Monday, 2 November 2009

Whose Fault Is This?

 Last week, while discussing Susan Bordo's essay "Whose Body Is This? Feminism, Medicine, and the Conceptualization of Eating Disorders" in Intro to Women's Studies, we started with a now familiar exercise: looking at images from fashion editorials and magazines and criticizing them for false representations of the female body, promotion of unhealthy lifestyles, etc., etc. The exercise always annoyed me a little bit on some level, but I could never quite put my finger on it Until now. I came across this quotation from comedian Russel Brand:

The fashion industry makes an elite few feel better about themselves and most people feel worse about themselves. It makes them bulimic and anorexic. It’s stimulating a desire that could never be fulfilled. It’s decoration on a dreadful wedding cake at a marriage between us and the demise of the planet.

I disagree. In high school, I really hated all of the fashionable girls. They were short and skinny--no curves whatsoever. They happened to be very neurotic about their eating habits, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had developed eating disorders. I made the mistake of linking their neuroses with their interest in fashion, and also made the mistake of linking the industry as a whole with eating disorders. In fact, in high school, even though I told everyone I wanted to work in comic books, I secretly wanted to go into fashion to make clothes that could flatter everyone and wouldn't promote a negative body image. I wanted to be a revolutionary: if the fashion industry didn't want my curves, if it didn't value my body, then I would just have to make it do just that.

There is no doubt that the fashion industry is a very sick industry. For example, at a 92nd Street Y event about the future of the fashion industry, Issey Miyake said, "Honestly, I've actually booked girls [for a fashion show] that weren't obese, they were real girls. Like gorgeous anatomy. And one was a stripper. And you could feel the energy in the room just go down. Closed the books. Pens went down. They were angry. I could feel the anger. And I never did it again, because I thought Why bother? It takes a lot to rile women. It takes like actual breasts....Fashion advertisements are hateful. Hateful. Yeah, but they wouldn't do it unless it worked, right? It works." Even when fashion insiders try to champion different body types, the lookism and misogyny pours out. There is still an ingrained idea that there are normal-sized women, and that women just naturally hate each other.

When we blame the fashion industry for producing unattainable cultural norms, I think we really miss the mark. There's the old chicken-and-the-egg conundrum of fashion theory: does fashion produce culture or does culture produce fashion? I firmly believe that fashion is a response to the culture that surrounds it. For example, the 15th century in Europe--the height of the Gothic period--gave birth to an extreme vertical silhouette, a silhouette that echoed Gothic cathedrals. The 16th century, on the other hand, saw an effort to constrain the body in tight doublets and farthingales (early hoop skirts)--the body became horizontal, rounded, rational, an echo of humanist teaching. So to say that the fashion industry forces people to hate their bodies is to make the industry into a scapegoat. According to Bordo's essay, our culture traps us in a continuum of self-hatred--whether we exercise vigorously or suffer from an eating disorder, there is the underlying idea that the body is an unruly beast that refuses to adapt to cultural norms, and that is somehow a bad thing.

The exercise in the Women's Studies class could have been done with any advertisement, really. Yet fashion, by its very nature, amplifies our cultural norms to an extreme, and that is why we see so many skinny or even unhealthy bodies in editorials and advertisements. Perhaps this is the reason people fear fashion, because it is pure, unadulterated culture: we look at our assumptions and anxieties squarely in the face--we can choose to ignore them, mock them, or glorify them through our clothes. But the fashion industry is hardly the only industry at fault. As Bordo's argument implies, we need to tell all cultural producers--music, publishing, advertising, film, TV, entertainment, sports, etc.--is that we are sick and tired of being told that there is only one "right" way to behave or look. If we only point our fingers at the fashion industry, we just ignore the larger problem.

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