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.