​why the topshop mannequins were just the tip of the iceberg

As the highstreet giant order in less “ridiculous” mannequins, we think about the wider implications of a society where only one person called bullshit.

by Sarah Raphael
31 July 2015, 5:20pm

I read somewhere that if Barbie was real, she would fall over because her body makes no sense. Her feet are roughly the same size as her eyes, humongous doesn't begin to cover her breasts, and her legs constitute 90% of her body (NB, this is not a fact). Apparently the weight of her breasts would hurl her forwards and her baby feet wouldn't be able to provide any balance. A customer made headlines this week complaining that the mannequins in Topshop were equally "ridiculous" and promoted an unhealthy body ideal for young girls. Topshop nodded and agreed not to order those particular mannequins again. Clapping hands emoji, well done everyone. But while it's a major triumph for single-handed activism, you have to wonder what it says about the rest of us, who didn't think to question it.

We're constantly debating body image on the internet, celebrating anything and everything that challenges "the norm" (which by now just means a size nothing), but we forgot to challenge the millions of mannequins we walk past every day infiltrating our minds with their white, nipple-less double D's, perfect collar bones, general headless-ness and hairless legs… Oh there's a world of other things that don't make sense about mannequins, like why are they always on their tip-toes? Mannequins are usually propped up through their feet by metal stands or they're drilled onto plinths, perhaps because, like Barbie, they would fall over otherwise. I don't imagine it's due to an overwhelming mannequin theft problem.

Last year I was living in Buenos Aires, and one of the first things I noticed were the quote unquote curvy mannequins working it outside every clothes shop on the high street. The Argentinian mannequins have bums, hips, not quite bingo wings but certainly more realistic shaped arms, and actually, smaller breasts than the UK mannequins, though perhaps it just appeared that way because the bums were more in proportion. The 'curvier' mannequins are intended to represent both the natural shape of Argentinian women, and the changing shape of Argentinian women, due to a rise in plastic surgeries (specifically bum implants). So I would walk down the road and see leggings and crop tops on a body that was much more like my own, but - maybe this was down to the styling - I didn't find the clothes as desirable as they are to me in that sweet spot of Topshop down the escalators. It's funny because, right before you lay eyes on those six or so mannequins in Topshop Oxford Circus, you're going down the escalator and there are mirrors in front of you, so you see your entire body, and then immediately you see the mannequins and something psychological happens where your mind ditches the real image of you in the mirror in favour of the next image it sees: the mannequins. Hence the mentality: 'if I buy that, I'll look like that'.

The mannequin conversation happening on the internet this week is the tip of the iceberg. It's the psychological infrastructure and effect of mannequins and Barbies throughout our Westernised lives that has produced a society with weird body ideals.

Last week, the documentary The Salt of the Earth was released. Directed by Wim Wenders, it follows the career of photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado. In it, Salgado spends time with the Korowai people of West Papua. The footage and the pictures of the women in the community are so far from the body images we are accustomed to in the UK and the US. These women have given birth, breast-fed and aged under the sun without any knowledge whatsoever of the phrase "body image" and without any advertising or marketing for the plethora of antidote products that we use every day, on every thing. It was interesting to see these women on screen amidst the week of mannequin debate. The women in the Korowai tribe are purely and simply human, but look how far away we are from that.

Argentina designs mannequins to reflect its population, but who is reflected in the UK mannequins? Models? The few exceptionally tall, exceptionally slim people who go on to become models? The UK and London in particular is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the world, to whom a white model mannequin is as relevant as… a really irrelevant analogy. The short answer is that Topshop are re-thinking the size of their mannequins. Good. The sad answer is what that means.


Text Sarah Raphael
Photography Francisco Osorio

body image