28 February 2014
October 2007: a model walks the Guy Laroche catwalk at Paris fashion week. Her beautifully cut, flowing backless tunic, like her skin, is purest white: her simply-styled hair and minimal makeup designed to showcase the flowing lines of Laroche’s expert draping. What is most striking about this show, though – and what will attract widespread attention from commentators and bloggers is not the clothes, but the thinness of the woman’s body.

Commentators will note that her shoulder blades, and ribs are all clearly visible under the bright lights of the runway. The cut of the dress, far from concealing this, seems intended to highlight it: the chains, plunging back and cut-away sides showcase the lines of the model’s ribs, almost as though they are part of the design. In the media outcry that follows, the model, Nataliya Gotsiy, will be described as looking - according to fashion writer Jean-Paul Cauvin - ‘more like a skeleton or a mummy than like a live woman’.

2014: Leah Hardy, former editor of Cosmopolitan, leaks an unretouched image of Cameron Diaz to the Daily Telegraph. The paper places it side-by-side with the unretouched original, showing subtle but marked differences. While Diaz’ waist is still tiny, the contours of her body have changed. Her thighs are wider, her arms rounder; the sharp line of her groin has been replaced with a subtly rounded and curved, feminine belly. Another subsequently leaked image, of the supermodel Karlie Kloss, is even more striking in its transformation of an apparently starving body into an image of idealised feminine beauty. These pictures are a striking example of what’s called ‘reverse retouching’ – altering pictures, not to make models look slimmer or to remove ‘flaws’ such as cellulite and stretch marks, but to make them look bigger and healthier: a necessity since the ideal of femininity has shrunk to size zero and below.

Thinness has been a huge trend in recent years: as one fashion writer put it, ‘Bones are now being fetishized in the way that flesh once was.’ Images like these raise important questions for feminism and cultural studies. When did the mainstream media become obsessed with promoting extreme thinness as an ideal, and why? How did we reach the point where Jennifer Lawrence, a woman who in every way embodies the conventional feminine ideal can be considered a ‘fat actress’?

Too often, the responsibility for this new thin obsession is placed onto women themselves. I research attitudes to thinness in the media and online, and I’m often struck by the hateful language used to describe thin women. When they are not being described as ‘not real’, they are seen as repellent, grotesque and monstrous: zombie, wraith, waif, and the perennial favourite ‘walking skeleton’ are just some of the terms used over and over again. It seems that models are viewed not as workers entitled to fair and safe working conditions, but as a collection of body parts, of physical flaws that need to be erased in post-production to avoid alienating advertisers and consumers. A former creative director for Vogue describes protecting readers from the sight of underweight ‘girls’ who – horrors – ‘didn’t look glamorous in the flesh’, of the need to protect women from ‘the horrible, hungry downside of skinny’. Reading comments like these, it can feel as though anorexia is dreaded not because it is deadly, but because it is ‘ugly’.

This language of horror and disgust is nothing new. Typically, in Western culture, bodies are marginalised through dehumanising language: sociologists call this ‘abjection’. The trend for ’skinny shaming’, with its language of zombies, skeletons and vampires and with its tendency to reduce women to body parts, seems to perpetuate misogynist attitudes rather than to challenge them. Instead, I think we need to see these images as a symptom of a society with deeply conflicted attitudes to bodies and consumption. 20 years ago, feminist writer Susan Bordo described the Western media’s fixation with slimness and dieting a key way in which capitalism exerts control over women’s - and increasingly men’s - bodies. Capitalism, Bordo says, makes impossible demands on us: we’re expected to have incredible self-control and self-discipline if we want to be successful, but we also need to be self-indulgent, to give in to temptation, in order for consumer culture to function. The obsession with thinness is just one example of this. Bordo sees eating disorders as part of a continuum with the body hatred that pervades Western culture:. ‘the anorexic’s distorted image of her body’, she says, ‘while more extreme, is not radically discontinuous from fairly common female misconceptions’. Seen in this context, the ‘walking skeleton’ is neither a monster nor a victim, but a symbol of the excesses and extremities of capitalism.

Dr Debra Ferreday teaches on our BA Media and Cultural Studies programme.