A brief follow-up to my comments about Girard’s article on eating disorders and mimetic theory:
An article titled “Do thin models warp girls’ body image?” in USA Today last Tuesday reflects on the “widespread concern that model thinness has progressed from willowy to wasted” and the “recent actions of fashion show organizers,” such as the Madrid fashion show, which ended Saturday, that have “banned overly thin models.” Overly thin, in this case, means a 5’9″ model who weighs less than 125 pounds.
Here are some comments that strike me as highly arguable:
“‘The biggest problem in America is obesity. Both obesity and anorexia stem from numerous issues, and it would be impossible to attribute either to entertainment, be it film, TV or magazines.'”
There may be numerous complicating issues, but I think obesity and anorexia both stem from the same thing: violent mimesis, i.e., imitation of and rivalry with those we take to be peers or aspirational models, such that we want what they have (thin bodies, youth/maturity, modelling careers and contracts, admiration, to be thought sexy, to be thought appealing, to be wanted, to be desired by others, to be envied, to have what others want) and we feel jealous, envious, rivalrous, angry, frustrated, and thwarted when we don’t have it. Anorexia is the result of buying into the cultural norm for (mostly) female desirability and channeling most of one’s energy into “achieving” it; obesity is the result of buying into that desirability norm, as well, and channeling most of one’s energy into trying to ignore or reject it. In each case, there is the external referent, so aptly called “the model” in the fashion biz, that we either push against (obesity) or buy into (anorexia), or both at the same time (bulimia).
“The runway models this year were no thinner than years before” says Kelly Cutrone, owner of People’s Revolution, a company that produces fashion shows around the world. “‘I didn’t see any difference in the girls at all. When they bend over, are you going to see the rib cage? Yes, they are thin naturally. … These girls are anomalies of nature. They are freaks of nature. They are not average. They are naturally thin and have incredibly long legs compared to the rest of their body.”
I’ve watched a few seasons of “America’s Next Top Model” and my observation of these aspiring models is that most of these girls are not thin “naturally.” They are thin through not eating much and being terrified of “looking fat.” (There may well be some people with extremely fast metabolisms — through nature, not pills — and people training for sports, who are thin without much trouble and without a morbid fear of body fat; but the models on these shows talk about fat like it’s poison.)
“[Runway models] wear a size 2 or 4. ‘If we get a girl who is bigger than a 4, she is not going to fit the clothes,’ Cutrone says. ‘Clothes look better on thin people. The fabric hangs better.’
Cutrone says this like it’s just the way nature makes clothes! Clothes don’t have to look better on thin people! They could be made so that they look best on a size 10 or 12 or 20.
But the deeper issue is that our perception of what “looks better” and of how fabric should hang favours thin and young female bodies.
The article ends with another comment from Cutrone:
“Cutrone says models will become heavier if that’s what consumers demand. ‘If people decide thin is out, the fashion industry won’t have thin models anymore. Have you spent time with fashion people? They are ruthless. They want money. And the one thing they know is people want clothes to cover their bodies,’ Cutrone says. ‘Unfortunately, most people aren’t comfortable with their bodies.'”
Is this last notion really a surprise, when we are bombarded daily with images of very thin, very young women and girls who are held up as the “models” of what looks good? As Cutrone herself said, most of us don’t look like that. But clothes are actually made to look best on that nubile body shape, so women who wear sizes 6 and 8 and 10 and 12 and 14 and 16, etc., are getting the message, when the clothes don’t fit them like they do the models, that there is something wrong with their body instead of that there is something wrong with having one model of how clothes should fit and how bodies should look. To have one model makes it easier for the fashion industry to cheaply manufacture a garment in multiple sizes. As designer Stephanie Schur says, most of “today’s runway models look pretty much alike. … For runway it’s about highlighting the clothes. It’s finding the girls that make your clothes look best.”
I do wonder how people will “decide” that thin is out. How does a culture change its perception of what is desirable and what is not? Is this perhaps the beginning, with a little scapegoating of these thin girls who are still our models but who are increasingly labelled as “unhealthy,” unnatural or “freaks of nature,” “gaunt,” bad role models for girls, etc.? We can scapegoat them as the cause of all these problems — obesity, anorexia, bulimia, four-year-olds who are obsessed with looking sexy and thin, etc. — and believe that by dethroning them we can solve these problems. We can install new models in their place. And then, I wonder, what fatal flaw will they possess that will cause us to blame them for our ills? Will they be too heavy, causing more of an obesity problem, or causing people to react to the perceived ugliness of their weight by over-slimming? Will they be too normal-seeming, causing us to react against their lack of celebrity charisma? How will they be the cause of our woes? And how long will we be blind to the damage that we do by using each other as models?