UNLEARNING FASHION'S EXTREME BODY STANDARDS
I never knew that I disliked my body, until recently. Since my early teens, I have been internalising the standard of bodily perfection presented by the fashion industry, unconsciously absorbing messages that skinny and pretty are one and the same. If I have learned anything from all of the (numerous) times I have had to read Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish in college, it is that this kind of unconscious retention is the way that power operates on us in modern culture - not on us, but through us, without the need to be told and often unwittingly. Never having struggled with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, it has been easy to brush off my preference for skinniness as totally normal, or even as nothing at all.
Even as the fashion industry has a "body positive" moment (is it just a moment?), the dominant look presented on the catwalks, in the magazines, and on the blogs that we read is still a flat-chested, lanky woman with no body fat to speak of. While for some people, this ultra-coveted look is their reality, for others it is maintained by a strict diet regime often bordering on malnutrition. Models in particular exist in an awkward space between being told by their agencies and casting directors to continuously lose weight, and being ignorantly labelled "anorexic" by public naysayers. To judge anyone's relationship to their own body, especially without knowing the facts, is really problematic, and I'm not here to call out skinny women. The problem lies instead in the glorification of this one, very particular physique and the way that it is normalised, even by many of us who consider ourselves to be so-called "body positive."
As I am entering the fashion industry I have learned that ultra-skinniness is not just a fact for supermodels, but it iss also a standard repeated widely (and often without question) by the vast majority of those who work in the industry. At my last internship at a major New York magazine this spring, all of the women working around me were probably a US size 2 or smaller, and I don't think I ever saw any of them eating lunch, perhaps aside from the odd smoothie. Factor in the self-disparaging comments about "looking too chunky" or needing to lose weight for a fashion week, or a date, or vacation, and you have a culture that simply revolves around seeing thinness as not just the best body type, but the only viable one. This kind of negative self-image is something I have grown up seein gin the ballet studio as a teenager or at high school, but it is another thing when these feelings are coming from confident, educated women in their 30's or older. Cut to the work that they are actually doing, and it's no wonder that models above a size 0 are seriously lacking in almost every well-known fashion publication. Likewise, when we do see someone who isn't ultra-skinny, it's usually in a piece about "plus-size" fashion, carving out another label and standard that includes only a very particular bracket of bodies and excludes the rest.
I long believed that I was above this kind of insecurity, thinking that I was smart enough or confident enough to see through the industry bullshit and know that I had every right to be happy with my body. I consider myself to be a pro-fat feminist and I am critical of the neoliberal dogma about dieting that specifically targets women's anxieties about their bodies. I thought that I 'wasn't like the other girls' because I wasn't shy about taking seconds (or thirds) at a meal and I tried not to make comments about looking fat around other people. But everyone is affected by beauty standards in different ways.
I have realised that even little things - like my tendency to wear sports bras so as to exaggerate my flat-chestedness, or my ambition to be taller, or my penchant for big, clunky shoes that make my legs look like stems - have all been part of a repressed desire to be like them, to be the lithe, gaunt, skinny girl whose image I am bombarded with almost by the minute. These were things that I took for granted, but when I add them all up, they painfully expose a very real, complex, and built-up self-hatred that I have been harbouring unknowingly for years. Wearing baggy clothes obscured the subtle curves of my stomach and hips and created an illusion of a body I dreamt that I could have; the skinnier that an outfit made me look, the more confident that I felt in it. For years, I was hiding my real figure from myself, and perhaps also hiding from the truth about how my body made me feel.
Deprogramming a mindset that is so ingrained in the culture of the fashion industry is easier said than done, and it has been something that I have been working on a lot over recent months. I remind myself of the highly constructed notions of body ideals that have fluctuated arbitrarily since the dawn of modern fashion (may I remind you, women in Renaissance paintings were thicc!) It's all about getting to know myself and check in. If I want to start eating more healthily or working out more often, the first question that I ask myself is "why" before "how;" is it for my cardiovascular health or mental wellness, or was it spurred by seeing a picture of a model on Instagram who I aspire to look like?
Similarly, I try to remember how I internalised this warped view of my body, spurring a desire to find ways that I can disrupt the homogenous 'fashion body' narrative. Maybe if we can normalise skinniness, we can also shift the needle to normalise a diversity of body types. In Instagram pictures, I try to be less critical of my body when determining whether or not to post... and yes, that means learning to live with your double chins, or your lack of a thigh gap, or your not-so-flat stomach. You are a human being and not a doll, so don't hold yourself to an ideal that doesn't apply to you.
The fashion industry is increasingly attentive to its audiences and so instead of consumers hanging on their every word like they used to, editors, designers, and stylists are being informed by the voices and influencers first inaugurated by public opinion. If we can teach ourselves to love our bodies unconditionally, then maybe we can teach the industry as well. It is certainly worth trying.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or other related illness, you can seek professional resources through NEDA.