Fashion week makes me think laterally about the obsession with skinny

A photographer’s flash went off nearby as I walked down Wellington’s Lambton Quay yesterday. I soon discovered why. It’s Fashion Week, and the streets are filled with models on outdoor photo shoots, out in the crowds.

I had no idea it was happening. Of course, you’re talking here to a Kiwi bloke. I randomly purchase clothes, then randomly pluck them from the closet. She Who Must Be Obeyed occasionally points out which shirt goes with what trousers, as opposed to conglomerations of jeans and t-shirts, or odd shoes

What’s more, my favourite model is Thunderbird 2. I am not kidding (hey, every bloke of A Certain Age knows exactly what I am talking about…)

My favourite model. I've had this Dinky toy of it since I was a kid. For some reason, I've never tossed it out...

My favourite model. I’ve had this Dinky toy of it since I was a kid. For some reason, I’ve never tossed it out…

But I digress. It got me thinking about the fashion industry with its curious images of what constitutes ‘normal’ and ‘overweight’ for women. it seems to me this tells us an awful lot about what is wrong with western society in general.

Go back half a century and look at Marilyn Monroe, who symbolised western ideals for one and maybe two generations. She was a Size 16, which I believe is known as ‘plus’ size today.

Today? Apparently Size 0 is obese and models are required to survive on cotton wool balls soaked in orange juice, protein shakes and still have to dehydrate themselves for two days in order to get ‘the look’ (hmnn… lots of protein, starvation stress response, no water…’kidney failure’…).

What’s more, both men and women are relentlessly conditioned to think this is normal for women. I still recall someone informing me, years ago, that any woman who didn’t look like the ‘supermodel de jour’ was a ‘blimp’.

The science is clear; people come in all shapes and sizes, and somebody who’s an endomorph (round), under no circumstance, is going to look thin. No matter how little they eat. No matter how much they exercise.

In a way it isn’t surprising. History is rife with examples of social trends, fashion and otherwise, that deny the human condition one way or another. And today the image is also driven at us with all the force of mass media and the power of industrial-age marketing.

Yet there is something else. For 99.99% of all human history, the human condition has involved a struggle to find food. Being fat was a sign of wealth – status. Also fertility; look at the neolithic Venus figures, for instance. Or the paintings of Pieter Paul Rubens.

Today, industrialised society – the same industrialisation that is leading us inexorably down the path of global climate change – has also solved the problem of finding enough food to eat. So what does society do? We create a social ideal for women of being unhealthily skinny, instead.

What, as a society, have we lost perspective of here? What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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8 comments on “Fashion week makes me think laterally about the obsession with skinny

  1. First and foremost…Thunderbird 2….Outstanding!!

    I agree 100% with your post. However, I believe you have left out roughly half of the population. I have a major issue with the medical height/weight charts that doctors and unfortunately insurance companies here in the States rely on. For example, the scale states that the perfect weight for a 6′ male is 180 pounds (approx 82 kilos). I am 6′ 0″. During the first half of my life, I lived in the weight training room and on the football field. My ideal playing weight was 235 pounds! I am now somewhat north of that figure. I have not been 180 pounds since I was sixteen years old. So, because this chart says the ideal weight I should be is 180, the insurance company either raises my rates or outright denies my application.

    Sorry for the digression. As for fashion week, I feel sorry for women who take the sizes on clothes seriously. Based on what I’ve seen, shopping with the CEO of my domicile, there is really no rhyme or reason to the sizes. Just because you wear a size 10 dress does not mean you can get into a size 10 pair of jeans. It makes no sense. But, hey, I’m a guy.

    • Hi – yes, Thunderbirds rock! Not only that, Weta Digital are re-making it, right here in Wellington NZ! Cool…can’t wait for 2015!

      I agree – the social pressures are absolutely similar in their own way for men. I didn’t cover the ‘Man Flu is much worse, really, honestly’ half of the species… I think half the problem is that the BMI measure is based on an endomorph, and not everybody is. There is a scream here in NZ this week over a plan by an airline to charge passengers by body weight. It’s intended to make good on the fact that fuel prices are rising and weighty passengers hit the airline’s margins. But it’s pretty discriminatory. What’s more, people are going to get caught by it – including the All Blacks, who nobody could call either fat or unfit, but who are 240 lb and 6’2” (typically), muscle being way heavier than fat. To me what we’re seeing is a collision between the true diversity of humanity and the way everybody gets measured, compartmentalised and then classified in terms that facilitate that regimentation, but don’t reflect diverse reality too well. Typical twentieth century thinking, except we’re well into the twenty-first now.

  2. jjspina says:

    Mike you hit the nail on the head. Society has lost focus of what is truly important. Girls nowadays see too much in the news, magazines, online that skinny is beautiful. They strive to be thin to the point of being emaciated just to be the new ‘beautiful’.
    There is no mention in society today of the heart and soul of a person being more important. Parents have to be ever vigilant to watch their young daughters for any signs of bulimia or anorexia. This is what essentially killed the singer, Karen Carpenter.
    During my childhood there was no such thing as skinny girl models like today. The only skinny model I remember was Twiggy, which her name aptly described her. People made fun and joked about her body. None of us girls back then wanted to look like her. We looked up to more voluptuous girls like Annette Funicello, Anne Margret, Marilyn Munroe,
    Sophia Loren, Gina Lolabridgider (? Spelling).
    I always told my children that it is more important to be beautiful on the inside. For external beauty fades with time where internal beauty grows more beautiful and will not fade.

    • it’s been a dramatic change in the last couple of generations. ‘Twiggy’ seems to be idenfiied with the trend but, as you point out, she was unusual at the time, and I am pretty sure she was symptomatic rather than causal. I think we’re looking at a wider social process. My wife has a theory about why that’s happened which I won’t recount here but which is probably correct.

  3. Why on earth should skin and bones be considered sexy? I like curves and there’s not a blessed thing wrong with flesh, even extra flesh. To me that skin-and-bones-supermodel look just seems unhealthy.

    • Exactly. I agree. And it IS unhealthy, medically and in terms of the way society is being conditioned. Doubtless a generational trend, as these things so often are, but I think mass media fuels it.

  4. Team Oyeniyi says:

    While I agree Marilyn was larger than the skinny minnies of today, they industry keeps downsizing the numbers. So a size 16 (even in NZ and Aussie) back then is probably an 8 or 10 today.

    I distinctly remember buying a size 12 pair of trousers and stared at them. I knew damn well I was not a size 12 at the time – the sizing had been changed. There is plenty about that little trick in the media.

    I don’t believe skinny is good, but neither is obese and this constant tricking of women by reducing the number of the size lets us feel as if we aren’t getting any bigger, when we actually are.

    It comes down to extremes: neither extreme is healthy. I think on average we in Australia (not sure about NZ) have a far greater of unhealthily overweight people than underweight.

    *sigh* I’m not sure how we get people back to eating healthy food in appropriate quantities – and that also applies to both extremes!

    PS – I’ve never been skinny in my life!

    • Very few people are skinny (and I bet the ones that are feel the cold)! My take is that people should find their optimal weight and try to stick to it – not re-shape themselves to try and meet some social ideal. But of course, we keep on doing it – both men and women.

      The clothing size creep-down issue is interesting, it never occurred to me. Figures (as it were).

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