Anti-Anorexia PSA Ads–The Fashion Industry and the Institutionalization of Feminine Beauty and Body Ideals

–An abbreviated version of this post is cross-posted at Sociological Images

A Brazilian modeling agency, Star Models*, recently released a new series of anti-anorexia PSA advertisements that illustrate one of the ways ultra-thin body ideals characterizing women’s bodies in the fashion industry today are institutionalized. Fashion sketches anesthetize these bodies, with their exaggerated proportions, long slender limbs, and expressionless faces. The placement of real women alongside them, graphically altered to similar proportions, works to produce an understanding of eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and beauty and body ideals as products of the cultures and industries in which they emerge.

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Sociology professors are constantly asking students to analyze what they might be taking for granted. One issue we take for granted is that the images on the left are what “fashion” looks like and ought to look like. That they are culturally recognizable as fashion sketches speaks to the ways in which hyper-thin feminine bodies are institutionalized at a fundamental level in the fashion industry today.

Screen shot 2013-05-07 at 1.55.00 PMThe Dove Evolution video—as a part of their “Campaign for Real Beauty”—vividly illustrates the work that goes into the production of advertisements. Using a time-lapse video depicting the diverse labor that goes into the production of an ad was a simple illustration of the impossibility of contemporary beauty ideals. Viewers are left thinking, “Of course we can’t look like that. She doesn’t even look like that.”

Star Models’ anti-anorexia ads promote a similar message, but also call our attention to the more dangerous aspects of adherence to industry ideals. Similar to depictions of what Barbie might look like as a real woman, altered images of dangerously thin models aside these sketches have a very different feel from the sketches they imitate. While we have fashion for all sorts of shapes and sizes of women, these images are a provocative way of claiming that Fashion (with a capital “F”) is far less heterogeneous.

In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) passed a Health Initiative in recognition of an increasingly global concern with the unhealthily thin bodies of models and whether/how to promote change in the industry. The CFDA is working to better educate those inside the industry to identify individuals at risk, to require models with eating disorders to seek help and acquire professional approval to continue working, to develop workshops promoting dialog on these issues, and more.

Mears - Pricing BeautyWhile addressing these issues is a significant step in a positive direction, it’s also true that the modeling industry is partially defined around an impossible ideal and skirts criticism precisely by framing the “beauty” they are looking for as difficult to define in any precise terms. In Ashley Mears’ ethnographic study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, she puts it this way:

There is little intrinsic value in a model’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly built teens. When dealing with aesthetic goods such as “beauty” and “fashionability” we would be hard pressed to identify objective measures of worth inherent in the good itself. (here).

Thus, rather than looking for specific body types, models’ successes and failures are based off of what insiders call her “look.” Mears analyzes both what the modeling industry means by “look” and the consequences of relying on such an obscure quality. Her participants consistently define the “look” as much more than the set of physical attributes. Yet, the homogeneity of the physical attributes of women models is difficult to ignore. Crafting, selling, and capitalizing on a specific “look” in this industry is challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the narrow range of “acceptable” bodies.

The CFDA’s Health Initiative treats eating disorders as an individual rather than social problem. This allows the CFDA to obscure the role it might play in perpetuating cultural desires for the very bodies it purports to “help” with the Health Initiative.

Susan Bordo famously wrote about anorexia as what she termed “the crystallization of culture.” We like to draw firm boundaries between normality and pathology. But Bordo suggests that anorexia is more profitably analyzed as culturally normative than as abnormal (here). Similarly, Star Models’ PSA images play a role in framing the fashion industry as (at least partially) responsible for ultra-thin feminine body ideals. Yet, the PSAs arguably falls short of providing institutional-level solutions as the tagline–“You are not a sketch. Say no to anorexia.”–concentrates on individuals.

The CFDA’s focus on health initiatives and support for individuals suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are critical aspects of recognizing issues that seem to plague the fashion industry. While this surely helps some individual women, the initiatives simultaneously avoid the cultural pressures (in which the fashion industry arguably plays a critical role) that work to systematically conflate feminine beauty with ultra-thin ideals. Similar to problems associated with focusing attention only on the survivors of sexual assaults (failing to recognize the ways that sexual violence is both institutionalized and embedded in our culture), these images simply illustrate that individual-level solutions are unlikely to produce change precisely because they fail to locate “the problem” and ignore the diverse social institutions and ideals that assist in its reproduction.

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*The website for the Bahia agency site was not working at the time I wrote this post. So the link directs readers to the facebook page instead.

Thanks to a student in my Sociology of Gender course, Sandra Little, for bringing this campaign to my attention.

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