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The Slender and Obese: Body Image Representation in the Fashion Industry

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This paper will discuss the different body types of woman and the way in which this is presented in the fashion industry. Throughout this paper both ends of the spectrum of the female form will be investigated, from the slender body to female obesity, with consideration to factors such as the male gaze, and how this influences how we approach the question of skinny or fat. The main goal of this paper is to investigate the ever-changing ideal body of women and what effects this has on women’s physical and mental health. As the fashion industry undergoes a major representation revolution, its important to question if inclusivity is something that should be supported by the main narrative. The aim of this paper is to focus on various factors and present a compelling argument of both sides, to conclude whether the fashion industry should become more inclusive of varying body types.

Throughout the course of history, the ideal body shape for women has changed massively. During the time of the Italian Renaissance, between 1400-1700 it was an age that focused on celebrating the presence of curves on women. However, at the same time women had no political rights and were seen as objects to be owned by their fathers and husbands. Their physique was a representation of their social status, because of this, someone with a bigger bust would indicate they had more wealth to their name. Being heavier also meant fertility, while someone with a thinner body had to work all day for food. However, it’s important to mention how accurate the paintings are when it comes to the ideal woman. It been said, that they are more of a reflection of the times values and ideas than realistic representation at the time (Zhao, 2017). An interesting contrast with how these views had completely changed by the 1920’s.

It was the time of the straight figure, the beginning of the time when woman started to hide their curves. To archive the perfect silhouette for the flapper dress, women often used tight strips of cloth around their chest area for the boyish, minimal looks. Only three decades later the hourglass figure, with wide hips, a skinny waist but large breasts were the new ideal, mirroring the figures of Marylin Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Women would do anything for this idolized image even if it meant taking weight gaining pills. The “heroin chic” were introduced in the 90’s – it was a time of super skinny, angular bone structure. It was the time when the pear-shaped body were never used in a positive context and the thought of “skinny girls are the pretty girls” was a statement that largely started to get romanticized. As we reach modern times, its worth mentioning how quickly the ideal body shape changes. In the wake of the new century there was a new wave of agenda to support the idea of a strong, independent woman who is equally sexually liberated. The question of body positivity wasn’t even a topic in the early 2000’s. From the slim and sleek looks of the 2000’s we almost come full circle, where woman are once again celebrated for their curves, while also putting an emphasis on the need for maintaining perfect abs and little body fat.

Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body publication explores body shape and its effects on social class, while looking at the moralistic and emotional toll it has on the individual. It also includes a discussion on anorexia and bulimia and how exactly the current body image ideal has negative effects towards its customers. To quote Kim Chernin, the “tyranny of slenderness” has begun. On one end of the scale is the slim slender body, an ideal that is largely accepted as the norm in most Western cultures (Gemma and Witcomb 2013). As mentioned previously, the question of social class was always involved within the question of body image. While in the past it was the opposite, higher class were indicated by the heavier body it has taken a full turn compared to today’s society expectation. However, from the late nineteenth century there was a turn in the view of wealth and body image, and the slender body was now being viewed as the ideal for status-seeking middle class and the ones who were eager to be a showcased on their husband’s arm as a subject of admiration.

From the 80’s we came to the point where when it comes to extra body fat, ads had a rather aggressive reaction to it. Your muscles should be hard, flat stomach, no bumps or loose breasts – and if there are any extra calories on your waist it should be burned and destroyed in order to be accepted by society.

“The coexistence of these seemingly disparate images does not indicate that a postmodern universe of empty, endlessly differentiating images now reigns. Rather, the two ideals, though superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose; unsolid, excess flesh. It is perfectly permissible in our culture (even for women) to have substantial weight and bulk—so long as it is tightly managed. Simply to be slim is not enough—the flesh must not 'wiggle'.” (Bordo, 2013: p. 185)

There’s a clear connection when it comes to mental health and the perfect body image. The pressure to satisfy societies expectation are higher than ever with the use of social media, such as Instagram which presents us with images of constant happiness and perfection all the time, where it’s an oxymoron to show the imperfect part of our lives. Glorifying this high expectation, it can cause depression and anxiety from a young age.

From the Seoul National University, a study found the first link between being skinny and depressed, as they analysed data from 183 different studies. Underweight people are more likely to get into depression; however, obesity can be the cause of the mental illness as well. (Hosie R., 2017) Dr Agnes Ayton, vice-chairman of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: 'This large study confirms that optimal nutrition is fundamentally important for physical and mental health. Both being underweight and obese is associated with an increased risk of depression.” (Harley, N., 2017) As people suffering with eating disorders, they often rely on the idea that when they lose weight their mental health will improve too. (Kirby J., 2017) It also explains that woman are more likely to be affected than men as the current ideal of being thin because it causes more psychological distress in women (Dubé, D., 2017).

The relationship between body image and social class were always tight, through the Renaissance era it might have been more obvious and common knowledge, but even in the 21st century there is an underlying element of class diversion when it comes to the difference of fat and skinny. Going back to Susan Bordo’s work, she argues that woman is on a constant patriarchal watch, which pushed them to maintain a slender body in order to stay relevant. Bordo argues that as the century changed the thin image also represented self-control and the lack of concern for material issues, with that the aesthetical battle of thinness and heavy bodies continued. To use an example, if a female is born into a culture where she is surrounded with slim figures, her satisfaction depends and is influenced by her body being as slim as her surroundings (Bojorquez and Unikel, 2012.).

The official guidance of BMI, otherwise called body mass index has been used since the 1830’s in order to indicate if your weight is healthy based on a person’s weight by their height squared. (Nordqvist C. 2017) Professor Naveed Sattar, from University of Glasgow says 'It works in the vast majority of people, the vast majority of time, if two people are the same height and one has a BMI of 25 and the other a BMI of 40, then excess body fat is the reason.' (Roxby, P. 2018) Lately there have been an increase in the number of specialists saying it should not be used to measure anyone’s health. The problems include that there isn’t a clear estimation of how much body fat the individual has, which can change based on gender and it doesn’t include the waist circumference (which is an important factor if the person has any relation to heart disease or type 2 diabetes. For example, a very muscular male can have a high BMI while having barely any body fat, and it doesn’t mean he is overweight. (Brodwin E., 2018). Personal trainers, such as Tom Mans, believe BMI only should be used when it comes to larger groups or populations of people regarding trends, however it shouldn’t be used when it comes to the individual. When it comes to the question of cutting the BMI completely Rhiannon Lambert, a nutritionist believes BMI can be used for certain treatments when it comes to eating disorders as it is required for a cut-off point of entry. Lambert still believes it is more labelling and it does more harm than good. She states ““I think other methods should be used to measure an individual's health as it often rides on so much more than a number,”. (Hosie R., 2017)

Research has proved that the solemn focus on losing weight with extreme exercise and diet modification, will likely resolve in weight cycling and increase at the end. There’s also the risk of mental and physical health suffering with eating disorders and self-hatred. However, there is a different conceptual framework called Health At Every Size (HAES), which praises the acceptance of diversity in body image, highlights the importance of well-balanced eating and it contributes to the social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the individual as well. This philosophy goes against the body mass index’s calculation and states that the healthy weight can’t be decided by it. It defines it as a point where the individual can reach the weight where they can move forward to pursue a fulfilling lifestyle without overstressing about their eating habits. However, the HAES does not ignore the risks of an overweight person with medical problems adapting this approach would not be beneficial, but it suggests for the professional they approach the health issue the same way as they would if the patient would be thin. It’s a supports the view that the primary focus is to make the individual feel good about themselves and to reach their full potential without tearing their bodies down in a negative way. With self-acceptance, pleasure based physical activity and normalized eating to archive a relaxed relationship with their eating habits.

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Further research has shown that HAES is the superior approach when it comes to health issues such as type 2 diabetes and high blood glucose can be treated without considering weight loss for obese patients, when it comes to traditional standards. It proves it is possible to live a healthy lifestyle and maintain a, by traditional standards, obese body. (Penney and Kirk, 2015)

When it comes to the difference between curvy, fat and plus sized, it’s more about how society takes it as a positive or negative. By definition, curvy as an adjective does not mean fat, it mostly refers to the hourglass figure with large breasts, wide hips tied in with a small waist. It’s important to mention curvy not as a size, but a body shape. It’s considered a flattering description, which is why it’s being used by fashion brands in their advertisement. Fat is mostly used an as adjective when describing a person, it’s traditionally used as a negative term, while curvy is mostly accepted as a flattering term. To name an example of this, when it came to the UK-based retailer ASOS, their plus size clothing line is named “ASOS Curve”. When it comes to fashion, “plus size” is also being used as it has a “close association” with fashion. (Downing Peters 2014, 48.)

There has been a heated conversation about this in the media, involving actress Melissa McCartney who stepped up for model Ashley Graham in order urge fashion brands to stop using the term “plus size” as it’s categorising women based on their sizes. (Blair, 2016)

In the chapter of Slenderness, Self-management and Normalization Susan Bordo states “the body is demonstrating the correct or incorrect attitudes towards the demands of normalization itself.” The obese and anorexic body is a protest against cultural norms, while the bulimic is going for a mostly “normal” and desirable image. He claims the anorexic wants to be accepted by cultural standards and pays homage to its values. However, the obese, the people who claim to live a happy life with extra weight, are being a resistance towards the norms while the rest is struggling to fit into these laid out “correct” media images, then these individuals must be pushed by humiliation and out casting. It alright to show empathy towards the overweight individuals but they need to make sure to be clear as they state of point will never be normal and they’re personal desires won’t be fulfilled without reaching the goal of the culturally accepted ideal. (Bordo, 1993: p. 203.)

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Berger, 1972: p.47) When it comes to the male gaze it can be taken in various ways: the way men look at women, the way women look at other women, and themselves. However, these three ways are still using the still essence as the viewer looks at the women through the eyes of a heterosexual male. The consequences of the male gaze, which is, theoretically speaking, is sexual objectification of women can cause them mental disorders. The male gaze is a main point when it comes to set up an ideal for the body image. The visual media in the current climate is the most dangerous to our culture. It is not limited to pornography, the male gaze can appear in films, television and advertisement as well. (Fredrickson B., Roberts T., 1997) This sexual objectivation of women is another form of cultural expectation, where it’s not enough to be slim in a way that’s good for the person they need to be thin to be desired by men. It’s not enough to have an already idolized body type which changes almost every decade, the male gaze is another negative influential factor of mental and physical health for women.

A plus size models in the fashion industry, is the average women in the real world. They are usually between size 12-16 but there is still a strong requirement to be over 5 ft 8 inches to be even considered, with this the idea of inclusivity is not achievable.

The fashion industry has responded with an attempt to be more diverse… including in its line up ‘plus size’ models, models of different ethnicities etc. However, one look at the roster of it-girls and you can’t help but notice that they all look the same… same features, same height, same build, and even the handful of successful ‘plus size’ models fit neatly into this very uniform fashion type. Like the token third friend from a minority background in teen comedies of years gone by, ‘plus size’ models seem to be a piecemeal attempt by the fashion world at being more inclusive, whereas in reality -- the same impossible and unrealistic beauty standards remain at the centre of it all. (Ahuja M. , 2017)

Looking at the positive effects of having plus size models, a study by the Florida State University reported that having these models was better for people’s mental health as seeing this imagery women experienced higher levels of body satisfaction. (Heller D. 2017) The study also pointed out to have an exposure of “unrealistic-sized media models it had a negative effect on consumers’ mental and physical health, including experiencing lower body satisfaction.” (Feldman, J. 2017.)

To discuss the negative effects, a study titled 'The (Ironic) Dove Effect: Usage of Acceptance Cues for Larger Body Types Increases Unhealthy Behaviours,' which states that putting larger models into promotion can do more harm than good. It says, 'cues suggesting the acceptance of larger body types resulted in greater intended or actual consumption of food and a reduced motivation to engage in a healthier lifestyle.' Through the course of 5 experiments, which included the normalization and acceptance of the overweight model 'increased people's tendency to choose less healthy food items and decreased their motivation to be in better shape,”. However, there was a noticeable outcome as the thin-bodied figures did not increase motivation more than large bodied figures. Lin gives the idea for advertisers to de-emphasize the body size entirely. Marketers should not make people’s body types the focus of communications, because it could result in negative conclusions if they are bringing these issues to the top of the list. (Lin L. 2015)

In conclusion, when it comes to representation, there’s no denying the evolution of body positivity. But what’s the message the fashion industry is sending their larger customers? On the right it’s a picture for Jason Wu’s holiday collection for the brand Eloquii. The models’ skin is bright and gleaming, the dress fits her perfectly, highlighting her figure when it needs to, her hair is neatly slicked back, presenting the perfect American woman, size 14. (Which is even a size lower, than the average.) On the left, is a promotional image for loungewear, in colour presenting the complete opposite. Their harsh light hitting her rolls, large part of the flesh exposed, there is big part of imperfectness being pushed to the surface with this picture. There is nothing neat and nice about her hair and face. She’s the real American women as well, with a size 24. These pictures represent the debate of how to promote the plus size women and how to use the communication channels between the brand and the customer.

Fashion, by its nature, reaches for extremes. As a result, it has always made size inclusivity so much more of an event than it ever needed to be. It has politicized, weaponized and fetishized fat. Now, as waiflike models are replaced with Rubenesque ones, can plus-size fashion be freed from the burdens of identity politics and cultural prejudices — to simply exist as clothes and not statements? When will a plus-size model gets to stop representing diversity and simply be part of the pack? Does every plus-size model really slay? (Givhan R. 2018)


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