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 lookbook.nu, 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.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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