The social theorist, Michel Foucault, wrote about ‘docile bodies’ – where the body is a passive object being acted upon by society’s discourses surrounding issues such as health and beauty. He believed that there is a constant societal pressure on people’s behaviour and body image as we are continually being observed by some kind of authority, often stemming from institutions such as education and media.
In today’s world, we are so connected that it is impossible to exist without being subjected to the scrutiny and expectations of society. Both men and women feel the pressures of contemporary fashion to look, dress and act in certain ways, or else they’ll receive the ire of the (often imagined) other. These pressures come from a variety of sources, sometimes dating all the way back through human history, manifesting in a multitude of problems.
Consumer culture has brought about fast fashion and the global beauty industry, allowing individuals to quickly alter their looks with little cost involved. Although it might sound ideal, this dynamic may have some undesirable consequences.
In the past, the clothes you wore often said a lot about you – which subculture you were a part of, your political beliefs, the music you listened to, and so on. However, in today’s world people can freely switch between different styles without having to make any commitment to the subcultures those styles represent – one day you can be wearing a leather coat and combat boots, echoing mid-1970s punk aesthetics, then the next day a bohemian style patterned dress and leather sandals.
The ease with which someone can change their look can pressure them into continually chasing different trends and never settling into a style that is true to themselves. This fluidity may remove someone’s consistent sense of self, where they cannot form coherent narratives surrounding their identity because they are continually changing how they present themselves to the world.
The problem with models
Models are selected to be the perfect embodiment of the fashion items they showcase – this naturally puts pressure on consumers to emulate the model’s body image so they too can fulfil the designer’s vision. Not only are models handpicked from far and wide to be the most aesthetically pleasing – they themselves are also under constant stress from designers and agents to push their body to the limits in order to fit the often unrealistic sample sizes given to them by fashion houses. This creates a toxic trickle-down effect where the immense pressures levied on the models are also then shouldered by the public.
This issue has likely been made even worse by social media and image editing software allowing influencers and models to present even more unattainable versions of themselves to a wide audience, causing the pressure on people’s body image to mount further. The airbrushed and photoshopped Instagram post becomes the target for impressionable onlookers, undoubtably generating feelings of inadequacy and shame.
Not only are most digital representations impossible to physically match – the sheer volume of images shared online means that they vastly outnumber the number of real people in someone’s life to whom they would usually compare themselves. This establishes a harmful comparative landscape and creates new extreme standards for beauty which rapidly spread across society.
Changing fashion trends can also cause individuals to question their body image and sense of self. For example, the 1990s ushered in the era of the metrosexual male, a fashion style where men pay vigorous attention to their grooming and clothing choices, typically resulting in sleek, urban looks with meticulously styled hair and beards.
Until this point, male fashion had reserved space for more rugged and unshorn styles but had now began to alter its demands, leaving plenty of men with a lot of (sometimes impossible) adaptations to make. Failure to adhere to this new fashion paradigm will have left countless men feeling inadequate and out of style, unable to shape their body to contend with the modern age.
However, women receive the lion’s share of body image pressure, largely due to societal structures formed throughout human history. In contemporary society, the historically male dominated media industry has played a key role in pressuring female body image by helping shape attitudes regarding beauty (often referred to as the ‘male gaze’).
Structures such as these have contributed to a variety of expectations being forced on women such as wearing makeup for work and everyday situations –exemplified by the phrase ‘putting my face on’, as though the pressure on women’s body image is so intense they don’t even feel like a complete person until they’ve adhered to societal beauty standards.
Countless other expectations are pushed on women too – thigh gaps, flat stomachs, lack of cellulite, clear skin, petite frames, the list goes on, each demand further fuelling dysphoria and a negative sense of self. Modelling agencies are constantly pressured to hire ‘imperfect’ models and ban ultra-skinny ones to help battle these pressures, but the issue still persists and is unlikely to stop until major reform occurs.
What comes next
One interesting view is that the body has been captured by industrial society, where the ideal body is one that is the most economically productive. Capitalism is so prevalent in everyone’s lives, that fashion is no longer solely the vision of artists, but also a reflection of the workplace. Body fat will only slow you down and make you less productive, so it must be rendered unfashionable. Males should be tall and strong, suitable for optimal production line efficiency, and so on.
Beyond such philosophical critiques, it is important that going forward there is an equal representation of males and females across fashion related industries, in order to foster inclusive and understanding practises that alleviate some of the pressures fashion places on our bodies and senses of self. A change in how models are treated and a widespread knowledge of the dangers of social media on mental health are also essential if we are to remove some of fashion’s more pernicious elements.
Fashion should be used as a vehicle to spread positivity about people’s body image, and not serve as an arena where everyone involved is constantly sharing and receiving unconstructive judgement. Strict rules around body image also limit the artform’s creativity, unnecessarily leaving only narrow scope for new fashion trends to emerge. The future of fashion can be bright, it just needs a push in the right direction.