Fashion companies could be missing out on the bottom line when they use only one kind of model.
Researcher Naomi Mandel puts it more bluntly in reference to her work on models and self-esteem: “It’s better to use extremely thin models because that’s what makes women feel bad about themselves and want to buy the products.” She adds that because women will never be as thin as the models, they’ll always feel inadequate and continually demand the clothes.
Marketers also explain away the lack of diversity on “economies of scale”—a.k.a. the sample size. Fashion brands create a prototype of each garment in their collection—a sample— for marketing purposes months before its retail production. The sample is a size 2, which means that the model hired for fashion shows and ads must be a size 2. Although brands typically spend $750,000 to show at New York Fashion Week, they argue that creating samples in a few sizes—such as 4, 8 and 14— is too expensive; the extra inches of fabric might put them in the red.
Although I’ve worked as a modelling agent in the fashion industry for 15 years, I’ve never subscribed to the traditional viewpoint. My dad passed away when I was young, so I grew up surrounded and supported by women. While my mom, grandmother and aunt didn’t look like typical models, I was always in awe of their beauty. I remember seeing my then 75-year-old grandmother on the night of her 50th wedding anniversary—in a floor-length ivory gown—and thinking that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
When I was 14 years old, I had a friend who wanted to be a model, but every agency she went to told her that she was “too big.” I was shocked; I couldn’t understand why she—a size 12—was being rejected. I sent her pictures to a magazine and landed her a fashion spread. With one gig under my belt, I became her agent. Now, 15 years later, my single client has turned into a roster of 100 models who range in size, age, background and ability.
My experiences have fostered the steadfast belief that the fashion industry needs to broaden its perception of beauty—and I am not alone. Since the publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth more than two decades ago, the debate over the size of models has gone mainstream. Hardly a fashion week goes by without the topic making headlines around the world. The story has been that ultra-thin models harm some women’s well-being; by living in a culture where only thinness is celebrated, many women internalize it as their own beauty standard.
Some governments share this viewpoint. In Italy, legislation was enacted to prevent models who are too skinny from strutting catwalks. The French government considered imposing fines—even jail terms—on brand executives who promote “excessive thinness” in ads. Here in Canada, the Quebec provincial government introduced the Quebec Charter for Healthy and Diverse Body Image in 2009 to encourage the fashion industry to promote diversity. These responses are logical—governments are in the business of protecting the health of their citizens. But the fashion industry is in the business of business; it will only be motivated to diversify if it’s a strategy that boosts the bottom line.
Want to know what happens when models of different sizes are used in campaigns? Read on to the next page...