Beauty matters. That it matters can be measured by the amount of money and the time people spend on pursuing the idea of the perfect body.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women.
The advertising industry is worth more than 64 billion pounds a year and affects all of us in our everyday lives. We are each exposed to more than 2000 ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force in society.
Stelianour Sani, a photographer for fashion magazines and brands, says: “The fashion industry reflects an unrealistic, unhealthy beauty image and we see it all around us every day – on the web, magazines, in advertising and on TV.”
He says: “After photographing fashion for the last 10 years, I know that the industry portrays an image of a completely unrealistic beauty ideal.”
Advertising creates a mythical world in which people are rarely ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled, either physically or mentally.
Beat is the UK’s only nationwide organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders. Beat says: “We believe our physical shape represents who and what we are to the world – is not a trivial matter or one of personal vanity. It is a fundamental part of our sense of self. It affects our thoughts, emotions and behavior.”
Erjona Ala, a 16-year-old model who has done runway shows for London Fashion Week, says: “Of course I have to watch my weight. Everyone expects models to be thin. It would be strange to have chubby models on the runway.”
However, thin was not always in. There are centuries of female beauty when women were shapely, soft, and rounded. By the 1950s, a thin woman with a large bust line was considered most attractive. The voluptuous size 16 Marilyn Monroe set a new standard for women.
The 1960s saw a new wave of feminism. Slenderness became the most important indicator of physical attractiveness and Twiggy became a worldwide role model. Playboy magazine also increased the promotion of slimness between 1959 and 1978.
The Sexual Revolution in the 1970s brought breasts and hips back into the picture. The 1980s beauty ideal remained slim but required a more toned look. Bodybuilding gave way to weight loss with the rise of heroin chic. Waif-like icon Kate Moss led the movement.
Today in our modern Western society thin is in. However, this is not the global norm. African cultures appreciate corpulence in either sex as beautiful rather than as ugly, because it indicates wealth, fertility and motherhood.
Presenting one ideal of beauty has a tremendous impact on the self-esteem and self-confidence of young women.
Beat says: “While the fashion industry doesn’t directly cause eating disorders, it has a powerful influence that is highly toxic to some vulnerable young people.”
With regard to the current influence of the fashion industry, the world’s largest eating disorders charity says: “The industry has to bring about the change in attitudes and actions that a generation of young people deserve. Something’s got to change.”
Phillip Hodson from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy says: “The clue’s in the name – these are ‘models’ – which means ‘embodiment of an ideal’, hence ‘ideal bodies’.”
He says: “It’s in fact just as bizarre to take the ‘malnourished super-skinny’ as models as it would be to take ‘super-obese’ models. We have to find the golden middle.”
The world is diverse, and it is unrealistic and very restrictive to limit creativity by sticking within boundaries of what is perceived as normal on the catwalk and in magazines.
Model Erjona Ala says: “Models are scrutinised for flaws and imperfections. It’s all about the perfect skin, figure, face – but rarely about personality.”
In the past five years the industry woke up to the expression of the beauty of diversity.
Mr Sani says: “Gradually things are starting to turn around and that’s because of devastated parents who care about their beloved ones and want them to be who they are and not who the industry wants them to be.”
He adds: “The change is to introduce models who could be your next door neighbor, like in the D&G campaign with the rugby team, the Dove campaign with plus size models and extraordinary models like Rick Genest.”
Beth Ditto, the voluptuous lead singer of the rock band Gossip, walked for Jean Paul Gaultier at his spring/summer 2011 show at Paris Fashion Week.
Mr Sani says: “Over the last 3 years I’ve noticed quite often that ad campaigns and TV commercials of well known fashion labels use models who have a different look and represent their customers.”
Model Andrej Pejic, 20, had many people question his gender when he made his first catwalk appearance at Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring show in 2011. Andrej says: “I would like to live in a world where your gender, nationality, sexual orientation didn’t affect the opportunities you are given in life, the way you’re treated by others, and your overall freedom.”
The fascination with the androgynous male model is not just a fashion thing, but it is a reflection of the current times. People are more accepting of transgender personalities, bigger women and extraordinary characters like tattooed and pierced models.
Transsexual model Lea T, born Leandro, also gained recent media attention. The model walked the catwalk for Givenchy and kissed Kate Moss on the cover of LOVE magazine in January 2011.
Rick Genest, 26, challenges people’s sensibilities about what they believe to be beautiful. Eighty percent of his body is covered with tattoos, including intricate designs of an entire skeleton. The model is the muse for Nicola Formichetti, creative designer of the legendary Paris fashion house Thierry Mugler.
Aimee Mullins, 35, whose legs are amputated below the knees, is famous all over the world as an extraordinary fashion model. With a pair of prosthetic legs, she has appeared on the catwalk for British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
Models like Andrej Pejic, Rick Genest and Aimee Mullins teach us never to judge a book by its cover, but to go beyond it. There is no such thing as a perfect, ideal shape, because everyone is and looks different and what really counts is individuality and character. The uniqueness of every person is what makes it exciting – conformity is not a valid reflection of our diverse society anymore. The fashion industry is starting to realize this and slowly adapts.
Beat says: “We’re calling on the advertising industry to act responsibly by showing diversity in shape and size. We want to challenge the current aesthetic that shows only the tall and very slender as aspirational ideal of beauty.”
Extraordinary, diverse models like these challenge people’s perceptions of beauty in the fashion world.
Mr Sani says: “The fashion industry is open to the idea of portraying something different than the thin and cosmetically symmetric type. It definitely opens doors for fashion houses that dare to do so.”
He adds: “Though I must admit that I’m not sure if that could be a good thing, it’s certainly not worse than seeing millions of young girls starve themselves just to look like a model in a fashion magazine.”
Mr Sani says: “Hopefully young girls will learn to appreciate themselves the way they are because we’re all beautiful in every kind of way.”