Body Image Coversation For Women
It is impossible for women to talk about fashion without implicitly having a conversation about body image. Body image is a multidimensional construct that includes psychological, sociological and physiological dimensions relative to our attitude toward our own body. Body image refers the way in which a person thinks and feels about his or her physical body. Stop for a moment and consider how you feel about your body and its various parts (your hair, your waist, your arms, your teeth); these feelings have probably been influenced by society, by your friends and family, and by your values.
Body image is often related to self-esteem, but it is a different psychological entity. Body image is one aspect of human identity- of the thoughts and perceptions that we have and that we portray to the world- about who we are.
Mark Twain is credited for noting, “The clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” While body image has to do with a woman’s physical, naked, body, as Twain noted, in society, we must be clothed, and thus, I posit that it is impossible to talk about women’s fashion without discussing body image for the following three reasons:
- Clothes are made for the body.
From a purely philosophical standpoint, the purpose of clothing is to cover a body. While we may repurpose clothes, clothing without a body fails to meet its created purpose. We design, cut, and sew fabric according to the body size and shape of the woman whom we envision wearing the final product.
Thus, the female body is a necessary consideration in the production of clothing. We cannot talk about the female body without broaching the conversation of body image because every woman, everywhere, has thoughts and feelings about her own body that filter and shape her perspective of the generic female body.
And so when we talk about women’s fashion, we are talking about the purpose of clothing (to cover the body), we are filtering our conversation through our own understanding of body image, and so we are simultaneously- although often unconsciously- talking about body image.
- Clothing communicates an identity.
Women use clothes to tell their story, to express themselves, to present their identity to the world. Women buy clothes that they feel tell this story, but for most women, there is one caveat: the clothes must also make them feel good about themselves. Women must believe that they look good in the clothes that they purchase and wear. Have you ever fallen in love with a dress on the rack, but upon trying it on promptly put it back? I know I have. And ladies, it’s not just you and me- research indicates that women use clothes to project their own identity and in some cases, to hide what we might see as “flaws” in their identity (particularly in reference to body image). Women purchase clothing that they feel reflects their personality, so long as the clothes also feel appropriate for their figure (body size). Women will purchase clothing that they believe accentuates certain physical aspects of their body, and clothing that will cover body parts they wish to hide.
We also know that people make judgments about others’ jobs, socio-economic status, hobbies and interests based on the clothing that s/he wears. In fact, research indicates that our first impressions of people are often based, at least partially, on what they are wearing. This is why we love people watching- we can make judgments and create stories about others solely based on how they look. But what is so fascinating is that research has found that we can more accurately guess a person’s age and socioeconomic status based solely on what they are wearing rather than from their attitudes or beliefs. There is no denying that we make assumptions about others’ identities by the clothes they wear, and that these assumptions are often correct. When these assumptions are communicated, they can influence body image, as women report selecting clothing based on the reaction they receive from others. Have you ever chose to rewear something because of the compliments you received when wearing it, or chose to donate an outfit that you didn’t feel represented you in your best light?
Body image is one facet of identity and self-concept, and it can be a strong element of identity for women. As women select clothing according to their body image, and make identity claims through their clothing, we can see how women’s fashion and body image go hand-in-hand. At the same time, we can see how others’ impressions of people, (which are often a factor in the development of body image and self-concept) are influenced by clothing and how the reaction of others influences women’s purchasing patterns.
- Fashion models and brands have a strong influence on societal standards of beauty.
Perhaps the most obvious of these three reasons, fashion models have long dictated societal norms of beauty. This phenomenon has been well documented in research, and has been for decades. According to more recent studies, nearly 90% of girls report that the fashion industry places “a lot” of pressure on girls to be thin. Sixty percent of these girls report comparing their bodies to those of fashion magazines, even though 63% of them acknowledged that fashion magazines portray unrealistic standards of beauty5. These same studies found that 31% of girls reported resorting to “starving” themselves (not eating) in order to lose weight.
The influence of fashion models on body image has been so well documented, that in 2000, the British government organized a symposium to understand the extent to which thin fashion models were harming the nation’s mental health. And so, while the fashion industry may not want to set the discourse on body image, it is impossible to separate the fashion industry from the conversation about body image. Girls see fashion as clothing on a body- typically, a tall, thin body- and therefore see this image (tall, thin, clear skinned, long necked, women) as fashionable beauty embodied.
Undeniably, the fashion industry sends a message to women and girls about what it means to be beautiful. And so, when we talk about ethical fashion, we must have a conversation about body image; about the messages we are sending about what it means for a woman to be beautiful; we must talk about ways in which we can celebrate real, human bodies. Just as manufacturers are responsible for their environmental impact, fashion brands must address the societal impact they have when it comes to norms of beauty. Most other industries are legally responsible to accurately portray the item they sell in their marketing campaigns, and yet, fashion companies can alter the shape, size, and color of the women wearing their clothes with little to no negative consequences. It is most certainly false advertising when waists are slimmed, necks are lengthened, and eyes are whitened, and although there are no legal ramifications for these actions, if we are going to talk ethics, we must note that these altered images are unrealistic. They are simply not viable body shapes, and yet they are images that men and women see, and then begin to think is attainable, desirable, and even necessary to be “beautiful”.
And so when we talk about ethical fashion, we must include body image in the conversation. While we may have unconsciously been “talking” about body image for decades in the fashion world, it is time to bring this topic to the front of our conversations. It is time to consider ways in which the natural human body, particularly the female body- with her slightly yellowed eyes, and slightly crooked teeth, and uneven skin, and muscles, and fat, and non-lengthened neck- can be celebrated as innately beautiful.
About the Author
Amanda Brown is an ethical fashion curator, a natural beauty believer and a body image researcher. She is the owner and founder of Sweet Lupine, an online boutique on a mission to provide ethically made clothing and accessories to women while reminding them of their inherent beauty. Prior to launching Sweet Lupine, Amanda worked as a teacher, counselor, and researcher; she holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication and a master’s degree in Counseling from Villanova University.