A while back I wrote with some frustration about how the fashion industry treats women in “Feminist Fashion Revolution.” At the time, all I had was my perception from decades of fashion magazines, commercials, merchandising and clothing. Basically any visual associated with fashion and women had a sickly thin model without any feminine curves or muscles. The big question glared at me: Why does fashion hate the female form? Lots of possible answers but the one big question loomed large.
And I think I’ve had an aha moment that is blowing my mind a bit here. So I really only read fashion magazines when I fly. Here I am on a flight back home, sitting with Drew, flipping through a mainstream fashion magazine: Porter – one of my favorites in spite of the obvious problem with the only body type that appears in this women’s magazine. And so I find an article entitled “Call to arms: The modern-day super woman needs a wardrobe that’s made for action. With athletic accents and street style elevated to a whole new level of sophistication, spring’s new hero pieces are unapologetically strong, body-conscious and full of urban attitude”. The naïve Reid Miller might have thought: here it is! Finally appropriately sized women! Finally models that emphasize strength and health over skinniness. No longer. Instead I get all snarky and say to Drew, “Let’s see how they go about avoiding the elephant in the room with their frail, fragile looking women with this one.” And sure enough we have several pages of a super skinny woman who is dressed in variations of a super hero costume prowling around an urban jungle. To be sure – it is not likely that she could lift my ass from a burning building. I would feel much safer if my super hero was well nourished and solidly built.
And so the question popped up again: why does fashion hate the female form? And I thought about a marketing guy for high-end fashion brands that I had talked to on a plane once who said that effective marketing sells people on an image of a life that they don’t yet have. But why? For all of the obstinacy on the part of the apparel industry to address the elephant in the room – literally the composition of their subject – in the face of serious health issues with their advertising there must be a serious $$ sign (think big food and big tobacco – it is no coincidence folks). Yes there are lots of people who don’t think outside the box and just do what’s always been done but there are also some very smart, very critically thinking people at the top that are calling the shots.
And then it occurred to me. When I look at all the images of super skinny, digitized women with perfect complexions and no chin hairs or moles, or lines or woops I burned my forehead but not the rest of my face, or soft parts at the top of your pants or the bellies from that giant and delicious Thai food meal etc. etc. I feel kinda bad about myself no matter how much yoga, body positivity, healthy eating, loving myself, friends with positive body images, limited exposure to fashion mags came before it. And what do I do when I feel bad about myself? Well increasingly I have some better ideas (a subject for another post) but traditionally I have felt empty and gone out to buy something to feel less empty. Usually food or beverages – hot chocolate is a favorite, but sometimes something the fashion industry might sell me. And it hit me. I actually believe that the point of these ads are to make us feel bad about ourselves. It is not incidental or a side effect or whatever removes responsibility for the propagator. The people who are calling the shots know what they are doing. They are making us feel like shit so we feel empty so we buy needlessly.
And I wonder if anyone reading this is wondering, well if this is the business model for fashion, what in the heck are you doing? Are you trying to not sell anything? Good question. Well, first off – as someone indoctrinated into public health prior to my fashion work, I CANNOT sell things by employing imagery that encourages women to be dangerously unhealthy. But I also think that just because fashion has done something effectively or ineffectively – depending on your perspective for a very long time (lots of selling to unhappy customers vs. caring about customer happiness) doesn’t mean there is not another way to run a thriving business. I am not convinced. I would like to explore the counterfactual: promote customer happiness, maybe sell a bit less but still enough to plenty of happy customers. It happens all the time, just not in women’s apparel. Drew’s knife or leatherwork sites don’t make him feel like shit to sell him products. They often show him pictures of someone who might look like him and write info pieces in a language he might use. And they sell him plenty of products. They have big customer followings. They do great work. And they can feel good about what they do. Happy customers, happy business people: something worth building.