Inclusive fashion is an ethical obligation and a historical norm

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During the lockdown, we have seen an unprecedented increase in body image issues, especially among young women and girls. In fact, recent research has revealed that 80 percent of Australian women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Likewise, the rise of Snapchat dysmorphia, where girls want plastic surgery to look like Snapchat filters, shows the unhealthy state of our beauty culture today.

We can expect it to only get worse as we find ourselves in another lockdown, when we spend more time online comparing ourselves to others. However, a walking tour of the history of body image shows us that there are no universal body standards, only standards forged by the economic, social, and political forces of the time.

One of the lingering truths is that female bodily norms were generally created by a male fantasy, not female self-expression. It is time for that to change.

Beauty standards are inconsistent. While Western models are forced to eat as little as possible, Mauritanian girls are sent to “fattening camps” before marriage.

The very first glimpse of the standards of female beauty available to us is one of the earliest known sculptures, the Venus of Willendorf from over 20,000 years ago. Strong in physique, the sculpture illustrated how strength, fertility, and the ability to raise children ruled the female beauty standards of the time.

Later, it was the ancient Greek male sculptors who defined beauty. Plato popularized the idea that beauty is dictated by harmony and symmetry, notably explained by the golden ratio of Pythagoras.

If we then move on to the Middle Ages, it was Queen Elizabeth I who popularized the use of makeup to create the appearance of pale skin; an indication that we did not have to work outside.

The Victorians favored modesty and temperate demeanor, especially on the part of women. They got the ideal body image of the day which consisted of big busts and wide hips by wearing corsets, in order to appeal to future male husbands and breadwinners.

The turn of the century saw Charles Dana Gibson’s designs guide the beauty standards of the day; the trend towards a thinner ideal has started.

Then came the fabulous tap dance of the Roaring Twenties, which saw a complete change in morphology. After men finally allowed women to vote, a new sense of freedom led women to reject corsets and go for a slimmer, androgynous look, triggering the cultural obsession with the weight we have today. .

Fashion was stripped down throughout World War II as women were forced to give men’s clothing a makeover. An overly lean body type suggested that you did not have access to enough rations, while an overly voluptuous figure was considered greedy in times of frugality. Weight standards have slipped back to center, once again.

The post-war boom allowed women to enjoy the indulgences of the day, and a more voluptuous figure returned to fashion. The figure of Marilyn Monroe has become glorified in newspapers and magazines, all edited and produced by a predominantly male workforce.

A general view of the Valentino flagship store prior to its opening during Milan Fall / Winter 2012/2013 Women’s Fashion Week on February 22, 2012, in Milan, Italy.
Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images for Valentino

Then finally, Kate Moss’ 90s appearance saw the catwalks celebrating the heroine’s chic figure, and the ultra-skinny androgynous style was back in fashion. Of course, we’re seeing Kim Kardashian’s ‘chunky’ style dictating the trend today, along with other body types (including mid-rise) as social media creates a wider range of models.

So what is this history lesson for? It is this: Beauty standards are set almost entirely by the social conditions of the day, conditions often controlled and influenced by men. Just as we can’t predict the future, we can’t predict future beauty trends no matter how hard we try.

It might have been reckless to promote slim ’90s beauty standards, just as it might be reckless to promote unrealistic curves today. However, the question is not which beauty standards we decide to promote. The question is, who decides what beauty standards exist?

As we have seen throughout history, the female body has been a canvas upon which the male imagination projected its fantasies. Regardless of how our body image trends change, a guiding principle is that it should be up to women to determine how they look and feel, not anyone else.

As the CEO of a fashion house, I know that more and more people are drawing inspiration from fashion from a wide range of sources; Gone are the days when everyone watched the same TV show and read the same magazines. We should celebrate our diversity of tastes and accept its differences.

My message to women and girls today is simple: Celebrate the body you have. Beauty is relative and subjective. Many would be jealous of the features you see as imperfections, so own them; they are yours and yours only.

The body you have is a tool for living your life and achieving your dreams, it is not just an object of male fantasy.

That’s why fashion retailers need to adapt to all sizes and body types at all times. Gone are the days of a single, prescribed standard of beauty.

Just as we celebrate racial, gender and sexual diversity, we must continue to celebrate diversity in body image because without it the world would be an incredibly boring place.

Jane Lu is CEO of Showpo.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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