Musings On Body Image, Diets and the Fashion Juggernaut

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere in recent days about dieting and size acceptance, and about the impact of fashion magazines on young womens’ body image.

Ever since a friend of my parents showed me how to design dresses for my paper dolls back when I was about 5 years old, I’ve been intrigued by style and fashion, while at the same time I’ve always felt excluded by it.

Also at about 5 years old, my family decided that I was fat, and the words I heard most often when it came to clothes were “you can’t wear that.” When I was about twelve, I picked up a copy of Seventeen at the school library and spent many hours fantasizing about being able to wear the clothes they featured and look like the girls in the pictures. I graduated to Cosmopolitan and Glamour in high school and college, and although otherwise an intelligent and critical thinker, I looked at the pictures in the fashion spreads and ads as something achievable if only I applied myself.

So I spent most of the years between 13 and 35 dieting and being obsessed with my weight, developing disordered eating and at a couple points in my life, being anorexic, in hopes that I could someday “wear that.” But as thin as I got, I’ve never had had a body that did most clothes any justice. I’m short, I’m broad-shouldered, barrel chested and short-waisted, with big boobs and arse. Diet/weight obsession is a futile and life-sucking endeavor, so I gave up on fashion for several years and focused on working through my eating disorders and trying to accept my body. While I now feel like a “normal” eater*, the body acceptance thing is still a work in progress, but there has been progress.

But somehow my interest in fashion can’t stay submerged for long and I always end up drifting back to the fashion mags. While what I wear in real life is also constrained by my work and family life and budget, I do like to look at styles and colors and textures to get inspired. What’s different now that I’m older is that I know these images are pure fantasy, and Fashion (the runway shows, the buzz) is mostly pure theater. I’d love to find a magazine devoted to fashion where the images of women weren’t photoshopped to the point of absurdity, though.

Because I’m able to look at these images with a more critical eye, reading fashion magazines no longer sends me into a tailspin of self-loathing and compulsive dieting, but the desire to be thinner to look better in clothes never totally leaves me. Yet often, when I step back, I know I wouldn’t want to wear a lot of the current styles anymore. They’d just look ridiculous on someone une femme’s age, even if I did have the body of a runway model. While “you can’t wear that” is still a familiar refrain in my head, as time goes by it becomes less about what I feel I can’t wear and more about sticking to what does work for me, and finding ways to be creative within those parameters.

I do feel guilty about supporting an industry that’s designed to make women feel worse about themselves, and can so negatively affect the self-esteem of young women especially (as it did me). I haven’t yet overcome my cognitive dissonance on this one issue, but it’s something I think I need to work on.

*Here’s what “normal” eating means for me: I eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m satisfied. I eat what I like, although I know certain foods and food combinations will make me feel better than others, and I try to make choices based on that as well as what tastes good. Sometimes I eat when I’m not hungry because something looks good and I don’t beat myself up for it. It took several years after I stopped dieting to get to this point.
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  1. I guess I also bring in the fair trade/fair working conditions issues, and the ridiculous prosperity that allows us to even think about the subtlties of what we wear. I had twins last year, and had to resort to sensible shoes, and since then have given away my heels and only wear Danskos/running shoes/Campers/platforms. I don’t have the time to put myself into any pain or discomfort for fashion. I work full time and have three kids, and my clothes need to be machine washable.

    Still, I can’t help myself looking at the fashion rags, and buying (mostly online) clothes and shoes that speak to me in terms of line, color, or shape. I’m in a constant battle with myself to have practical, the kids can slobber on it stuff plus I have to go to work stuff. Fortunately, the workplace is fairly casual. I still can’t resist a beautiful pattern, an unusual color combination, or a fabric that feels heavenly.

  2. That’s a good point, too, Dana about the sweatshop issue. I know there are a few clothing companies out there that feature “fair trade” type articles. You’ve planted a seed; I’m going to research those and do a post about them.

    And yes, comfort is key.

  3. Well said, as usual. Miss J feels ya about the fashion mags. She alternately loves and hates them. Sometimes she won’t buy them if she’s having a bad month. Body issues, want, want, wanting new stuff she doesn’t need… They are a double edged habit, for sure.

  4. i’ve always been a sort of “reubensesque” girl/woman and have dressed to suit myself and never worried much about the fashion magazines or what was “in style”… i’ve always led an active life, was in theatre for many years, am a published writer and a painter. but all of a sudden within the last few months, i’ve started having body issues. it’s just weird. i feel like two different people — the one who laughs and says, well my granma looked just like me and she lived to be 93 and wasn’t sick until the very end. but the other part just weeps and wails and says: old, fat, ugly… it’s not so much about the clothes, but i feel image-haunted in this day and age when even women in their 40s are expected to look like anna wintour… i’d be happy to look like isabella rosselini, but would probably have to start over with a whole new genetic strain. anyone else suddenly develop body image issues relatively late in life, after living happily as they were for many years?

  5. Yeah, I hear you about the hard time accepting your “new” look. Have you read Anne Lamott? She’s hilarious (always), but also great on this issue, i.e. accepting yourself into your 50s.

    I always looked at the fashion industry as art, and not for dressing real people. I mean, do they try to sell clothes to grown men using 15 year old models? No. And I don’t think those designers are really trying to sell us clothes. There seems to be a correlation between youth, price, and artful impracticality. So now I say look at the rags as inspiration in terms of shape and color. Forget the actual reality of wearing such a thing!

    Re. Anna Wintour, she looks like a wrinkled doll. She needs some new shoes, as if she can’t afford them. And her hair is awful. She looks plastic. I do not want to go there when I’m her age, whatever that is.

  6. Hi Pseu,
    Try Salon’s directory for lots of great Lamott columns. My favorite of her books is Plan B. I still like Operating Instructions a lot, and think it is the ideal first time mom gift.

  7. yes, i grant you that anna wintour is a poor example … for me, it’s weird things like feeling my face doesn’t have any definition anymore… or that attracting a male glance is something that will never happen again (i know, i know, i don’t *need* a man… but they sure are fun to play with). it’s probably just your average, every day, run-of-the mill mid-life crisis but it’s tough for me never having gone through all this kind of interior crap before.