Fashion and Body Image.

14/04/2014 § Leave a comment

Another day, another complaint that the fashion industry gives women body dysmorphia. This time, it’s a blogger called Shannon Bradley-Colleary who has organized an online petition to try to persuade Yves St Laurent’s CEO, Francesca Bellettini, to stop using “seemingly malnourished” models in their advertising campaigns.

According to Bradley-Colleary, if women see pictures of thin women, they are overcome by a self-loathing so profound it leads to eating disorders and mental health problems. And even if women aren’t overcome by this self-loathing, children are, and won’t someone think of the children?

There’s nothing unusual in this argument. It’s a well-rehearsed position that people who don’t like fashion use as a club to beat it with.

Unfortunately, there’s not so much as a grain of truth in it.

If we set aside the difference between fashion and advertising …

And if we set aside the fact that photoshop has more to do with the appearance of women in adverts than any physical reality of the women themselves …

And if we set aside the fact that some women are naturally thin, they were born that way, they don’t do it deliberately to piss people off, and complaining about their thinness is just as insulting as sneering at someone for being fat …

And if we set aside the fact that women generally are not stupid and are quite capable of making up their own minds about the reality or otherwise of the images that they see in fashion magazines …

Body dysmorphia and eating disorders are symptoms of mental illnesses that take a range of forms, and although a disproportionate number of sufferers of these symptoms are young women, they also occur in young men, and in seniors. If we say that images in fashion magazines cause these mental illnesses, we ignore other, more likely, causes. And if we ignore the causes, how can we possibly hope to treat the illness? Are we going to say to every anorexic that their treatment is a ban on Vogue and Marie Claire, and expect them to get well again? What about the ones that don’t read fashion magazines but still become ill? Do we assume they have a secret designer habit, that they browse Net-a-Porter on their phones under the covers at night?

Young and old alike develop eating disorders and body dysmorphia for a variety of reasons – undiagnosed depression or other mental illness, a loss of control in ones life, a way of coping with the pressure of school or family breakdown in the young, or dealing with bereavement in the old. They can appear in athletes and dancers, who rely on their body for their success in life, and in seniors who struggle to accept the inevitable effects of aging on their body. For young women, they can often arise as a result of difficulties in dealing with a world that is often fundamentally hostile to women. (If you don’t believe me on this one, check out the Everyday Sexism Project.)

This last explanation makes the connection between women’s mental health, the treatment of women by the society they live in, and symptoms like eating disorders. This connection was first made in the 1860s, in Paris, at the Salpetrière women’s hospital – and clearly pre-dates fashion magazines by at least 50 years. If we need to understand specifically why some young women develop eating disorders, this would be as good a place as any to start.

If we are particularly concerned about young women – as Shannon Bradley-Colleary and others like her profess to be – then we need to look at the world around us and try to make it a bit less of a hostile place for women. Knee-jerk responses and simplistic dog-whistle campaigns don’t help anyone, and because they mask the real causes of the problems, can often make things worse. We should be looking instead at social attitudes, family behaviours, government policies, education, and media such as film, TV and music, all of which play a far greater role in our lives than advertising in fashion magazines, and which are far more likely to affect mental health than a YSL advertising campaign.


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