Karl Lagerfeld’s attitude is exactly why the modelling industry needs #metoo

The fashion designer told a magazine: “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model!”

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So it turns out I’m never going to make it as a model. According to veteran designer Karl Lagerfeld, having somebody rummage in your underwear might as well be included in the job description. In an interview with Numéro Magazine, Lagerfeld declared himself “fed up” with the #metoo movement:

“I read somewhere that now you must ask a model if she is comfortable with posing. It's simply too much, from now on, as a designer, you can’t do anything. […] If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model ! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent.”

I thought I would do anything for living on expenses only with the odd sample thrown in, but I draw the line at pant-pulling. I’m brushing up on my Catholic theology forthwith.

Obviously it’s the fashion industry’s loss, but there were always other factors working against me. For instance, I’m 42 years old, five foot one and currently at a non-osteoporosis-inducing weight. Plus there’s the fact that I’m a mother-of-three who likes Quavers. In an earlier interview, Lagerfeld damned those who criticise the fashion industry’s obsession with thinness as “fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television”. That’ll be me, then. The fashionistas will have to pry my light and curly potato snack from my cold, dead, orange-stained hand.

For an industry that claims to be all about what women want, fashion never ceases to amaze me. Like fellow designer Christian Louboutin, who has claimed the word “comfort” makes him “picture a woman feeling bad, with a big bottle of alcohol, really puffy”, Lagerfeld doesn’t seem particularly down with women having fun with their bodies on their own terms. A massive bottle of wine and an entire tube of Pringles? No, love, that’ll only make you jealous and miserable. A pair of shoes for which you will need, Ugly Sister-like, to cut off your big toe, plus an unwanted yank on your thong? Bring it on! You know it’s what you really want.

It could be that I am just bitter from all those decades of eating food and drinking wine like, I dunno, a normal human being. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s an obvious connection between getting outraged over models setting sexual boundaries and expressing disgust at those lesser women who simply watch telly and eat. For a while now – ever since more and more actresses and models started speaking out against sexual transgressions they’ve experienced within the fashion and entertainment industries – I’ve found myself thinking about how this relates to other demands placed on their bodies. Their exceptionally thin bodies, that is.

It is of no surprise to anyone that the vast majority of women in these industries weigh significantly less than the vast majority of women overall, nor that this is presented as some ideal to which all of us should aspire. We know, too, that not all women in these industries are naturally thin. It is something that is demanded of them: lose weight or you might as well sign up for the nunnery too. These are industries in which female appetites are regulated and denied, with resistance prompting expressions of outright disgust. Female hunger – whether for food or for sex – isn’t part of the deal. Hunger and its satisfaction belong to men, both when on display and behind the scenes.

To Lagerfeld, the woman who sits on the couch stuffing her face deserves at best pity, at worst disgust. Well, of course. Haven't we learned from every single TV show and film in which a woman slumps down to eat with abandon that deep down she’s just bitter about losing some man? The woman who indulges is a pathetic figure, even if the actress who plays her is emaciated. Take younger Monica in Friends. The “OMG, she used to be so fat and still have the temerity to be attracted to men!” line certainly bothered me when the series was first shown (although, as with so much of the in-your-face misogyny in shows like this, I kept telling myself I was missing something). Now, however, I can’t help but see it in conjunction with the ever-shrinking body of Courtney Cox. Even when she was playing Fat Monica, you could see the network of bones on the doughnut-clutching hands. A thin, hungry woman dancing in a fat suit for laughs – what could be more emblematic of the distaste the entertainment and fashion industries have always had for female pleasure?

This isn’t a criticism of Cox, nor any other woman who has pared and sculpted herself to meet requirements. While some actresses and models have been appointed exceptions to the thinness rule, for most gaining weight would not mean contributing to a more diverse representation of womanhood. It would mean being replaced by someone thinner, just as the woman who says no to a hand up her skirt has, up till now, simply been replaced by the one who says yes.

Indeed, in both cases the double bind is very similar. #Metoo is significant because it has broken through a conspiracy of silence, giving more and more women the confidence to take what remains an enormous risk to their careers. Still we hear complaints that since these women have thus far “benefited” from following the rules – that is, they chose being assaulted and employed over being assaulted and unemployed – they can’t start questioning the game now. Likewise, the model who gains weight and no longer finds herself invited down the catwalk can’t start moaning about the unfairness of it all. Live by the sword, die by the sword (and god forbid you point out that there’s nothing but the sword, unless of course you’re a man).

As we challenge the behaviour of certain male abusers, we should also take a long, hard look at the idea that extreme denial and body modification is all in a day’s work for actresses and models. Not only is this in itself abusive, but it intersects with and reinforces other forms of harm. Forcing a woman to starve limits her capacity to experience sexual desire and pleasure. Demanding that she go under the knife inflicts pain and, in the long term, may permanently reduce sensitivity to touch. If making the female body more fuckable – at least according to the standards of Hollywood and haute couture – involves diminishing the pleasure a woman may take for herself, then this isn’t just about some arbitrary, ridiculuous standard of beauty. It promotes the myth that sex between men and women isn’t supposed to be mutually pleasurable; that it’s something a woman gives to a man or failing that, it’s something he simply takes. She offers up her desensitised body, or what’s left of it.

In the throes of an eating disorder, I’d watch films featuring skinny actresses thinking only of whether or not my hip bones stuck out as much as theirs. Nowadays I find myself taking a more practical view (“there’s no way she’d be menstruating, let along getting pregnant with a body like that!” or “like hell you’d survive three weeks in the wilderness with zero fat stores!”). Too often, though, the critical focus remains on the audience response, with the main question being “are these skinny women poor role models for young girls?” Instead of apportioning blame, we need to remember this isn’t just a matter of potential harm. These women on screen and on the catwalk are just as real as any teenage viewer. We have evidence of actual harm before our eyes.

Maybe Karl Lagerfeld would not believe me, but when I’m mumsily plonked on the couch with a grab bag of Quavers, I do not feel envious of Ana Carolina Reston, Hila Elmalich, Luisel Ramos or Eliana Ramos, all of whom starved to death while active as fashion models this century. Nor do I consider such women “ugly”. I consider an industry which demands heart failure-inducing thinness of very young women, while also telling them that sexual assault is part of what they signed up for, utterly grotesque.

Yes, not everyone is as direct in their utter disdain for female appetites, boundaries and lives. Nonetheless, look at the bodies that are being presented before us, on catwalks, in magazines and on screen. You can see the bones. You can see the attempt to reduce the female body from a site of pleasure – of appetite, of tastes, of joyful sensations – to an object whose own desires not only do not matter, but are in some way repugnant. Don’t let the women feed themselves or else they’ll swallow you whole.

The battle to supress female sexual agency takes place on several fronts. Maybe we should thank Karl Lagerfeld for making this so obvious. He makes the kind of misogynist comment that reassures us we’re not going mad. There’s nothing wrong with our desires, nothing wrong with pushing back against those who think we exist only to meet theirs. An industry that cannot accommodate this is not an industry that can inspire women who are finally starting to acknowledge and value their own multiple, varied hungers. 

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