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Body Image: Why Body Types Should Never Be 'Fads'

While celebrating larger models such as Adele can help diversify our conception of beauty, weights and figure shapes shouldn't be fads.
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It's time to toss away your Spanx and to let your body take shape as Mother Nature intended: fat is officially in. Being "curvy," "voluptuous" and "womanly" is not only acceptable, but promoted. Its promotion, however, reveals a schism within both the fashion industry and governmental approaches to regulating beauty norms. Other competing ideas of beauty are losing ground, but why? And should we readily embrace the fatness as a new fad, a new fashion? Let's examine the competition.

Contestant Number One: The Dangerously Thin
She rose to fame in the 1990s with the reign of Kate Moss, but in 2006, the definition of thin began to change. During Fashion Week in Montevideo, Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos' died on the catwalk from anorexia, prompting governments to intervene in the fashion industry's standards (her sister, an anorexic model, died from the disease the following year). Ramos' diet consisted of lettuce and Diet Coke and she refused to eat for several days before the show. When she died, her BMI was 14.5. A tall 5'9," she weighed a mere 97lbs. Following her death, the Madrid Fashion Week established a minimum BMI of 18 for its models, while Italy followed suit by banning women who wore size 0. These measures, however, emerged following government pressure.

Fast forward six later, neither age nor BMI minimums have been legislated by the fashion powerhouses. Madrid and Milan still have their recommended BMI and age minimums, but Paris insists that its own health standards are sufficient without the need for cut-offs. London's British Fashion Council similarly emphasizes changing society's perceptions about eating disorders, rather than changing the models themselves. In the United States, New York Fashion Week organizers issued comparable recommendations about weight, age and lifestyle. The Council of Fashion Designers of America created guidelines to encourage models with eating disorders to seek help, and committed themselves to supplying "healthy snacks" and beverages backstage -- celery sticks and seltzer, anyone?

Surprisingly, Israel is paving the way in regulating beauty standards. On Monday, the Israeli government introduced a bill that forbids Israeli media from using underweight models -- Israeli or foreign -- in advertising. These efforts aim to counter the effects of promoting an unhealthily thin ideal of beauty. Advertisements that are photoshopped will need to include a disclaimer, which leads us to ...

Contestant Number Two: The Virtual Model
Not only photoshopped beyond belief, the Virtual Model is, well, virtual. Her entire body is computer generated, although her face, for the meantime, remains real -- 100% real heads on otherwise 100% fake bodies. This is the brainchild of H&M, where "the only distinction between the [lingerie] models' bodies is the pigment of their skin which has been adjusted to fit their faces," explains H&M's press spokesperson Håcan Andersson to The Local. While it's hard enough to make oneself super thin, you really can't compete with the imaginary body. This brings us to...

Contestant Number Three: The Male Model
Tall. Thin. Long-legged. Blonde ... and male. Neither transexual nor transgender, Andrej Pejic has been ordained as an androgynous beauty who can model both female and male clothing. He's walked the runways of the some of the biggest names in the industry, including Marc Jacobs and Jean-Paul Gaultier. There's a certain poetic justice in having a man model clothing in a industry that is, arguably, largely governed by men who have men in mind when designing the fit and drape of their clothing. Unfortunately, the Male Model can join the Virtual Model in being utterly unattainable for women -- too much testosterone, not enough estrogen and a few critical differences in appendages. This leaves us with our winner ...

Contestant Number Four: The Fat-But-Don't-Say-Fat Model

Neither average nor fat, she is curvy, voluptuous, womanly, confidant and composed. Oh sure, sometimes she's criticized for her weight, like when Chanel mastermind Karl Lagerfeld spoke of the British Grammy-winning singer Adele as "a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice." Yet Adele's success has also contributed to a 16% increase in size 12 mannequins in UK clothing stores. She is considered to be a healthy role model because of her singing success primarily, but also because of (or despite her) larger frame. While it's tempting to applaud the reception of Adele's figure, alongside that of Mad Men's Christina Hendricks hourglass shape, as a fashion icon, there is something deceptive underlying these affirmations.

First, being fat or curvy is seen as trendy and retro, as a form of fashion that suits a fad but can be discarded when trends change. Nevertheless, women's bodies, unlike items of clothing, cannot and should not be subject to severe changes. There are women who are naturally thin, naturally average, and naturally fat; compelling them to hastily gain or lose weight to comply with clothing trends is to view their bodies as a fashion accessory rather than as the physical embodiment of who they are.

Second, there's a certain public hypocrisy concerning weight fluctuations in models and fashion icons. When a skinny (read: anorexic) model gains weight, we applaud her ability to overcome a negative self-image promoted by a malicious industry. When a larger model loses weight, however, her authenticity is questioned. There is a sense of betrayal by the model's admirers that follows; any claims made by the model that her weight loss was the result of healthy lifestyle changes go unheeded. Former anorexic-turned-plus-sized model Crystal Renn, for example, has had to defend her drop in weight from size 14 to size 6-8 (which she attributes to the stress of a breakup, lots of hiking and yoga, and healthy eating). It is as a size 6-8 that she occupies the front page of the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

Regardless of how she lost the weight, neither thinness nor fatness should be seen as a normative beauty ideal that can be easily changed to suit the needs of a mercurial industry. While celebrating larger models such as Adele can help diversify our conception of beauty, weights and figure shapes shouldn't be fads. Being fat or skinny, curvy or straight, is not a fad. Using computer-generated models and men as models in women's fashion shows is. Our bodies simply weren't designed to cater to capricious whims. If people are to celebrate Adele as a model, they should do so because they find her beautiful, and not simply because it's trendy to have a chest and an ass.

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