‘I feel pretty’ and the awful lessons taught by the fashion industry

By Meli.

Has it ever happened to you that you go through a store window or look at an advertisement, you see gorgeous clothes you would like to wear, and then think that you will never look as good in them as the mannequins and the models because you are not tall and thin?

If you have never experienced that feeling, congratulations: you are probably part of the privileged group of women that falls within the canons of beauty for which the fashion industry creates its products.
If, instead, you know that feeling very well, then you are like me: a person with a few extra pounds (a little or a lot), or very short or very tall, or with a body shape far from the so-called “hourglass,” who often has to settle for clothes that you don’t like because “it fits” or “it flatters you”.

What is this all about? I recently saw ‘I feel pretty’ on Netflix, a comedy starring Amy Schumer about a woman insecure with her appearance who after suffering a head trauma, begins to see herself as extremely beautiful and, therefore, her self-esteem and self-confidence skyrocket.

In my personal opinion, it is a very funny movie, but a particular scene during the first minutes summarizes the sad experience of millions of women in the world: Renee, the main character, looks at her reflection in her bedroom’s mirror after a long day and she slowly begins to remove her clothes, leaving only her bra and spandex shorts; she looks at her figure for a long time and without saying a word, only with her facial expression, the audience can understand how inadequate, flawed, incomplete, insufficient and frustrated she feels.

All these feelings are not created in a vacuum: they are the result of the experiences we live every day, of the things that our family and friends teach us at home, in school and in the street, society in general and also the fashion industry: what is beautiful, what is right, what is appropriate in terms of the body, the figure. And how do you fight against something that has been planted in you since you were born?
For many years, my grandmother made clothes for her family and for anyone who asked for it, but she felt mortified whenever a fat client asked for a design she had seen in a magazine, because she said she would never look as good as the model wearing it. My grandmother was the sweetest and most loving woman I’ve ever known, and I cannot blame her for thinking like that; that’s what she was taught: that being fat was wrong.

Renee, me, and practically all women in the Western world were taught that too. We learned it so well that we always believed it was law and that anything outside those lines was wrong. But in the end, beauty, like many other things, is nothing more than a social construct: something all members of society agreed to, something we decided it was the only way to be. It is not defined by God or by science: we, as a society, chose it and we continue to promote it.

And the industries, almost all of them, support that ideal: if you look like that, like the model on the clothing ads, like the mom on the detergent commercial, like the makeup saleswoman in the department store, then you are beautiful. And that is why all those who do not fit inside these canons have such a hard time feeling beautiful with certain clothes: because they are made for other bodies, bodies socially considered beautiful, healthy, appropriate and right.

The result is a number of women (the vast majority, in fact, if we look at recent studies) feeling inadequate and insecure with their bodies, who think they are unable to put on fashionable clothes because “those look nice on skinny/tall/voluptuous women” and they are not, and end up depriving themselves of living fashion as they would like.
Much has been written on this subject, because it is broad, deep and complex: articles, research papers and books on all the sides of this problem within the fashion industry, from the way in which women are represented, the systematic and constant reduction of sizes, the standard of samples sizes being 0 to 2, up to the fact that most plus-size models are not really plus-size. The list goes on...

But fortunately, the conversation already exists in some areas of daily life and in the industry. Movements of acceptance and body positivity (#bodypositive), designers expanding the range of their sizes and including diverse models in their campaigns and fashion shows (Christian Siriano and Michael Kors, for example), and of course, women who feel passionate about fashion and have decided enjoy it to its fullest without caring about the beauty and size canons (La Pesada de Moda, Fat Pandora, María Jiménez Pacífico, Macla are just a few Colombian examples).

However, the vast majority of the industry continues to make the same clothes for the same women, and respected major fashion media address the issue superficially and with the sole purpose of presenting themselves as open to difference (such as Vogue, which included the skinny Irina Shaik in an article about models that are changing the face of fashion with their “revolutionary” figures).

The industry has not changed because society has not changed. While the beauty imaginary stays the same, things will remain the same. Fashion is just one of the many pillars that support the discourse on female beauty, which tells women like Renee that they are not beautiful.
‘I feel pretty’ is not perfect; it has its problems, of course. The star is a white, blonde, educated, middle class woman without any type of disability. She is actually not even that far away from the beauty canons considering her size (some might say she isn't really fat). In other words: Renee is privileged in many ways. But that does not mean that the message should be dismissed, because although she can be closer than many other women to that ideal —women that are bigger, less curvy, shorter, taller, of other races, with skin problems or disabilities—, she still carries her enormous insecurities.

I even read comments labeling the film as “cruel” and “destructive”, promoting unhealthy ideals of beauty and the idea that a woman must be truck in the head to accept herself as she is. I think those people missed the whole point of the film, which is precisely to criticize all those things, which are nothing more than what we as a society agreed on: that everything that is not the standard, the expected, the desired, is wrong. When she goes back to seeing her body as it always has been, Reene realizes that her appearance never changed, only the way she saw herself; for a few weeks she just forgot what society had taught her about beauty.

The goal of this post is not to make a defense to obesity or to say that women should not change their physical appearance if they wish to do so. I firmly believe that everyone is free to do whatever they think is best to feel better about themselves, whether it is weight loss, cosmetic surgery, makeup or certain clothes. The point is that this decision should not be determined by an industry and a society that promotes ideals of female beauty that should not be universal; ideals that demand women to all look alike and that if they don’t, they worth less.

The fashion industry, which we love greatly in this blog, is anything but perfect. Unfortunately, it is filled with terrible conceptions about what women should be and how they should look. It is necessary that we remember that and try, as much as possible, to make others notice it as well. That is, in our opinion, the first step to start thinking about a real change.

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