Part Four of ‘Stitched Up’ explores what is behind the constant scrutiny and judgement of our bodies.

“We can’t have a black model‚Äîthey’re not aspirational.”

“Heidi Klum Is Too Fat to Be a Model”1

In the run up to Mutiny’s ‘Fashion on Trial’ on 29 September, Part Four of ‘Stitched Up’ explores why the fashion industry promotes such impossible standards of beauty and physical perfection. What is behind the constant scrutiny and judgement of our bodies? And what happens to anyone who is too short, tall, fat, old or even too black?

Is Fashion Racist?

The fashion industry was drawing so much ‘whitewash’ attention to itself that the July 2008 edition of US Vogue led with the story ‘Is Fashion Racist?’. US Vogue’s legendary September Issue has only ever had two black models on its cover – no surprise then that the article was evasive and failed to tackle the question.

The reality is that fashion can be profoundly racist. New York Fashion Week 2009 consisted of 116 different labels presenting shows with 3,697 spots for a model to walk down a catwalk. Of those spots, in the exceptionally diverse city of New York, 668 (18%) went to black and ethnic minority models. However, three of the top ethnic minority models took up half of those spots with repeat appearances.

Calvin Klein showed one look with a black model out of 35 he sent down the catwalk, while Donna Karan showed three black models out of 45.

Appallingly, these statistics mark a 50% increase after a concerted effort by campaigners to diversify US catwalks. At New York Fashion Week 2008, Donna Karan cast one black model out of 23, Calvin Klein cast one out of 21, and Jill Stuart had zero. New York Fashion Week 2007 was quite literally a whitewash with a third of the US designers’ catwalks – 101 shows – having no black models whatsoever.

This slight increase can perhaps be credited to the election of President Barack Obama and thus the appearance of the first ever black First Lady. Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choices have been as talked about as much as anything she says or does – and almost as much as anything her husband says or does. Thus in the rush to dress Michelle Obama, designers are also cynically trying to prove that they believe in racial equality.

The 2008 Paris Fashion Week, consisting of the shows of 40 designers, had not a single black or ethnic minority model on the catwalk. Industry insiders talk of endemic racism: “In Paris and Milan if you offer a black girl they will drop the book like it’s hot.“2

Writing on an internet site, one black model stated that “being African-American and bilingual Italian.. when you go to a model casting in Milan and are pointed to the sign that reads “no ragazze di colore” (no colored girls), you can understand it.”3 This is the accepted level of racism in the 21st century.

London is said to be marginally better than the rest of Europe, but still booking agents receive casting briefs which say ‘no ethnics’.4 Naomi Campbell recently spoke out about being rarely used for the cover of UK Vogue because magazines editors believe black cover girls don’t sell. Naomi Campbell has done a total of 8 Vogue covers compared to Kate Moss’s 24 or Linda Evangelista’s 13 covers.

This discrimination in fashion continues behind the scenes. For example, it has been argued that the number of non-white fashion designers or fashion journalists getting to express their opinions at Vogue reflects endemic racism. There have been organised attempts to change this situation and some influential people have spoken out, but little has changed.

There exists a long history of racism in fashion. Coco Chanel was famously a Nazi sympathiser and collaborator in Paris, and Hugo Boss established himself by designing and making the uniforms of the Nazi SS. More recently there was Prada’s outright refusal to use black models for their campaigns or catwalks.

This is what we are told that we should be aspiring to – to be giving our money to and wearing the symbols of racists who would crush all diversity.

It is interesting to note that hip-hop – which has its roots in the struggle for black equality – has been so co-opted into the fashion industry that most mainstream hip hop is little more than a shopping list of designer brands. Designer brands that subjugate and reject black people.

The Terror of Fashion

Fashion’s erasing of any diversity in terms of skin colour is matched only by the industry’s erasing of those deemed to be the wrong shape.

Size zero is the US equivalent of a UK size six. The average woman in the UK is a size 12 or 14. Size zero is as tiny as it sounds. It may be far from the norm in everyday society but in the land of fashion it is regarded as de rigueur. The size zero debate is now a well documented one but it took women dying before anything was done.

Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died having just stepped off a catwalk, at the age of 22, in August 2006. The cause of death was heart failure caused by anorexia. Tragedy repeated itself when Luisel’s younger sister, 18 year old model Eliana Ramos, died from a heart attack caused by malnutrition just a few months later.

Then there was the case of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston who was told at a casting call that she was ’too fat.’ Ana Carolina starved herself until she weighed 40kg at a height of 5.8ft. She died in hospital in 2006, aged 22.

The World Health Organisation considers anyone with a body mass index (BMI) of 16 to be starving. Luisel Ramos had a BMI of 14.5 and Ana Carolina Reston’s BMI was 13.4. These women are just three examples of the many women who have starved themselves to death in an attempt to conform to the demands of their employers. The critiquing of young women’s bodies is rife in the fashion industry: even supermodels tell stories of being told they’re too fat.

After Luisel Ramos died, the 2006 Madrid Fashion Week set a minimum BMI of 18 for all models. In December 2006, Italian fashion designers banned size zero models from walking down their catwalks.

Paris didn’t ban size zero models. Nor did London. Instead UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman stated in the Daily Mail that she opposed having a size zero ban:

“Fashion shows… are there to show clothes in their best possible light and to make us dream of them and want to own them. And, annoying as it is, the majority of us feel that clothes look better on slim women. If I started to photograph all our shoots on size 14 women… would everyone want to look like them? I think not.”

The iconic curves of Marilyn Monroe or Beyonce illustrate just how daft Shulman is being in this statement.

Of course some women are certainly naturally very thin – not that these women are allowed to relax into their physicality either – but Shulman is endorsing a thinness that for the vast majority is achieved by starvation diets. Size zero is for the most part a sexist attempt to keep women looking and feeling frail and helpless.

The fashion industry is promoting an impossible body ideal. Literally impossible. The models used in fashion have a body type shared by just 5% of women in the US5 . If you are not born with this body type then there is nothing that you can do to achieve it.

Models and celebrities have huge amounts of money and employ teams of people to prefect their appearance. Many of them have also undergone plastic surgery, in particular getting breast implants because natural height and slimness generally means very small breasts. Then there is the retouching of photographs using computers: everything from skin tones to thigh sizes get altered.

Yet fashion sells this body shape as normal and achievable, with the pressure and the blame being on individuals if they do not achieve it. These images of ultra-thin women have a damaging impact on our society. Statistics from UK mental health charity Mind state that one in 100 women in the UK aged between 15 and 30 suffer from anorexia and that girls as young as five years of age suffer from weight concerns. Without over simplifying too much, the link between the fashion industry and eating disorders is well documented with magazine adverts and social pressures to be thin listed as motivation for starvation diets. Things seem to be getting worse, with hospital admissions for anorexia rising sharply in the past ten years.

Why are they doing this to us?

A fundamental characteristic of capitalism is the constant creation of new markets. For these new markets, there must be a constant stream of things that are ‘wrong with us’ so that we keep buying products, clothes or surgical procedures to make us ‘better‘.

Women, and increasingly men, are taught from a young age that the most important thing about them is the way they look. Thus the impossible quest for self perfection keeps us spending. We are never allowed to relax, we must always be self disciplining and perfecting ourselves. We must all diet and dye ourselves to look the same and then spend any remaining money on clothes to make ourselves look ‘unique’ again.

But there are even more sinister forces at work in fashion. The fashion industry is the world’s catwalk: it shows the beauty ideal, the way we should aspire to look. It is a look that is symbolic of the underlying power structures in society, the way the ruling class promotes a single image of beauty and uses it to control us.

If white is beautiful then it is desirable and thus the most powerful colour to be. The rulers of the fashion industry are white and they promote themselves as the ideal to help keep themselves in power.

With this power comes great money and privilege, so they will never willingly give it up. Instead they seek to entrench their privilege even further by making people feel insecure and powerless so that they don’t think to join together and organise collectively against them. Don’t be proud of being black – instead feel ugly, doubt your self-worth and spend your time and money trying to alter your appearance. This is the message from the fashion industry. The same goes for anyone – i.e everyone – who does not fit this impossible ideal.

A few members of the ‘outcasts’, i.e. the odd black or fat celebrity, will be co-opted by the ruling class as an example to the rest of us. But in general the prison walls cannot be breached.

This is not to say that for the vast majority of people in the fashion industry – and in society as a whole – that racism is a conscious decision. Racism is a deeply entrenched inequality with a long history and racist practices have been imposed on us as the norm.

So rather than be a vision of beauty that most people can identify with, in reality most catwalks are an eerily homogenous spectacle: “the same procession of anonymous, blandly pretty, very young, very skinny, washed-out blondes with their hair scraped back”6

This homogenous view of beauty must be challenged and rejected. The power structures in society that are keeping us divided and cowed must be torn down and replaced.

Once this has been done we will be free to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of the human race that makes everyone beautiful. We will also be free to value and celebrate qualities other than appearance. Just imagine what people could achieve with all the hours and resources now spent despairingly striving to alter the way we look.

Tansy Hoskins is a writer, activist and co-organiser of the Mutiny event ‘Fashion on Trial’, which takes place in east London on 29 September. With thanks to fellow Mutineer Laura Harvey for additional input.


1 Photographer Nick Knight speaking out against racism in fashion and a headline as German fashion designers Wofgang Joop & Karl Lagerfeld attack model Heidi Klum.
2 Booking agent Ms White, talking to The Observer in 2008.
3 From the online diary of ‘Dmitcha’ from DailyKos website
4 Booking agent Ms White, talking to The Observer in 2008.
5 ‘Killing Us Softly’ documentary by Jean Kilbourne
6 US Vogue July 2008 ‘Is Fashion Racist?’