Monday, October 02, 2006

On a weighty issue

Or, The Skinny on Skinny

Okay, so a lot has been made recently of Madrid Fashion Week's decision to institute a ban on unsafely thin models after a model died of heart failure at Fashion Week in Montevideo. Their decision to set a BMI lower limit of 18 - 122 pounds on a 5'9" model - should help prevent eating disorders in young women and even start shifting the general ideal of beauty toward a healthier weight standard. However, the decision is not without controversy. Skinny girls insist that some people really are naturally 5'9 and 110 (the industry average for models, and a BMI of 16) and that this is discrimination. Not-skinny girls insist that skinny girls are squicky. And the debate rages about what effect this will have, if any, on life outside of the fashion industry.

The thing about high fashion is that it actually has very little to do with clothing. The woman who drops $2,300 on a Balenciaga double-breasted swing coat does so for the same reason that a man drops $300k on a Lamborghini Murcielago he'll probably never take above 80: it's expensive and rare and special and makes her rare and special by extension. The role of the designer is to satisfy that certain customer by creating easily identifiable, unique looks using expensive materials and designing them for figures that can only be obtained with personal trainers and/or cocaine addictions; Oscar de la Renta once refused to design above a size 10, saying, "I'm a designer. I don't upholster sofas" (he has since, thank God, apologized).

The idea that haute couture is designed for runway models is a myth; although the occasional designer will put together the occasional look specifically for a model who's been designated as "super," the vast majority of runway models are, quite literally, walking clothes hangers who have been chosen for their ability to disturb the lines of the clothing as little as possible. The clothes are designed for rich women who care about status enough to be really, really thin.

So what's to be done? Well, I will say that Spain's actions certainly aren't negative. By setting a BMI limit for runway models, they've sent the message that starvation is not the way to a successful runway career, and they've eliminated the positive outcomes associated with unhealthy eating practices. Certainly, models will still eat less than they should, because that's what models do, but if eating nothing but lettuce for a year /= a guaranteed high-fashion gig, they're likely to take more care in their weight management.

The question, though, is whether or not it will have any real impact outside of the modeling industry, and I say it's not terribly likely. Designers won't start designing clothes for curvier women until curvier women become the standard not just for beauty, but for wealth and status as well. So while we certainly should encourage girls (and most of them are just teenaged girls) within the fashion industry to maintain a healthy weight, if only for their own good, that's not going to have any kind of meteoric effect on society's standards of beauty. We have to change the way society thinks; fashion will follow, because as much as those in the industry hate to admit it, that's what fashion does.

As for changing society's standard of beauty, I think that's already starting to happen. The seeds have been planted, at least. Anyone who saw Salma Hayek at the 2006 Oscars probably noticed a seriously curvy stunner in a gorgeous gown and probably did so without thinking, "My, her boobs and butt certainly go against the patriarchal standard for stick-thin beauty that society has thrust upon me. My life is changed!" It wasn't a revolution, because it didn't need to be; we are actually capable of responding positively to reasonably diverse images of beauty. And young people in particular, those who tend to be the most easily influenced, have more and more positive role models in terms of pop culture icons with curvier bodies. The Amber Tamblyns, America Ferreras, and Kelly Clarksons of the world show impressionable girls that a skeletal figure is not necessary for success and beauty (although, Kelly, "If I just cut this bad boy up, it'll fit over my tum-tum" isn't really a message we want to be sending to the kids).

Our problem isn't that we don't have enough "normal-sized" role models. The problem is that we insist that there is, in fact, a normal size. We hear voices on both side saying that thin/fat is ideal and that all of these fat/thin people walking around are disgusting and shameful. The Thin Lobby likes to bring up the fact that two-thirds of Americans are overweight and that with proper diet and a little bit of, like, self control, OMG, we all could - and, more importantly, should - be size 2. The Fat Lobby pulls out "Big is Beautiful," insists that airlines get bigger seats, and accuses any and all thin women of being "unnatural." Ann at Feministing was taken to task recently for using the phrase "disgustingly skinny" in reference to some of Hollywood's more skeletal waifs, and discussion followed about whether the women were being called disgusting or just their level of skinniness, and use of the term "womanly" frequently raises the question of why a thin woman is any less of a woman than her curvier counterpart.

News flash: The human body? Looks totally different on different people. We all grow differently. Some people are naturally thin; they have tiny little frames and lightning fast metabolisms and find themselves complaining about the way their pants sag over their lack of butt (Mom). Some people are naturally heavier; they grow fat deposits on their chests and over their hips and butts (and elsewhere) resulting in a curvier, or at least softer, shape, and complain about the way their pants pull over their abundance of butt (your truly). Short and chunky. Tall and lanky. There is an infinite range of body shapes and sizes that fall under the umbrella of "healthy," and that designation comes not from the height or width of your body but how capable that body is of sustaining life efficiently.

And that's what we need to be concentrating on: healthy bodies. Why are we creeped out by Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton, and Kate Bosworth's newly-displayed sternum? Because their bodies call to mind starvation and skeletons and other things related to death, and that makes us uncomfortable. Because that's not "natural" thinness; it's the kind of thinness that is only achieved by unhealthy self-torture. On the other side of things, Mo'Nique offered her "Big Beautiful and Loving It" line for women whose obesity puts them at risk for heart disease, joint disorders, diabetes, and a host of different health problems. Neither of those extremes is preferable, not because they go against aesthetics but because they go against the natural human instinct to live to see old age. And by glamorizing and glorifying either of those extremes, we're encouraging women to do unsafe and unhealthy things to their bodies. And by demonizing and laying judgment on any body type, we're perpetuating the myth that someone's outward appearance is a reliable reflection of their inner character and inherent value.

Perfect ten or fatty fatty boobalatty?

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