Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, is so bored of people asking her why models are unrealistically thin.
In an interview on BBC Radio 2, Shulman trotted out a particularly ineffective and tired defense of the magazine's dogged insistence on continually featuring thin models and cover stars:
"People always say 'why do you have thin models? That's not what real people look like' But nobody really wants to see a real person looking like a real person on the cover of Vogue.
"I think Vogue is a magazine that's about fantasy to some extent and dreams, and an escape from real life.
"People don't want to buy a magazine like Vogue to see what they see when they look in the mirror. They can do that for free."
She added, "I get fed up with having to deal with the question of why are models thin, that sort of bores me."
As I've said before, the idea that fashion is "aspirational" doesn't absolve the industry of responsibility for the (very unrealistic) ideals it validates and upholds. To claim that Vogue caters to a fantasy without addressing the way in which Vogue is directly responsible for establishing and perpetuating that fantasy is extraordinarily misleading. Beauty standards, desires and fantasies don't exist in a vacuum: they're socially constructed. You don't exit the womb thinking that the thin, "conventionally" attractive, overwhelmingly white faces adorning fashion magazines are ideal — that specific beauty "aspiration" is something you absorb and internalize after being exposed to it for years. For a Vogue editor to proclaim, "Hey, sorry, that's what people want!" is intentionally naive — such a statement falsely implies that whom the industry decides to celebrate has no bearing on what we, as a culture, think is beautiful.
I also don't think it's quite so clear cut as Shulman makes it out to be (duh). It's not as though issues with "real"-looking women on the cover do poorly because no one wants to see them — take, for instance, Adele's British Vogue cover, which was one of the worst performing in the magazine's history. To me, at least, it seems far more likely that that issue didn't sell because the editors opted to do a very close crop of her face (probably because they thought that showing her whole body would negatively impact sales). Here's the cover in context of all the over covers that year:
Personally, I wouldn't really be drawn to a fashion magazine cover that doesn't show any actual clothing on it — but Shulman, et. al., were so sure that no one would be interested in seeing a "a real person looking like a real person" that they didn't even bother to really show her. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And, even more egregiously, only one cover out of this sampling of eighteen depicts a woman of color. It's simply unacceptable to have such a lack of representation — featuring women of color isn't just about meeting quotas, it's about undoing the harmful cultural idea that beauty is, by default, white. But of course, Shulman doesn't even address the way that her publication whitewashes the idea of "fantasy." That's an issue fashion has been avoiding for decades now.
Furthermore, the idea that aspiration in the fashion industry operates on a purely aesthetic plane is simply irritating. It's beyond limiting to decree that women buy magazines because they wish they looked like cover models — the cult of personality that's developed around certain female stars completely disproves this overly-simplistic view. When women admire female celebrities, it's not just for their looks: it's for their persona, their style, their uniqueness. Being fully-developed, multifaceted human beings, women are capable of having fantasies that surpass the realm of "Ohmigod I wish I were that thin and pretty!!!!"
It's about time that fashion glossies stop hiding behind feeble excuses and start recognizing that their reductive view of what's "aspirational" is unhealthy, unrealistic and deeply inadequate.
Images via British Vogue.