There are many reasons I'd rather be a teenage girl today than ten years ago. In the '80s and '90s, we basically turned a blind eye to beauty standards that beat down our self-esteem. We shrugged our shoulders at Calista Flockhart's jutting collarbones, convinced ourselves she was "just built that way," and conspired to look exactly like her. Eating disorders were as mythical as Morgellons: sensationalized Lifetime movie material for years, it seems, before anyone seriously addressed the connection to catwalks and airbrushed advertisements for blue jeans.
Women have come a long way from falling for the foolish ideology that puts "thin" on a pedestal and commands us to climb over each other in pursuit of an aesthetic that's appealing precisely because it's out of reach. Today, we have a new religion. We preach self-love as the root of everything right with the world. We're hyper-armed with new slang: "anti-shaming" or, more precisely, "reverse shaming" (shaming the shamers) is all the rage now. So, you think a woman is something less than beautiful in a size 14? We're on to you and we will take you down.
Considering the recent media earthquake around weight and size shaming, in the after-frenzy of yet another New York Fashion Week full of emaciated models, I'm proud to see women take a stand against the cult of pin thin. At the same time, I wonder: Why are we still collectively mute about the fashion industry's fetishization of the ultra tall? Most women won't (or don't want to) ever be a size zero, but even more of us will never, ever reach industry model height. Yet, it seems, long legs are more entrenched as a benchmark of beauty than even the ultra-slenderest of waists. Amidst today's outcry over protruding hipbones and visible ribcages, we've somehow overlooked the height hurdle in high fashion. And while it's not the kind of standard that inspires starvation diets, it's still tripping us up, distorting our body image, and diminishing our confidence.
I've stood just a smidge over five feet since the seventh grade. And I've felt icky, simply being in the vicinity of tall, slim women for just as long. I'd always thought it was their thinness that intimated me from within my stocky, athletic frame, until I realized that I could be quite thin myself and still suffer the same inferiority complex. All those adolescent years I spent obsessing over fashion magazines, with Twiggy type models bent over the pages, I was conscious of how I envied their thigh gaps; I was even aware that the whole emaciated-chic look was a conspiracy -- that the average woman isn't built without proper room for her organs and neither are print models, who are more airbrushed than alive, or catwalk models who are heart attacks waiting to happen. It never occurred to me, though, that those model legs were so attractive because they were lean and long, that I was being sold the idea that "beautiful" is not just thin but tall.
Just look at the burgeoning plus-size modeling industry beside the paltry, almost non-existent world of petites. I wouldn't know where to begin to look for the petite equivalent to Crystal Renn, who, despite having (what used to be) a curvier than mainstream figure, still stands 5'9". That's because petite fashion models are essentially unheard of. When they do find work in print, it's because, off the runway, their stature can be scaled and disguised, as if it were malformation. And there's an interesting discrepancy between what the public considers petite (under 5'4") and what the modeling industry considers petite (between 5'6" and 5'9"). While public protest has forced the fashion industry to represent more diverse body types besides stick thin, with virtually no women under 5'6" allowed to grace the runways, you'd start to believe the fashion industry considers petite women a mythical creature, akin (ironically) to Big Foot.
Petite women are not a myth. They actually account for over half the American female population. I got the chance to interview Caroline Alvo, CEO of Gambita, an online retailer, which curates high-fashion clothing selections exclusively for petite women. Alvo stands 4'9" and, before founding Gambita, found it nearly impossible to buy clothing fit for a grown woman. "I just thought it was due to the fact that I was exceptionally short, that I spoke to my tailor more than my own mother," she joked to me over the phone. But Alvo was serious when she census-tracked height statistics and found the average American woman stands just below 5'4," that over fifty percent of us fall into the petite sector of the population. Talking to short friends and family, she eventually realized they have tall tales to tell; nearly all of them lie on their driver's licenses about their height. They hate to go shopping, too, because the experience of trying on clothes cut for much taller women leaves them feeling emotionally deflated and physically deformed.
It seems the standards set by the modeling industry have flooded the world of retail clothing you and I buy. If you're a short woman who shops in conventional clothing stores, you've probably never had the luxury of buying something that actually fits you -- and chances are you're so accustomed to looking like a little girl playing dress up, you're not even conscious of the fact that your clothes are way too big. There's an art and a science to constructing petite articles of clothing, special design considerations, which take petite dimensions into account in order to flatter smaller frames. Petite clothing is tailored in the shoulders, necklines, and hemlines in order to prevent the patently unattractive, paradoxically overexposed puritan look (when your chest pops out of your v-neck sweater at the same time your mini skirt dips well below your knees). "It's the signals you get from your clothes that just make you feel terrible," Alvo said. "After a while, you start to think, 'Well, my body is just weird.'"
A very small smattering of brands like Banana Republic carry limited lines of petite clothing, but the fashions are modeled on women of standard industry height. (I reached out to Banana Republic regarding this issue and the company declined to comment.) A funny (although not altogether unexpected) thing happened when Alvo decided to hire exclusively petite women to model for Gambita. After calling every modeling agency in New York City, she came away empty-handed. "People were getting disgusted and hanging up the phone on me. It was like I was asking for a space alien with three legs." During one, final phone call, Alvo was schooled by a no nonsense agency rep who, when asked about models under 5'4", spat, "That does not exist." Which is hilarious, considering the fashion industry's built on perpetuating myths about women's bodies, and also deeply disturbing, since those myths are so pervasive, we're compelled to believe them -- even when half the population is evidence to the contrary.
What is "petite," really? It's normal.
Watch Elizabeth Licorish discussing the issue on HuffPost Live: