Friday, February 26, 2010

Should fashion models come with warning labels?

(Image taken from a PhotoShop contest on

First it was the American Academy of Pediatrics calling for a redesign of the hot dog . Now Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists is demanding truth in advertising. Is nothing sacred?
“There is a growing body of research that shows the media plays a part in the development of eating disorder symptoms – particularly in adolescents and young people," says Consultant psychiatrist Dr Adrienne Key, of the RCPsych Eating Disorders Section. "Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are serious mental illnesses. Although biological and genetic factors play an important role in the development of these disorders, psychological and social factors are also significant. That’s why we are calling on the media to take greater responsibility for the messages it sends out.”

What they suggest is a forum "to collaboratively develop an ethical editorial code that realistically addresses the damaging portrayal of eating disorders, raises awareness of unrealistic visual imagery created through airbrushing and digital enhancement, and also addresses [sic] the skewed and erroneous content of magazines.”

This is part of an ongoing battle with the fashion industry in particular, who can easily be accused of glamourizing unnatural or even unhealthy thinness. Back in October I blogged about a Ralph Lauren ad that was making the rounds, showing a model with an impossibly small waist. So embarrassing was the backlash against the House of Lauren that their lawyers tried to remove the image entirely from the internet, even sending a legal notice to bloggers (bigger ones than me, obviously) who posted it. (Oh yeah, and they fired the model for being too fat as well.)

One of those blog sites, Boing Boing, not only disregarded the notice (fair use, after all) — they used their reach to dig up the dirt on the ad. People thought at first thought it might be a prank, but Ralph Lauren finally came clean:
"For over 42 years we have built a brand based on quality and integrity. After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman's body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately."

There are signs of contrition all over the industry, as popular demand for healthier models has led to beanpole beauty bans at fashion shows in places like Madrid, Milan and Montreal. The Times of London even declared the beginning of a "body revolution" in fashion.

I don't buy it. Fashion advertising will always be aspirational. The curves of the ideal body shape may ebb and flow over time, but it will always be just that: an ideal.

We like to think things are getting worse over time, but I think the difference is a technological, rather than a sociological one.

In the mid 20th century, advertising often used illustration to show the ideal — whether it was food, cars or fashion. That's because photography and printing technology of the time couldn't always capture the aspiration that the advertisers were trying to sell. But first airbrushing, then PhotoShop, gradually allowed art directors to get a photographic image "just so".

The thing is, so much work goes into retouching an ad photo of anything that it should no longer be considered a photograph. It is really a digital illustration. Those of us in the industry know this, but consumers apparently don't.

The Girl Scouts surveyed more than a thousand American girls ages 13 to 17, and found:
"A substantial majority of those surveyed say they would prefer that the fashion industry project more 'real' images. Eighty-one percent of teen girls say they would prefer to see natural photos of models rather than digitally altered and enhanced images. Seventy-five percent say they would be more likely to buy clothes they see on real-size models than on women who are super skinny."

So what can we do?

The BBC says:
"According to some in the advertising world, that would mean putting a kite mark [disclaimer] on every poster. Better perhaps for a kite mark to be applied to those ads that have not been digitally enhanced or airbrushed. After all, isn't advertising all about selling dreams? Is it not part of the human condition to aspire? It's no coincidence that several notable movie directors have come from working in advertising. Both jobs involve fictions and expertise in story-telling."

And I agree. Advertising is fantasy. You wouldn't want to see a model's blemishes and love handles any more than you would want to see what a real Big Mac looks like on TV. If you don't believe me, think of the last time you untagged an unflattering photo of yourself in Facebook. Reality never looks quite right once it's captured by any medium. My profile picture on Acart's corporate site is on a digital diet. Even the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign was heavily touched up. But just as fictional movies, TV shows and video games are taken more seriously by the young and impressionable, so is the imaginary world of advertising images.

As far as I'm concerned, it's a matter for education — at home and at school — to "foolproof" kids against the trickery of ALL media. Even the pranksters who made the model below look skeletal to prove that runway models are too waif-er thin:

Here's my warning label: Kids, don't believe everything you see in the media.


  1. As you might expect, I am of two minds on this one.

    First, I stand up and cheer that the issue is garnering serious discussion. We don't allow drug dealers to freely sell their mind-altering and potentially physically-damaging wares to every unsuspecting adolescent (well, to anyone for that matter). Why would we allow such mind-altering and potentially physically-damaging images to sell to adolescents. The fact is that these images make women feel inferior just by being themselves. Especially young women who are not yet self-aware enough to truly believe it's not what you look like that counts. That's not what they're taught. (And don't counter with banter about reciprocal images of buff men because the majority of male images are attainable with a healthy diet and lots of exercise. The images representing the ideal woman show results that can only be attained through starvation.) I am raising two daughters and while they, thankfully, have not yet succumbed to the social pressure created by fashion images, I hear their friends (in preschool!) talking about "so-and-so looking fat in that dress." So kudos to the powers that be for at least having the discussion.

    On the other hand (or other mind, as I started), we can be too protective. The world is a crappy place and simply tagging ads as being unrealistic isn't going to stop the damaging effects of images such as these. It really is up to parents to teach children media literacy. How to look at advertising. Why it's so unrealistic. Unfortunately, that's an ideal world (and as such, there wouldn't be this kind of misogynistic imagery to have to deal with in the first place). Most parents aren't media-savvy themselves. They are the dads sitting on the couch hooting at the cheerleaders while their daughter are sitting next to them, learning what gets a woman noticed.

    Most girls are taught from the get go that their value is found in the way they look. Barbie. Disney Princess. Sexy clothes for toddlers. It is pervasive. Women have been (and will be for some time to come) judged by the cover. These images only reinforce the suspicion that little girls have that they're no good unless they're beautiful, perfect, flawless.

    I hear what you're saying about selling the aspiration. And yes, beauty is aspirational. I just think it's gone too far.

  2. Hey, Stef! Thanks for your comment!

    For me, it's still an educational issue. Fashion ads don't just lie about how you'll look. They lie about how you'll feel, who you'll attract, and what your lifestyle will be like if you just buy the clothes. Can we regulate all that?

    And the male equivalent isn't buff male models — it's near-unattainable status things like cars in ads. Because male self-esteem is tied to power and status more than beauty.

    There is no escaping beauty idealism in any culture, any more than it's impossible to stop status-seeking. These things are instinctive to the human animal.

    So I disagree with you that the media set the stereotypes. Media portrayals give people what they want. Not what they say they want, but what they respond to. Advertising especially is a mirror. It never leads trends. It follows them.

    Could advertisers and other media content creators be more responsible in the way they portray people's fantasies and leverage their insecurities? Absolutely. But I don't think external regulation is the answer.

    In my opinion, advertising is a bit like democratic government. The people get what they deserve — even if they don't bother to learn about it, or refuse to participate.

    You're right that we can't expect the average parent to teach media awareness to their kids, because the parents themselves are victims of their culture.

    But a public effort to raise awareness of the unreality of the adworld, combined with a formal media literacy curriculum in schools, could start to raise a new generation of aware consumers.

    People can complain about the unrealistic expectations created by ads all they want. But they need to understand that fashion ads, Barbies, Disney Princesses and all those portrayals weren't invented by some evil mastermind bent on the subjugation of women. They were born out of sales figures and focus groups. Of women.

  3. Girl Guides teaches girls to be smart about advertising. They also understand what it means to be true to oneself - part of the promise.

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