Over the years, the fashion industry has earned a lot of criticism for using extremely thin models. It seems that the debate over skinny models has been raging since the 90s and the advent of heroine chic, with good reason. The average runway model is 5″9 to 5″11, has measurements of 34″-23″-34″ and weighs around 115 lbs. This is generally accepted as industry standard, leaving a jobbing runway model with a BMI of 16.3, which is very underweight and considered dangerous by the NHS. But in order for a ‘straight size’ model to work they have to fit the samples, which are cut to diminutive, unforgiving dimensions. Of course, there are some people who naturally have very little body fat, but that body type is actually quite rare. The fact that the industry not only demands its models to be unhealthy in order to work, but has presented starvation as the beauty ideal for so many years shameful.
— Khaled Hijab (@KhaledHijab) April 3, 2015
I remember going to a show during London Fashion Week a few years back. It was a stormy night and my colleagues and I tottered through the wet streets in our high heels, trying to stay dry and upright in a thunderous downpour. We staggered into the ballroom of a fancy hotel, with the rest of the fashion crowd. Everyone was doing their best to look cool and not let on that they were freaking out because their hair and carefully chosen outfit had been trashed by the rain. As we took our seats, I noticed that the marble floor was sopping wet from the residual water from everyone’s shoes and umbrellas. If it were up to me, I’d have given the floor a once over with a mop, but no one else seemed to be fretting about health and safety so the show began. It was my job to take photos for the magazine and I frenetically clicked away, trying to capture every look. I focused on the clothes, but there was one model who made me drop my camera and gawk. As usual, all the models were very thin, but one young woman was so emaciated that she looked like she was on death’s door. She wore a very skimpy, strapless dress and as she passed she was illuminated by the glaring lights and a fuffy layer of lanugo across her shoulders glowed like a halo. Lanugo is downy hair that occurs in extreme cases of anorexia when the body is trying to maintain heat. Her stick like legs wobbled in her shoes and as she took her turn at the bank of photographers, she slipped on the wet marble and hit the floor with a bang. It was as though she had shattered into a thousand pieces. A couple of the photographers and people in the front row helped her remove the stupid high heels, took hold of her frail arms and lifted her to her feet. All this was going on while the music blared and the other models continued to strut by. When she stood up she seemed to be in a lot of pain and her ankle looked like it was in bad shape. She hobbled back up the runway, carrying her shoes with tears running down her face, battered and humiliated. If there was ever an argument for the fashion industry to reconsider, it was encapsulated in that moment.
Chromat SS19 with the great looks and even greater Model Diversity!🖤 pic.twitter.com/UDSNtAJI1g
— Outlander (@StreetFashion01) September 8, 2018
Fortunately, fashion’s obsession with jutting bones is slowly changing. At New York Fashion Week, a number of designers featured models of varying shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. Swimwear brand Chromat’s SS19 show featured a cast of ethnically diverse, disabled, trans and gender non-binary models, each more audacious than the last. Rhianna’s inaugural runway show of her lingerie brand Savage X Fenty did a wonderful job of representing women of all races, shapes and sizes – a couple of the models were heavily pregnant. The collection celebrated every woman who walked the runway, not in the spirit of tokenism, but with the assertion that this brand is for everyone and you don’t have to have a 23″ waist to feel sexy. In fact Rihanna is leading the way in terms of creating products that are as inclusive as they are desirable. Her makeup brand, Fenty Beauty was considered groundbreaking for launching with 40 shades of foundation, catering to people of all skin shades. While this noble and simple idea is long overdue, it’s poignant that it’s taken this long for the beauty industry to wake up to the necessity to include to all skin tones. To be fair, long established companies like Estee Lauder, Bobbie Brown and Mac offer a wide range of shades in their top selling foundations. However, when it comes to the more niche formulas such as BB creams, cushions, foundation sticks, powders and concealers, a lot of the big brands only carry around a dozen or so shades on the lighter side of the spectrum. The fact that Rihanna was lorded for creating a line of makeup that included women of every colour shows how far we still need to go. But it’s a start and I guess Fenty is as good a place as any.
— Fashionista.com (@Fashionista_com) September 13, 2018
All this being said, I have a problem with the word diversity. To me, it stinks of corporate and governmental cynicism when organisations are forced to employ people who do not fit into the straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied standard. This is not because they want to include a range of people to enrich the working environment, but because of a need to appear politically correct. However, I don’t know what word should replace diversity; perhaps equality or inclusion? I’m not sure what term to use to describe this current wave of positive change, perhaps diversity will be reclaimed by the new order and will no longer be associated with crass tokenism.
I’ve often wondered why more brands don’t feature models who aren’t skinny teenagers, surely it’s better for business to include a wider proportion of the population? In fact, most women who have the spending power to buy designer clothes are in their 40s and 50s having worked their way up the professional ladder. Of course there’s is the argument that fashion is about aspiration and the promise of buying into an ephemeral idea of youth and beauty, like a consumerist mirage. However, seeing one’s self represented in the media and on the runway is validating and most customers are more likely to part with their cash if they feel that a brand is talking to them. Inferring that women can not eat, age or be any other colour than white is about as toxic and damaging as it gets. Hopefully the wave of change will continue and the demand for bones will finally end.