Every so often the media gets interested in the role of the fashion industry in damaging young people’s self-image (mostly young women’s). For a while there are outraged op-eds and then maybe a fashion house makes a big deal about hiring a “plus size” model or two, and then the fuss dies down until the next time.
But how exactly does the fashion industry influence people in their everyday lives, and why does it matter?
The fashion industry doesn’t just sell us clothes to wear, to keep us warm and suitably dressed according to the modesty norms of the society we live in. It also sells dreams. It tells us that if we can look a certain way, people will find us attractive, and we will be more successful in our personal and professional lives. To this end, the fashion industry hires models who are very attractive. So far, so good. It makes sense to use pretty models; whether we’d like to admit it or not, we all like looking at attractive people and most of us try to be as attractive as we can, too.
However, over the years, models have been getting thinner and thinner. Look back to the supermodels of the 1980s. Gorgeous women like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell were at the peak of their careers. Certainly, they were outliers in terms of their good looks, tall stature, and perfectly proportioned bodies. They were also a lot bigger compared to the top models of today. In fact, if any of them was trying to break into the industry now, they’d almost certainly be told to lose weight.
While some women are naturally extremely thin, it is very difficult for most women to aspire to be as thin as the fashion models dominating the industry today, and even those who manage to become and stay that thin often do so at the expense of their health. Not just fashion models but growing numbers of young women (and much smaller, but also growing, numbers of young men), are suffering a range of diseases, including early onset osteoporosis, because of their unhealthy thinness. At the other end of the scale, levels of obesity are also soaring among young people. Part of this may be because they do not have role models of a healthy weight to look up to. When you don’t even have a chance of having a body shape slightly like the ideals held up, you might as well give up—that’s the sort of thinking that can contribute to becoming dangerously overweight, with all the health risks associated with the condition.
The answer doesn’t lie in hiring “plus size” models to give overweight people role models to identify with, but in normalising beauty at a healthy weight, and accepting healthy, normal levels of variation. Young people need role models who present them with the achievable goal of looking good at a weight that is appropriate for their height and build.
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