Robin Givhan should get some kind of award for the tone-deaf mean-spiritedness of her defense of a fashion industry that insists on models that are on the brink of starving to death—and often beyond. Okay, it’s going too far to say Givhan is defending it, but she is far too blase, and it’s intellectually dishonest to ignore the fact that mandatory anorexia is not only harmful to the viewing public, but it has resulted in actual deaths of models. The fashion industry may think that models are nothing but “hangers with legs”, but they are human beings, and driving them to kill themselves with starvation is a straight up human rights abuse.
That’s the worst part of Givhan’s snitting at those of us who complain about the skinniness of models, but right on the heels of that is how close she comes to an insight before missing the mark completely. Because I do think that Givhan is right that the models are getting skinnier as the public is getting heavier.
All those emaciated models have to be seen against the backdrop of a population that is overwhelmingly afflicted with obesity. It has to be viewed in the context of a first lady who has taken up the cause of healthy eating and exercise because nearly one in three children in the United States is either overweight or obese…..
By its very nature, fashion is a business of falsehoods and costumes, all in service to self-definition. The uncomfortable truth about the fashion industry is it has a knack for tapping into unspoken cultural obsessions and taboos. Fashion sets up a rarefied world of perfection that is, in many ways, defined by how much it differs from the mundane, from the norm. And all indicators suggest that as a culture, we hate what we are becoming: fat.
Of course, part of the problem with her analysis is that Americans are not all people, but fashion anorexia is a worldwide phenomenon. Still, Americans have an oversized influence on manifestations of capitalist culture like fashion, and so I think Givhan’s probably not wrong to round up. What she is wrong to do is see something admirable in the shame about fatness she perceives. She compares skinny models to shows like “Biggest Loser” or moments like Oprah’s weight loss that got her into size 8 jeans, and sees this all as Americans working out shame over our deplorable health habits. But accepting that Americans eat way too much junk and don’t really exercise as much as we should, I still have to say that this kind of social projection is far from healthy. In fact, it’s trading a shame about fatness with a longing for anorexia. It’s not about wanting to be healthier, but about abusing and punishing any trace of flesh, all of which is seen as disgusting and impure, at least on women. I wrote about this at Double X, where I compared the public applause for anorexia to the purity movement in the Christian right.
The obsession with wiping out any traces of humanity from female bodies in the fashion industry reminds me of nothing so much as the obsession with sexual purity that flourishes on the Christian Right. In both cases, anxieties about the dirty biological reality of life are projected onto female bodies, and the solution proposed is an extreme form of control. As fashion designers balk at anything even resembling soft tissue on women’s bodies, some factions of the Christian right are moving towards extreme forms of premarital abstinence that ban even closed-mouth kissing before the wedding. But since the anxieties they’re trying to quash never actually go away, it’s worrisome in both cases to see what the next steps in appetite-denial will be.
Just as the Christian right obsesses over the virginities of its teenage girls, and uses their bodies as a canvas to project all their needs for “purity” on, so fashion models become a similar canvas to project guilt and anger not about being fat, but about being “sinful”. Givhan comes close to realizing this, when she says that fashion models are also there to guilt the average, by which she means people who are actually thin by any reasonable measure. The fashion model isn’t there to shame you about overindulgence, but to suggest that any pleasure taken in food at all is an overindulgence, that eating itself is a disgusting habit that we should abandon completely. It’s also misogynist, just like the Christian right is misogynist, since the bodies all these scapegoating desires are projected on are invariably female. Whether it’s a matter of sex or eating, it seems that it’s mainly women who are expected to feel ashamed of having any desires at all, and only women who are expected to take the extreme measure of trying to wipe out the hated desire altogether.