Redefining body image and diversity in fashion
With studies showing that 70% of teens define ideal body image as what they see in fashion magazines, 91% of women diet to achieve their ‘ideal’ body shape, and the fashion industry’s penchant for primarily showcasing lithe models in their ads and editorials–it’s not shocking that as a society we still struggle with the notion of what healthy weight looks like. With the average women wearing a size 14-16, there’s obviously a disconnect with what the fashion industry spotlights and what’s happening in the real world.
In the documentary “Straight/Curve,” this topic is explored from the perspective of fashion insiders such as Time Gunn, retailers such as Aerie, and educational institutions such as Syracuse University. But the industry may not be the only culprit pushing the super thin ideology. Our own perceptions and critique of those around us can be just as damaging. Just recently, actress Lily Collins shared an incident where a family friend actually complemented her new look, one in which she achieved under medical supervision to drastically drop weight for a role as an anorexic.
To get more intel on the “you can never be too thin” mentality and the Straight/Curve documentary, I interviewed co-producers Jenny McQuaile, Jessica Lewis, and Yael Melamede. They share intel on addressing the body image issue, what we all can do to change the perception of what’s beautiful, and making of the film, including the diversity photo shoot–shot by Anastasia Garcia and styled by Jenesee Utley.
Every section of the industry and media has to make a conscious effort to move towards more diversity.
Brooklyn-based Jenny McQuaile, Producer and Director of Staright/Curve work to bring the documentary to the big screen for more than two years. Together with Co-Producers Jess Lewis and Yael Melamede, they brought together 12 models of different sizes, ages and ethnicities.
McQuaile shares her desire for society to “get to a place where we are no longer discussing the use of women of different sizes, races or ages in fashion and media. It needs to just be the norm for all women to be represented.”
What pivotal point brought you to want to make a documentary about the portrayal of extremely thin women in the fashion industry and its affect on girls and young women? I am overwhelmingly sick of hearing young people say things like “I can’t do that because of how I look” or “People like me don’t do things like that.” We are perpetuating a very dangerous and unrealistic standard of beauty in our society, which is directly affecting our next generation. Straight/Curve is a film that can show all young girls and boys and grown women that they are enough and they can do whatever they set their minds to. Their body image should not stand in the way of this.
In the film, there is a statistic about people being more impacted by images than anything they hear or read. What do you believe is something that everyday people can do to combat this issue? We learn in Straight/Curve that our brain processes images 60,000 times faster than words, so if we want to change somebody’s perception of something we have to change the imagery they are seeing. The reality is real change has to happen on a holistic level deep within the fashion industry and be reflected in the media for it to impact society at large. Every section of the industry and media has to make a conscious effort to move towards more diversity.
Share one thing you believe the industry can do different to start dressing the issues presented in the film? I think the industry is moving in the right direction. Designers are using more curvy models on the runway and in campaigns. Each season it seems to be getting better, but it is absolutely not enough. Christian Siriano put on a beautiful show last season with 10 plus size models. Designers like Sophie Theallet, Prabal Gurung and Becca McCharen from Chromat are all doing their bit to open up the standard runway size, but we need to see more. I think these amazing designers are game changers, they are leading by example, and more designers will have to follow.
In one sentence, define what beauty is to you. Beauty is setting goals, determining dreams and shooting for the stars – no matter what.
Globally, we’ve been inundated with size/race/age exclusive messaging as to what beautiful is for generations now.
Producer Jessica Lewis brings her experience as a straight-turned-curvy model. Candian-born Lewis spent 15 years as a straight size model, but realizing it was unrealistic to maintain the weight she was as a teen, she became a plus-size model.
Fashion markets such as Paris were not as receptive to her size change and saw her new look as unhealthy, although she describes this period in her life as very healthy–biking, running and doing yoga daily. However, New York had a favorable and “empowering experience” she explains. The physical and mental transformation led her to become a health coach.
How has your experience as a straight and curvy model, as well as a health coach, helped with producing this documentary? Having my RHC certainly made a number of messages critically important to me to translate to society. One in particular was the conversation about obesity and how to remedy it. I think more often than not we think it’s so simple as hopping on a treadmill and eating high protein low carb diets when really this is putting the cart before the horse. The key to sustainable long term health lies in the mind and unless we explore and acknowledge any challenges that exist, any physical changes we make will inevitably end up being short term. Tess Holliday speaks beautifully to this point in the film with her story about how emotional eating helped her get through some very traumatic times in her life.
What would you say to people who compare the health issues of underweight models and the young women who aspire to be them, with the perceived health risks of overweight bloggers, whom we see becoming so popular today? Could this cause a reverse epidemic with body health and image?
I think this is why the message of diversity and all round inclusivity is so important. Of course every society needs a healthy balance. Curiously, this conversation of diversity was bred through articles a number of years back with headlines like “real women” referring to curve models, so then of course every woman who is naturally thin argued back with the valid point of her being a real woman as well. The reality is that globally we’ve been inundated with size/race/age exclusive messaging as to what beautiful is for generations now, so the needle has to swing drastically in the opposite direction to settle comfortably in the middle, which I’m confident we’re coming to soon.
What myth would you like to dispel about being a straight versus plus-size model? I can only dispel one? If I had to choose I would say that you can’t determine a persons health by how they look on the outside. This is applicable to both straight and plus size models. I would hope that argument becomes one of the past very soon.
Share one thing you believe the industry can do different to start addressing the issues presented in the film? First, I would have to say that there are so many layers to the fashion/media industries that there is not just one thing that will help. It really has to be a group effort of designers, casting directors, agents, models, journalists, editors and retail coming together to create this change. I’ll even go beyond that and say that while certain markets have started to adopt a new blueprint for how to successfully market a more diverse picture, many markets are still holding back claiming that it won’t work in their market due to demand. I personally think this is a lame excuse as every market that fashion is in–be it high or commercial–diversity exists in some form, this is the reality of our world. At the end of the day everyone has to wear clothing.
In one sentence, define what beauty is to you. Beauty is Diversity!
I believe we have become tremendously biased in terms of how we see images and being more aware of those biases is a first step towards changing them.
Producer Yael Melamede is a seasoned veteran when it comes to making films. The native New Yorker believes this film was the perfect opportunity to delve into an issue that impacts most women.
“This film attempts to celebrate all women and encourages everyone to be part of expanding the definition of beauty in a positive, powerful way,” Melamede says.
As a producer who tackles tough topics in your films, why do you believe Straight/Curve was an important film to make? I loved the perspective of Straight/Curve from the beginning, which was to look at the problems around body image without pointing fingers or vilifying. The film looks at systemic issues pervading fashion and media that are both old and new with a positive invitation to everyone to join in to make a difference.
As a producer, you make films with the audience in mind. Like-wise, you would think fashion designers would do the same with their audience. The average woman’s size is in the double digits, yet the industry does not reflect this on runways, in stores, even magazines. In your opinion, why is there such a disconnect with the fashion industry and the audience they serve? My sense–and this is from my personal, non-expert perspective–is that it is very hard to break old habits. It seems to me that there has been a long and ongoing conversation of a large “insider” group of designers and magazines that feeds on itself and does not realize that it is ignoring a large part of the population, perhaps even a majority. That conversation seems to celebrate fashion as art where form has become much more important than function, and exclusivity has become more important than inclusivity.
Do you believe Hollywood should share some of the blame as well, considering they mostly feature super thin actresses? I believe Hollywood follows fashion and often accentuates it. That said, I think Hollywood can lead the way to greater diversity if it sees the incredible opportunity in doing so–and is beginning to do so.
This documentary is not only entertaining–with beautiful fashions and styled photo shoots, but educational too. What message do you want viewers to take away after watching Straight/Curve? I hope that viewers will be more sensitive and consider their initial responses to imagery and the status quo. I believe we have become tremendously biased in terms of how we see images and being more aware of those biases is a first step towards changing them. I also hope that all of us will advocate for more diversity in fashion and media–how things are made and how they are portrayed.
Share one thing you believe the industry can do different to start dressing the issues presented in the film? I believe that designers can do much more to celebrate different body shapes, sizes, races, and ages by designing specifically for them. It seems to me that this is also in the industry’s self interest.
In one sentence, define what beauty is to you. I can’t define beauty in one sentence and wouldn’t want to.
Straight/Curve is currently available on Epix.com–it’s a must-watch! (Photos by Anastasia Garcia and styling by Jenesee Utley)