25 September 2006

On the Ethics of Photographic Representation: Fashion Models

I highly recommend this excellent post by Jennifer Ouellette over at 3 Quarks Daily; Jennifer very astutely links up the release of The Devil Wears Prada with the recent "controversy" over emaciated models appearing at major fashion shows in Madrid and London (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4] ... all from The Guardian since the flap flared during London "fashion week") and from there to social norms about height/weight ratios for women.

Several things strike me as important about this state of affairs. One problem is that the discussion is taking place in euphemisms - such as describing models as "too thin." How about we stop tip-toe-ing around and use the right words - gaunt, sickly, emaciated, and so forth. Since I teach at a University I can say that the sample of healthy 18-20 year old women I encounter only vaguely resembles the "too thin" models strutting down the fashion show runways. The latter are girls (usually) who are selected by Agencies because they are off the distribution for height & weight. They then are placed in situations where the agencies and clients subject them to intense pressure to minimize their weight. It would be fairly easy, I suspect, to thumb through various fashion mags and find images of women to whom the adjectives I suggest easily apply. I don't have that much time. A while back, however, I posted on the misogynistic "State of Emergency" spread in Vogue Italia. Here is a photo of one of the stick figures that appeared there.

Second, banning individual models from the "catwalk" (nice term, hey?) for being underweight hardly addresses the problem. Instead, how about banning the agency (its representatives, its publicity, etc.) that represents any emaciated girl from whatever fashion extravaganza is being staged? Or, instead, why not simply withhold whatever fee the agency would collect from their models for the event in question and donate it to Oxfam or some other likely organization? The models operate within agencies and so should not be held wholly accountable for whatever size that organizational pressures (shock!) squeeze them into. Financial pressure on agencies will go a significant distance toward remedying the "too thin" problem.

The final point is that a considerable portion of the photographic profession is complicit in all this. It is not just that they fall over themselves to land assignments for fashion mags and advertisers; by reproducing the practices of the industry, fashion photographers also reinforce absurd social expectations about the appropriate weight for women and girls. These images turn up in common places like the check-out line at your grocery. So when I read papers and articles criticizing this or that documentary photographer for representing the suffering of people caught in wars of famines or other man-made disasters I wonder why the author isn't focused on a more appropriate target.

By the way, Jennifer Ouellette is a guest blogger at 3 Quarks Daily but keeps her own blog - Cocktail Party Physics.

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Blogger JoeCollins said...

Emaciated models (rather than models that are only slightly underweight) are one part of something I have never understood - fashion as its own end, rather than fashion as something that might actually be worn in public by a normal-sized human being. I have always wondered why some of the sillier things worn by models in fashion shows are ever created, particularly those garments that would be illegal to wear in that majority of the world. I would expect those things to be reasonable constraints on the art-form of fashion, but apparently there is something about fashion I just don't get.

25 September, 2006 14:56  

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