Thinspiration and exploitation: why fashion is deeply uncool

Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

As September rolls around following a summer that witnessed the emotional peaks and troughs of sporting glory and failure, not to mention society's general readjustment in its attitude to the disabled, we turn our minds to higher things: namely, the glistening, glittering albatross that is the fashion industry. Fashion (or fash, to dickheads) is so important that it gets four whole weeks dedicated to it every six months, which is more time than most people give their elderly relatives (seriously, ring your nan.) Unfortunately, the time we are, as women, supposed to spend being interested in fashion is a lot longer - namely our whole lives, or at least until we can no longer afford the dry cleaning bill for our shit-stained capri pants and our care assistant can euthanise us using a Mulberry Alexa as a makeshift suffocation hood.

If you have a vagina, the assumption is that you're somehow pre-programmed to give a toss about which print goes with which other print, and whether or not that goes with shoes. Is this something that men have to think about? No, of course not. If you don't believe us, ask a male friend what he's wearing out on Friday night. He'll regard you, baffled, while your female bezzie gives you an item-by-item run through of her outfit which stops short of her chosen brand of tampon. That's not because she's stupid, mind, but because fashion magazines have been breathily whispering in her ear all her life that she is not a fully self-actualised human being unless she buys those leopard print tights off ASOS like, now. Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

At its best, fashion represents the expression of an art form which can be utterly transformative. Some of those Vogue photo-shoots make you gasp with their beauty and creativity, and a great dress cut right can have as drastic an impact on your mood as a shot of dopamine. Unfortunately, the high never lasts forever and at its worst, the fashion world consists of a convocation of vacuous twats who care way more than they should about something most adults grew out of years ago, ie looking cooler than your mates. The eternal irony is, of course, that caring about being cool is actually deeply uncool - and so all fashionistas must pretend that they do not care about being cool, while making up for it by simultaneously being really, really cool. FYI, we have it on good authority that this is no mean feat when you're wearing disco knickers. Frankly, it sounds bloody exhausting, and we'd rather be waterboarded with Vitamin Water than even attempt to be a part of it.

Of course, as far as fashion goes, most heterosexual men have a "get out of jail free" card. The fashion industry as it exists today cannot really be said to be a patriarchy, or even a matriarchy, so much as it is a HATEriarchy (ah, the power of the well-placed pun). The everyday self-loathing brought about by fashion is almost unmatched by any other industry. The fashion circus genuinely impacts upon how us women feel about ourselves on a day-to-day basis; our sense of confidence, of self-worth, can all boil down to whether or not we look crap in a skater skirt on a particularly stressful Monday morning. Yet is this huge amount of power treated as a gift, to be used cautiously, sensitively and with respect? No, duh. It's used to sell us leather trousers.

There is so much feminist beef to be had with fashion that it's difficult to know where to start. The fact that it avoids those markers of femininity (tits and arse) like the plague and worships the undernourished despite the deaths of several young models (and potentially thousands more fashion fans) is not encouraging. The internet was supposed to democratise fashion, but when you look at websites such as, sites that used to be creative hubs celebrating sartorial individuality, it's clear that they've become little more than thinspiration. Then, if you're not angry enough about the fact that girls as young as five are now asking if their bums look big, there's the long-held idea that shopping is some kind of leisure activity for women, implying that we're all empty automatons who love nothing more than an afternoon trying to smush our fleshy bodies into arbitrarily (and often incorrectly) sized rags. Jesus Christ, the sizing - which assumes that you can't be skinny and have large breasts, or flat-chested with big hips, or indeed any body type other than perfectly proportioned or maybe straight up and down. And the self-hatred that occurs as a result of sizing: the tears that are shed because the "10" no longer fits; the lunches missed; the fingers down the throat in the ladies' at Soho House.

If that still isn't bleak enough, then you have the social exclusion upon which fashion thrives: the sheer wanton capitalism of it all. Fashion's exploitation of interns is legendary. A friend of ours recently left the industry to become an estate agent so that, in her own words, "I can actually afford the fucking clothes". Yet that's nothing compared to the sweatshops and the suffering, the slavery and the starvation that those in the developing world (often women and children) undergo to put that peacock-feathered satin coat on someone's back. Needless to say, whenever fur comes "back in", you can throw a whole load of innocent animals whose only crime was to be delightfully furry in to the mix too, for good measure. And while the most expensive pieces might have been more ethically put together if you're lucky, almost all affordable fashion has a dirty little secret that you wouldn't want to expose for fear of levels of life-ruining guilt.

The fact that fashion is mostly run by women almost makes the whole thing worse. Where's the solidarity? Are women happy little masochists who, at some level, want to make their whole sex suffer for style? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. But calling vertiginous high heels "tools of the patriarchy" may be missing a trick. The anxiety and trauma suffered by women in both the developed and developing world at the hands of other, much more powerful women in the fashion industry is a conundrum to which we do not have the answer. All we know is that it's sad, and that it ruins all the fun stuff about fashion: the joy of dressing up, of disguise, of celebration, of self-expression.

This is not something that we expect the "fash pack" to get their heads around anytime soon, because many of them are too busy taking themselves far too seriously. The only thing we know for certain is that they need laughing at, loudly and urgently. People don't do it enough - only Ab Fab and Hadley Freeman seem to be flying the flag for fashion-based lolz right now. The time has come for public mockery, folks. We need to take a proper look at that Eiffel Tower shaped hat and irreverently giggle. Only then will they realise that a lot of what they do is deeply, fatally uncool.

Models on the catwalk at London Fashion Week 2012 in designs by Mary Katrantzou. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.