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Why models just keep getting smaller

October 4th, 2007     by Zoe Cormier     Comments

We all know that models have been getting skinnier and skinnier over the past twenty years. We all know that bone-thin women are neither healthy nor sexy, yet models have just kept getting thinner and thinner, and it really is hard to understand why. Rail-thin models were originally considered ideal because they could act like coat-hangers on the catwalk - their small frames would allow you to better appreciate the cut of the clothing. But somehow the idea that bone-thin is the ideal shape for a woman infected the mainstream, and ever since models seem to keep getting smaller and smaller.

Check out this wonderful piece in the Observer Women’s magazine, which explores the idea that models have also been getting thinner because their status in the world of fashion has diminished. The author explains her point so well, I’ll just quote some extracts:

Raise the issue of eating disorders during Fashion Week, and someone will inevitably bring up that lost, glorious era of the supermodel: Christy, Naomi, Cindy, Linda, the four-headed stompy-legged beast with big shiny hair, the one that wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. Those were the days when models took up space. They were stars. They made demands. And their faces were everywhere. To paraphrase from Sunset Boulevard, sometimes it feels like it’s not the clothes that have got small, it’s the models.

Nowadays, it seems that the most common faces you see in magazines and catwalks are Eastern European girls, often from poor backgrounds with little education, who are easily exploited by their powerful agencies in Paris and New York. They are often faced with the choice of either losing as much weight as possible, or losing work.

One of the interesting things about these models today is that they get used and spit out so quickly,’ says Magali Amadei, a model who has been open about her recovery from bulimia. ‘The era of the supermodel is over, so girls working today don’t have the earning power. These girls come into the business young, and they are disposable. On top of that, people often talk about your appearance in front of you, as if you can’t hear them.’

‘It’s a far more complex issue than people realise,’ Suzy Menkes, the British fashion writer for the International Herald Tribune, told me. ‘You know, many of these girls were brought up in the postcommunist years on an extremely bad diet. From childhood, they’ve not been properly nourished. That may make them very appealing to designers, but they don’t start off with a healthy body. And nothing is simple. I think it must be incredibly difficult to come from a vegetable stall in the Ukraine and find yourself in Paris among Laduree macaroons. People have to accept that it’s a much bigger picture than terrible fashion folk starving to get into frocks.’

If Fashion Week is about reinforcing hierarchies, skinniness has always been a way to compete. Being thin means control and, symbolically, that you are rich, that you are young, that you are beautiful, that you are powerful. And yet…the models themselves, who are skinnier and younger than anyone, can seem like the weakest people here: manual labourers with short working lives. And whatever their eating habits, the girls in the gowns attract, like anorexics, an unstable mix of envy, anxiety, and scorn, a cultural response reserved for women reduced (or maybe elevated) to their bodies.

And for observers of the catwalk, there remains the nagging question: why this skinny? And why now? I hear two dominant theories. The first is that fashion is aspirational. There’s make-up; there’s lighting; it is intended to be extreme, not realistic - to inspire envy. The other theory is that the girls need to be skinny because they need to be invisible. Clothing stands out best when the body is a blank. And the better the clothes are, the more extreme the skinniness must be. But, of course, these two explanations are diametrically opposed. In the first vision, the models must be thin so people look at them. In the second, they must be thin so that no one will notice them. And when I ask the buyers and the customers, they seem baffled about the reason for it all.

And isn’t there something a little creepy about using teenage girls from poor countries to model gowns that get bought mainly by incredibly wealthy adult women?

There’s one more point that the author doesn’t make, although she comes very close to it. When you look at it this way - poor, naive, young girls brought from former eastern bloc countries to work long hours, in incredibly unhealthy conditions, with little ability to get into another line of work - it really is just another form of human trafficking.

Tags: body politics

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