Mannequins are a reflection of the way we see our ideal selves. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Size 16 shop mannequins are bad for women’s health – but not in the way you think

The way we present the female form spreads the idea that physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of a woman’s acceptability to society.

The day you chuck your thin wardrobe is the day that you’ve decided the weight you’ve put on isn’t coming off again. The old you, the ghost you who could slip into those trousers and shiver inside that dress – she has been eaten into submission; she isn’t coming back. And I suspect that when chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies criticises the introduction of size 16 mannequins in Debenhams, it’s because she thinks they represent that moment of surrender on a national scale. We could have a sugar tax and install a cycle network, but maybe this is who we are now: maybe we’ve simply come to an accommodation with our bigger selves. (Whether our livers or our cardiovascular systems can be as tolerant as our self-esteem is, of course, another matter.)

The comments about mannequins aren’t really the most important part of Davies’ report, but there’s substance to them. Selling clothes always means selling an idea about the kind of person your target consumer can be. As the exchange of cash for garb gets nearer, the ideal is shuffled delicately closer to the actual until it seems so close you believe you could just stretch out and pluck it from the rail. The wistful, remote, skinny beauty of the catwalk becomes the slightly less alienating thinness of the fashion magazine, then transmutes into the shop window figure that looks like it could almost be you on a good day, before passing through the most important conversion and leaving the store in carrier bag, swinging hopefully by your side. There is one last miracle, and that’s the one where you put on your new clothes and realise that, rather than changing you into the kind of person who wears this marvellous outfit, you’ve just turned this outfit into the kind of thing that a slightly disappointing person like you wears.

All is vanity, all is dust. And for the most part, fashion relies on it being that way. Your unhappiness is the engine that keeps commerce ticking. Every product is the answer to a problem, one way or another, and if the clothes-buying portion of the world woke up one day and decided they had no problems to which a side-buttoning denim skort was the answer, the British high street would be in a bad way. Maybe it’s a kindness to remove one portion of that perpetual misery by installing mannequins that are closer to the actual size of women. At any rate, if we have to have a model figure, surely better that it’s Debenhams reasonably sized woman rather than something like the Venezuelan “operated mannequins” with their hoisted tits and globular buttocks, designed to match that country’s surgically hewn ideal of beauty. At least you can see yourself fitting into the injection-moulded pattern of the UK’s new standard without having four bags of silicone slipped through four incisions in your body.

But a standard mannequin is still a beauty myth, even if that myth has got bigger. Accepting largeness as a form of loveliness is not the same as accepting every woman’s body on its own terms. A friend confided a while ago that she felt like a misfit on account of her size – not because she thought she was too big, but because she’d started to feel that her size 16 was insufficient to qualify her for the “fatshion” scene, where the attractive standard starts around size 20 and comes in a smartly maintained 50s pin-up package. In line with mainstream fashion imagery, that package is overwhelmingly white – which, given that Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani women are disproportionately likely to be obese (pdf), is a notable enforcement of the usual beauty standards in the middle of something that casts itself as an aesthetic rebellion. And it’s a rebellion that can act like a regiment: several fat accepters have found that the scene’s body positivity started to run out when, whether deliberately or through illness, they stopped having quite so much body to be positive about.

Obesity isn’t a uniquely female problem. But the self-torturing belief that our bodies are somehow an offence to decency by being the wrong sort is. Anorexia, plastic surgery, obsessive dieting and feeling like the wrong sort of fat – these are issues that, in the vast majority of cases, plague women and not men, because it’s women and not men who learn that their physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of their acceptability to society. It’s women who learn that they exist to be looked at, and it’s women who are encouraged to make drastic alterations when they inevitably fail to match the shape they’re asked to be, whether that shape is a wispily unobtrusive size 0, an hourglassy 16, or a voluptuous 20 snapping hot selfies with a kebab in hand. The chief medical officer is right that mannequins are bad for our health. I’m just not sure she understands exactly how right she is.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Getty
Show Hide image

The next mayor must tackle what’s making London miserable for too many

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Since Londoners last went to the polls to elect a Mayor in 2012, the city has continued to polarise.

While bankers’ bonuses and foreign inflows of capital have kept the plushest bars and restaurants busy, during Boris Johnson’s tenure, London’s levels of inequality have risen, with latest figures suggesting 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty.

The next mayor will preside over a truly global city – but whether it’s Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, bold action must be taken so that all Londoners can benefit from the city’s success and it doesn’t just become a playground for the super-rich, socially cleansed of the millions of ordinary workers who keep it running.

In recent years, my research on prosperity has taken me around the world – from Kenya to Thailand – but some of the most interesting findings have come from our own doorstep in East London. A research team from UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), working closely with local citizen scientists, spent four months across three sites in Hackney Wick, East Village (the former Olympic athletes’ village) and Stratford, gathering experiences of what prosperity really means to local people.

These areas are in the shadow of the Olympic Park, Boris Johnson’s biggest legacy – and on the front line of London’s gentrification. What came to the fore were a range of shared sentiments: fears of being priced out, crushing house prices and escalating rents, fear of crime, deprivation and a lack of job opportunities.

In the ostensibly wealthy East Village, for instance, one resident told us: “If prosperity is living in a great place, having a fantastic school and great quality of life then I am prosperous. But it’s a struggle to hold on to this, to pay for it”.

That feeling of clinging on by the fingernails is a sentiment many Londoners will recognise.

While complaints about gentrification aren’t new, the phenomenon’s worsening impact was highlighted recently by the Runnymede Trust which pointed to the growing levels of overcrowding particularly among ethnic minorities.

This was an issue that came up in our research too. One Stratford resident told us about Victorian-style conditions in their local area: “I know some people are living in very difficult situations, with lots of people living in one house because they can’t afford to rent or buy. So maybe ten to fifteen people living in a three-bedroom house.”

Sadiq Khan has called the housing crisis the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth and fairness facing Londoners today”.  That may be true, but we need to stop looking at single issues and take a broader view of the factors that create  - and undermine - prosperity.

While we can look at broad indicators such as personal wealth, housing prices or unemployment, there is currently no way of measuring people's true prosperity – a nuanced and subjective concept that’s very personal.

An urgent priority for the next Mayor should be to commission a report on the whole of London so we can understand the issues in more detail. This shouldn’t just be a 21st-century version of Charles Booth’s famous map of red and blue streets, however. It needs to talk directly to Londoners about their experiences of being part of today’s capital – and ‘crowdsource’ some suggested solutions.

At the IGP, we’ve developed a model of 17 indicators for measuring prosperity covering social, economic, cultural and political life, which are often viewed in isolation. Our measures include the things that people really value in their lives, such as their sense of community or having the quality time to pursue their aspirations.

One area that this extends to is the natural environment and how we interact with it. Since air quality, water, waste and climate change all come under the mayor's remit, green issues have been high on the agenda in this election; Khan has outlined his plans to make London “a zero-carbon city”, while Goldsmith has pledged to create 200 new parks for London.

But I’d suggest that a more effective policy for a prosperous London would be to establish it as a National Park City, an idea that’s been gaining traction in recent years.

This plan recognises that Greater London already has lots of green space – it makes up almost 50% of the land area – that isn’t used effectively. But it goes deeper than that: a national park, just like Dartmoor or the Lake District, is also about preserving a unique social and economic environment as well as a natural one.

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Although the political spotlight has shone on the EU Referendum so far this year, the Mayoral race still holds great significance for London’s 8.6 million residents.

We need the next Mayor to make a bold start to his tenure by doing what he can within the powers available to make a real positive difference to the prosperity of London, focused on the real lives of Londoners.

Professor Henrietta Moore is Director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity