EATING disorders affect an estimated 70 million individuals worldwide and while statistics specific to Ireland are limited, Bodywhys estimate that up to 200,000 Irish people may be affected, representing 80 deaths annually.
There is no single cause for this phenomenon and experts point to a range of factors from biological to family issues, but all note that the impact of the media’s obsession with thinness in Western culture is wholly unhelpful. A study undertaken by psychologists in Fiji in 1995, where ethnic adolescent girls were assessed before and after the introduction of television to the region, would corroborate this belief. After only three years of exposure to Western television, the popularity of dieting amongst the study subjects had risen from 0% to 69%, with 74% saying they now felt ‘too big’ or ‘fat’.
The situation has deteriorated further since then. Twenty years ago, fashion models weighed only 8% less than the average women. Today, they weigh 23% less. Amid mounting recrimination from the public, the Council of Fashion Designers of America formed The CFDA Health Initiative in 2007 to discuss imposing restrictions against the use of unhealthily thin models. There have been other moves to encourage a healthier approach to body image. In 2012, The Initiative was announced, a pact between the editors of the 19 international editions of Vogue to try and implement a ban on using underage and underweight models and in April 2013, British Vogue signed a 10 point code of ethics, including a provision that adequate supplies of food will be provided on set.
Now, Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, has decided to alert teenage girls to the tricks of the fashion trade by revealing the devices the magazine uses to produce images of ‘flawless’ women.
The short film ‘It’s A Look’, demonstrates how it takes 20 individuals three hours to prepare a model for an editorial shoot, and the role flattering lights, makeup and post-production photo-shopping all play. Narrated by model Jade Parfitt, the film features Vogue editors including fashion director Lucinda Chambers, fashion bookings Editor Rosie Vogel and creative director Jaime Perlman — alongside fashion photographer Josh Olins, make-up artist Sally Branka and model Drake Burnette.
Shulman hopes the film, which has been released to 1,000 secondary schools in the UK with a special lesson plan for teachers, will show what goes into the creation of a Vogue fashion picture, as a way of illustrating the skill and artifice that makes the final product. She says, “Most girls understand a fashion image is not a snap shot, but I don’t think they understand quite how elaborate it all is... It is a construct and at every level people are adding in something. The problem, if there is a problem, comes when people judge themselves and their appearance against the models they see on the pages of a magazine and then feel that in some way they fall short.”
It’s not just school children who feel they fall short of these images of perfection. A 2007 study by the University of Missouri-Columbia found all women, regardless of weight, were negatively affected after looking at photos of models in magazines for three minutes. Perhaps we too need reminding that these images aren’t representative of reality? Even supermodel Doutzen Kroes admits she looks very different in real life than she does the pages of Vogue. “I don’t look like the picture... If you put me in bad light with no hair and makeup, it’s not good... I wake up sometimes like, this is not what I see when I look at the magazine, who is this visitor in the bathroom?”
Angela Koh, a fashion assistant at T, the New York Times style magazine says, “Ironically, working with models has made me more confident in how I look, rather than less – I see how much makeup goes down on set! Sometimes even the models don’t fit sample sizes and the back of the dress is unzipped but from the front, it looks perfect. While we don’t overly airbrush images at T magazine, I saw a lot of it at other places I’ve worked for where the main focus is selling rather than fashion as an art form.”
Here in Ireland, fashion designer Sonya Lennon thinks that for the most part Irish models tend to be healthy. “Irish audiences don’t really accept the model if she looks too thin; they want a girl who looks healthy,” she says.
The photographer Barry McCall agrees. “While the Vogue video is a good idea, a lot of the work I do here is in the pre-photography as opposed to post-production, between lighting, photography, make-up and hair. We mainly use Photoshop... to adjust blemishes on skin and wrinkles on clothes for example but never altering somebody’s figure so much that it looks unreal, unattainable.”
Fashion stylist Linda Conway also believes that Photoshop, when used appropriately, “does make images more aesthetically pleasing”. However, she warns, “when used irresponsibly, of course it increases pressure. It could distort a girl’s image of perfection at a very impressionable age. There’s a fine line.”
What is that line? Should we ban Photoshop entirely? Or place restrictions on its use? In 2011, the American Medical Association announced it was taking a stand against Photoshop, stating that they believed alterations in advertising images could contribute to negative body image and eating disorders. Soon after, Valeria Boyer, a member of the French Parliament, proposed that all images that were digitally enhanced come with a warning label that reads “Retouched photograph aimed at changing a person’s physical appearance”.
The reaction to these proposals has been mixed. Elizabeth Perle, editor at Huffington Post, wrote of her fear that a ban on Photoshop might “make it worse for models, actresses, singers and other performers, for whom the pressures to alter their bodies will only be heightened”. Photographers and artists have also expressed doubts.
“We have wonderful tools to create images, new digital cameras and photographic digital printers and powerful tools such as Photoshop and we are expected to do what — nothing? I don’t think so,” says Jeff Schewe, former president of the Advertising Photographers of America.
It does beg the question — do we, the public, really want Photoshop to be banned? It’s interesting to note the reaction to Kate Winslet’s infamous shoot with GQ in 2003. People were outraged at how excessive the retouching was and Winslet agreed, saying “I do not look like that and more importantly, I don’t desire to look like that.” There has been no such statement following the release of Vogue’s November issue, on which she looks remarkably baby-faced for a 38 year old woman. Have we become so accustomed to seeing celebrities and models as blemish free and rail thin, that anything that might deviate from that would horrify us? Fashion industry insiders always point to statistics suggesting that magazine covers with plus-size or less conventionally attractive subjects always under-sell. They argue their decision to use Photoshop on models is a business decision but Adele’s cover of US Vogue, which was the magazine’s second best selling issue of 2012 would seem to refute this. If the power is with the consumer, perhaps it’s time that we started utilising that power. By refusing to buy magazines that don’t promote diversity in age, size and skin colour we can hit the industry where it hurts, the bottom line.