Ever since English supermodel Twiggy appeared on the cover of Seventeen magazine nearly 40 years ago thin has been in among the girls. But even as the latest line-up of willowy models slunk up and down the runways in New York, something was happening across the ditch that may signal an end to emaciation as the basic qualification for a model. Madrid fashion week organisers, after some arm-twisting by the local government, banned the use of ultra-thin models and rejected five out of 68 candidates for having a body mass index below 18. The officials said they wanted to promote a healthier body image for young women.
Unfortunately, changing the shape of models on the catwalks and in our magazines is only part of what it will take to improve the self-esteem of young women. Magazines may be using models diverse in size but there is little evidence of a let-up in the incidence of eating disorders among young women.
Last year’s launch of the now suspended Vogue Girl (Australia) coincided with the release of survey results by the Heat Group showing 68 per cent of Australian girls aged 18 years and under consider themselves to be less beautiful than the average girl. A quarter of teenage girls would change everything about themselves if they could and an astounding 98 per cent wish, at least occasionally, that they were more beautiful.
As a one-time failed teenage model, I recall there being pressure to be skinny. But there were also a lot of other expectations. The hardest part was not walking up and down an elevated platform under bright lights but dealing with everything backstage: having the right look, seeking the approval of agents, designers and casting directors, learning to vamp it up in ridiculously barely there clothing, putting up with rudeness and insults ("stupid" was my favourite), abandoning any pretence of privacy when having to strip to near nakedness for a dress change mid-show in plain view of a room of fully clothed older men and women, and declining alcohol pre-show because I was, well, you know, underage.
For many young women, thinness is desirable not only because they want to be thin but for what they think it represents: perfection, acceptance and attractiveness.
Even more important than achieving diversity of shape in fashion is to change how young women self-identify and value themselves. Beauty certainly exists and aesthetic experience is a testament to this but to confine the idea of attractiveness solely to a person’s appearance, attire or sexual proclivity is to misunderstand what beauty is.
The human being is both a person and a body; the body is not a mere shell for the person but nor is it the totality of who we are. Genuine attraction to another person involves an appreciation of this integral reality: it is the acceptance of someone on account of his or her dignity and uniqueness as a human person.
Research has shown that girls and women with good body image and self-esteem, and with lower tendency to self-objectify, are affected less by looking at thin models. As long as young women are taught that they will be judged on the basis of their looks, body or sex appeal, and young men are encouraged to value women on these grounds, problems will continue.
Magazines, entertainment and advertising continue to propagate a damaging message to young women about their capabilities and self-worth. Girlfriend and Dolly – the two magazines that dominate the Australian teen market – are read by more than 500,000 teenage girls each month. Dolly aims to "empower and arm girls for life" but both magazines underestimate the abilities of their readers and are accordingly dumbed down in substance and style. The articles are short, full of playground colloquialisms and usually focus on fashion, celebrities, beauty or sex. Teenagers aren’t expected to read whole articles so the magazines avoid heavy copy.
Sex is sensationalised and celebrities are offered up as role models. Cover girl for last month’s local edition of Marie Claire was occasional porn star and socialite Paris Hilton, and Dolly had a special sealed section on "everything BUT sex". For those of you with teenage daughters, you will be relieved to know that Dolly adopts Bill Clinton’s understanding of sex as excluding oral sex. Taking its role as an educator seriously, the magazine asks "The BIG Question: spit or swallow?"
Academic and ethical formation, the ability to communicate in an articulate manner, financial know-how and the development of a robust sense of self-worth are all important contributors to a teenager’s flourishing but largely overlooked in the agendas adopted by these magazines. They might want to empower and educate our young but their brand of raunch feminism is an emaciated and impoverished imitation of the real thing.
The magazines may no longer preach that teens have to be thin. But the message is clear: celebrity, clothes and sex appeal are what make up a woman’s worth.
(This is an edited version of an article first published in The Australian on September 18, 2006.)
Rachael Patterson is a lawyer and founding member of the independent think tank, Women’s Forum Australia. She currently resides in Manhattan.