According to a new study, overweight women feel worse about themselves after looking at photos of models, whether those models are skinny or not. Underweight women, however, show an increase in self-esteem. So what's going on here?
David DiSalvo of True/Slant offers this explanation:
Presumably this is because underweight women compare themselves equally to thin models and favorably to overweight models, but overweight women compare themselves unfavorably to thin models and find their similarity to overweight models depressing.
But this sounds a little simplistic to me. Must it be that "overweight" woman look at plus size models and think, "Gross! I look like that? How depressing!" Or might it be that, as Kate wrote,
[P]lus models are still models. They're still tall, well-proportioned, clear-skinned, shiny-haired, able-bodied and usually white, on top of only being "fat" relative to size 0s. The standard is basically the same as it always was, just notched up to a somewhat more common range of dress sizes - which is to say, the standard is still impossible for most of us to meet.
When the whole beauty-industrial complex is basically designed to exscript them, and the few models who are supposed to represent them just look like that complex's ideal "notched up" a little bit, it's no surprise that plus-size women might feel just as bad looking at Crystal Renn as they do at Kate Moss. This isn't to say that including more models like Renn and Lizzi Miller on magazine pages isn't a good thing — it is. But it doesn't magically make these magazines friendly to all shapes and sizes, or make fat women forget that lots of other cultural forces are still conspiring to devalue them.
The study's finding about underweight women is interesting too. The idea that underweight women actually feel better after looking at models contradicts an earlier study that showed all women felt worse about themselves after viewing skinny ladies in ads. It's a little hard for me to believe that underweight women compare themselves "equally" to models any more than overweight women do — like Kate said, they're still models. They're still closer to the beauty ideal than most women, regardless of weight, and they still get help from the powerful forces of hair, makeup, and airbrushing. It would be interesting to learn what percentage of the underweight women in the study were eating-disordered, and how that affected their response to the images. I'd also like to know what was going on in the underweight subjects' minds during the study — whether they actually thought, "yes! This model looks just like me," or whether they got a more modest boost from seeing a woman of similar size presented as an ideal, even if that woman was different in other ways. Perhaps this boost is easier to get if you are of privileged (ie. thin) size — although the study did find that overweight and underweight women had similar self-esteem at the outset of the experiment.
Ever since Lizzie Miller was in Glamour, the inclusion of plus size models has been trumpeted as a way to make magazines more friendly to all women. But it's clear that this might not be enough. Internalized fat prejudice goes deep, and just showing women a few bigger models isn't going to erase it. The fact is, images whose purpose is to sell women shit — whether those images look more or less like them — are probably never going to be on the forefront of social change. Including plus-size women in ads and fashion spreads is an important step not just for social good, but for aesthetic value — magazines would be more interesting if they contained a greater diversity of models. But they wouldn't magically make overweight women feel perfect about themselves, or erase all the other influences making them feel bad.