I have discovered that I cannot miraculously shave my hip bones down, just to fit into a sample size piece of clothing, and I refuse to fight against nature.
Awareness of the extreme thinness required of women has been growing for years, as have the objections to the cultural fetishisation of bones and hunger, instead of health and happiness, for women. Now, normally when a backlash starts against an advertising trend – which is in all important respects what women-thinness is, albeit more enduring and hegemonic than most – advertisers retreat. They take stock. Which is to say, they look at where consumers’ money is going – and they respond accordingly.
But the lack of change in this area suggests consumers are not changing their spending habits. And as most of the consumers of the brands and products these advertisers are selling to are women purporting to hate this kind of thing, we have a conundrum: why are we still doing this? Why aren’t we putting our money where our mouths are? And then, obviously, in further solidarity taking our mouths off for a pizza somewhere?
It seems that in the great fight against narrow beauty ideals we’ve gone only as far as lip service. We know what we see is wrong on multiple levels, but you can’t undo years of conditioning overnight. Enculturation starts at birth, and images work at a visceral level. You learn what your society’s beauty is long before you acquire – if you ever do – the tools to criticise and deconstruct it. Within the gap grow unhealthy aspirations.
If you want to see quite how unhealthy, do a quick search of the “thinspo” (short for “thinspiration”) hashtag on Instagram and see the approvals from girls and young women racking up alongside their emaciated peers. “My goal!” “My dream!” they cry to people well along the path to starvation.
Open letters, bans on the ultra-skinny (most of the body mass index cut off limits are still well below what doctors consider healthy), the occasional success of “plus-size” models such as Ashley Graham, Robyn Lawley and Myla Delbesion (the last for Calvin Klein, the brand that in the 1990s brought us, via Kate Moss, the waif look that dominated for the next decade and has arguably never fully left us) are all welcome, necessary and valuable. But they are not enough, and show no sign of approaching the critical mass needed to bring about change.
For that, we need advertisers to break the vicious, and viciously effective, cycle that threatens to trap current and future generations of consumers, and start using “real” women – of healthy weights, and maybe slightly varying shapes – instead of those who have been told to “get down to the bone”.
Asking, or compelling by legislation, advertisers to do this runs counter to almost every prevailing ideology and trend. It asks that moneymaking ventures act for the greater good instead of the bottom line. It asks government to chip away at a cornerstone of the free market. It conceptualises women as hapless victims of intangible forces.
To the first two we can safely respond – yes, it does. Ideologies and trends are not immutable laws of physics; do it. To the last, I say – yes, that’s an uncomfortable thought, unless you accept that all human beings are hapless victims from time to time. It doesn’t mean any of us are stupid, or make us lesser beings. It means that when things go too far we all need a bit of protection, not just from one another but from ourselves. And starvation as the norm is always too far. So, let’s do it.