how the fashion industry affects the bodies of young women

The debate about body image has never been more prevalent, here we look back to i-D's 1993 The Beauty Issue, where Avril Mair discusses the effect that the fashion industry has on the bodies of young men and women.

by i-D Team
20 November 2014, 3:10pm

"I hate myself every time I do it, but I just can't stop. I wish that I could." After every meal, Fiona makes herself sick. It's embarrassing to go to restaurants with her, because in between courses she'll excuse herself and disappear to the toilet for a long time. At home, she'll empty the contents of the fridge then spend the rest of the evening in the bathroom. You'd never know about her private hell just by looking at her though; she's a pretty girl, with a good figure although she sometimes says she'd like to lose a bit of weight. But her body is suffering; her teeth are starting to decay due to the stomach acid she vomits up, her knuckles are calloused because she puts her fingers down her throat to make herself sick, her skin is broken out because she doesn't let herself absorb the vitamins in her food and she sometimes coughs up blood because constant vomiting has damaged her stomach lining.

Unlike AIDS, say, or cancer, where drug companies stand to make money by developing a cure, there is little commercial gain or public acclaim to be had in understanding eating disorders.

Fiona is bulimic: like her, an estimated 3.5 million women in Britain suffer from some form of disordered eating. This is a statistic considerably more shocking than that of AIDS/AIDS-Related Condition, but public awareness of eating problems is still low. After all, don't all women diet? Don't women like to diet? Surely women have to diet? Obviously women have a tendency to fat. Women are so self-absorbed. No-one is much disturbed by statistics that show thousands of women dying each year from self-imposed body abuse. It took Princess Di's admission that she was a sufferer to make the British media realise that the problem even existed. Unlike AIDS, say, or cancer, where drug companies stand to make money by developing a cure, there is little commercial gain or public acclaim to be had in understanding eating disorders. They are not conditions which can be treated with medication, they are not 'glamorous' and they rarely find their way into the pages of the press. But they exist, nonetheless, and cause countless women untold misery.

Women's preoccupation with food is linked to the fetishising of the female form: throughout Western history, from the mythology of ancient civilisation to renaissance art to modern advertising, their bodies have been regarded as objects of beauty. Therefore, women are constantly engaged in trying to cope with the effects of culturally induced body insecurity. A woman's experience of her own body arises from how she believes it compares with the magnified images of women that surround her on billboards, on television, in films, magazines and newspapers. She is receptive to the messages proclaiming her body - the crucial commodity in her life - as deficient and in need of attention, further suffering from the daily assault of a diet and beauty industry financially dependent on creating further body insecurity. A consumer society in which women's bodies are used to sell products while being presented as the ultimate commodity creates all sorts of body image problems.

During the past decade, while women breached the power structure, eating disorders rose to levels never before recorded. Among women, feeling fat has long been a metaphor for feeling powerless: their newly achieved success in the public world contrasted sharply with the induced private confusion. Anorexia, literally self-imposed starvation, is perhaps the most dramatic outcome of culture's obsession with regulating body size; bulimia, eating normally (or bingeing) then getting rid of the food by vomiting, allows women to live apparently normal lives whilst in reality unable to cope with the demands of everyday eating. But worries about their body don't just affect those women who go on to develop eating disorders: in a 1984 survey by Glamour magazine, 33,000 American women told researchers that they would rather lose ten to 15 pounds than achieve any other goal. More women have more money and influence and opportunity and legal recognition than they have ever had before; but, in "terms of how they actually feel about themselves, may in reality be worse off than their unliberated grandmother". "We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of fe4male beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement," writes Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. "The ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable. Value is assigned to women in a vertical hierarchy according to a culturally imposed physical standard." Powerful industries - the $33-billion-a-year-worldwide diet industry, the $20-billion-a-year-worldwide cosmetics industry, the $300-million-a-year-worldwide cosmetic surgery industry - have grown from the money made out of the conscious and unconscious worries of women, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, "to use, stimulate and reinforce these anxieties in a rising economic spiral."

Together with the media and fashion industry, the powerful diet food industry has artificially created a 'problem' which has resulted in the vast majority of women in Britain and other Western developed countries thinking that they need to diet.

Companies that produce slimming aids not only exploit women's insecurity but should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act, according to Mary Evans Young, a psychotherapist and the founder of Diet Breakers, a new anti-dieting campaign. Despite the fact that 90 per cent of women and girls will diet at some point in their lives, for the great majority of them - 90 per cent - the diets will not work. "Together with the media and fashion industry, the powerful diet food industry has artificially created a 'problem' which has resulted in the vast majority of women in Britain and other Western developed countries thinking that they need to diet," Young says. She founded the anti-dieting campaign last year after reading about the case of a 15-year old girl who committed suicide because she was a size 14, and after her work with women executives showed that they were spending more time worrying abut their diets and appearance than their career development. Since Diet Breakers launched, more than 4,000 women have written asking for help.

At any one time, half of British females are on a diet. Most of these women are not obese and only want to lose 10lbs or less. The dieting industry in this country alone is currently worth £850m; money-mad from such gimmicks as plastic pants purporting to increase fluid loss, skin patches that claim to speed up the metabolic rate and sniffing sachets which supposedly control chocolate consumption. More than £6 million is spent on low-calorie meals and drinks in the UK every week, yet, despite this boom in the sales of diet foods and slimming aids the nation as a whole is getting fatter: women in the developed Western world are becoming bigger and broader thanks to a better diet and the effects of the contraceptive pill; the average woman is a size 14 or over. But the problem is that many of those using the slimming industry are not overweight. A 1990 Office Of Population Censuses And Surveys study showed that 36 per cent of women in the UK are overweight to a degree that influences health. So do 85 per cent of women want to lose weight? "most women diet not for health but because they are threatened by media images which continue to imply that to be unhealthily slim is to be successful and attractive," says Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Hunger Strike, books covering women's troubled relationship with food.

In the last few years, there has been a noticeably rapid acceleration in the rate change of what are considered 'desirable' body shapes for women. Like hemlines lengthen or shorten seasonally, the current aesthetic of women's bodies has been transforming itself with fashion. Since the '60s, the ideal woman - as reflected in the mass media in all its forms - has been getting slimmer and slimmer and slimmer. But although back then many women might complain that their figures did not conform to the reigning ideal, today no woman - be in Linda Evangelista or Kate Moss - can rest secure in the knowledge that she has a good figure.

For the beauty aesthetic has just changed again - gone are silicon-perfect babes like Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington; in are unlikely beauties who don't measure up to their statistics or conform to their looks. A good thing? A move from unattainable glamour to individuality? Perhaps not. At least Cindy Crawford was a size that women could exercise to and could perhaps aspire to, but Kate Moss? No-one could diet to her pre-pubescent size. At least Cindy Crawford looked knowing, strong, sexual: Kate and her fellow waifs look helpless, vulnerable, innocent. Part of the fall of the supermodels came down to the fat that they had too much power - they let it be known they wouldn't get out of bed for less than $10,000. They might not have borne much resemblance to the majority of us, but at least they were a vague approximation of what women could appear like. Now they're dumped in favour of underdeveloped 18-year0-olds. Linda Evangelista has apparently lost a whole stone in an attempt to keep up - she knows her career is in trouble if she doesn't conform to the super-skinny look. So what hope for ordinary women?

Not much according to Julie Burchill in The Mail On Sunday; "The seeing off of the Supermodels is not some liberating step forwards towards women being accepted for what they are, but yet another variation on the same old song; men trading in older models - literally - for this year's model. For all their glitz, Cindy and co were very obviously women, with stomachs, breasts and hips, who cleverly made the best of what they had; you, too, for a price, might have approximated their look. But only anorexia will make you look like Kate Moss and her Designer Dosser friends." It's not just restricted to models: today no woman has the right body for more than a season or two - high fashion is reproduced at every economic level. However much the particulars of the beauty package may change from decade to decade - curves in or out, figures fragile or fit - they will always be well-defined and narrow and it will be woman's task to conform to them.

No matter how many 'feminist' features magazines may run, body fascism is reinforced by the advertisements, the fashion stories and the beauty pages.

Between 1965 and 1981 British women's magazine sales fell from 55.3 million to 40.4 million copies a year; their traditional hold loosened by the swinging '60s and the liberated '70s which meant that women no longer wanted to read about perfecting the art of domesticity. All that was left was the body, so magazines set about telling their readers how to perfect that. Articles on dieting in the popular press soared from 60 in the year of 1979 to 66 in the month of January 1980 alone. By 1984, 300 diet books were on the shelves. A lucrative transfer of guilt had taken place.

Women believe what their magazines tell them and are deeply affected by it because these magazines are all most women have as a window on their own mass sensibility. General culture takes a male point of view on what's newsworthy: while the football results may find their way onto the front page, 'women's issues' are buried deep inside. And no matter how many 'feminist' features magazines may run, body fascism is reinforced by the advertisements, the fashion stories and the beauty pages: "Learn To Love Your Thighs" announces Cosmopolitan's cover lines, while inside, the very same feature is illustrated by a picture of an impossibly slender size 10 model.

According to Manchester Metropolitan University's Dr Sarah Grogan, in surveys of students carried out by herself and a colleague, self-esteem and views of body image suffered after the participants were shown magazine pictures of models: suggesting that media portrayal of images can prolong anorexia and bulimia in women and may even be a cause of it. With these findings in mind, the Women's Environmental Network have recently launched a campaign criticising chocolate manufacturers for targeting women in their advertising despite the "primary" role of chocolate in eating disorders and the cycle of "insecurity and self-loathing" involved in constant dieting. Ads like those for Cadbury's Flake and Galaxy clearly link chocolate with sensuality and a slim and beautiful body image, yet what they are trying to sell is "the very thing that is forbidden, banned and dangerous and to be avoided at all costs if one is to be beautiful". Trying to persuade manufacturers to promote their products more honestly, WEN spokeswoman Cat Cox says it is "outrageous" that while eating disorders are increasing dramatically - there are 6,000 new cases of bulimia and anorexia each year in the UK, with one per cent of Western women affected - advertisers use increasingly skinny models to promote their products. In the last decade, the weight of models has fallen from 8 per cent to 23 per cent below the average woman (Naomi Campbell, all five foot 11 inches of her, is believed to weight no more than seven stones) yet they are held up as "icons of contemporary beauty".

And now it's no longer just women. Advertisers have realised in recent years that undermining sexual self-confidence works no matter which sex is targeted. Check Marky Mark in his Calvin Kleins: how do you stomach muscles shape up? How do your boyfriend's? Feel inferior? Yup, you're supposed to. According to Naomi Wolf, "Using images from male homosexual subculture, advertising has begun to portray the male body in a beauty myth of its own." Men are already being targeted by the diet food firms - Slimfast's latest TV campaign features a smug thirtysomething guy enthusing about how much his figure has improved since he discovered their products. Playing on the insecurities of men in such a fashion will only serve to duplicate the situation which women are experiencing: there is already a reported increase in the numbers of men suffering eating disorders, with ten per cent of bulimics men.

"Nowadays everyone has some sort of worry about how they look," comments Fiona. "I started off thinking that I could change my body and it would change the rest of my life. It doesn't happen. I can see that now, but it's too late to do anything about it." Perhaps it is time for us all, men and women, to say enough it enough.


Text Avril Mair
From i-D No. 117, The Beauty Issue, June 93

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avril mair