Why Thin Is Still In

Here is a guest blog by Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University:

Why Thin is Still In

In her new documentary, Picture Me, Columbia University student Sara Ziff chronicles her 4-year rise and exit through the fashion modeling industry, zooming her personal camcorder onto supposedly systemic abuses—sexual, economic, and emotional—suffered by fashion models.  Among the many complaints launched in the film is an aesthetic that prizes uniformly young, white, and extremely thin bodies measuring 34-24-34” (bust-waist-hips) and at least 5’10” in height.  It’s an aesthetic that many of the models themselves have a tough time embodying, pushing some into drastic diets of juice-soaked cotton balls, cocaine use, and bulimia—in my own interviews with models I discovered similar, but not very common, practices of Adderall and laxative abuse.  It’s also an aesthetic that has weathered a tough media storm of criticism, set off in 2005 with the anorexia-related deaths of several Latin American models, and which culminated in the 2006 ban of models in Madrid Fashion Week with excessively low Body Mass Indexes (BMI).  And yet, as a cursory glance at the Spring 2011 catwalks will reveal, thin is still in.  In fact, bodies remain as gaunt, young, and pale as they did five years ago, and it’s entirely likely that in another five years, despite whatever dust Picture Me manages to kick up, models will look more or less the same as they do now.

What’s the appeal of an aesthetic so skinny it’s widely described by the lay public as revolting?  As a feminist sociologist, I know the usual suspects:  capitalist and patriarchal forces that damage women’s self-esteem; an industrialized economy of abundance that affords upper-class bodies distinction not through corpulence but slenderness; our cultural value on self-control and restraint.  Perhaps all of these social forces operate simultaneously as models walk the catwalk, but we can’t understand what kind of gaze imagines the female form at “size zero”—and to what ends—without researching fashion’s tastemakers.

When I interviewed modeling agents and clients in New York and London, I wanted to learn how they make potentially problematic decisions to hire—or overlook—certain models.  What I found was a lot of empathy with critics like Sara Ziff, but also a lot of fear.  As workers in a cultural production market, bookers and clients face intense market uncertainty when selecting models; after all what counts as beauty and fashionability are continually in flux, and by definition, a model’s value is a subjective matter of taste.  When choosing models for high-end catwalks, campaigns, and fashion magazines, I found that clients’ choices of models tended to be isomorphic.  That is, they choose looks that they expect everyone else to choose too.  They widely perceive that white-washed ultra-skinny models are most likely to be types chosen by their peers, and to deviate from this tried-and-tested formula would be to risk professional status by being “out of fashion.”

Like any culture industry, fashion modeling should be thought of as an institutionalized production system, where the goods produced – the models – are embedded in an historically-shaped and market-driven network of agents, designers, and casting directors.  Every actor in the system tries to match what she expects will complement the demands of cooperating actors, and they make these predictions based on past records and experiences.  Agents are trying to supply what they think will go over well with designers; designers produce shows they predict will appeal to magazine editors; editors favor the kinds of images they think will resonate with readers’ tastes.  Ask a designer why they book skinny models: because that’s what the agents are providing.  Ask an agent why they promote skinny models: well that’s what the designers want.  And so on.

I was in London conducting interviews with casting directors and designers in 2006, at the height of the media furor, and the only thing that did seem any different backstage of Fashion Week was simply the amount of skinny models talking about skinny models.  At one show casting in London, I listened as photographers and models discussed the size zero media attention; they came to the conclusion that the issue was a ludicrous and lame attempt to sell papers, and that the matter would soon die down, in the words one casting director, “They’ll just go back to normal and the girls will continue being thin.  They have to, for the clothes.  It has to be a certain size.”

He was partially right.  Designers cut samples based on standardized measurements of size 2 or 4, and when they’re in a pinch days before showing a collection, alterations are the last thing they want to deal with.  But sample size clothes are not born out of thin air; they are measured, cut, and made.  When you ask a designer why they make their samples in those particular dimensions, they do it because that’s “the way things are done.”  Like the QWERTY keypad, we end up with a certain working order of things because over time conventions get locked-in, and it becomes easier to not change them, even if we don’t like them.

This puts model managers like Melissa Richardson, co-founder of London’s now-defunct Take 2 Models, in a tough spot.  Being the mom of a teenage girl herself, she isn’t keen on recruiting 14-year olds into the business, though their bodies are often well-suited for sample sizes.  Yet she still does it, she once told the BBC:  “Because other people do, and if I don’t, I lose out of it.”

Of course it’s possible to imagine a more just world of fashion modeling, where pre-pubescent girls with bony limbs are not used to market adult women’s wear.  That world exists; it’s in your everyday mail-in catalogues and commercial advertising, and in posters for designer’s affordable diffusion lines, which are aimed at the mass market.  It’s at the couture and high-end collections where size zero models are put to work.  Designers’ high-end collections make relatively small profit margins, but they drive the brand images that are sold in product-licensing agreements on diffusion products—the sportswear items, the handbags, the high heels, sunglasses, and scented candles—where the real money is made.  High-end fashion models, known as “editorial models,” are essentially branding vehicles, and they are chosen principally for their unattainability; they aren’t relatable to the every-day shopper.  That’s the point.

In the commercial world you are more likely to see those healthier, over-18 models.  It is also, importantly, where you’re more likely to see some ethnic variety in models, for those concerned with the conspicuous absence of black models in high fashion.

The commercial realm is also, you probably guessed, regarded as the less prestigious end of the fashion market.  And here’s a lesson from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on the field of cultural production:  as a general rule, the credit attached to any cultural product tends to decrease with the size and the social spread of its audience.  Hence the lower value, perceived or real, attached to commercial models.  Visually, we can picture fashion models as grouped along class hierarchies and their corresponding dress codes; there is the blue chip “editorial” model in Prada and Gucci on one board, and the commercial middle classes donned in Target on the other.

Designers report having a personal aesthetic vision, one that just so happens to be their designs hanging on a thin woman.  In the words of one London casting director, who said to the laughing amusement of models at his casting, “you know, it’s really hard to find size 12 or 14 girls that are fierce, I mean they’re all just–” and here he puffed out his cheeks and raised his eyebrows, vaguely resembling the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.  “It doesn’t look good,” he concluded.

Indeed, “fierce” as defined by the high-end editorial field of fashion is an institutionalized aesthetic of female beauty built upon an elite sensibility of unattainability.  What could actually put a wrench in this aesthetic isn’t more media coverage of the issue, but Sara Ziff’s larger goal to unionize fashion models.  With a functional union, in the vein of the Screen Actor’s Guild, to regulate working conditions and to keep tabs on ageist and racist practices, I think it’s possible for models to wrestle some control over a work process that as presently arranged puts them at the mercy of the whims of their agents and clients.  And that is something worth picturing.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

34 thoughts on “Why Thin Is Still In

  1. Gaunt is not fierce; it’s merely gaunt. With a tinge of the drug-addled.

    No one ever claimed that Roseann wasn’t fierce. It’s a fierce the fashion mavens refuse to reckon with. It doesn’t suit the brand.

  2. Thanks Ashley for this account. Is there a parallel in your argument with that of Marina Warner in her book Alone of All her Sex, which examined the glorification of the Virgin Mary as an unattainable icon? Your discussion also made me think of an article by Julia Kristeva in Poetics Today (Vol 6, 1985) (partly inspired by Warner’s book). Kristeva explained that the mistranslation of a Semitic term denoting the unmarried status of the Virgin Mary came to denote a physiological and psychological fact, that of virginity. Kristeva wondered if this mistranslation might provide an example of what, following Georges Dumezil (The Destiny of a King), be seen as an Indo-European ‘fascination … with the virgin daughter as repository of the father’s power’. Of course the emphasis on virginity is downplayed in your analysis, but is there a persistence of a cultural form concerning power hierarchies in the patronizing and (matronizing) practices of recruitment of 14 year olds with infertile looking physiques?

  3. A quick note to Ashley. Your points are quite valid, but there is another reason why models are selected on the basis of slender features.

    It’s easier to make clothes fit well on slender features in a short amount of time. The dynamic is the same throughout the editorial and fashion industries. Clothes stylists have to bring clothes to the location that must fit an unknown model. Curves, broad shoulders, bulging delts or biceps, all work against fitting clothes to the model in the shortest amount of time. At a shoot or runway event, the total bill per hour is in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars when location, materials, and talent fees are added up. The financial pressure is enormous on the company putting it together. Consequently, companies tend to hire models who will fit into a standard size quickly.

    This is one of the most important reasons why fashion models look the way they do. Although much ink is spilled about fashion’s cruel tendencies, it’s not the cruelty of a person or a clique of powerful people. It’s the collateral damage of finite budgets for “cultural production”.

    If it makes anyone feel any better, most behind the scenes “cultural producers” are quite ordinary looking. The makeup artists, stylists, or anyone else who has to lift and carry anything are often quite dowdy. Salt of the earth types really.

    In sum, for example, why do only small cars get great gas mileage? Is it a cultural conspiracy? No, their miles per gallon is a result of the laws of thermodynamics, not an oil company conspiracy. Instead, the real question is should we have a fossil-fuel based society. Models look the way they do because of production efficiencies required by the market. If we could agree as a society to find another approach to fashion to hold in high esteem, the models would change overnight.

  4. I fail to see how this is the fault of ‘the patriarchy’.

    Is the average man attracted to these models? No.
    Is the average man interested in cat-walk fashion at all? No

  5. Lorenzo, nice observation. But how do you account for the difference between catwalk models and, say, the models used by Victoria’s Secret, the L.L Bean catalogue, or my wife’s knitting magazines? The difference in production costs is, of course, one factor; but is that the whole story?

  6. “In sum, for example, why do only small cars get great gas mileage? Is it a cultural conspiracy? No, their miles per gallon is a result of the laws of thermodynamics, not an oil company conspiracy.”

    Great observation, never would have thought about it, but then I haven’t spent much time thinking about models. You points also show what happens to anthropology when theoretical elegance supersedes the material, ecological realities of daily life as it is lived among extremely social animals.

  7. Consequently, companies tend to hire models who will fit into a standard size quickly.

    I understand the practicalities of having a standard size—a model, if you will—with which to work. What I don’t understand is why the standard size couldn’t be 5’5” and 125 pounds rather than 5’9” and 100 pounds. There would be a larger pool of potential employers from which to pull, and would the additional material cost appreciably more?

  8. If you want to save time, sell kaftans – it’s got to be easier to change the clothes than the bodies. I think Ashley’s analysis is much more interesting than Lorenzo’s functionalism. The Bourdieau point is a good one – when you deal in images of women you have a pretty overpopulated ecology, so there will be a lot of mimetic conflict. A key point of fracture is sex – as sex permeates the mainstream, the high fashion niche has tended towards the asexual or androgynous. As an avid fan of Project Runway, and sometime follower of Next Top Model, I remember how often a model has been chastised for being “too hoochy” or a designer voted off for his (always the hetero guy) too tight mini-dress, of the sort worn by porn stars and New Jersey housewives (sorry!)…just not ‘sophisticated’ or ‘chic’ enough. Being Fierce is not compatible with being ogled. To expand this, there’s a gradient between the low end porn niche, where bodies are becoming ever more corporeal, through to the high end fashion niche, where bodies are vanishing in favor of aesthetic artistic contemplation, a mental pose. One day the model’s bodies might disappear altogether, and the clothes will squish down the runway on wires, with the designers free to play with ‘structure’ and ‘volume’ without the constraint of bodies … in fact that gives me an idea for a pretty edgy new collection…

  9. “I think Ashley’s analysis is much more interesting than Lorenzo’s functionalism.”

    They can both be true. Material/economic realities directly shape behavior, and therefore culture. Culture, in turn, justifies and makes sense of behavior and creates either positive or negative feedback loops, either perpetuating or stigmatizing behavior.
    I’m not sure why anthropologists feel such a strong need to limit themselves through dualistic, ‘either/or’ theory. However, in this relationship one has to make the choice as to what is the prime driver of behavior, and to say it is ideational, non-material culture is to say that we are a magic species of primate that can eat air and reproduce without sex.

    Whatever we do, I think we need to never gravitate toward or away from an explanation because it is either more or less personally “interesting” to us.

  10. @Rick
    So ‘truth’ and ‘interest’ have different meanings? Huh. What about ‘truthiness’ – is that somewhere in between? As for the problems with ideational : material dualisms, I think I read about that in Heidegger once. Find another windmill to tilt at, I’m just not ‘interested’.

  11. “as a general rule, the credit attached to any cultural product tends to decrease with the size and the social spread of its audience. Hence the lower value, perceived or real, attached to commercial models.”

    Are you saying that the audience of high-end brands is larger and more socially spread than the audience of brands targeting the middle class? Dubitable at best.

  12. There is such a thing as rarity value. The rarity, ideally uniqueness, of the garments shown on haute couture catwalks increases the value of the individual item. On the other hand, McDonald’s sells billions of cheap hamburgers and is, compared to haute couture, a much larger business.

  13. An interesting post, though it never really addresses the question of “why” thin, so much as “how” think persists as the ideal in that setting. On the other hand, the question of “why” thin has those semiotic valences has been the subject of a great deal of work, at least since Wallis Simpson said that you can never be too rich or too thin, and alerted us to that interesting shift from Edwardian fat as a sign of wealth to modern fat as a sign of poverty, etc.

    Nikki: Your confusion is understandable, since I believe the sentence should read “as a general rule, the credit attached to any cultural product tends to decrease with the [increase in the] size and the social spread of its audience.” Ashley: It’s not a lesson from Bourdieu; it’s a lesson Bourdieu learned from Marx’s discussion of exchange value.

    One clarification, as Ashley knows. One of the main functions of the fashion show is to sell copies to retailers as off-the-rack clothing. Wealthy consumers of haute couture may attend the fashion show to see what their favorite designers are up to, but I have never had the impression that a fashion show is designed to sell a particular piece of clothing to an individual. As we become more attentive to the social life of material things, it would be interesting to know exactly what becomes of the clothing that models wear in a fashion show.

  14. How thin remains the ideal in this particular setting remains, however, an interesting question. I am reminded of a conversation I had yesterday with an eminent (now retired) Japanese TV commercial planner and director, who, as he became more senior, was expected to help train the new college graduates that his agency hired each year. He told me that one of his favorite things was to ask them why the clients made TV commercials. After they came up with the usual answers, to sell products or build corporate image, he would offer his own opinion: “They do it because it’s their job.”

    In this context, “clients” refers most directly to the staff of the client company’s advertising division, who start the year with a budget and instructions to produce a certain amount of advertising on the usual sort of schedule. These people tend to resist genuine innovation because (1) it may be hard to sell to their bosses and (2) it is always risky.

    It is worth remembering, I think, that haute couture is, indeed, one of the culture industries, an industry that employs a lot of people trained to do things in a certain way. The odds of their changing their habits because someone makes a film or publishes a book are low. This season’s shows are over; it is time to start planning for the next one. Who has time to bother about things like that?

  15. This sociological/anthropological op ed is lovely, really, but sometimes the root of what ails us is rational practicality rather than hidden agendas of portent. Occam’s Razor anyone?

    Two things:
    When you’re shooting clothing for marketing purposes, you need the smallest size possible. Even if your stock size is an 8/10/M (as most are) the clothing is too large to fill the frame while still being able to get close enough to capture product attributes and detail. That is it, really. I know, it’s my job and frankly it annoys me greatly because it forces producers to bloat their overhead at a time they can ill afford to [grade their patterns for smaller sizes] when product demand is not yet justified.

    Second, why would any rational person be perplexed at the existence of hyper thin models? Fashion is all about extremes, that’s what fashion is. If the population is increasingly obese -it’s a real epidemic- then why would any rational person presume that fashion will depict product in terms of the majority ESPECIALLY since said majority tends toward the lowest end of the income spectrum? Fashion marketing is about aspiration, specifically acquisition of the unattainable. Now I ask you this, who aspires to be fat? Or worse, poor and fat?

  16. [W]hy would any rational person be perplexed at the existence of hyper thin models?

    I used to live next to a woman who survived life in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp. She just didn’t get the allure of thin at all.

    Now I ask you this, who aspires to be fat?

    Pretty much anyone who has been chronically hungry because of lack of access to food. I.e., much of the world’s population.

  17. Oh. I guess I got lost on the intertubes this morning. I was anticipating intelligent discourse -which precludes attempting to marginalize a visitor’s points using examples of outliers.

  18. “Much of the world’s population” can’t really be called ‘outliers’, but I wouldn’t worry too much Kathleen, MTBradley hasn’t said anything to dispute your second point – if the majority are or aspire to be large, then the edgy elite might aspire to be thin. This is actually related to the point made by Ashley when she cites Pierre Bourdieu. But your first point I think can’t be particularly important since the thinnest models are on the runway not the page. And on the page a lot of making thin is done after shooting via Photoshop – the clothes remain, but the chubby arms and legs sticking out get shrunk.

  19. I was anticipating intelligent discourse -which precludes attempting to marginalize a visitor’s points using examples of outliers.

    Intelligent discourse presupposes some knowledge of basic facts and a control of analytical concepts. Either you are unaware that 925 million members of our species are malnourished or of what the term ‘outlier’ means. Or both.

    Anthropology is the study of human diversity. When you come to an anthropology blog and pose the question, “Who aspires to be fat?” as if it were rhetorical you should do so with the expectation that someone is going to point out to you that not everyone in our world knows or cares who Daria Werbowy is. If your arguments are meant to take citizens of the G7 nations as the frame of reference then they are not uninteresting. If they are meant to be universalizing then are just ridiculous.

  20. MTB, Bringing in an exemplar of someone who survived a genocide as a counter to something so obvious that most people in the US and Europe don’t want to be fat that you can’t be serious. How many catwalks you see in Cambodia? How many fat models you think they got? There’s a fine line between devil’s advocate and contrariness for it’s own sake.

  21. Cambodians almost certainly have access to fashion magazines. None of which makes the statement “who aspires to be fat?” any less historically or anthropologically vapid.

  22. And I quote:

    why would any rational person be perplexed at the existence of hyper thin models?

    Do hyperbolic questions not deserve hyperbolic answers? (not a rhetorical question)

    Rick, were you actually a member of the PSYOP community? If so, how can you fail to grasp what is going on rhetorically here? (not rhetorical questions)

  23. Oh good grief.

    The context of this discussion is not the 925 million malnourished occupants of this planet. They wouldn’t give a fig whether thin is in.

    I’m not sure how to play your condescension Matthew. I mean, you obviously disrespect me so heartily you feel no need to be subtle with your disdain. Should I be sarcastic? Should I feed the troll? How about a full bore, no pretense topic hijack?

    How’s this?
    You imply my intellect is suspect because I work in the “fashion” industry. Apparently you think mastery of popular culture -being a [sic] gradual student of anthropology and all- is a far superior value, after all, I had no clue who Daria was until I googled it -and I still don’t care. However, you might want to re think that whole “analytical” thing since I’m an engineer -after having also majored in economics, specifically international developmental economics so I do know a just a tad about global and regional poverty -and was in fact, working for the United Nations in the highlands of Guatemala and getting shot at in the war zone it was then before you were even born. If not knowing who Daria is or knowing the latest head count of extreme poverty world wide means I’m not “analytical” enough, you win. But guess what, I still don’t care. It has nothing to do with the topic. Like I said, wholesale topic hijack.

    For your finale, perhaps you could tell me just when it was that anthropology became more analytical than both engineering and economics. Or not. I came here for intelligent discourse, since that’s obviously not forthcoming and the blog owner permits nuanced ad hominem attacks, I’m outta here. Have a nice life Matthew.

    PS. To anyone who gives a fig: I got into the needle trades because it is the first industry that a nation can develop with minimal capital outlay and technology. Barring the extremes you read about in the papers, it’s sustainable. I’ve never worked for a sweatshop and never will; I specialize in artisanry and developmental coops. Operations can be run in far flung underdeveloped regions with minimal power and infrastructure.

    And yeah, anthropology is a great thing, I dig it. But while you’re studying linguistics and cultural norms, people still have to eat. Now, if you want to have a conversation about the limitations of development that are wholly cultural/sex role defined (sans romantic notions of the noble savage please), I’d love to discuss it.

  24. “Rick, were you actually a member of the PSYOP community? If so, how can you fail to grasp what is going on rhetorically here? (not rhetorical questions)”

    I didn’t know that I was supposed to be running a counter-propaganda SCAME analysis on the posts here. Unfortunately, those kind of hyperbolic arguments are made way too often by anthropologists, who have long since left the world we all live in and entered into a world of elegant theory and mystery. I think it’s us and economists who are the worse culprits of this behavior, with economists being the worst. We, however, seem to be much more prone toward anti-social behavior and ad hominems, where the source of information equals the validity of that information.
    So, while I was surprised to see such a statement coming from you, I can’t say that I know you in any real way, and nuances like sarcasm don’t come across in this mode of communication very well.

    On another note, it’s interesting that no ones brought up the fact that male models are not waify thin, but are male ideal types that women actually want to sleep with. So, who’s actually driving the fashion industry, the average guy or women and gay men? Who knows, but that’s just one hole in the whole elegant theory, whereas the simpler, material explanations do a lot more with a lot less. It’s women that stigmatize other women and compete with other women for the most part.

  25. @ Kathleen

    who said: I’m an engineer -after having also majored in economics, specifically international developmental economics so I do know a just a tad about global and regional poverty -and was in fact, working for the United Nations in the highlands of Guatemala and getting shot at in the war zone it was then before you were even born.

    Is your real name Indiana Jones?

  26. @ Kathleen again

    who said: This sociological/anthropological op ed is lovely, really, but sometimes the root of what ails us is rational practicality rather than hidden agendas of portent. Occam’s Razor anyone?

    Yeah but thats just the thin edge of the wedge isn’t it

  27. Overwhelmngly, most men prefer women to be far more full bodied than the typical model. It appears most women, think that clothes “hang better” on very thin models and therefore aspire to (tho’ few achieve) the figures of models.
    I can see that capitalist forces may drive this in order to persuade women to spend more money, I am puzzled by the patriarchal influence that seems to imply that these patriarchs are pressing women to adopt an appearance that the patriarchs (i.e. the majority of men) do not prefer.

  28. There seems to be a lot of confusion about whether the patriarchy is responsible for molding models in an image that most men don’t want to sleep with. However, men and women don’t think of fashion models as sexual beings. That is what porn is for. Fashion sexualizes women in an entirely different way. Fashion is about social status, and a voluptuous woman has zero intellectual and social capital in our virgin-whore culture. She is an entirely sexualized being–even now that fashion is allowing (like one or two) “full-figured” models into their magazines, they are rarely clothed in anything but lingerie. A porn star’s status in society is only in her ability to be used for sex, while a fashion model is elevated to godlike status. Someone upthread mentioned the connection between the Madonna and the pre-pubescent girl (and more increasingly, boy) models. The virgin-whore dichotomy is based entirely in patriarchal conceptions of womanhood and fashion directly exploits that connection.

  29. Or it could just be that beauty is OBJECTIVE: youth, duh! and that all other characteristics, i.e., ultra-skinny, white, etc. are representations of youth for the primate “gaze.” Why else do men & women shave? Why shave the pubes? Why do men and women have plastic surgery, get facial bleaching, etc? Because all of these are “signs” of youth, i.e., not death!

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