April 5, 2013 by Rhi
Kudos to Debenhams for their latest series of photos advertising their new collections. Instead of relying on size 6 waifs, they’ve enlisted the services of a range of different ages, sizes and body shapes to display their wares – including Paralympian Stephanie Reid, and Alternative model, Kelly, born without her left forearm and discovered when she won TV show ‘Missing Next Top Model’.
The fashion industry takes a lot of stick about false portrayals of the female form (and the male form as well). It’s often held up as the reason why so many girls and young women have unrealistic ideals about how they should look in certain styles of clothing. There’s a long history of this – going back to the haute couture days of the 1920s, thin, boyish frames were the order of the day. But, in those days, the choice of models was as much to do with the aesthetics of the clothing lines as it was to do with the shape a woman should ideally be. That said, it didn’t stop women living on a diet of black coffee and lemon with hot water added in order to try to slim a set of hips that were made of frickin’ BONE. There comes a time in every girl’s life when she has to realise that sometimes, you’ve got to work with what you’re given.
Putting images of women who don’t conform to the media’s ideas of “normal” is undoubtedly a good thing. But am I alone in still seeing a beauty ideal? All the images feature heavily made up women. Flawless skin, perfectly fixed hair. If you wanted to embrace REAL beauty, or indeed to offer a realistic notion of what these clothes would look like on your every day women on the street, you’d be looking at photoshoots on street corners. Find Sally as she rushes from the nursery to her desk. Susan who has had 4 hours sleep because she was up late reading crap for her 10am client. Tina batting down to the supermarket with the kids in tow, to get her weekly shop. Or Laura, Angie and Karen, on their monthly wine and bitch night, dripping in glitter and Coco Chanel, with their phones handy in case their partners don’t know how to deal with the kids bedtime meltdown. There are a million different combinations of women, a thousand different ladies with their own particular body issues. My body issues, in relation to fashion? Where do I start? I’m knocking on 6ft tall. My chest was built for comfort, not for racing backs. I mean, I’m cool with all of this. Right from the moment I pulled on my first pair of Doc Martens (which I still own, and which I still wear on an almost daily basis), I knew I was never going to be in anyone’s core demographic. But still, I’d like it if there were shops out there who understood that having size 9 feet does not automatically mean that you need a wide fitting. And that many of us girls would like fashionable shoes without a sodding heel on it. We walk, we run, we don’t want to be 4 inches taller than our husbands on a night out, nor do we want to be consulting a chiropodist by the age of 35. But hey, I’m odd. My shape is unusual, always has been. I’ve run the gamut from size 8 to 20 and back again. And that’s before I’ve subjected my body to the “party” which is 3rd timester pregnancy. Apparently it’s not uncommon for your feet to grow a size, and stay that way. Well, shit, is all I can say to that.
Fashion is dictated by aesthetics. Photographers and designers will naturally gravitate towards the frames that best display what they are trying to achieve. High Street retailers trying to better represent the women on the street is a step in the right direction, but they’ll struggle to ever be truly representative. We women are legion, to steal a phrase.
More damaging, in terms of portraying a skewed body image, is the media. Look at the tabloids and women’s trash mags in the last few months and it’s clear to see. “Kim Karsahian – doesn’t she look fat!” Well yes, she’s pregnant. Isn’t that supposed to be one of the times in a woman’s life when she can look how the hell she wants, because it’s all in a good cause? Swiftly followed by: “Kim rushed to hospital for working out too much when pregnant!” Yeah, good job there, “journalists”, write a bunch of articles about how fat she looks, then castigate her because she freaks out and tries to change her body shape to make it so that you don’t write horrid things about her. And then there’s “Where is Kate’s Bump?!” Eh, it’s under those massive coats she keeps wearing on her trips to the frozen ends of the British isles, because as your other frothing articles keep telling us, this is the coldest Spring since Adam fancied an apple crumble. Heat’s “Ring of Shame” – highlighting fashion nightmares which we’ve all had, but never had the misfortune to experience in front of a pap. Joan Rivers mocking the incredibly successful Adele for not conforming to the ideal that it’s not what you sound like, it’s the number on your knicker label that counts. And the plethora of women in my private life who eat something not because they fancy it, but because it has the right number on it – whether that be fat content, calorie content, or the requisite number of “sins” on their Weight Watchers checklist.
If women didn’t buy into the idea of judging other women, then girls wouldn’t get hung up about how they look. When they read those articles, they know what’s coming to them. They know that everything they do will be analysed by someone else on this planet for no other reason than to make someone else feel better about their own insecurities, which were probably caused by the ways someone else judged them, and the whole hideous cycle goes around and around and around.
But yes, well done Debenhams. By saying that beauty doesn’t have to be about four limbs, 28 inch waist, and 18 year old skin, you’ve at least shown willing to address this issue. Just don’t beat yourself up, OK? Your models are beautiful not because they’re different. They’re beautiful just because they’re the same as the rest of us -they’re a daughter, a wife, a girlfriend, a mother, a gran. Different is normal, that’s why we’re all unique.