An open letter to GAP
Someone phoned recently and asked if I‘d seen the “girl in the plaid dress” image sent out by @GAP to 432,000 Twitter followers on August 4th, along with this tweet: Dress up your days in pastel plaid. #since1969 gap.us/PlaidShirtD Today I happened across it. I wondered if, as a certified eating disorder specialist and career psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, there was a way I could not respond. I decided there wasn't.
Ever curious about societal reactions to media, as they typically reveal more about society than media itself, I did some research on how consumers have been responding to the placement. While many scolded GAP for its use of the emaciated model, even more condemned the girl. In response to those who condemned the model, there were cries that criticism of the girl was "skinny shaming." This is where I say: hold up a second.
Bear with me here. GAP chose this woman to sell plaid dresses. They felt she would be a perfect candidate for this because of one factor: she is extremely thin, and let's face it, the demographic that keeps GAP's stock afloat is one that idolizes thinness. This isn't about "skinny shaming," because in our culture, there is no shame in skinny.
A society's dominant ideology is the worldview that is created and disseminated by those with the power to influence. This voice constitutes what we are bombarded with on a day to day basis. In the US, the dominant discourse with regard to body shape is that thinness is desirable while fat is detestable. "Thin is in." Every page in fashion magazines is layered with cases of extreme thinness, interlaced with just a smattering of still below-average-weight women. Women are turned down from work in media based on their average body sizes and told they are "plus size", "too large for camera." The average American is incessantly bullied by relentless media to obtain the heavily popularized physique currently en vogue: extremely tiny waste, narrow hips, pencil-thin arms and legs, visible collarbones. The model in the plaid dress visually represents the dominant narrative, therefore to remark on the obvious and state she is emaciated is not to bully her, but to liberate the true victims- average size women- and to condemn the industry oppressors who, throughout this model’s career, have set the parameters for success as such that one must look "skeletal" (as this woman's since been called called) to be employable.
Less than 1% of Americans possess physiques naturally resembling this model, yet her image is resonates with young girls because it is in line with our dominant cultural narrative. Should GAP feature 15 average and/or plus size models in future tweets, they could not undo what's done by tweeting one example of extreme thinness. This is because women will choose the image of thinness as the beautiful one, every time- that is the image being marketed, packaged and sold as True Beauty. Studies found young black women experiencing internalized racism visually prefer a Caucasian Barbie doll over one that closely matches their skin tone. When white Americans deny the existence of "white privilege" and claim they are victim to oppression similarly to minority counterparts, they sound as preposterous as those who throw around terms like "skinny shaming." Those with power and influence cannot claim persecution effectively when they set the standards for appearance, performance and advancement. Average-and-plus-size women will identify the image of extreme thinness as beautiful, regardless of whether their body type matches this ideal, because the dominant narrative says it is so (and they know this to be certain because their body types are excluded-altogether absent- from print and news media.)
It is interesting to hear the press team at GAP allege that the use of this model was an attempt to include women of all shapes and sizes and embrace diversity. I've never seen @GAP tweet out an image of an obese woman. I don't see a tremendous amount of Latina women in the GAP catalogs, for that matter. For all that is made of obesity (unarguably, a serious health problem), anorexia is dramatically more deadly (still the number one killer of adolescents) and images like this explain why my anorexic clients report to me that their figures are "average." They are correct, sort of. While their body fat ratio is well below average by medical standards, they are "average-looking" according to a visual comparison analysis with the models in the catalog of their favorite store, while the truly average women (those with an appropriate BMI for their height, necessary for fertility, to grow, to thrive) are nowhere to be found.
PS: A shred of hope remains for the news coverage this tweet garnered. (Bravo http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2719004/GAP-sparks-outrage-tweeting-super-skeletor-ghost-model-promote-plaid-dress.html; http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2014/08/thin-gap-model-prompts-skinny-shaming-debate.html). Paying attention and interacting with media by throwing out a counter-narrative is the only means through which members of a society are able to re-claim power to influence and inform the dominant narrative. Well, that, and blogging.
PPS: When masses of informed and educated individuals assert their counter-narrative? That's a paradigm shift. And I'm holding out.