Bigger mannequins lend weight to campaign against idealising size

A British high-street store is challenging decades of conditioning

Fri, Nov 15, 2013, 01:00

Politicians, during speeches in parliaments, sometimes talk at one remove from the pain of others.

On other occasions, the heartbreak simmers just beneath the words. On Tuesday evening SNP representative Dennis Robertson spoke in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood about the need to ban size 10 mannequins from shop-fronts because they portray an unattainable body image for women.

“They do not reflect the reality of the shapes and sizes of people in our society. They are there to extenuate the fashion that is draped over them,” he said. Two years ago, Robertson’s daughter, Caroline, died aged just 18, in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary from internal bleeding during surgery. She had struggled with anorexia for five years. In the past, Robertson has spoken about coping with a daughter “who did not engage, who would keep her distance, who would isolate herself in her bedroom, who would not sit at the family table”.

‘Glorified images’
Towards the end of her life, Caroline was admitted to the infirmary because she was no longer able to keep food or liquids down, he recalled. Fashion photographs and mannequins do not cause anorexia, he accepted,but “they exacerbate the condition in people who are predisposed to, or have an eating disorder”.

Urging the fashion industry and shops to “get real”, Robertson said “people are no longer satisfied to see glorified images in high-street shop windows”. The debate was timely, perhaps, coming just days after Debenhams announced it is introducing size 16 mannequins into its flagship Oxford Street store.

“The average British woman is a size 16, but the high street has been showing them clothing on a mannequin that is three sizes smaller until now,” said Debenhams director Ed Watson. “We hope that it will help people . . . feel comfortable about their bodies and, crucially, that other retailers will follow.”

For now, the changing shop-front image will be limited to Oxford Street but the store intends to put them in each of the 170 outlets it has throughout Britain. Praising the store, minister for women and equalities Jo Swinson turned up recently to welcome the delivery of the first of hundreds of the new displays.

“The images we see in the world of fashion are all pretty much the same. It’s as if there’s only one way of being beautiful,” said the Lib Dem minister.

Meanwhile,the Edinburgh College of Art has decided to abandon the size zero in drawings and models by students in coming years. Accepting the reality of today’s shapes and sizes is good business, too, not just decency, judging by research from the University of Cambridge. Women are more likely to buy, it noted, if they see models the same size as themselves – twice as likely; while “skinny” models discourage shopping.

Nevertheless, decades of conditioning have to be removed. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the image of beauty resided in actresses, such as Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe. The Barbie doll was first produced in 1965 – “[It is] 5ft 9in tall, she has an 18in waist and her ideal weight is 110lbs ”, as one member of the Scottish Parliament noted.

The problem in Britain, like elsewhere, is a lack of numbers. Official figures are measured in the tens of thousands, but that covers only those receiving hospital treatment.

Accurate data

“[They] leave out all those who have not come forward, have not been diagnosed, are receiving private treatment or are being treated as an outpatient or in the community,” says the charity Beat. “The most accurate figures we are aware of are those from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence. These suggest that 1.6 million are affected by an eating disorder.”

However, body image is not just something for women. Recently, Beat warned that the fashion industry’s portrayal of men is causing an increasing number of eating disorders. The national institute of health believes more than 100,000 are affected, but another survey put this figure at more than 300,000. If anything, the svelte man image is strengthening.

Rootstein, the mannequin maker, has its “homme nouveau” model, which sports a 35in chest and a 27in waist. “In 1967, the Rootstein classic mannequin had a 42in chest and 33in waist,” said fellow SNP MSP Mark McDonald. “In 1983, the mannequin referred to as the muscleman had a 41in chest and a 31in waist. In 1994, the mannequin that was known as ‘the swimmer’ had a 38in chest and a 28in waist.”

McDonald forsook jeans at the end of his teens when he put on weight. “I had the perception that jeans were what skinny people wore and . . . would not suit somebody who had put on a lot of weight.”