The last few days have offered up some great examples of the view of women - as disposable objects that must conform to a very strict standard in order to have any value - that's prevalent in the fashion industry. And none of this is a shock to me. It still boggles my mind why so many people, many of whom are self-proclaimed feminists, continue to defend the fashion industry. What is there to defend about it? It's about as misogynistic as you can get. For instance, it turns out Filippa Hamilton, the model who was photoshopped to be freakishly thin, was fired by Ralph Lauren for being too fat. Then there's Karl Lagerfeld's comments about how nobody wants to see curvy women in fashion magazine, because, as we all know, all women who aren't stick-thin are actually fat cows who do nothing but sit on their asses and cram their faces full of chips. Add to that the alleged fact that Barbie's ankles are too fat, according to Christian Louboutin, and you have a trifecta of misogyny and body shaming.
I suppose you could argue that these are just a few isolated examples of individuals within the industry voicing problematic views, some of which have allegedly been misinterpreted. But I'm not buying it. My own (limited) experience in the fashion industry tells me that these attitudes permeate the industry through and through, and I wouldn't expect change anytime soon. As a teen, I worked at a Starbucks that was located in a mall, and while at work I was recruited to model for Nordstrom’s in their quarterly fashion shows in the mall. These were run by the local office of a national modeling agency, and they relentlessly recruited me to do other types of modeling as well. But I was a busy student-athlete with a part-time job, and I was also a bit overwhelmed by the pressure they put on me and the culture of the business, so I stuck to doing the fashion shows every few months. And looking back, that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Every interaction I had with the agency was troubling. At the time I was chronically underweight, due to my athletic involvement and my high metabolism. I had lost a lot of weight when I had mono in middle school, and never managed to gain it back, even though I ate a very healthy diet and consumed between 2500 and 3000 calories a day. But I was running 9+ miles every morning, and looking back, I suspect my thyroid level was high (I now know I'm prone to thyroid fluctuations). My body fat level was so low that I frequently skipped my period (which is terrifying when you're a teenager and not sure your birth control is reliable). My mom and my doctor were very concerned about my low weight, and were on a constant campaign to get me back up to 130, which was thought to be the lowest end of the optimal weight range for me, at 5' 10.'' So, on the one hand I had this pressure to gain weight, and carried hard-boiled eggs and crackers with peanut butter around with me so that I could constantly have high protein snacks. But on the other hand I was being encouraged not to gain weight and told that I was at my ideal size by the modeling agency. In fact, whenever my body fat dipped below 4% (which always made my body unable to menstruate), the reps of the agency were thrilled and pursued me with job offers. The other girls who worked in the mall shows picked up on this of course, and alternately praised me and talked shit about me. But it was clear to them that they should emulate me if they wanted to make it in the industry.
All of this was vaguely troubling to me. I wasn't all that self-reflective or articulate about this kind of stuff at that age, but I knew there was something profoundly fucked up about the messages I was getting from the industry. So, apart from doing an ad for a local health club when I was super-broke as an undergrad, I avoided the industry altogether. But I often wonder what happened to the other girls I worked with in those shows. They were already showing signs of disordered eating, and everything in that environment supported and normalized that kind of behavior. I vividly remember the collective gasp of horror that went around the room one time when I pulled a baggie of almonds out of my pocket and started eating them at a pre-show meeting. The girl sitting next to me, who worked at the Cinnabon (ironically) said "there's so much fat in nuts!" I responded by saying something like "almonds are really good for you" and was promptly told exactly how many calories and grams of fat are in a small handful of almonds. As if that alone was a reason never to touch them. Another girls said "I would never eat nuts!" in what I thought was a really snotty and insulting tone. And these kinds of conversations occured often, while none of the adults in the room attempted to intervene or inject a healthy message.
Of course, this was in the early 90s, and it could be that things have changed in the industry since then. I guess. I really doubt it, though. Given the prevalence of these attitudes, and the power the collective culture had over the models and their agents, I can't imagine that things have changed all that much since then. Perhaps the pressure to engage in disordered eating and unhealthy habits has become more implicit and less explicit, for the sake of political correctness and a limiting of liability. Perhaps some designers and agencies are now trying to put some token messages out there about healthy eating and body size to enhance their public image. But I find it hard to believe that anything has truly changed.