What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Size does matter... but how much?

Too big, too small, or something in between?

For years women have complained that the images of rail thin models selling clothing are damaging to female self-esteem, both young and mature. On Thursday, the New York Times reported on the debate about models, fashion and thin versus "plus size." In the article, Gina Bellafante cited V magazine's glamorous photo spread of larger sized women, wearing everything from high-end fashion to nothing but stilettos, earlier this year. When it was published, the photos caused quite a stir, as did the choice last fall of Glamour magazine to publish photos of Lizzie Miller, a plus size model. The magazine was deluged with thousands of letters, mostly from women grateful to see a model in the magazine who looked more like themselves, and the model appeared on the Today show.

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Size and body shape are as controversial in American life as they are in the fashion world. Michelle Obama has made combating childhood obesity one of her foci as first lady, and the public is regularly warned of the health risks of being overweight. Recently, food manufacturers have been pressured to modify the contents of their packaged food to make it healthier and less fattening. According to a 2008 survey, the most frequently worn size for a woman 5'4" in America is 14 and Government statistics show that 64% of women are overweight (more than one-third are medically obese). Yet plus-size clothing represents only 18% of total revenue in the women's clothing industry, and models continue to be dramatically thin.

So how does the fashion industry and our society at large cope with these discrepancies? It seems that part of the issue is related to confusion over what is "normal" versus what is "healthy" and whether or not they different. In other words, while size 14 for a woman who is 5'4" may be average, is it healthy? And what if it isn't? Do we continue to make clothing for women who are smaller and use models who are size 0 and hope that the average goes down (dramatically), or do we start to make the range of fashion choices available for most women out there? And what about plus sized models? Do women want to see larger women modeling clothing rather than the glamorous skinny girls they are used to, and if so, how large?

Evidently, making larger sized clothing is more complicated than making smaller sizes - as women gain weight their proportions vary much more widely (i.e. where they gain the weight on their body can differ dramatically) than women who are thinner. However, in spite of this complication, Lane Bryant has been making clothing for larger women for years, and there are a host of other clothing stores now following suit. Even Forever 21, a youth-oriented store, is now marketing its Faith 21 line for larger youth. It seems the true complication lies in the debate around how we see ourselves, how we want to see ourselves, and how we truly are.

Certainly what is healthy for girls and women is not yet represented in the world of fashion and movies, and the rail-thin image presented to most pubescent girls wreaks havoc on their developing self-image and self esteem. On the other hand, there are mountains of evidence that too much body weight/fat can cause a plethora of health problems, from diabetes to heart disease. Clearly there is a balance that we have yet to reach in our society in relationship with our bodies as well as our relationship with the world of fashion. Hopefully when we finally reach that balance, our definition of beauty, and the clothing to go with it, will follow.

 


photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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