eastern Europe and Brazil, and if they’re tall and have the cheekbones, they can make the twenty-year-olds we expect to be modelling look fat by comparison.
Now the CFDA is recommending that models be at least sixteen years of age, and most agencies say they are complying. So this season, it seems that all the new models are . Just like Chinese gymnasts.
2: Thin is Self-Control.
Now, you wouldn’t know it from the overload of sexualised imagery coming at you from just about everywhere, but American culture has a wide streak of Puritanism running through it. We still judge our sluts. Women giving into their own desires – especially gluttony and lust – are taboo. Even those sexualised images are not about women pleasing themselves (the ones that are get banned.) They’re usually about women offering themselves for others’ pleasure, which is an entirely different thing.
Thin fits the Puritanical ideal, of sacrifice, self control, and hard, un-fun work. Even at its most beautiful, it steers clear of portraying much in the way of female desire.
And lest you think it’s only modern culture that punishes the self-indulgent: Mae West, before she made her fortune as a sultry Bad Girl with Appetites, was panned by vaudeville critics because her excess flesh hinted too loudly at her louche private life.
3: Fashion Models have Always been Thin.
Since the days of Erte, fashion models have been taller and thinner than the rest of us. Fashion illustration textbooks even tell budding illustrators to make them 30% taller than a normal person.
And this works well: tall and thin models do show off fashion design to advantage – especially outrageous designs that no one but Bjork and Tilda Swinton will wear.
Not only that, at this point most of us in the Western world recognize the visual shorthand for Fashion Model: if we see a tall, thin young woman wearing glamorous clothes on a runway on TV or in a movie, we think “Fashion” immediately, without having to be told.
4: Many Fashion Designers are Gay Men.
Even with all the talented female designers designing for women, many of the most “spectacular” fashions are created by gay men. I love my gays, but let’s face it: they’re not always thinking about women in a practical way. Quite often they are indulging in a fantasy of fabulousness – the more showy and impossible, the better. Which is great for the Show Business of Fashion-with-a-capital-F, but not so great if you’re looking for attainable and healthy body images.
Globalism brings the promise of an increasing diversity in beauty images, and in some ways it does: models from all over the world bring us different racial mixes and broaden our iconographic recognition of what is chic.
But there’s another side to this. All the models still have to fit in with the rich, Westernized ideals of beauty. Which brings us a lot of racially diverse models who happen to look very similar, especially when it comes to thinness. And worldwide access to young model hopefuls make it easier to pick the ones who fit in best with those ideals. And that usually means the thinnest.
Much like athletes – and racehorses – models are trained and groomed to perform their work beautifully. Modern diet, training, and surgical methods have developed so much in the last thirty years, and models are expected to keep up with the most perfect look. Even though it changes every few years.
And then there’s retouching. Professional retouchers don’t just hide flaws (and clavicles), they’re often reshaping bodies and faces as well. Many ads are basically illustrations by the time they’re done.
7: Thin is Rich.
Fashion is aspirational. It portrays this rich, beautiful, effortless life. And who wouldn’t want that?
Being rich used to be about having lots of luscious, luscious food. And not having to work at procuring or preparing it. When you see those Old Masters paintings, that fleshy woman didn’t have to stand over a hot fire all day, and in their dreams, neither did her audience. But now in the age of Western affluence and fast food, our food practically chases us. Which makes it way easier to be fat, and when everyone can do it, sorry, it’s not aspirational.
So the Rich Look got switched around on us: wealthy women can starve in luxury at a spa retreat, where there will be staff to catch them if they faint, and personal trainers to sculpt every inch of flesh. And trickle down vanity does work: as technology raises the bar for what we could do to look better, it raises our expectations of what we should do to look better.
So what to make of all this?
I think that we, individually, have to put fashion in its proper place. No one in fashion expects real women to look like models – we don’t look like that ourselves! For my body role models I look to the yoga stars in my class – unattainable perhaps, but more realistic and healthy. And unretouched. Do we want to use fashion as a tool for berating ourselves for not being “perfect”? Or can we just look for some fabulous new trimmings? I think you know the answer.
Also, we have to realize that while the saturation of images in our culture may mess with our circuits for youth, beauty, and competitiveness, they are a result of the wealth of our society. They do not come from some directive to put women back in their place. These companies are doing battle with each other, not us. Knowing that, we can pay more attention to our own agendas as women, and pick and choose our accoutrements as we go.