Skinny celebrities, ‘real women’ and misogynist vitriol

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on September 30, 2009
Posted Under: Feminism,Puritanism

Well apparently September is fashion season in London. This is probably not common knowledge in the left blogosphere. In fact, as somebody who invariably dresses in bad leather jackets and beanies, catwalk events barely registered on my radar until the shitstorm kicked up a few years ago about so-called ’size zero’ models. It was a strange moment in time, when – on the surface – the Daily Mail seemed to be saying things that feminists had always said. At the time I was skeptical about the simplistic and depoliticised manner in which images of skinny women were connected to anorexic behaviour. Equally I was instinctively uncomfortable with the demands made that  city councils – such as London or Milan – should issue ordnances regulating the size and shape of women who appeared in public.

Today the rhetoric is still being regurgitated, if in a less hysterical manner. This is in part because the fashion industry has moved on. This year the media have been congratulating some designers for using models who are a little less thin. Mark Fast, in particular, has won attention for his apparently bold decision to use a size 14 model. Yet implicit in such praise has been the same, actually quite unwarranted, vitriol towards skinny women that has been pedalled since the size zero controversy first blew up.

As the Telegraph’s Daniella Agnelli put it in her praise for Fast’s decision, “Mark’s vision is of a more womanly woman.” (My emphasis). Elsewhere the shift has been repeatedly described in terms of models beginning to look more like “real women”.  In this sense the attacks on skinny or size zero celebrities are not all that different from more traditional, and more explicitly sexist commentary about women’s appearances. Skinny women are deemed not only to be aesthetically unappealing but to stand outside the boundaries of true womanhood. When a woman becomes too thin she is seen to negate her human and feminine essence.

Perhaps the chief red herring in all of this is the appeal to nature. Skinny celebrities are constantly  contrasted with those of a more “natural” appearance. You only have to consider it for a minute to realise that this line of thinking is utter nonsense. If  I asked you to draw a picture of what a woman looked like “naturally” you would not be able to. This is because throughout human history the shape and appearance of both male and female bodies has been mediated by culture and by social circumstances. It has varied by place and time. As such, to deliniate a certain range of body shapes – usually around sizes 12-18 – as natural, and all others as a perversion of nature, is somewhat arbitrary.

Meanwhile it remains completely acceptable to be utterly vitriolic about the appearance of skinny women. Thus the likes of Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham face constant rants about how scrawny they are. Part of the logic behind such attacks is that such women promote anorexia and bulemia. I remember, when the shitstorm about skinny celebrities was in full swing, seeing an article in a women’s magazine by a woman who claimed that a particular femal celebrity – and indeed a particular picture of her – had “caused” her daughter’s anorexia. We recently have been treated to the mirror image of such arguments with claims that fat celebrities encourage obesity.

Behind both of the above is a frankly disturbing approach to women’s bodies. Women may be fat or thin, famous or unseen. But the point is surely that women’s bodies are NOT a public utility. They should not be expected to shape their bodies in such a way as to promote healthy eating or positive body images or to meet any other public interest criterion. If many women are risking their health and well being to copy ultra-skinny filmstars this raises questions that are far broader than ‘what can we do about air brushing’ or ‘how can we change the shape of female celebrities’. Rather we should be asking about the way such images are recieved and responded to, rather than simply taking this as a given. We should be asking about why our culture is so top down, why millions want to ape a a tiny number of people, and why men and women apparently respond differently to certain cultural signals – why for example a picture of some muscular male celebrity doesn’t drive millions of men to excessive gym use. This, of course, would mean talking about power, politics and patriarchy, rather than simply BMIs and waist measurements.

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Reader Comments


As far as I know the campaigns to force fashion shows to use women who weren’t ridiculously skinny was principally motivated simply by concern for the well-being of the models themselves. Bearing in mind the well-documented pressure on catwalk models to starve themselves, that seems pretty laudable. (Even if, as some commentators have pointed out, that problem is itself apparently dwarfed in severity by the issue of models – many of them underage – being sexually abused.)

Written By Owen on September 30th, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

“If I asked you to draw a picture of what a woman looked like “naturally” you would not be able to.”

- I know, I’m shit at art.

Written By Salman Shaheen on September 30th, 2009 @ 5:05 pm


Written By Reuben on September 30th, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

‘When a woman becomes too thin she is seen to negate her human and feminine essence’ – good point. As Owen points out, there are issues about the private matter health of the health of those in the modelling industry. Speaking of the “natural” woman, you’ve probably seen this already:

Written By Sam on September 30th, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

This is a very significant exploration of the debate about fatness and thinness, because it retrieves into feminist arguments that are rapidly being submerged under half-baked, individualistic ‘post-feminist’ rhetoric. The health of the models is a different issue — clearly we must try to prevent individuals from starving themselves to death. But to tackle that, we need to continue to challenge the discourse that dehumanises and objectifies — uses — women for political or any other purposes. The sentence that leapt out at me, as an older feminist was: ‘When a woman becomes too thin she is seen to negate her human and feminine essence.’ Psychological analyses and first-person accounts of anorexia commonly describe the internalisation of this idea, explaining the refusal to eat as an attempt to make the body ‘less feminine’ and, in becoming ‘less feminine’, to gain ‘more control’ over one’s life.

Written By julia on October 8th, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

I think everything wrote was actually very reasonable.

But, think about this, what if you were to
write a killer post title? I ain’t saying your
information is not good, but suppose you added a post title that grabbed people’s attention?
I mean Skinny celebrities,

Written By mobilselskaber on February 19th, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

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