“Real Women” – Is Fashion Warping Our Sense of Reality?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Something of a minor storm in a Champagne coupe has been brewing over the last few weeks.

Marks & Spencer have apparently ditched their “too glam” models for a selection of “real women” in sizes 8-16 to promote their new shapewear lingerie range.

But apparently these “real women” aren’t “real” enough. So The Sun published an article showing some more “real women” and their wobbly bits in M&S undies, and then the Daily Mail published an article with a Doctor saying at least 3 of the women in the M&S ad were overweight and promoting them as “real” was setting a bad example in a world where obesity is becoming a very real epidemic.

Predictably the comments under each article were full of vile nonsense about “fatties” as well as people insisting that every woman in the article was beautiful in her own way.

But is the latest fashion for “real women” to promote clothes warping our sense of what “real” actually is, or should be?

According to Plus model magazine “20 years ago the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman. Today she weighs 23% less”

The suggestion behind the article is that we should be using larger models to display clothing, however this gallup poll shows that womens weight, as self reported, increased by a stone in the 17 years from 1990 to 2007. So is that 23% gap caused by our increasing weight, rather than the decreasing weight of models?

There is, of course, an argument for showing different body shapes. Large breasts, small waists and rounded hips as well as small breasts, and narrow waists with a low waist to hip ratio. Pear shapes, apple shapes, long legs, short legs, these are all genetic factors over which we have little control and excluding them from representations in the media as they’re not fashionable can be immensely damaging when we don’t see our bodies represented.

But is demanding the use of heavier models in reality just as damaging as using underweight models? Has fashion caused us to lose all sense of what under and over weight actually mean and how they relate to us?

We in the “vintage” fashion sector can sometimes get a bit smug about our acceptance of curves and different body shapes, Tuppence Ha’penny wrote an excellent piece back in July on Vintage vs Body Image, so I won’t repeat it here, but we’re just as guilty as any other sector of the fashion world of lauding certain body shapes over other.

The fact is that there is an ideal range of weight in which our bodies function better, there is less pressure on our hearts and on our joints. Being above and below these weights doesn’t mean you automatically develop heart disease and sit on the sofa stuffing pizza into your mouth in front of Jeremy Kyle, or even that you develop osteoporosis and all your hair falls out while you browse pro-ana sites and nibble a lettuce leaf, but it does mean your body has to work harder to keep going.

I’ve talked before about the health risks of being overweight and about our warped relationship with “fat” and “thin” (which is a far broader spectrum than we’re lead to believe, you really might not be as fat as you think), but more importantly focusing on body size as a fashion issue rather than as a health issue is just another way of avoiding our responsibility to live a healthy lifestyle and the responsibility of retailers to offer healthy choices.

Claire Sweeny is actually within the healthy weight range in both of these pictures.


We live in a world where it’s far easier to be overweight. Trust me on this as I AM overweight. The world constantly pushes food at us and willpower is a finite resource. Less exercise, easier availability of high fat foods and a high pressure “on the go” culture where dinner isn’t expected to take more than 10 minutes to prepare before we’re back out the door means we’re all getting bigger. It’s not necessarily our fault but accepting that and blaming fashion models for making us feel bad surely isn’t the answer?

Using euphemisms such as “curvy” and “full figured” are ways of covering up our discomfort with calling people overweight. There are genuine medical conditions that mean people can’t control their weight as easily, and no one is suggesting that people should be somehow made to feel like social pariahs, but accepting overweight as the norm is damaging our health. It’s perfectly possible to be curvy and a size 8, as well as as a size 18 with a straight up and down figure without a curve in sight.

Fashion models have always been aspirational, they are chosen for their jobs because of their desirable look that sells clothes to women who think that just maybe they’ll look that good in that dress. But as the gap between the fashion models and the average women grows, and the struggle to stay within our healthy weight range often seems insurmountable in the modern world, it becomes far easier to shout down fashion models that are no longer aspirational versions of “real women”, but an unattainable ideal that in the “real” world requires unimaginable levels of self control and forward planning as well as incredibly good genes.

Fashion isn’t reality, but is our current reality really the one we want?

I’ve written about whether you can be fit and fat over on Lipstick, Lettuce and Lycra today as a sort of sister article to this one!

24 Responses
  • Lena
    November 2, 2012

    You’re making some really interesting points – I’m kind of over the whole ‘real women’ thing, because, as you say, what does that even mean?

    For me, as someone who’s seriously struggled with food and body image for many years, the one thing that is lacking in the general debate about obesity is that it’s made out overweight people lack will power and commitment, when hardly anyone ever talks about the emotional reasons for overeating and the fact that most dietary advice is simply nonsense.

    • Gemma
      November 2, 2012

      There’s so much to say on it that I could go on for ever, then no one would read it at all 😉

      Weight has become so tied up with body image that we forget that the 2 are seperate things. It’s like the connection between weight and health and food and weight have become completely disconnected.

      And yes, as a terrible emotional overeater myself I know what you mean about that side of things getting missed a lot too.

      • Perdita
        November 2, 2012

        Yes – indeed the media love to put forward theories about over and under eating (usually ‘magazines make you anorexic’ 2 pages before slating a TOWIE girl for being too big and promoting a dodgy diet) which can get in the way of parents/teens getting help for more complex issues (overeating, bingeing, orthorexia – eating only certain things to gain control, OCD relating to food hygiene… none of these things are ‘easy news’ so ignored). It’s actually quite dangerous- their little ‘real women wars’ to gain more readers simplifies such a complex medical issue.

  • Marianne
    November 2, 2012

    I actually think that some people think that overweight and obese people should be made social pariahs. If you have ever read the Daily Mail Online that is plain to see. That’s the problem. I think that we all just need to get real. Fat people exist, they aren’t second class citizens, they DO need to lose weight, and I’m guessing they ALL know that. I am clinically obese, I’m not happy about it, and I am doing something about it. So far I have lost over a stone and I hope to have lost two stone by the end of the year. It isn’t easy and sometimes I just want to give up, but I know I need to do this. I was in denial about my weight and its effect on my health for a long time, and at the same time I hated myself for letting it happen but I felt powerless to do anything. The only way I have got over that is to tell myself that it’s not good, but it’s OK, that I don’t need to punish myself, I just need to start looking after my body and I am capable of changing my weight. When I felt really negative about my body I didn’t feel like I had any control. By pretending that fat women don’t exist we do everyone a disservice. I respect companies who use a variety of models in their campaigns, heavier and lighter, older and younger, taller and shorter, because all those types of women exist! I don’t think it makes it seem desirable or even OK to be overweight. Fat people are just people who are fat at this present moment, by building my confidence I have been able to start to change that, more realistic images in the media may help others do the same. I certainly looked at that size 16 model in the M&S advert and thought, wow, I could actually look as good as her, I felt I could identify with her. I am bigger than her at present, but I feel like her size is attainable. Once I get there, perhaps I can look at the size 12 model as further inspiration. But a 6ft size 6 model might as well be another species.

    • Gemma
      November 2, 2012

      It’s a good point about having attainable role models. Using different size models when so many people are obese doesn’t have to be about saying it’s ok to be obese, but about giving some people a realistic point to strive for.

      I like your point that being overweight isn’t part of your identity, it’s just something that you are now and in future you could be something else.

      • Wendy
        November 2, 2012

        but these women are about as attainable to me as Kate Moss. No diet is going to suddenly make me look anything like Candice Huffine who is 8 inches taller than me. When ever did she become the average woman anyway – look at her!!!

      • Marianne
        November 5, 2012

        Yes, and in reference to Wendy’s comment, by no means am I suggesting that Candice Huffline is your average woman. Clearly she isn’t, she’s a model. Of course all the women pictured are all gorgeous, I’m not so naive as to think that a company doesn’t want to choose beautiful women to advertise their products. I’m not suggesting that I actually think I will look like her if I diet (I won’t) but it does make a refreshing change to see a range of shapes and sizes. It makes me feel less negative about myself, which is a bit depressing in itself as I wish the media didn’t have the capacity to influence my relationship with my body, but it does. The cynical side of me still thinks that companies who do this ‘real women’ thing are just points scoring, but in a world where female beauty is basically defined as ‘thin, young, tall’ anything that shows that there are other forms of beauty is a good thing in my book.

  • Stephanie
    November 2, 2012

    There are a lot of people out there who need to lose some weight to be healthy but that’s really a doctor’s call. I gained about 40 lbs after I got married (eating out loads and not going to the gym like I was before the wedding!) and I struggled for years trying to loose it. Finally, over the last year or so, I’ve managed to lose 30 lbs and while I’m not as tiny as I was in high school, I’m ok with that and pretty happy with my body and that’s what’s important, not what number is on the garment I buy from the store.

    I think the biggest problem our society faces in this arena is that people just aren’t aware of what they are eating (and how much). We all know what we are supposed to eat (more fruits and veggies) and not supposed to eat (less fatty, deep fried, sugary things) but we all think we are doing ok. I agree with Lena that most diets are bogus and you’ll gain it all back right after you stop (if you managed to lose any in the first place). Most people need a lifestyle change not a diet.

    • Gemma
      November 2, 2012

      Exactly. People are more concerned with how much they weigh than with what they’re actually eating. We’ve lost all connection with actually having a healthy body!

  • Mim
    November 2, 2012

    Nice post, but there’s some stuff I’d disagree with.

    Vintageland only really accepts certain sorts of curves. People going on about how the high street doesn’t cut clothes for tiny waists does sometimes smack of smugness. “Oh, poor me, my body is even more shapely than the conventionally attractive shape.” Makes those of us with conventionally unattractive bodies feel as welcome here as in the mainstream. There’s little room for apples in the vintage basket.

    And I don’t buy into, “All these fat people are beating themselves up because they’re fat, please join in too.” I’m fat, I exercise, I eat well. I could spend my life being miserable that I’m larger than the women around me, but I reckon constant self-loathing is less healthy than an extra stone or two.

    • Gemma
      November 2, 2012

      That was exactly my point. Vintage culture isn’t any more accepting than the rest of fashion. It just has different criteria!

      Also I don’t suggest anyone should waste time beating themselves up about anything. It’s making excuses that’s the problem. I’m overweight. I’d like not to be, but I’m taking steps to try and change my lifestyle rather than focussing on my weight. It’s really hard to stay a “healthy” weight and live in the modern world, but we should realise that that is a failure of our culture rather than normalising it I think.

      Self loathing isn’t healthy for anyone!

      • Mim
        November 2, 2012

        True, but if people have chosen to be that size, isn’t that up to them? In my experience, fat people only find themselves making excuses when confronted with someone trying to tell them their body is ‘wrong’. A person shouldn’t have to make an excuse for their body. Their body, their choice.

        Heh, no excuses here. I know why I’m fat; I looked at my limited free time and decided to spend it doing things I enjoy. I’ve been very thin, it’s no more or less enjoyable than being fat in my experience. It’s what the body does that’s important.

      • Gemma
        November 2, 2012

        That is true, but not every one has made a choice in that way. There are lots of people who genuinely believe they’re a healthy size and don’t eat well or do any exercise and others who have no idea why they’re overweight. I think we’ve lost the connect between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy body, focussing too much on appearance.

      • Ashly
        November 14, 2012

        Wow this is a very interesting post.

        Gemma, I agree with you. We look at a certain size and equate it to health and happiness. Nobody will believe at a size 8 I am naturally this way and I eat what I like. It is just that what I like happens to be a good mix of what my body needs and quite a few treats thrown in there. I have struggled with negativity from others my whole life about my figure so much so that I thought there must be something wrong with me.

        This post has really stirred something in me. I have responded fully on my own blog, please take a look if you have a minute and tell me what you think.
        Lots of love Ashly xxx

  • Perdita
    November 2, 2012

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more; of course people come in all shapes and sizes, but this idea of ‘replacing’ slim models with bigger ones does nothing more than switch from one ideal (which many women don’t reach) to an opposite ideal (which again, not all women reach). Using rude terms for smaller or bigger women, or implying women without a curvy figure are in some way ‘boyish’ (ugh, would hate that- infantising and de-feminising, as if cup size is all there is to being an adult woman) is NOT the way to address body image at all. A range of women who look healthy (from different ethnicities and disabilities would be great too) would be wonderful to see in the media.
    Being healthy is what it should be (and, on that, health is MORE than weight… one can have a BMI slap bang in the middle and neglect nutrition, or smoke, or drink too much- the damage will be done to skin, hair, eye bags). And because fashion media is supposed to be escapist and glam, I do think that high profile campaign models should be strikingly good looking (just as I expect Olympians to be very good at sports, musicians to be talented etc’) … simply choosing a ‘size’ actually distracts from that, in a way. Like you can neglect your face/taste if you’re either a tall/thin mainstreamer or an hourglass vintage-r, because your measurements are all you are. Well, that’s what I sometimes see in both mainstream mags and ones touting so called ‘real women’ (including a minority of vintage sites/mags). It might take more artistic thought to scrutinise the faces of models of different sizes, colours, and disabilities and evaluate them for their ‘x factor’ rather than ‘oh she’s size 6’ or ‘oh she’s size 16’, but the images would be more beautiful for that- with the escapism being from the glamour and glitz, not because they were all big or small.

  • Becky
    November 2, 2012

    Some good points here!

    I’m doing a street style report for uni and noticed that a lot of even the most well-dressed girls with model-like features (as well as those who don’t necessarily) all have shockingly low self esteem. I’d stop a girl and tell her that her coat/hat/haircut is gorgeous and that she looked great today and could I take a picture, was ridiculous how many refused to accept that they looked amazing, some were even quite aggressively informing me that no, they looked awful.

    I really don’t think fashion should have such a serious impact on self-esteem. Smaller sized models are used in fashion for multiple practical reasons, not because everyone in the industry loathes anyone with a hint of a belly, and catwalk shows/Victoria’s Secret’s ads are far from the average reality, doesn’t mean you can’t look bloody fabulous being a size 16, but doesn’t mean those models should stop looking so fabulous themselves either.

    In terms of representing ‘real’ women I think the big brands are in a bit of a lose-lose situation – represent one ‘type’ of body, others will be unhappy that they aren’t seeing themselves represented. It’s a good idea in theory but will be interesting to see how this campaign affects customers’ opinion of the brand and whether it directly boosts sales or not.

    Anyone who’s really interested in plus-size fashion or representation of bodies & sizing in the industry should check out All Walks Beyond The Catwalk – did an interesting project with them a few months ago, they really do have a unique take on fashion & diversity which everyone should check out. ‘At the end of the day’ (as Jeremy Kyle would say) how you feel about your size and body is a very personal matter and should definitely not be heavily influenced by what’s currently going on in fashion or the media and being told the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way for your body to look, it’s a ludicrous thing. Also if I stop you on the street and ask for your picture for a street style report, please don’t say you look like sh-t today and pull a face and cover your body up!

  • Fi Phillips
    November 2, 2012

    I’ve got to the point where I know what weight I want to be to be healthy and that matters more to me than looking like a model or fitting into a certain size. What annoys me is the judgement that comes with how we look, like the weekly mags that show photos of celebs at a tiny size and then once they become a healthy size, say how shocking their weight gain is.

    Great article. I’m going to pop over to your other blog now to read the accompanying post.

  • Natalie @ Quirky Vintage
    November 3, 2012

    Some valid points. I’m a string bean. I’m taller than average and skinnier than most people I know. People thinks that means that I don’t have issues with my weight, but I do. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do, I just simply can’t put weight on. I’ve come to the opinion that ‘Real Women’ are women who do real things. Women who have a family or who work, Or, do both. Women who excercize or eat the best they can. Women who dress in clothes that fit comfortably and flatter their shape. I think it’s impossible to define one (or two) shapes or sizes as the “real women” because there are so many different shapes/sizes. Even those women who are considered overweight who try to be somewhat healthy are real.

    As for fashion models. The new ones are skinnier. I’ve bought books on vintage fashion and the models from the late forties had a bit more meat on their bones. I do agree with you that vintage clothing can tend to favour a certain size. Esp. stuff from the fifties. Unless you have a figure like marilyn it can be difficult to get actual vintage clothes from that era. However, the clothes are probably more forgiving than high-street fashions. There was the twenties and thirties (more suited to thinner straight-up-and-down shapes) and there are plenty of repro brands that make vintage style clothes for a modern sillhouette. honestly I think a loose fitting dress with a wide belt or a loose blouse tucked into a high-waisted a-line skirt (both classec looks. can look swell on anybody.

    I think it’s a persons choice to decide if they can wear something and make it wearable for their figure.

    • Perdita
      November 6, 2012

      Hmmm. “I’ve bought books on vintage fashion and the models from the late forties had a bit more meat on their bones.” I’m sorry but unrealistic body shapes being lauded by magazines is nothing new, in my opinion. I have a large collection of vintage media texts- the waist sizes on those women are miniscule, and the weights they advocate as healthy lower than today, with tips diet pills and drinking stock instead of eating (suggesting otherwise you’ll let your husband down by being an embarrassing ‘fatty’). The only difference is petticoats giving ‘hips’ and shoulder pads or bullet bras widening the tops – it’s an hourglass, but not as we know it and as few could achieve. People thinking it was a golden age back then would have got a shock- they would even measure wrists and ankles (bone!!) to check if a woman was dainty enough.
      Film stars were slightly bigger (but health wise often doped up by their studios, who had terrifying control over their lives) and it is those we often see when we look for vintage inspiration now.

      • Natalie
        November 7, 2012

        yes, I agree they were skinny, and probably still un-healthy (i’m definitely not defending models in anyway) but whilst their waists were small, their arms and legs seemed a bit larger. i think the skinny waist might be due to corsets/girdles? Yes, those eras were still un-realistic when it came to body image, but every era in history seems to have favoured one shape over another.

        I think “real” women are the sort of women who can look past this and celebrate their body for what it is. I think that they should wear vintage fashions if they really want to.

  • Angi
    November 3, 2012

    I always love these kinds of posts – for a couple of reasons. First, this is a definitely a huge issue in the world today, and Second, because I’m fascinated with the way that everyone likes to point back in time, vaguely and without identifying a particular era, and claim that at one point being overweight was acceptable. I hear things like “Marilyn Monroe was a size 12” and “look how curvy women were back then!” But what no one takes into account is that a size 12 back then was equal to about a size 1 today, and Marilyn wore all over her clothes a size too small and padded her bras depending on the outfit so she’d look more curvy. That was her thing. And Audrey Hepburn, also popular at that time, was rail thin. To me, when I look back in time, I see the 20s, when being rail thin with small breasts was prized. Then we move forward and see curvier women being more accepted, but by curvy I don’t mean overweight, I simply the not stick thin. As we get into the 40s, 50s, and 60s (and you have to watch the old movies and pay attention) we see a wider array of women being considered beautiful. But whether narrow or curvy most of them weren’t overweight. I completely agree that the fat ratio between models and the every-woman is skewed by how overweight the every-woman has become.

    I agree that we are totally disconnected when it comes to what we eat and what it does to us – and not just whether or not that food makes us overweight or underweight. How many people understand how much sodium their body needs versus how much they’re eating? Or calcium? Or iron? Or any of the other minerals and nutrients? It was easier once upon a time when there were fewer choices and meals were cooked at home. Not to mention that, at one time, eating out meant going to a diner, and that was considered a sad thing done mostly by men who didn’t have a mother or wife to cook for them. Now we have fast food of every kind imaginable, and wives and mothers who work 40 hours a week alongside their husbands. There just isn’t the time in the day to prepare healthy meals. Not to mention the fact that healthy fast food could happen, but no one really wants it.

    I’ve struggled with my weight and my body image for years, like most women. I’m so tired of being treated like a jerk when I’m at my healthiest because the women I know who are still trying to figure it out have decided I’m now a villain. It’s hard to make healthy choices when there are so many enticing food choices all around. It’s hard to work up the energy and motivation to exercise. And sometimes I wonder what’s the point? But honestly, when I make healthier choices I feel better mentally and physically and I have more energy. It’s that simple. I will never fully like my body, because even when “skinny” I don’t fit the ideal. I have tiny boobs that don’t get any bigger even if I’m overweight. What I do like about my body, and this is especially true when I’m fit and healthy, is my ability to do things – walk, sit, stand, stir a pot of soup, etc.-name-that-mundane-activity-we-all-take-for-granted.

    Maybe the best thing we can all do, fat or thin, is stop bickering, stop rationalizing by using some false interpretation of some bygone era, and recognize that we’re all different shapes and sizes and we all need to be healthy. Let’s all just be healthy and be nice.

    I’m sorry for such a long comment, but this is such a volatile issue.

    • Frances
      November 4, 2012

      Yes yes yes! I just have to respond to you because I feel the same way about my body not fitting the “ideal” shape. I have a wonderful fiance who thinks I’m gorgeous, but I just have trouble being totally comfortable with my near-complete lack of bosom. I’ve taken to embracing dress-up and illusion. I’m working on achieving a healthier body (which will be slimmer, and will have even smaller breasts probably) and that’s great… but I’m also padding my bras and wearing things that let me pretend I have fabulous curves. Good luck with your quest for healthy and nice… I like that idea.

  • Jess
    November 5, 2012

    YES YES YES! I’ve said this so many times before that it’s great that big brands want to use women of all shapes and sizes in their campaigns but there is the issue with promoting unhealthy weights.

    Although, it seems that using larger women (as well as the model-sized ones) to promote shapewear is basically telling women size 10+ that they probably shouldn’t be wearing pencil skirts without some major sculpting underwear.

    I hate the term ‘real women’ it implies that unless you have a few wobbly bits you’re not real.

    I also hate people using ‘curvy’ as a cover up for fat/overweight. I’m going to stop typing now because this could turn into a blog post in itself for me!

  • Charlotte
    November 13, 2012

    Yeah, the whole “real women” thing is so over! Especially as in actual fact, people don’t really want to see these so-called “real” (which always means larger) women, they just think they do.

    Thanks for the mention by the way!

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha’penny Vintage