The horrors of the fashion world are right before our eyes

Who could possibly see beauty, creativity and inspiration when the human beings selling it are in such pain?

Kirstie Clements, former editor of Australian Vogue, has written an exposé of what goes on behind the scenes in the fashion world. That’s assuming anyone needs telling and can’t see what’s right before their eyes, which is that the catwalks are populated by models who are starving. And what a dull thing to write, models who are starving. How lacking in imagination and vision. So the beautiful people eat tissues, balls of it choked down to suppress the gnawing of their concave stomachs. So what? We always knew they weren’t like you or me.

Every year we head the same old gasps of horror in response to London Fashion Week’s latest bag of bones. Every year the same old pledges and initiatives while the rest of us struggle to decide whether it’s an issue worth caring about at all. After all, these people are an elite minority. They are paid to look unlike anyone else. Each time a fashion editor poses as whistle blower, you can’t help wondering whether it’s merely to create a distraction from all the other obscenities of the fashion world: the adoration of money, the sweatshops, the laissez-faire attitudes towards racism and anti-semitism. So you’ve decided that from now on all your models will be over 16, but can’t make up your mind whether a BMI of 18 is all that important. Fine. We’ll just leave you to it. That Dorian Gray world of yours is just beyond redemption.

Fat prejudice is insidious, aiding and abetting the classism, racism and misogyny of haute couture. It’s hard not to think of the tissue-eating models as co-conspirators. They chose this path or even if they didn’t – even if they are too young, even if they had few opportunities back home, wherever it was in the world they were plucked from – they remain complicit. It’s their bodies we see, endlessly reinforcing the association of thinness with wealth, glamour and achievement. These bodies, obscenely fragile, become fixed in the brain as “how the privileged look”. They’re not, of course – the link between obesity, thinness and class is nowhere near as clear as our preachy government ministers imply – but we buy it all the same. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich once described low-fat diets as the penance of the rich, “the hair shirt under the fur coat – the daily deprivation that offsets the endless greed”. In the UK this may be true for women – the thinnest of whom tend to be the richest – but amongst men thinnest tends to mean poorest. The lean, disciplined aesthetes don’t inherit the Earth; as ever, the plain old rich people do, merely using the emaciated ladies as window-dressing (but for that we won’t ever forgive them).

On the catwalk and in the pages of Vogue, unless they’re desperately frail, skinny bodies soon lose the power to shock. It’s the larger ones – the “plus” sizes, 8, 10 – that look most out of place. I see pictures of models who starved to death – Ana Carolina Reston, Luisel Ramos, Eliana Ramos, Hila Elmalich – and find myself thinking “well, they weren’t all that thin”. After all, they don’t look any different from the others, the ones who are still getting to live out their half-lives before the camera, dreaming of bread and sugar. I harden myself to it, deciding the experience of anorexia must be different for models. Some of them die but for the others it’s not real. It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t still be watching. I guess part of this is due to my own experience of the illness. I fear being tainted by association. Sufferers have a hard enough time dealing with the perception of anorexia as a disease of privileged little girls (hence not a “real” disease at all). Turn anorexia into a disease of privileged little girls who want to look like models – who perhaps are models – and I fear everyone will lose patience with us, we starving prima donnas. Hence I’d rather not think of this as authentic suffering. It’s as though, like the too-small clothing samples for which no one claims responsibility, these women appeared from nowhere. They’re not genuine human beings at all.

Of course if fashion models were actual people we would be horrified. You can’t convey in a picture what true hunger feels like, nor the ways it takes hold of your mind. You develop a host of rituals to keep yourself from despair. Despair still comes but intermittently, every now and then as you scrabble along from one meagre eating opportunity to the next. You spend your whole life scouring supermarkets, recipe books and online shops, looking at food labels, planning meals you’ll never eat, missing tastes you once despised, trying to remember what it feels like to be warm. The thought that your experience of the world could be otherwise never crosses your mind. There is no space for it. You are too hungry, even in the midst of plenty. You are a walking metaphor for the ingratitude of wealthy nations. Of course you are ashamed, but you are also terrified (I bet the tissue-eaters steer well clear of Kleenex Balsam. I bet the uncertainty of what might be in it makes them quake with terror). Anorexia might capture a whole host of prejudices, leaving more in its wake, but it is not rational. At its most basic level it is entrapment and fear.

Who would ever create a job in which enduring this became essential? How could any of us look at magazine cover in the same way? Above all, how could anyone see beauty, creativity and inspiration when the human beings selling these concepts were in such pain? 

The Simone Rocha runway at London Fashion Week. Photo: Getty Images.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.