The online fashion mag PLUS Model Magazine ran an eye-catching editorial in its new issue. It seeks to promote body diversity, but while the intention was clearly positive, some of the photos left me a little cold.
The spread mixes some standard-issue plus-size-model-let's-shoot-her-nude photos of a model, Katya Zharkova at Wilhelmina, with captions that reflect on the beauty standards women contend with. There are no sources listed in PLUS's spread, which is unfortunate. "20 years ago," writes PLUS, "the average model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today she weighs 23% less." Googling that statement seems to trace it to a body-image fact sheet put together by a Canadian media-literacy nonprofit, which itself lists no source for the 8% figure, but lists the Canadian Women's Health Network as a source for the 23% figure. I don't really doubt the ballpark accuracy of PLUS's contention, but I do wonder where these exact numbers come from. Who are these researchers, and which models are they weighing? Let's hope they aren't relying on modeling agencies' stated weights and measurements for their models, which are frequently out-of-date and inaccurate. But in any case, the real reason that straight-size models are getting smaller relative to the "average" American (or Canadian) woman isn't that straight-size models are getting skinnier. It's that the "average" woman is getting bigger. And slightly taller, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which track such things. Straight-size models aren't wasting away; they were always 5'10" and 34"-24"-34".
UPDATE: A commenter with a good memory traced that same statistic to Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth, which was published in 1991. Wolf, in turn, cited a now 25-year-old paper published by researchers at George Washington University. Could PLUS not find any more recent information on this topic?
Likewise, even assuming PLUS has some accurate source for runway models' weight I'm not aware of, talking about B.M.I. as "the physical criteria for anorexia" is problematic in a number of ways. For one thing, anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder. It's true that people who are very underweight can be at risk for some of the health problems that can be associated with anorexia. But not all underweight people are anorexic. And the most important diagnostic criteria for anorexia are not physical, but behavioral and psychological: someone's who thin but doesn't suffer from body dysmorphia and severely restrict his or her food intake (or binge and purge) isn't anorexic. Secondly, body mass index, taken alone, is a notoriously unreliable indicator of health. In fact, it's the health at every size community that can largely be credited with advancing the idea that B.M.I. alone is insufficient information from which to draw any meaningful conclusions about an individual's overall health. Which is true.
Are there straight-size models who have anorexia? Of course there are. Is the modeling industry a healthy environment for any young person with body issues to be working? Probably not. But promoting greater body acceptance is also about ditching once and for all the ridiculous idea that you can tell if a person's healthy or not just by looking at him or her. Not all eating disorder sufferers are as skinny as runway models. Not all eating disorder sufferers are "skinny" at all! And not all runway models have eating disorders. The problem with the fashion industry is not that it uses straight-size models — it's that it uses straight-size models to the exclusion of any other body type. Just looking at the photo on the left makes me uncomfortable; why is the straight-size model faceless? Unlike Zharkova, she isn't even credited by name in the editorial. The imagery of this spread seems to set up a kind of competition between these women. In case you forgot, when it comes to women and their bodies, there always have to be winners and losers.
And we all know that vanity sizing is A Thing, right? Right?
But aside from those two slides, where PLUS's editors miss the opportunity to tell the whole story about body image, I have to say I found the whole spread interesting and provocative. Only a fool would argue that fashion, as it's currently constructed, is a paragon of body diversity and acceptance; we desperately need more body diversity. I'm happy PLUS is part of that conversation, even if I respectfully disagree with some of what's being said.