Fashion Industry – Not a Good Global Citizen
The media and the fashion industry have recently come under fire for promoting examples of seriously under-weight and extremely young body types as the ideal for young and older women alike to strive toward. This promotion has led to the increase in body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in American, European and Australian women with African and Middle Eastern women showing a similar increase but on a smaller scale.
In response to this criticism and research, the fashion industry has, through the media, attempted to change its focus from thinness to fitness and to appeal to a wider range of body types in its fashion magazines and promotions. While a new body type may be under construction to some extent, glorifying the fashion industry as a type of good global citizen is hardly warranted. Through the years, women have been bombarded through fashion advertizing and promotion with images of the ideal female figure.
“They suggest that, by presenting a constant barrage of idealized images of extremely thin women, the media promote a standard of thinness for women that is impossible to achieve via healthy means. Women who internalize the thinness-as-beauty ideal may engage in extreme and often pathological behaviors in order to achieve and maintain a slim figure. ” (Nemeroff, Stein, Diehl and Smilaki, 1994, p. 164). Nemeroff and her researchers found that models in women’s fashion magazines became thinner and thinner from the 1950s through the 1980s.
They then found that through the 1990s, the fashion industry seemed to add a fitness factor to the “required look. ” However, this is hardly a 180 degree turn. The promotion of regular exercise to improve health quickly resulted in a swing towards compulsive exercise as a mean of obtaining the desired ultra-thin look rather than simply not eating. This compulsion could be described as a disorder, like an eating disorder, and can negatively interfere with social, family and work responsibilities.
Thus, “…the decline in weight loss focus for women was accompanied by a (farther more weakly demonstrated increase in health concern” (Nemeroff, Stein, Diehl and Smilaki, 1994, p, 176. ). The transition was certainly not an abandonment of its focus on ideal, ultra-thin, young models. It was and is a temporary digression which serves the fashion industry as much as it serves the overall mental and physical health of fashion-conscious women. Even in the last two years, the movement from thinness ideals in the fashion industry to healthy ideals has not erased the desire of young women to achieve the perfect body image at all costs.
Anna M Bardone-Cone and Kamila Cass (2006) studied the effects of certain websites on the self esteem and body image of women. The study found that young women who viewed pro-anorexia websites had the lowest body images and levels of satisfaction than women who viewed websites featuring fashion models of average sizes or websites about home decoration. The results showed that women who viewed the pro anorexia website had lower self-esteems and found thin to be highly desirable than those that viewed the fashion or home decor websites.
The researchers concluded that these sites could alter the thinking of these women, making them feel like average-sized was actually overweight (Bardone-Cone and Kass, 2006). Clearly this “new focus” on healthy sizes and lifestyles and body image has not made much of an impact on the perceptions and behaviors of young women in the past decade. In fact, the fashion industry has continued to promote this thinness image, even through grossly misleading and manipulative ways. Digital retouching is a practice that involves manipulating an image on the computer screen before it is published in a magazine.
However, this practice is relatively unknown and unexpected among a magazine’s readership. Wheeler says, “In fashion, drastically manipulated photography is taken for granted by art directors and editors, and editorial layouts are sometimes barely distinguishable from advertising spreads” (Wheeler, 2002, pg. 121). As technology improves, so does the ability to mask any imperfections in a model’s body in a photograph, yet most young women are completely unaware that these bodies are not actually real.
Messaris (1994) describes this idea as a lack of visual literacy which he defines as “familiarity with visual conventions that a person acquires through cumulative exposure to visual media… “ and a “…prerequisite for the proper comprehension of visual media (pg. 3). He continues to argue that “because of the allure and appeal of visual media, it is very easy for a viewer to become duped by single or multiple images if that viewer has little understanding of the ways in which visual media can ‘misinform, distort, and manipulate’” (1994, p.
2). Women certain could be suffering under an ideal illusion that is becoming more and more unreal. Bissell’s (2006) study seeks to determine how aware young women are to the possibility that a model in a fashion advertisement may be digitally altered. She showed groups of women photographs of models that had been digitally enhanced; one group’s photograph had a statement that the image had been digitally enhanced, but another group’s photograph did not.
While those whose pictures did not bear the statement did report slightly lower body image, the difference was not considered significant. Bissell concludes that perhaps this result occurred because women attended to the image first and the statement either not at all or in a secondary manner. Messaris (1994) concurs, acknowledging that “if viewers are attending to the visual imagery more than the text and then have an emotional response to the image, the effect of the information in textual form may decline significantly” (p.
5). Bissell (2006) further postulates that the long-term exposure to these fashion images may have a more profound effect than one statement at one point can determine. Teenagers are particularly susceptible to believing what they see and read in these fashion magazines. Chow (2004) focuses on how teenagers react to messages about health issues in teen magazines. Teen women purchase these magazines in huge numbers, and they have a great influence on adolescent women and the way they interpret the world and their own lives.
Chow found that messages dealing with perfection in appearance were very influential in these young women and that these magazines make this image look easy to attain, furthering the possibility, in the minds of these teens, that they, too, can achieve that look with possibly dangerous eating and exercising behaviors. The researcher goes on to say that these teen fashion magazines also promote the idea that this ideal appearance can lead to male attention which these young girls, of course, find desirable. All it takes is the inclusion of a handsome male model, also fabulously dressed, to appear in the ad.
Yet the fashion industry continues to promote its global campaign as an advocate of healthier bodies and minds. They claim that their advertisements are promoting fitter minds and bodies and that the focus on dangerously slim bodies is diminishing. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. One of Britain’s leading authorities on eating disorders, Bryan Lask, emeritus professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at St George’s, University of London, likened the fashion industry’s role in the rise of eating disorders to the tobacco industry’s promotion of smoking (Knight, 2006).
Unfortunately, only a handful of attempts to reduce the overall impression of underweight models and the corresponding rise in eating disorders have evolved from the fashion industry. One is the use of fashion itself to raise the self-esteem and body image of young women. The theory is that exposing these young women to designer labels and allowing them to borrow the clothing for a while will instantly raise their self esteem (Goodchild and Sheppard, 2001).
However, this seems a little self-serving; would not the fashion industry profit from not only the obsequious good will but also from any purchase that these individuals might make from their fashion line. If the message is “I feel better in Gucci” then won’t these impressionable girls seek to acquire that very label? A little more impressive is some of the more popular fashion shows banning anorexic looking models from the runways. In huge fashion cities such as London and Madrid, severely underweight and very young models have been banned from participating in fashion shows.
Unfortunately, this trend has not taken hold. In the past two years, following these new rules seems to have fallen off the catwalk. The truth is, eating disorder activists, model agencies and designers oppose the ban. The activists are afraid attention will be diverted from some of the underlying causes of the disorder; while model agencies and designers still seek the super tall, thin look for their apparel, and many times this look is most conveniently found on a super young model, who has yet, perhaps, to reach puberty (Skinny models banned from catwalk, 2006).
Additionally, one activist, Carmen Gonzales of Spain’s Association in Defense of Attention for Anorexia and Bulimia, notes that most fashion show organizers will not adhere to the rules for long, unless actual laws make it required. “If they don’t go along with it the next step is to seek legislation, just like with tobacco” (Skinny models banned from catwalk, 2006). However, in the two years since this ban, no attempts have been made to legislate these matters, and the fashion industry has failed to self-regulate on behalf of the health of young women.
Anyone watching a fashion runway show now can see that the models are still super-thin and super-young. Any improvement in body image may be attributed more to women’s growing professional status than to conscious efforts on the part of the fashion industry. Dittmar and Howard (2004) found that body image and size in fashion magazines affects women of various ages and professions differently. Women of various professional levels, and therefore age, viewed fashion advertisement featuring thin fashion models, average fashion models and no models at all.
While all professions showed a decrease in body image when viewing thin fashion models images rather than average size model images or no models, just fashion, women in professions that did not focus on fashion and appearance had less of a negative reaction to the thin models than women in appearance-focused professions. For example teachers had less negative reactions than women in food service or retail. Perhaps age-related maturity and its corresponding professional status are the factors that curb women’s desire to reach for unrealistic body goals.
Clearly body image, health and self-esteem issues are complex. However, the fashion industry’s contribution to these issues is undeniable. The extent to which this occurs and the overall effect on women of various ages continue to be a source of interest and study. Any claim that the fashion industry is somehow becoming more responsible in this arena should be carefully scrutinized. Most decisions in business are made with the bottom line in mind; the fashion industry is no different. Spur of the moment attempts at redemption generally fade quickly if they do not turn a profit.
While responsibility may fall on the industry in some way, more widespread intervention, perhaps on a legal scale, may be necessary for long-range change to take effect. Bibliography Chow, J. “Adolescents’ perceptions of popular teen magazines. ” Journal of Advanced Nursing 48. 2 (Oct. 2004): 132-139. Bardone-Cone, A. M. and K. Cass. “Investigating the impact of pro-anorexia websites: a pilot study. ” European Eating Disorders Review 14. 4 (Jul/Aug2006): 256-262 Bissell, K. L. “Skinny Like You: Visual Literacy, Digital Manipulation and Young Women’s Drive to be Thin. ” Simile 6. 1 ( Feb. 2006): 4 Dittmar, Helga and Sarah Howard.
“Professional hazards? The impact of models’ body size on advertising effectiveness and women’s body-focused anxiety in professions that do and do not emphasize the cultural ideal of thinness. ” British Journal of Social Psychology 43. 4 (Dec. 2004): 477-497 Goodchild, S. and K. Sheppard (2001). Why ‘fashion’ therapy works for anorexics: A designer ‘library’ offers a new approach to eating disorders. The Independent. Sunday, 24 June: Health and Wellbeing section Knight, R. (2006). Fashion industry accused on anorexia. The Independent. Sunday, 15 October: Health and Wellbeing Section. Messaris, P. (1994).
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