disruptive fashion lover: why we need to campaign for model health

How many in the fashion industry truly understand the influence they have? Fashion revolutionary Caryn Franklin ponders this question as she pledges her support for the WEP's campaign for model health.

by Caryn Franklin
20 September 2016, 12:11am

Chromat spring/summer 17

For readers unsure of the story so far... a number of models are endangering their health to maintain the 'fashion normative body' for the purpose of catwalk employment. Digital broadcast now facilitates the dissemination of thousands of fashion images of the fashion normative body and viewers -- especially those whose minds are still developing -- are acculturated to think said fashion normative body is normal. But it is not normal. A request for fashion to address the way it shapes and promotes femininity (and let's not forget masculinity) in addition to the way it treats the health of the young people who work as models in our industry, is not unreasonable -- hence my support of the Women's Equality Party's campaign for model health.

It was 30 years ago in 1986 that I began to understand something of that power to affect how people might feel about themselves. I realise my experience was and still is, fairly unique however as a fashion commentator for the BBC on a prime-time fashion show which aired to an audience of 13 million viewers weekly in the UK, I received enormous viewer feedback... in the street... on a daily basis. The programme also aired to a further 157 million homes round the world through BBC World Service and ran for 12 years, so I got quite a bit of feedback when I travelled too. There were very few TV channels back then you see. Everyone interested in fashion watched.

I am still seduced by the beauty, fantasy and excitement of fashion, the difference might be that I have now accessed many studies investigating human compulsion to engage in social comparison behaviour.

Already at i-D magazine for four years as fashion editor and later co-editor, I was used to having an effect... it would be nothing compared to the massive clout I unwittingly accessed as a mainstream influencer. It would be the best education I could have on the authority and taste leadership position; fashion effortlessly and unknowingly asserts over people's lives. It would be life-changing and this knowledge continues to be one of the drivers for the way I work today. For that and other reasons... I AM A DISRUPTIVE FASHION LOVER.

A week away from completing a psychology masters, I believe I am STILL as seduced by the beauty, fantasy and excitement of fashion and great design as anyone else, the difference might be that I have now accessed many studies investigating human compulsion to engage in social comparison behaviour, as well as studies looking at motivation to pursue idealised and possible selves. I've also consumed a wealth of findings on the spectrum of self-objectification behaviours, and researched further studies linking the ubiquity of objectifying imagery in consumerist environments to negative outcomes for mental health. Now that I understand how belief systems operate and learning through repetition take place in the brain, I can find no incentive not to care about the impact that fashion culture can have on people's lives.

And as a professional fashion commentator, I have experienced that impact over and over whilst promoting the artistry and innovation of the world's most famous or most innovative practitioners. The power of image to seduce, celebrate or provoke always enthrals. My favourite use of a stylist's skill however is seeing the transformational qualities of great clothes to the outlook and confidence of ordinary men and women to bring joy and excitement. My respect for good design and innovation and the creatives who deliver such artistry has never wavered.

My respect for fashion culture groupthink around promotion of the overly-thin, white, adolescent girl however is not so high and I first began discussing this in national media 20 years ago this year. Little has shifted. 

My respect for fashion culture groupthink around promotion of the overly-thin, white, adolescent girl however is not so high and I first began discussing this in national media 20 years ago this year. Little has shifted. The gaunt, undeveloped, teen is still with us, when a confident womanly body would be more suited. As London Fashion Week kicks is underway, the sumptuous glamour, modernity and creativity we all love is masking a cognitive dissonance so great that many fashion types have to hold their hands over their ears to avoid the conflicting issue of model health and our industry's promotion of unrealistic, influential and objectified portrayals of the human body. So it needs to be said here. Again. Young vulnerable models will continue to self-harm to fit into oppressively small sample sizes, which will influence the way viewers of fashion perceive their own bodies, until enough of us want it to stop.

I'm not the only disruptive fashion lover...there are many men and women in the fashion industry who feel the same. I know this because I've been working with many of them or they have simply told me. Some are brilliant educationalists teaching design students to create larger sample sizes in order to facilitate the promotion of a range of body and beauty ideals on their catwalks (most designers have never designed for a woman with conspicuous breasts and hips) some creatives have petitioned magazines and designers to endorse more diverse sizes so they can feature them for their readers (then of course more students would aspire to design for these markets); Some are volunteering within innovative organisations like All Walks Beyond the Catwalk to promote debate and action around the importance of diverse beauty ideals in size, age and race and some work for large fashion corporations, carefully and diplomatically lobbying for change where they can.

But fashion still needs many more disruptive fashion lovers... perhaps then we can stop with the buck-passing and the assumed superiority of an industry telling outsiders like mental health experts and politicians that they don't know enough to comment. We might even tackle the self-loathing of those inside the industry unable to celebrate the beauty of individuality and difference, or release those in service to a debilitating corporate bully that demands increased output, reduced margins and total obedience. In short we might disrupt things together. You might disrupt things with others. Change could come. Fashion is about change after all.

Related: Cool Psychology, a look into fashion from a psychological perspective

Caryn Franklin is online editor of Cool Psychology and Professor of Diversity in Fashion at Kingston.


Text Caryn Franklin

Women’s Equality Party
Caryn Franklin