Diverse bodies as shown in first All Walks brochure 2009

On the last day of London Fashion Week, after watching another fleet of waifish models, I’m fearing for the next generation’s self-esteem. With more and more young women presenting eating disorders, it’s likely that fashion employs a fair few of us. Can we change things, coming as we do with a different perspective? What I currently feel is that being anorexic in the fashion industry is like a recovering alcoholic working in Oddbins.

So this is another article about body image, size zero and the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. Curved or slim, petite or tall, black or white, to feel represented is the basic need of most women I know. It’s something Naomi Campbell pointed out recently, when she flagged up lack of racial representation for Black models.

“What needs to change is thinking there is only one way to look beautiful,” says Susan Ringwood of Beat, the world’s largest eating disorders charity. “We want the fashion industry to show bodies that are beautiful, aspirational, diverse and real all at once.”

The CEO was speaking at the Shape of Fashion, a debate hosted by Beat at ASOS Head Office in Camden that saw industry professionals face an audience full of questions to discuss what can be done to promote positive body image. The panel also included model Georgina Wilkin and Beat Ambassador Ellie Douglas who have both been affected by eating disorders.

Shape of Fashion Panel: Georgina Wilkin, Ellie Douglas, Carol Spenser, Sophie Glover

While they acknowledged that fashion does not cause eating disorders, they shared how the bombardment of such a narrow and unachievable body ideal still has a part to play. “There is just this super skinny size at the moment and as a result we can’t help but compare ourselves and feel insecure,” Douglas explained. “Why was I so obsessed with size zero? Why did I associate that with being beautiful?”

Carol Spenser, a stylist who has lectured on body-related fashion issues, suggested women concentrate on their own personal style. “There is no point looking at models in magazines and trying to be like them because you can’t, it is actually impossible.” Unfortunately, for those willing to sacrifice health, it is not impossible.

Ignoring every magazine, every advertisement, every shop mannequin – which Wilkin pointed out, “if brought to life would barely be able to stand up, let alone menstruate” – is impossible. Besides, ignoring them is ignoring the problem! What example are we setting if only one form of beauty is celebrated? Young people are inspired by fashion and influenced by its ideals,” Ringwood explained.

Spenser commented that we don’t compare ourselves to athletes in the same way as models. Though the London Olympics led to an an uptake in sports and the athletic body briefly took the spotlight in women’s magazines, it has had little long-term effect.

Inadequate size representation continues to be an issue off the catwalk too. In selling a wide range of sizes and using real customers for fit days and street style features, ASOS is ahead of most companies in championing diversity. However Sophie Glover, head of the e-tailor’s technical services was still questioned over its sole use of size 10 models to represent its standard line. Apparently ASOS’ most popular size is a UK10 but, as one lady pointed out, “perhaps you’d sell mostly size 14 if you showed size 14 models”.

A  study by Dr Ben Barry of Judge Business School, Cambridge University, has found that women are more likely to buy clothes when they are modelled by women who resemble them more closely. While fashion is missing out on a financial opportunity, far worse is that it is alienating itself from most of the population.

Today the average woman is a size 16 and models reflect less than 5% of society. Yet one reason I avoided fashion for so long was because I felt I wouldn’t fit in. It is meant to be inclusive, creative, and fun, nobody should miss the joy fashion brings because they feel rejected.

The final, resounding message was that retailer and consumer must stand united and determined to enforce diversity. “Fashion is a business; it’s the magazines we buy, the brands we stick to, even the conversations we have over coffee that drive this idealisation of emaciation,” Wilkin says. “We’ve lost sight of the fact that the consumer holds the ultimate responsibility to dictate what is supplied.” ASOS is already listening to its vocal customer base and making changes.

Of course our thoughts have to be put into action. As one audience member said, “If we’re going to change perceptions of what is beautiful and acceptable, companies need to stop shying away from showing women of different sizes.”

As for the catwalks, Spenser’s only justification for an overuse of the currently favoured body shape is practicality: “Designers draw in 2D and what they send out on the catwalk is 2D”. I am still trying to work out if she was being serious. Life is not 2D and neither are women. This was not an enlightened position from a fashion industry practitioner.

The All Walks Beyond the Catwalk Diversity NOW!14 LIVE PROJECT may be more necessary than ever in educating students on the importance of designing for the body in 3D and considering the needs of a wide range of women. More and more colleges are working with All Walks to change things. Download a brief or request a lecture here.

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Fi Anderson
Fashion Journalism student at London College of Fashion