Posts Tagged ‘Clothes’

Hypothesis:

We have, as a society, such a completely disordered, distorted perception of female bodies that the vast majority of people are incapable of recognising what “overweight” actually looks like on a woman, let alone “healthy”. As such, we’re now at a point where women are not only raised to hate their bodies as a matter of course, but are shown, from childhood, a wholly inaccurate picture of what they “should” look like – a narrow, nigh on impossible physical standard they are then punished, both socially and medically, for failing to attain.

I don’t say this lightly. I say it because this is the only conclusion supported by the facts.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

1: BMI

Overwhelmingly, the measurement used to determine whether or not someone is a “healthy weight” is the BMI, or Body Mass Index. Most people are still taught it in schools; indeed, it’s commonly used by doctors and in medical underwriting for insurance purposes, ¬†and is also used by the WHO and various other official bodies, including many universities. It is, however, flawed to the point of uselessness – a fact acknowledged by the man who popularised its usage, Ansel Keys, who explicitly stated that it shouldn’t be used as a tool for individual diagnosis.

There are several main reasons why our cultural reliance on the BMI as a means of assessing health, and particularly women’s health, is deeply problematic:

1. It doesn’t take into account the fact that muscle is denser¬†than fat. As such, it frequently registers athletes and bodybuilders as being obese or overweight, despite their incredible fitness, just because their bodies have greater muscle density, a prejudice which extends to anyone with significant muscle-mass. This is why, for instance, a superfit bodybuilder, Anita Albrecht, was yesterday told by an NHS nurse that she was obese and ordered¬†to go on a strict diet.

2. It doesn’t take height or bodytype into account with any degree of accuracy. Taller individuals will always have a higher BMI regardless of their actual weight, because of the way the measurement is constructed, while shorter people will always have a lower one. Having been originally developed in Europe, using European physical norms, in the 1800s, neither does it factor in ethnicity or metabolism,¬†which is why a Yale University student, Frances Chan, is currently being pushed to develop an eating disorder by the college’s medical administrators, all of whom are¬†so obsessed with her naturally low BMI that they’ve assumed she must be anorexic, and are forcing¬†her to gain unnecessary weight or risk expulsion.

3. Although women are both shorter on average than men while¬†naturally carrying more fat, the BMI calculation doesn’t take this into account, but uses the same measurement for both men and women. In fact, it was originally formulated based on studies of white male populations only¬†– which means that¬†BMI is fundamentally predicated on¬†judging female bodies against male norms. As such, and as useless as the BMI is anyway in terms of individual diagnosis, it’s especially harmful to women and POC, whose morphology and metabolisms it was never meant to accommodate.

4. It doesn’t account for age, or any change in height that occurs with age. A teenager who hasn’t yet achieved their full growth or settled into their normal, adult weight is held to the same standards as someone old enough to have begun losing height

Combine these facts together, and you have a recipe for disaster. All over the world, women of all bodytypes, ages and ethnicities are being told by physicians, family members, universities and insurance companies to try and adhere to a single, “universal” notion of bodily health that is, in fact, predicated entirely on what was considered normal for white European men in the mid-1800s.

2. Clothing Sizes

Consider the women in these two photos, all of whom, despite their wildly differing bodytypes, weigh the Australian average of 70kg, or 154 pounds:

American women who all weigh 154 pounds Australian women all weighing the average 70kg

Clearly, these women all wear different size clothes for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their weight, and everything to do with height and bodytype. But because of the fashion industry’s obsession with tall, thin, white, ectomorphic models – women chosen, not because they’re a representative sample of the population, but so their minimal frames can better serve as coathangers for clothes that privilege a very specific aesthetic over function – we have learned to correlate small sizes with healthy bodies, the better to justify their primacy on the runway, in advertising and on screen as a healthy ideal. Never mind that modelling agencies have been known to recruit at eating disorder clinics, with store mannequins more closely resembling the bodies of anorexic girls than average women, models eating tissues to stay thin¬†and¬†rail-thin models photoshopped to hide their ill-health and prominent ribs:¬†because “plus size” models – that is, women whose bodies are actually representative of the general population – are treated as a separate, exceptional category, the fiction persists that “plus size” is a synonym for “overweight”, “unhealthy” or “obese”: women too enormous to wear “normal” clothes, even though the norm in question is anything but. As such, plus-size models are frequently derided as fat, a joke, unhealthy and bad role models. Today, catwalk models weigh 23% less than the average woman, compared to 8% just twenty years ago – yet whenever this disparity is pointed out, the reaction of many is to just assume that average women must be overweight, and that using plus size mannequins will only encourage obesity.¬†Throw in the fact that women’s clothing sizes aren’t standardised, but fluctuate ¬†wildly from brand to brand – or within the same brand, even –¬†and the idea of judging a woman’s health by what size jeans she wears becomes even more absurd.

For anyone still¬†temped by the idea that the standards set by the fashion industry aren’t really that bad, and that the obesity epidemic is surely skewing statistics somewhat, let me put it bluntly:¬†Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Women aged 15-24 are twelve times more likely to die of anorexia than of anything else, while 20% of all anorexics die of their illness. So when I tell you that 20 to 40% of models are estimated to suffer from eating disorders, and that only 5% of American women naturally possess a model’s bodytype, I want you to comprehend my full meaning.

Think about that, the next time you’re tempted to call the girl in the size fourteen jeans overweight.

3. Fat Health

And here, we come to the nub of the problem: the ubiquitous conflation of slenderness with health. With all the statistics I’ve just listed, I shouldn’t have to point out that one can be fantastically thin – model thin, even – and still dangerously unhealthy: among their many other evils, for instance, eating disorders can lead to bone loss and heart complications, to say nothing of the mental health component. What’s much harder to convey, given the overwhelming social incentives to the contrary, is the idea that one can be fat – and I want to talk about that word more, in a moment – and still be physically healthy. Obviously, there are also¬†health risks to being obese, and that’s still something worth discussing, especially given that¬†6% of deaths are attributable to obesity. But on a daily basis, our fear of this fact, when combined with myriad other social distortions –¬†our obsession with an extremely narrow and largely unrealistic image of female beauty, the conflation¬†of small clothing sizes with healthy bodies, our phobia¬†of anything “plus size”, the false reporting of BMI as an indicator of female wellness – means we’ve lost the ability to tell what obesity actually looks like.

(One cannot help noticing that, while the WHO claims the number of obese persons has doubled since 1980, this statistical leap neatly parallels the adoption of BMI as standard by that same body, which also¬†happened in the 1980’s.¬†Given the appalling flaws of BMI as a system – flaws which¬†not only lead to¬†average-sized women being categorised as overweight or obese for failing to have male proportions, but which¬†also award higher BMI’s to taller people at a time when¬†the average person is getting taller – it’s hard not to wonder, therefore, if¬†it’s not that we’re gaining weight in such massive numbers, but rather that the yardstick for obesity has radically shifted. At the very least, if actual obesity is on the rise, I sincerely doubt it’s rising as much or as quickly as scaremongers seem to think it is, given the undeniable skewing of data inherent to the BMI system.)

 

Particularly for women, possession of any visible body fat whatsoever is invariably conflated with being overweight or unhealthy, and while that’s true some of the time, what it means in a practical sense is that fat, as a concept, rather than being a simple bodily descriptor, has instead become pejorative, a warning that we need to amend our ways. We talk about fatness like it’s a single, static thing, rather than a relative term: as though, if you’re fatter than someone – anyone – you must also be fat absolutely. We don’t talk about degrees of fatness, or bodytype, or distribution of mass. We LOVE big breasts (provided they’re not saggy, of course, or possessed in the expectation that you’ll be able to buy affordable bras to put them in, which – surprise! – you can’t) and we talk, gingerly, about “curves”, but always in ways that¬†serve to disconnect them from the type of bodies to which, more often than not, such attributes belong: fat ones. Because being fat isn’t the same as being overweight, or obese; it just means not thin, and if you think “overweight” and “not thin” are synonyms, then you haven’t been paying attention. Being called fat, in fact, is¬†often just¬†code for “not the ideal”, which can be down to any number of things – that you have wide hips, stomach rolls, thighs that touch (our obsession with the thigh gap is dangerous in and of itself; unless you have a naturally splayed pelvis, it’s only attainable via malnourishment). Our language is full¬†of mocking, heavily gendered terms tied to particular bits of anatomy or pieces of clothing, all of them designed to police women’s bodies:¬†cankles, cameltoe, muffin top, whale tail, tramp stamp, thunder thighs, junk in the trunk, saddlebags, child-bearing hips. As a teenager, I remember seeing a gossip magazine mock¬†Jennifer Aniston for having “arm sausages” – little rolls of skin at the side of her armpits – and feeling physically sick as I realised I had them, too, and must therefore be fat.

Conclusion:

We need to stop reinforcing¬†this idea that if you’re not thin, you’re obese. As a concept, it has absolutely nothing to do with health, and everything to do with justifying our demand for idealised female beauty by mocking anyone who doesn’t meet its impossible standards as overweight. We need to stop relying on BMI to tell us how healthy we are, or not – especially for women – and accept instead that “health” is too complex a concept to be boiled down to a single calculation. Especially given the horrific biases in the healthcare system against anyone seen to be¬†overweight, using a single glib rule to determine the most likely cause of unwellness is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. We need to stop using “fat” as a pejorative, and we sure as hell need to stop the toxic culture of eating disorders, photoshopped images and outright malnutrition currently fuelling the fashion industry.

Because society deserves better. Women deserve better.

We deserve better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If clothes shopping were a boardgame, my copy of the rules would have long since disappeared down the back of the couch, forcing me to play¬†with only¬†my own sartorial proclivities as a guide¬†(warning, warning), issued with¬†loaded dice and assorted mismatched¬†thimbles instead of regulation tokens,¬†with only¬†a broken crayon and an old receipt on which to keep score, although given that I would always loose, this would be a pointless, jaw-grinding exercise in masochism akin to¬†maintaining staunch optimism in the ability of the New South Wales Labour Party to suddenly turn into a quasi-worthwhile amalgam of human beings, as opposed to a ratfaced pack of liars, fraudsters and no-hopers who wouldn’t know common sense if it¬†knocked on their doors, politely introduced itself and then gave them all a lapdance.

Anyway.

The point being, I am not good with clothes. It’s not as if I’m advocating a policy of conscious nudity or anything – it’s just that, faced with the prospect of having to sally forth and¬†choose between¬†innumerable rows of tacky, nylon, probably-made-in-a-sweatshop gimcrackery¬†that I can actually afford and gorgeously intimidating, real-fabrics-but-desperately-overpriced couture, my native response is to¬†decide immediately that I don’t give a rats’ and¬†resort to¬†slouching around the house in a dressing gown and a pair of little woollen socks¬†that look like they were made by somebody’s grandmother. Which, yes, is comfortable, but as my beloved husband has on occasion pointed out, it’s not exactly business casual.

And thus my policy of buying the vast majority of my clothing second-hand. I have never, for instance, been sneered or giggled at by the girl behind the counter in a charity shop for daring to enter her place of business whilst dressed in jeans and an offensively geeky t-shirt. Similarly, I have never examined the price-tag on any article of clothing sold by the Red Cross and had to consider taking out a loan from the bank in order to afford it. I enjoy the act of rummaging through various disorganised racks, setting aside hilarious paisley mumus and PVC lederhosen in my quest for that one nice top I know must be lurking there somewhere. Tragically, however, the Nice Top is all too often a Nice Top Which Would Look Utterly Fabulous With Everything I Already Own If Only It Were A Size Bigger, Instead Of Which It Makes Me Look Like An Improperly Asymmetrical Sausage. Alas!

Which hopefully illustrates the main problem with shopping second-hand, viz: the unpredictability. Many’s the time I’ve been heartbroken after finding a wonderful article of clothing, only to discover that it’s just a weense too big or too small for comfort. (The latter is particularly dangerous, as it tends to lead to fantasies of immediate weight loss in order to jusify the purchase of a ten-year-old dress with a torn hem and ciarette burns on the shoulder straps. Sense, schmense: it’s the principle of the thing.) Which isn’t to say that I’ve never found a¬†perfect bargain treasure¬†(eight dollars for a leather jacket!), but when it comes to hunting down specific items, you might as well be randomly trawling the Pacific Ocean for that message in a bottle your Auntie Agnes set adrift from Bondi Beach in 1937. The cardinal rule of women’s fashion, as related to me by my mother¬†circa age nine,¬†is to Never¬†Walk In Knowing What You Want, because¬†doing so¬†will automatically guarantee¬†every shop within driving radius not to have it, especially if it’s a plain black swimming cozzie that doesn’t make you look like a walrus¬†– and however true this is of normal shopping, it is about a quadrillion times more so of second-handing.

Take, for instance, today’s quest for a plain, brown top with long sleeves that one might wear under various t-shirts or singlety things in a bid to stave off the cold Scottish winds without actually cocooning oneself in a series of¬†anoraks. When nothing was doing at the first three shops, I abandoned reason and ended up in a fourth trying on a pair of what promised to be size 14 bootcut corduroy pants and a greenish, satiny sort of hidden-clasps-that-do-up-at-the-front Raph Lauren shirt purporting to be a ‘medium’, whatever that means, though presumaby not that the shirt possessed an innate ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased. Absconding to the changing cubicle to try on my finds, the following problems soon became immediately apparent:

1. the definition of ‘size 14’ as promised by the pants did not in any way fit with reality, unless you happen to believe that buttocks are optional; and

2. that Ralph Lauren, bless his cotton socks, has apparently only had breasts described to him third-hand, thus precipitating the creation of a garment which, despite featuring the type of curving, low-but-not-too-low-cut neckline favoured by women of average bosom, was categorically too small to accomodate anything larger than a golf ball, or maybe half a lemon.

Now, admittedly, I am no longer the same undernourished sylph I was at the start of university, before a disposable income and close proximity to an all-night pide, pizza and kebab shop wrought their¬†carbohydrate-laden magics upon my person, but neither am I particularly large.¬†And yet, when it comes to finding a pair of pants that can actually accomodate my legs, I might as well be inquiring after the pricing and availability of unicorn steaks at the local butcher. (One has documented the phenomenon of Impossible Pants quite closely this past decade, and does in fact remember the point at which the Pants Conspiracy first reared its head, viz: with¬†the introduction of teeny-tiny pant zippers that are approximately the length of a pinky finger back in 2005,¬† a trend which has not so much flourished as exercised a lantana-like stranglehold on the fashion industry ever since. Used in conjunction with skinny-leg jeans and bikini-cut everything, those of us with hips wider than the average dinner plate and any sort of padding in the arseular regions have found it nigh on im-bloody-possible to buy a pair of pants that actually fits for any price less than three-hundred and sixty-five trillion dollars and three Faberge eggs, or put another way, to buy any pants AT ALL.) And if you’ve got breasts above an A-cup and want to wear a fitted top? GET RIGHT OUT.

Faced by such impossible circumstances, what else is a sensible author to do but purchase a banana-and-peanut-butter-flavoured cupcake and retire to the internet for solace and ranting?

P.S. Bonus points to any reader who drew a connection between the style and content of this blog and the fact that I’ve recently reread the collected columns of Kaz Cooke, more of whom later. Now there was a lady with sense!

Footloose

Posted: August 26, 2008 in Mixed Lollies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Recently, I’ve started riding my bike to work. On average, this means the trip takes me five or so minutes longer than if I were catching the tram and walking, but also – conversely – means that I can get up half an hour later, as I no longer have to factor in waiting for public transport. While riding in the rain¬†isn’t quite so¬†fun, I’m by and large very pleased. I feel fitter, I enjoy the process of getting to work, and I am reliant on no public transport timetable.

It also means I have to choose my wardrobe in terms of what can be cycled in. The idea of purchasing lycra and changing in the office is, to me, ludicrous – I don’t ride exclusively on the road, I’m not a speed-demon and the trip isn’t long enough to justify the effort. Neither have I purchased one of those nifty backpacks, opting instead for the occasional baggie over the handlebars and a shoulder-bag that doesn’t get in the way. I listen to my iPod while I ride, and have been known to sing along to The Beatles, particularly on my way home. Sandals and heels fall off, so I wear closed-in shoes or boots. If a skirt or dress dangles, I tie the offending edges into a knot over my lap so they don’t get caught in the rear wheel. All of which, I’m sure, serves to make me the height of cool in nobody’s eyes – but the point is, I make it to work on time, intact, comfortable and, once my skirt is unknotted and my helmet off, well-dressed, sans the necessity of bringing any extra clothing.

More than once, my¬†Long-Suffering Husband has made the point that my ability to do this is due largely to gender. In most office situations (he argues), women can wear just about anything, up to and including clothes that might otherwise be called casual, night-out-dressy, gothic or – in my case – mildly bohemian. Provided we “dial down the boobies” (to quote the single best line from The Kingdom) and don’t show too much high thigh, we can pretty much get away with anything. For men, however, it’s effectively a suit, tie very rarely optional, no matter what the weather. Men’s office-wear is uncreative and boring – and also, unsurprisingly, not too great to ride in, unless you’re into bicycle clips and a basket on the handlebars for your briefcase (says the LSH, although pants are certainly easier than dresses). In short, I have any number of work-friendly outfits to choose from, and am fancy-free to select for clothes I can pedal in.

Which is why (to come to a very circuitous point) I find myself rolling my eyes whenever I see office girls walking to work in sneakers, toting their actual shoes for the day – universally heels of some description – in an oversize backpack. Ladies, I have an announcement: if the shoes are too uncomfortable to walk in, do not buy them. We are under no obligation. No corporate job will enforces a female dress code so rigid that buying a pair of flats is out of the question. If flats don’t match your skirt, wear something else. And if wearing heels really is inescapable, then lash out and buy a pair you can stand to walk in. Even going barefoot makes more sense than dragging two pairs of shoes to work. Sneakers in this context look ridiculous, not only because they don’t match, but because they say, “here walks a person too conformist not to wear heels, but apparently too stupid to buy a pair that fit properly.”

For a suitably long walk, jog or cycle to work, a change of clothes is commonsense: you are not commuting so much as exercising, and the reason we have lycra, sneakers and tracksuits for the gym is because they¬†are designed to give support and comfort during¬†physical activity. But if all you’re doing is walking to and from the train, tram or bus, you should be able – as an intelligent, forward-thinking adult – to purchase footwear that doesn’t cause the same damage to your extremities as frostbite.

What is it about human beings and rarity?

When it comes to wealth, fashion and the cultural perception of attractiveness, exotica and the uncommon dominate our tastes. Abundance equals boredom:¬†the easier¬†a style or item is to obtain, the less chic it is – within the given parameters of taste. It’s a mindset that harks back to earlier times, when for most people, ‘luxury’ meant something like glass, lace¬†or satin. Fashions that were¬†strenuous to maintain, expensive to possess and hard to come by were for centuries the hallmark of¬†the nobility, an exclusionary hauteur designed to¬†exhibit wealth and status.¬†The difficulties¬†involved in making purple dye pigments, for instance,¬†meant only Roman emperors¬†were allowed to wear that colour; similarly, the use of rare white ermine to trim royal garments showed how much time and effort the wearer was able to expend on their clothing. In both instances, the scarcity of the components was socially evident: not only were they rare, but the rarity was common knowledge, thus creating an obvious visual distinction between those with wealth, and those without.

In the last few decades, however, traditional Western class and monetary barriers have been eroded. With the creation of a global society and the advent of mass production, there is no longer any implied wealth to wearing this type of material, that type of trimming Рand so, by way of development, the concept has evolved in two different directions. Firstly, there is the fashion industry, which praises not the components of clothing, but the notoriety of the maker. This works in a strange reversal of past practice, a kind of fashionista oroborous: designer clothes are fashionable because their expense implies wealth and status in the wearer, but their pricing is linked to random fashionability. In order for this system to function, an entire industry exists to determine which aspects of style Рcut, colour, coordination Рshould bestow fashionability at whatever time. Ultimately, however, the arbitrariness of these opinions mean that fashion is always in flux. Because people must constantly be told what denotes status, as opposed to knowing it as an innate part of their social reality, styles must constantly alter in order to avoid commonality. If lesser designers have time to mimic the desired look for less, thereby spreading it below the intended elites, the entire effect is ruined.

Secondly, however,¬†is the idea of physical beauty.¬†Just as with¬†clothing, human beings¬†have¬†usually preferred a certain¬†physical type or epitome. For much of European history, paleness in men and women was a sign of aristocratic birth, implying that one¬†need undertake no outdoor (physical) labour. Soft hands and long, well-maintained¬†nails meant a woman had servants to do chores for her. The idea of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan beauty was lauded by more people than Hitler, and continues to be echoed, however unconsciously, as a Western ideal. More recently, being tan¬†implied the social status of leisure time:¬†working less¬†and spending more¬†hours in outdoor persuits. Preferred body shapes have fluctuated throughout history, as any quick stroll through¬†an art gallery will show; now, of course, slenderness is emphasised above all else –¬†both for women and¬†men – to such an extent that, socially, we have started to worry. ¬†¬†

Given the origins of fashion, however, I wonder if our present fixation on the physical form is also based on rarity and status. Not long ago, the obsession was fitness Рoutdoor tans, big muscles, Amazon women, sporting men Рin an era when going to the gym was a newly-burgeoned craze. Extreme fitness implied not only the wealth and time for training, but effort. Now, the trend is reversing: slight, skinny and pale are in, while socially promoted leisure has turned away from daytime sports towards nighttime clubbing. Like tightening the notch on a belt, we expect more from our bodies, trying to set ourselves apart from whatever has become average. With fitness currently inseperable from the cultural idea of attractiveness, we are interested in more stringent physical discipline, paring ourselves back to even more exacting standards.       

This isn’t a road down which we can head indefinintely. Already, it seems, we are on the verge of another reversal. Which makes me wonder: what future rarity will sculpt our concepts of beauty and fasion? And might the process ever collapse entirely?