Hello Ladies and Gents:
Fashion is a pleasurable excursion for me, a way to temporarily escape the responsibilities of running a business and to indulge in all of the beautiful colors, textures, and designs. Over the years, I developed a personal style reflective of my personality—start with Joan from Mad Men, add a generous dash of Kate Moss and sprinkle with Banana Republic. Admiring the latest collections and trends debuting for the season became a fun, creative, and somewhat mindless outlet for me, and to this end, I subscribe to both Lucky and InStyle. Despite the enjoyment I receive from scanning the glossy pages, I can easily, and at length, communicate the many problems I have with the fashion world: a strong emphasis on hyper-analyzing and then fearing the signs of age, a never-ending list of beauty products you simply must-have, often contradictory instructions to follow the crowd but stand out as an individual, and the downright awful lingerie advice, to name a few. However, today I want to focus on an issue not limited to the world of general fashion but one that applies to media as a whole: Token Diversity.
Lucy Magazine had a feature (I say “had” because in their latest edition, it is nowhere to be seen) where they makeover average size 10/12/14 women, encouraging them to explore new silhouettes and adopting trends to fit curvy figures. Overall, the stylists’ choices were not only body appropriate but downright cute, and for a brief four pages, average and plus-sized women everywhere had models who could represent them. Flip to the pages before or after the article, however, and you were assaulted with a barrage of tall, size 0/2, white models.
To illustrate, I counted the model distribution in the February edition of Lucky and found the following:
- Of the 25 models I counted, 21 were white.
- Of the white models, 11 were a variation of blond, 9 were brunettes, and one had red hair.
- Twenty of the models fell between the industry standard 0 to 4 size range, four were between sizes 6 and 12, and one was a 14+. In my opinion, the size 14 model could technically be classified in the 6 to 12 range because she seemed quite tall.
- In the section dedicated to average women, we find the most diversity with the redhead, one of the darker skinned women, and three of the size 6 to 12 models located here.
During my initial counting, I did not include models in promotions because I was not planning to hold a magazine accountable for the choices made by their advertisers. Submissions by readers, shots of runway models, and photos of celebrities were also not part of my brief survey. Finally, I did not count any model who was showing less than 1/2 her body. After a prolonged internal debate, I redid the count to factor in advertisers as a method for comparing the magazine as a whole. As with before, I did not include reader submissions, runway shots, celebrities, or women (in either an ad or in an article) who did not show more than 1/2 of their body. If I had, the skew toward younger, white models would be even stronger. Below is the revised tally:
- Of the 30 models, 26 were white, or roughly 87%.
- Of the white models, 13 were blond, 12 were brunette, and one had red hair.
- Of all the models, 25 were in the size 0 to 4 range (84%), four were in sizes 6 to 12 (13%), and one was a size 14+ (3%).
- As with the previous results, the section containing average women had the most diversity.
As I noted the hash marks on my paper, I could not help but feel this simple survey serves as a staggering indictment of the fashion world’s claims of improved diversity. According to the US Census Bureau, for 2011 the ethnicities of the US breaks down as:
- White (Non-Hispanic): 63.4%
- Hispanic or Latino: 16.7%
- Black: 13.1%
- Asian: 5%
- Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 0.2%
- Persons reporting two or more races: 2.3%
The Lingerie Addict wrote a wonderful piece a few months ago discussing how she felt underrepresented in the lingerie world, and it is easy to see why minorities feel forgotten. With over 35% of US citizens identifying themselves as non-white, it’s shocking that nearly 90% of the advertising and models are Caucasian.
Beyond race, size is another consideration. While I firmly believe women who fit the figure requirements of a professional model should be included in fashion magazines (after all, diversity is about embracing all types of women), should they account for a jaw-dropping 84% of the models? The average woman in the US wears a size 14. Shouldn’t we see a little more dispersion around that size?
Furthermore, age is conspicuously missing from my tally because none of the models seemed over 35. Most were in their early 20s. With a strong and continued emphasis on retinol, anti-aging creams, and Botox, is it any wonder they do not want to feature faces with laugh and smile lines? There are no models with physical disabilities either—a true shame because articles dealing with fashion and disability are both thought-provoking and informative.
The lack of progress forces me to question whether the tireless efforts of men and women to encourage magazines, the media, and corporations to include models of different shapes, heights, ages, and ethnicities are being taken seriously. Is the media machine placating us with a token diversity rather than embracing real diversity? Is the rationale: Well, now that we have the average model and the black model covered, we can fill the rest of our publication with our standard tall, thin white models and no one can say we aren’t diverse.
What strikes me as an even worse element to the issue is how ambivalent the merits of token diversity are. One could successfully argue that even including a black model or a regular sized model is a step in the right direction, that we should praise the magazine/company/whatever for their attempt, no matter how half-hearted it may be. However, I view these attempts as a way of keeping business as usual instead of embarking on a journey toward greater diversity across media platforms.
In the past, fashion magazines and retailers have trotted out the excuse “fashion is aspirational” to explain why they refuse to change, but recent studies indicate women are more likely to buy an item if it is modeled by someone who is closer to their size and skin color. Women crave more diversity, and they are willing to spend money with companies who listen. Returning to the insulting concept of “aspirational,” why should we suggest all women aspire to be young, thin, white, and tall. Youth, skin color, and height are completely beyond our control, and even thinness can be as well. Why not aspire to be ourselves instead? Self-love and happiness aren’t as popular as self-doubt and longing these days.
Cliché though it may be, variety is the spice of life, and praising token diversity offers companies an excuse to continue with the bare minimum. The process feels hypocritical for companies to showcase women of different body types, skin colors, and ages for one spread when the rest of the magazine is more of the same. It leaves us no closer to reconciling the vast difference between the average American women and the models used to market to us. Shouldn’t diversity extend to more than just one spread or one campaign and become the new normal?
Weigh in: Should we applaud companies for using real women in their magazines even if it is only for a few pages, or do you feel like it’s a cop-out for them?