Random Walks: Less Than Zero

Thedevilwearsprada_1The much-anticipated film version of The Devil Wears Prada sparked numerous heated debates (and the occasional bloggorific rant) about its underlying themes and the potentially damaging subconscious “messages” it might be conveying to impressionable young girls. But the scene that caused the most howls of outrage was an exchange between Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) and Nigel, the deliciously fey fashion editor of the fictional Runway magazine:

Andy: Doesn’t anybody eat around here?

Nigel: Not since [size] two is the new four and zero is the new two.

Andy: Well, I’m a six…

Nigel: Aha! The new fourteen!

This could hardly be welcome news to the average American woman, who generally wears a size 12 or 14 on the unadjusted scale. For many viewers, that scene encapsulated the frustrating disconnect between the fantasy worlds of the glitterrati in fashion and filmdom, and the stark realities of everyday people. But for me, it also answered a nagging question that had been gnawing at the back of my brain for awhile now: why is it so damned difficult to figure out what size I’m supposed to be when buying clothes? I’ve long suspected the fashion industry of practicing a “sliding scale,” shifting their sizing charts downward to accommodate America’s expanding waistlines — and, more importantly, to make women feel better about themselves (“Hey! Suddenly I’m one size smaller!”) so that they buy more clothes.

Apparently, it’s true: women’s clothing sizes in the US are being progressively “down-sized,” so that what was a size 8 in 1990 is now a size 6, and so on. One assumes the strategy works — unless you happen to work in the fashion industry and are hip to the Big Lie. However, I doubt there’s a broad master conspiracy afoot in fashion circles, with a secret cabal of sadistic, fat-loathing-yet-greedy designers reaching a consensus on what the new sizes will be and then foisting them on an unsuspecting public. I think it’s far more complicated than that.

For one thing, there is clearly no consensus. Even in the fashion world, sizing is inconsistent. My closet contains items ranging from extra small to large, and from size 4 to 8. Further complicating matters, I have one of those inverted triangle body types. So I generally wear size 4 jeans (the new 6!), but given the breadth of my back and shoulders, I’ve never worn less than a size 8 on top — which makes buying dresses a bit of challenge, especially since I’m also short-waisted. (Needless to say, I have learned to love the drop waist.) Short of custom tailoring, there is no good way to address this. But it would make things so much easier if the US fashion industry would just agree on a universal sizing standard and stick to it. Then I’d at least have a consistent framework in which to make the necessary adjustments my body type requires.

No doubt some larger people out there read “size 4 jeans” and immediately thought, “Shut up, skinny bitch! Stop complaining! What do you know about our pain?” I deliberately mentioned my specific sizes to elicit just such a reaction, in order to make my next point: I do feel that same kind of pain. The deeper, underlying issue at work here is our society’s unrealistic expectations regarding what a woman’s body “should” look like. Very few of us have the perfectly proportioned “hourglass figure” touted by clothing designers, regardless of what size we wear. Ergo, no woman is free of body image issues and the pressure to be thin, whether said woman is as full-figured as Camryn Mannheim or the same size as uber-waifs Kate Moss and Calista Flockhart — or, like me, somewhere in between.

So it’s something that adversely affects women of all shapes and sizes. The fashion industry’s admittedly ingenious marketing strategy shamelessly exploits the female insecurity and obsession with weight and clothing size: counting calories and minutes on the Stairmaster, measuring inches, assessing body fat percentage, and ruthlessly comparing all those “numbers” to all the other women in one’s social circle.  We agonize over the slightest extra ounce or inch. We beat  up ourselves, and each other, about it on almost a daily basis.

At least a solution to the practical issues concerning clothing sizes might be within reach, with the emergence of 3D full-body scanners that can take very precise body measurements. These are then converted into patterns from which garments are cut, hopefully one day making custom tailoring affordable and accessible to the general populace, not just to the fabulously wealthy. It’s already available to the well-heeled clientele of Brooks Brothers, which has been using a 3D scanner in its stores for the past three years. Lane Bryant stores in malls across the country began featuring body scanners in April 2005, and Levi’s, the Gap, and American Eagle Outfitters are also experimenting with the technology.

As cool as this is on the nifty gadgetry front, and as wonderful as it would be to be able to order custom-fit clothing in the future, the research application of the body scanner technology revealed far more interesting conclusions. Apparel product development specialist Lenda Jo Connell of Auburn University is part of a collaboration that uses 3D body scanners to study the shapes of American women. (The research is sponsored in part by JC Penney, Target and Jockey.) Over the last two years, she has scanned more than 6000 women, and found that only 8.4% of them had the standard hourglass shape. In fact, it’s the shape women are least likely to have. We are far more likely to have bodies in the shape of a rectangle, spoon, or inverted triangle (yours truly). It’s hardly shocking to be told that the fashion industry is out of touch with what “real” woman look like, but now we have some solid scientific data to back us up.

The fact that so many mass-market clothing manufacturers (as opposed to high-end designers) are interested in scanning technology — and are willing to put their money on the line by providing funding — indicates that their primary concern is not on foisting unrealistic standards onto American women, but on bringing the clothing they offer more in line with the fit customers might actually desire. After all, they’re in business to sell clothes and make money, not to start a cultural revolution. So where do the unrealistic expectations come from? Many people like to blame Hollywood and women’s magazines for concealing or air-brushing away the slightest imperfection in the women being portrayed, leading the rest of us to conclude that we, too, should look like that.

It’s hardly the entire story, but I think there’s some truth to that. That’s why I will be eternally grateful to actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who several years ago (at age 43) allowed herself to be photographed both dolled up for the camera in the typical actress-y glam shots, and au naturel. “It’s such a fraud, and I’m the one perpetuating it,” she said at the time of her own perceived perfection, with refreshing candor. She still looked beautiful (I thought) in the natural shots, but she also looked real: uneven skin tone, slim  and healthy but not perfectly shaped and toned, etc. Since then, she’s become equally outspoken about Hollywood’s obsession with cosmetic surgery, making a conscious choice to stop fighting the visible effects of her advancing years and allow herself to age gracefully. (The tragedy is that she also chose to retire from the big screen, depriving filmdom of her considerable talent.)

Curtis’ courage in standing up to the horrendous pressures of her industry came to mind this past week with the news that the organizers of fashion week in Madrid, Spain, had banned too-thin models from their runways, Toothin based on the height-to-weight ratios used by the World Health Organization. Essentially, any model weighing less than 125 pounds would not meet the new Madrid criteria.  The decision caused a media firestorm, and this time the nayersayers weren’t lmited to the usual suspects (women’s health groups, feminist organizations, and the like), but included industry insiders. “What becomes alarming is when you see bones and start counting ribs,” Allure editor Linda Wells told the New York Times, adding later in the article, “Some of the models really are too thin, but that is such a tricky thing to say.” It shouldn’t be a tricky thing to say, which is why the Madrid decision is so significant. Concerns have been raised before about this, most recently with the “heroin chic” look popularized by Kate Moss in the 1990s. But it’s highly unusual for anyone to take the extraordinary steps of the Madrid organizers and address the issue outright.

Whether other fashion show organizers will follow suit, and whether these and other efforts will be sufficient to stem the tide of malnourished underweight models, remains to be seen. But it’s bitterly ironic that an industry whose main focus lies in promoting images of health and beauty is simultaneously fostering all manner of eating disorders and associated health problems behind the scenes. It’s nothing new or surprising, mind you — but it’s still bitterly ironic.  And now everyone is scrambling, once again, to cast blame: Is it “Society”? The designers? The fashion magazines? There are a mind-boggling number of variables contributing to the problem; it’s impossible to isolate any single one as the primary cause.

And to what extent can we lay partial blame on the models themselves, who willingly sacrifice their own long-term health as they strive to reach the industry ideal of a size 0? Yes, these girls literally aspire to be nothing, while many of their petite counterparts in Hollywood are striving to be less than zero. (Paula Abdul is reportedly a size 00, and the frighteningly emaciated Nicole Ritchie should disappear entirely any day now.) Some fashion industry insiders have defended the models being held up as exhibits for the prosecution as being “naturally slender,” but give us a break: no woman is “naturally” so thin that her ribs, hip bones, and shoulder blades jut out. Some of these ultra-thin models have so little body fat or muscle mass, they could be medically described as “wasting.” Small wonder the New York Times article quotes former model turned actress and fashion designer Milla Jovovich that the industry needs more rules and regulations when it comes to ensuring the health of its models.

It’s easy to blame the fashion and entertainment industries, but we must also take some responsibility for propagating negative attitudes toward food and weight ourselves.  We buy into the message, day after day, whether we’re directly involved in those industries or not. Andy Sach’s colleague at Runway magazine in The Devil Wears Prada, Emily, isn’t a model, yet she is perpetually on a diet, and at one point confesses her secret to stayng ultra-thin: “I don’t eat anything, and then when I feel I’m about to faint, I eat a cube of cheese.” Later she exults, “I’m one stomach flu away from reaching my goal weight!” What’s sad is that the intended satire is dangerously close to the truth: how many of us have heard women express envy that a friend’s illness has caused her to lose weight: “I wish I could have a tapeworm (or cancer), too, just for a week or so to get rid of those nagging extra 10 pounds!”

New technologies like the body scanner can help with our difficulties in finding our proper size and fit. And as Katie Couric recently discovered, we can still lie to ourselves and ensure flattering photos with some creative photo-shopping, or via the new “slimcam” digital camera from Hewlett-Packard, which can take away an entire dress size with the flick of a switch. But technology can’t save us from ourselves. So long as we continue to buy into the notion that “one size should fit all,” and punish ourselves accordingly for our failure to measure up to impossible beauty ideals, we will never be able to accept ourselves as we are, and see the beauty inherent in women (and men!) of all shapes and sizes.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

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