"[in] no way do we want to pretend that we're going to try and change the way that we portray fashion."
by Jo Harrison Any-Body UK Team Member & Co-Founder of Shape Your Culture
Sunday's Independent ran a story about how British Vogue's Editor Alexandra Shulman has made an educational film to show "the difference between fashion and reality and how a fashion image is constructed", so far, so good.
We shared this story on social media as we feel that, credit where credit is due, in terms of moves toward more realistic portrayals and of understanding of the constructs that can underpin feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in many people, men as well as women. This seemed positive since what would be the point of deconstructing fashion images if there were no intention of starting to do things differently? Well, this optimism was short-lived indeed. My mother rang me and seemingly quite agitated said, 'Have you been listening to PM on Radio 4??' I had not, but she gave me the gist and I hopped on iPlayer as soon as it was available to have any hope quashed that Vogue's mission was a sign of change or intention of promoting size diversity, Holly Baxter in The Guardian sadly seems to have it right:
Perhaps it's just me who sees something sinister about attempting to re-educate young people so that a business can continue pushing what they acknowledge to be a damaging agenda. But why exactly are we supposed to swallow that the problem was with the public's perception all along? These magazines exist purely to dictate to their young audience, for a fee, what is beautiful, fashionable, desirable – and largely unattainable. Trying to tell us that their content shouldn't change, but the attitudes of their disillusioned and apparently uneducated readership should, is depressing doublethink.
During the interview on PM where Eddie Mair interviewed Shulman and Helen Goodman the Shadow Media Minister (which you can listen to here at 31:10 minutes http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039d4c9 for 7 days) Shulman came across as evasive, condescending and irritated, even tutting audibly when Mair asked her for a second time why Vogue does not use and does not intend to use models more representative of the 88% of the female population who are not a size 8 or below. (See my transcript of Shulman's comments below).
An issue that also came up during the conversation was of air-brushing. Shulman, at this juncture, took the opportunity to patronise Goodman by saying air-brushing hadn't been used for decades and that now it's digital, pretty sure that's what Goodman meant as even the most hard-core Luddite will have heard of Photoshop, but I digress. Shulman went on to say that actually digital manipulation is quite often used to make the models seem fatter, she said:
It's just to make sure that if somebody is looking so… a photographer can, light can do so much to the body so you can make a perfectly ordinary person look very bony and skinny if you light it the wrong way and sometimes we have that problem.
"Looking so..." what, Alexandra? I couldn't help but think of this slideshow on retouching featuring models whose jutting ribs are hidden digitally. This article also comes to mind, written by former Australian Vogue Editor Kirstie Clements where she recounts horrifying stories about the high fashion world such as this one:
On another shoot I was chatting to one of the top Australian models during lunch. She had just moved to Paris and was sharing a small apartment with another model. I asked her how that was working out. "I get a lot of time by myself actually," she said, picking at her salad. "My flatmate is a 'fit model', so she's in hospital on a drip a lot of the time." A fit model is one who is used in the top designer ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed. That the ideal body shape used as a starting point for a collection should be a female on the brink of hospitalisation from starvation is frightening.
I thought she was about to say if somebody was looking so ill, but of course she didn't.
Of course there's also Dove's video which was done quite some time ago. Now, this is by no means solid evidence, but having worked over the last year with lots of teenage girls for our project Shape Your Culture many had seen the Dove video in school before we'd met with them and sadly, this had enlightened them, but not cured their body anxiety, so what should they do with this information if nothing is going to change? In her blog on this subject, Glosswitch eloquently states, "It’s the way in which low self-esteem is defined as yet another female flaw." We need to be honest, realising there is a problem is the FIRST step, not the solution.
My initial reservations, apart from the fact that this comes from a brand specialising in selling aspiration, was this part of The Independent on Sunday article:
Vogue's publisher, Condé Nast, is keen to court British teenagers. Ms Shulman launched a fashion magazine for teenage girls this week, Miss Vogue, packed with adverts for high street labels and luxury brands.
Perhaps it is a coincidence. I hope so, because as cynical marketing ploys go something like this would really take the biscuit.
PR aside, according to Shulman "people don't buy fashion magazines to see what they look like". Ok, but fashion magazines are full of pictures of people in clothes with the make and price of them listed, yet 88% of the population cannot see from these images how they might look in the clothes being advertised. I remember being in Borders in New York and discovering Bust magazine, and among the pleasing range of articles, was a lingerie shoot. The model had similar proportions to me (I'm big busted, big bottomed etc.) and I felt so good seeing those images; I recall physically relaxing, I didn't feel like I was mentally trying and failing to look good in clothes never designed for my body. Now there are people out there who scream 'promoting obesity!!!!!!' when people mention more representative images, but we've been fed a vast banquet of ever thinner women for years and years, but people are dieting more and the population is getting bigger, so where's the logic in that?
To conclude, I was particularly interested when Shulman stated that one of the points of the educational material is that it "is not all about size, not everybody should want to be a model" but since digital manipulation is so sophisticated, see here and here (both enlightening and offensive in equal measure), wouldn't it stand to reason that actually--and I am playing Devil's Advocate here--anyone can want to be a model if "correcting" people is relatively simple? But that's not the point is it, despite the fact that fashion editors and art directors routinely say in defense of being un-representative that fashion is about fantasy, it's not real. Well, if stepping away from reality is the point, why can't we all get in on the act? I could be a model if Adobe Creative Suite is anything to go by, I could have four heads and wings and appear to shoot lasers from my eyes...
Interview Transcript from PM on Radio 4 with Eddie Mair Thursday 5th September 2013
[After Helen Goodman MP says she hopes that Vogue will address things like hiring more from a more diverse pool of body sizes for fashion shoots Eddie Mair asked what Vogue was doing about this issue]
Alexandra Shulman: We sell 200,000 copies of vogue a month because people want to see the images of fashion models in Vogue and er and I think no way do we want to pretend that we're going to try and change the way that we portray fashion umm interestingly in the main it's commentators that complain about it we don't get tweets, we don't get letters, we don't get emails complaining about the images in the magazine…as for the air-brushing, or the so-called airbrushing - I don't think air-brushing has been used on the magazine for several decades, what you can do is digital manipulation of types, which interestingly quite often now is actually not to make people look thinner and taller but actually quite often to make them look a little bit fatter.
Eddie Mair: Why don't you just employ fatter people?
AS: Erm because [pause, laughter] it's a good question but it's a very fine line of the fatter it's just to make sure that if somebody is looking so… a photographer can, light can do so much to the body so you can make a perfectly ordinary person look very bony and skinny if you light it the wrong way and sometimes we have that problem.
EM: I want to ask you if I may Alexandra about the lesson plan because it's not just a video you sent  drawn up with the help of teachers The Times says, underlining that while the average dress size of a model is an 8, only 12% of women are this size or smaller the plan urges teachers to tell pupils that only a small percentage of the population have the natural build and appearance of a model. Why not simply use some models which are more representative of the other 88% of the female population?
AS: Well I'm far more interested in talking about the lesson plan because it's the key component of…
EM: Well this is in it so why don't you tell me why…
AS: Er um the point is that was brought up is to allow young women to discuss what they feel about the images and I think if the criticism is that we are creating any problem, what we're actually doing is we're bending over backwards to provide a forum for young girls to discuss these issues and that was the whole point of this, it's not a film.
EM: And in this forum for discussion can you just deal with my question of why you don't use people more representative of the 88% of women.
AS: *tuts* Oh because um people don't buy fashion magazines to see what they look like, you can see what your friends look like -
EM: Have you tried?
AS: Yes we have, probably let's say we have um 150 editorial pages in every issue and I would reckon that about 60 of those 150 editorial pages are real in quotes women
EM: What size would they be?
AS: They can be anything I mean we've had people ranging from 18 down to 8 or 6 or probably had a size 20, I mean we don't tend to ask somebody if we're doing a feature on an Opera Singer or an Engineer or a Ballerina, we don't ask them what size they are, it's not the issue, and that's one of my big points here, this is not all about size, not everybody should want to be a model.