Beyond the Catfight – Dr Jane Callaghan responds to the skinny model debate

Date 12.11.2015

​Leader of the All Parliamentary Group on Body Image, Caroline Noakes MP, has called for a ban on underweight catwalk models. Politicians and mental health professionals have, for some time, called for the fashion industry to take a responsible approach to this issue, in order to protect the body image of young people – particularly young women. This is in response to concerns that the thin ideal represented in the fashion industry sets up unrealistic and unhealthy standards of feminine beauty, that might in turn make young people vulnerable to the developing of disordered patterns of eating.

Today, Ms Noakes has called for legislation to ban the use of extremely thin models, if a voluntary code of conduct is not effective. Will this be an effective strategy?

The development of body image is a complex thing. Media images certainly play a role in producing distress and discomfort with the body, that can in turn have an impact on self-esteem, on engagement with healthy or unhealthy behaviours, and perhaps problematic and disordered eating patterns.  In that sense, a challenge to the hegemony of the ultra-thin model in the fashion industry is one important intervention into this arena.

However, difficulties with body image and eating problems are not just about bodies per se.  How we see our bodies, and feel about our bodies, is an element of identity more broadly. Our sense of ourselves as embodied beings does not just (or even mostly) relate to how we compare ourselves to other, perhaps thinner, women.  Our sense of self is built up in more complex webs of social interaction, that shapes our sense of who we are, what is important about us, how we see ourselves.  As part of a broader sense of feminine identity, body image and our sense of ourselves as embodied beings, is also shaped by factors like how ‘in control’ we feel of ourselves and our environment, how generally respected we feel, how valued we feel. Body image issues for women and girls are more about a sense of mastery over ourselves and our world than they are about negative self-comparisons to other women based on beauty alone. As long as our culture is characterised by broader patterns of disparaging and dismissing the feminine, and especially the feminine body, simply banning catwalk models is unlikely to produce a major effect. We need a society in which women feel more broadly empowered, safe and respected, if we are really to support young women in feeling more comfortable in their own skin.

Indeed, by focusing just on catwalk models, and by problematising ultra-thin women as ‘the issue’ in this way, we locating the problem of body image for women in other women.  It reinforces a sense of women being in competition, comparing ourselves to each other, being bad for each other. But when it comes to body image,  I don’t really believe that women are the problem. Do you?