Tuesday 15 October 2013

The Shape of Fashion

~ Bethany Wellerd

A couple of weeks ago I went along to ‘The Shape of Fashion’, an event hosted by Beat and ASOS at ASOS’s swanky head office in Camden. The event featured four panellists, all talking about the relationship between fashion, body image and eating disorders from different perspectives. This included two ladies who had experienced eating disorders, one of whom had been a model from the age of 15, and two other speakers who provided a fashion and media perspective.

So many interesting points were made both from the panel and from the debate that followed. Right at the beginning of the evening, Susan Ringwood introduced the discussion by saying it was their belief that “fashion doesn’t cause eating disorders any more than families do”, recognising the fact that while we can talk about how factors such as the fashion industry can be implicated in eating disorders, naming one variable as the sole cause of any mental health issue is fruitless. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the role fashion can play in shaping our perception of body image, and how fashion can use this power to improve the way we all look at ourselves.

There was one point that came up time and time again, especially directed at Sophie Glover, a representative of ASOS. Sophie works as a garment technologist, which means that she works within the technical team, looking at how ASOS’s garments fit their customers. The issue which was directed at Sophie was the idea of diversity in fashion – what are companies like ASOS doing to represent all of us, not just a small subsection of us? Sophie argued that because ASOS stocks a whole range of sizes, they really represent all women, of all shapes and sizes, and they promote the idea of fitting their clothes to the customers, not making customers fit their clothes.

This all sounds great, but something which the audience reflected back in reaction to this was the idea that while companies like ASOS might stock a wide range of sizes to reflect the diversity seen in the population, when you look at the websites selling these clothes, in fashion magazines, in your high street shop window, this diversity just isn’t there. They seem to be hiding away this wide range of sizes and only showing you a certain shape of women wearing these clothes.  Sophie pointed out that the models are reflective of their most popular selling size, but this was countered with the argument that perhaps if the models wearing ASOS’s clothes were the average size of women in the UK, then maybe this would be the most popular selling size.

All this talk of representing an average size seemed to go hand in hand with another theme which came up repeatedly throughout the evening. It was a theme which was encapsulated in two words, two words which every time they were spoken by panellists and audience members, made me wince. ‘Real Women’.  Models were described as being ‘not real women’; fashion should represent ‘real women’; we should be speaking out as ‘real women’. But who exactly are these ‘real women’? Surely alienating people below a certain size as ‘genetic accidents’ (a genuine quote from one of the panellists) is just as harmful as alienating those above a certain size. The idea that fashion should only be representing the average size, the mean, as an individual seems unhelpful to me. It doesn’t make sense for fashion to only represent one size over another. Don’t we need to be representing all sizes, so that we all feel like ‘real women’?

But what can we do to encourage the fashion industry to represent all of us, and not enforce an idea of what is ‘real’ or ‘average’ or ‘normal’ upon us? At the end of the evening, the answer to this question was put to us all. A member of the audience reminded us that talking about what needs to change in the fashion industry is one thing, but the best way for our thoughts to be heard is by voting with our feet (or our fingers in the case of internet shopping). If we find that a brand is not representing us, or is not acting in our best interests, and is making us feel like we are not normal, then we need to let them know. We as consumers hold a large amount of power in our hands, which we can really use to change things. So take action, write to these companies, let them know that you don’t feel valued by them, stop buying their products and start a conversation about diversity in fashion.

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