Carola Long: Why fashion loves the super-thin

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Amidst Kate Moss's comments for a recent feature in Interview magazine, it's her thoughts on her own thinness that have sparked the most interest. The iconic model, now immortalised once again by Marc Quinn in a gold statue that will appear in the British Museum, talks about the unavailability of food while she was working as a model in the past. She says: "I remember standing up in the bath one day, and there was a mirror in front of me and I was so thin! I hated it. I never liked being that skinny."

Although Moss doesn't exactly frame this as an overtly political comment – she attributes her low weight to the fact that "when I was doing shows and flying economy, nobody ever fed me", when really, how much trouble is it to buy your own sandwich before boarding a flight? – it's still a significant comment. If even the world's most famous model wasn't happy with her waif-like body, why on earth does this continue to be a desirable ideal?

There are plenty of arguments about who exactly in the fashion industry is responsible for perpetuating the idea that extreme slenderness is the norm. The designers who book underweight models? The model agencies for failing to address the issue of their weight and health? Parents for not keeping an eye on their children (although the British Fashion Council has imposed a ban on under-16s, many girls of this age still seem like children)? Or glossy magazines, which are so reliant on advertising that they can't upset the labels who use skinny models?

Of course, a much wider group of people share responsibility, from those in the fashion industry who see just how unhealthy models can be, to people who buy magazines which carry adverts or editorial with very thin models, and perpetuate the super-slim silhouette.

There are two main ways in which the issue needs to be addressed: practical solutions and a change in aesthetic ideals. The former are difficult to impose – an initiative to introduce compulsory medical certificates was recently abandoned by the British Fashion Council – while the perception that skinny equals desirable is so ingrained within the industry that it's hard for insiders to see past it.

While it's impossible not to be shocked by the extreme thinness of some of the etiolated, sunken-eyed models that appear on the catwalk, generally, most of the audience at a catwalk show don't even notice the girls' shapes and sizes, because they are focusing on cut, silhouette, concept, fabric and trends. And this is the appeal of super-thin girls for designers – they don't upstage the clothes. Similarly, most editors, writers and stylists don't realise the damaging effect skinny models can have on self-esteem since, although they might not be as young and waif-like as the models, they don't fall into paroxysms of despair that they won't look as good as they do in the clothes because the whole effect is interpreted as a flight of fantasy and art. For the brief moment of presentation on the catwalk, the whole spectacle exists in an aesthetic bubble which is joyously removed from reality and normal life.

Unfortunately, just as the clothes will trickle down to the high street, so does the message that being skinny is a physical ideal. And that is where the fashion industry needs to look beyond the unhealthy images to which it has become immune, and develop a wider perspective on the social implications of the fantasies it presents. It might be art, but life often imitates art.

Carola Long is The Independent's deputy fashion editor