The Danger of Fashionable Beauty Standards


Society’s interaction with the fashion industry is complex. One does not change without the other. Fashion influences society, it defines culture, creates beauty ideals, and separates the social classes.  Society, in turn, influences fashion through art, media, pop culture, and changes in political climate. The fashion industry has a powerful influence over beauty standards. With the rise of social media, society has had a bigger effect on fashion than ever before, and the fashion industry has an audience that’s worldwide. With a reach wider than ever, the industry must reevaluate how much it affects society’s views on what “beauty,” is.

The word “beauty” derives from the Latin word “bellus”, meaning “pleasant” or “pretty”.In ancient times, each culture held a different image of beautiful women. The human race has been enhancing their physical features with cosmetics since the times of ancient Egypt. “Makeup and various skincare products had many roles over the centuries, including hygiene and ritual use, and were employed by men and women. By the late nineteenth century, however, women in the Western world predominantly used cosmetics to conform to modern beauty standards.”The fact that different cultures have different standards of beauty was forgotten when multinational enterprises transcended national boundaries to spread worldwide. “People of different races and nations have come to use the same cosmetics, and people of different skin colors and facial and bodily features have come to don similar fashions.” For years the beauty and fashion industry has profited from playing off of the insecurities of their consumers.While make-up and particular clothing pieces may have originally been used for cultural purposes, the fashion industry capitalized on the desire to be accepted by society and conform to beauty standards, turning the business of making and selling clothes into amultibillion-dollar global enterprise. As a byproduct the beauty industry was created. Many fashion companies have a department dedicated to cosmetics in addition to their initial sector in fashion. The bigger a company is, the wider its reach is, this increases their influence, and leads to the acceptance of generalized beauty ideals and a more general definition of what “beauty” is.

The fashion industry has a huge influence on what is considered beautiful: the Kate Moss look, the androgynous look, the ugly pretty look. These are all beauty trends that the fashion industry has set. Body type is an important aspect of beauty culture. Ideal body types have varied throughout history, and while at one point “plump” was a beauty ideal since it represented wealth, at one point the United States became obsessed with the “thin” or “skinny” body ideal, the obsession spread worldwide and has held a lasting grip on society for decades. Kate Moss is a model and fashion icon, who arrived at the end of the supermodel era in the Mid 90s, the “Kate Moss Look” was synonymous to that of “heroin chic” which was characterized by pale skin, dark circles underneath the eyes, a very skinny body, and angular bone structure. She is famously quoted for saying “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily in 2009. The hiring of thin models has been practiced for decades, generations, etc. While many critics like to blame the industry for exacerbating the number of eating disorders, experts say there is no proof that the rates have spiked or plummeted in any way that is directly related to the fashion industry. Eating disorders are defined as “multidimensional illnesses characterized by clinical disturbances in eating behaviors and attitudes that pose very serious physiological psychological health consequences.” While the fashion industry itself cannot be directly correlated to eating disorders, a fact many psychologists back, it is clear that the industry does contribute to the current climate regarding body image. It’s important to acknowledge the detrimental societal implications of Western Beauty have been, especially to young women, who are striving for unrealistic and unhealthy ideals. It is reported that exposure to images of ultra-thin models resulted in negative affect and body dissatisfaction in women (Nolen-Hoeksema and Rector, 2008). However, a fact that is tends to be overlooked by consumers is that the models portraying such ideals often suffer mentally, emotionally, and physically from achieving such impossible standards as their claim to fame. “The Rhodes Farm clinic in London recently revealed that one of its “sickest patients,'' a severely anorexic 15-year-old, was courted by two modeling reps,” (Leland). The modeling profession attracts and consists of a very fragile personality that potentially leads to self-destructive behavior, and the industry embraces them. Many models get caught up in the fame, the fortune, the parties, and when their career is over, they tend to crash as they get snapped back into reality (Marano). Two psychotherapists claim that girls looking for a boost in self-esteem often seek the profession out, and when they see themselves on covers of magazines, or in a big spread it builds up their self-esteem. A career in modeling is a brief one, one that is flashy, and quick to die. When a model ages out, a new fresh-faced girl, probably in her teens, is ready and eager to take her place. And so, the process repeats itself. While the career creates a strain on a model’s view of herself as well as her physical person, the carefully prepared, selected, and edited picture of said model can cause injury to its audience. The viewer, not knowingly seeing a false image, will unconsciously make a comparison, and will then feel inadequate (Leland 66).  This sets a very toxic sort of “climate” regarding body image for the rest of the general population.  While the industry has attempted to put in their efforts to positively influence beauty ideals, their efforts ended with no real results. In May of 2013 all nineteen of Vogue’s editors gathered together and vowed to not knowingly hire models that were under the age 16 or appeared to have an eating disorder. However, by fall China and Japan gave into the lure of underage and impossibly skinny models (Givhan). This is when the industry becomes a prisoner to the limits they have set on beauty. They fall back into the habit of hiring unhealthy models, because that is the look that is perceived as beautiful to the general public. They do not dare break such a strong stereotype without labeling the model as “plus-sized”. 

The male gaze is defined as, “The perspective of a notionally typical heterosexual man considered as embodied in the audience or intended audience for films and other visual media, characterized by a tendency to objectify or sexualize women.”Some hypothesize that the hiring of extremely thin models is the industry gearing to the male gaze. Large-scale studies have shown that heterosexual men have been found to generally prefer youthful women shorter than themselves and with a low waist-hip ratio, features that have been associated with health and fertility (Lassek). If the practice of hiring of a specific type of model is done so with the intention of pleasing the male gender, then it is supporting the misogynistic view that females are subordinate to males and the thought process that women must have a certain body type and wear certain clothes in order to impress men. The practice of attracting the opposite sex through fashionable pieces of dress is one that is prevalent throughout history. The Victorian Era was a time when women were defined as, “physically and intellectually the 'weaker' sex, in all ways subordinate to male authority,” (Victoria). This was also when corsets were an extremely important piece of everyday fashion.By wearing corsets women achieved the highly sought-after “hourglass frame with an extremely small waist,” that was popular at the time. This created “feminine and frail” characteristics for the wearer, qualities that made a girl desirable and suitable for marriage. The corset was seen as the “hallmark of virtue” and that an “uncorseted woman reeked of licence; an unlaced waist was regarded as a vessel of sin,” (Davies). It was imperative that girls remained virtuous at this time, if a girl of this time was not chaste, she would be seen as undesirable. The fashion industry of that period turned huge profits with corsets, it’s claimed that, “by 1868 Britain produced three million corsets a year,” (Davies 619).

Hiring models with the male gaze in mind encourages the thought process that girls should dress, look, and act in particular ways to please the male gender. The issue lies within how our society works. In a time when women are still fighting for equal rights and equal pay, young girls are still taught that it is their duty to please men. When girls see extremely thin models in magazine spreads and in the media, they start to wonder, “Why don’t I look like that.” And then they also start thinking, “I should look like that”. This is the “climate” for body image that is set for very young and very impressionable girls. A climate that tells girls they should dress for boys, and that only certain body types are desirable. While the industry does play a big role in setting the beauty trends and profits off of doing so, society is what is reinforcing such impossible standards. The modern-day version of the use of corsets is the use of “waist trainers” which are corsets that promise to shrink the waist and modify it into an hourglass shape for those who were unhappy with their natural waistline. For years celebrity Kylie Jenner has been promoting waist trainers on social media to her social media followers, a following that consists of young girls. She recently promoted the product after giving birth to a baby. This contributes to the negative body image climate, as it tells new mothers that their post-birth bodies are not acceptable and that there should be concern over how a body looks immediately after the bringing a child into the world. 

Social mediais an entirely new aspect to the industry that makes it very accessible. From the faces that create fashion’s newest trends, to the faces that present these trends to the public, the industry is taking a sharp turn toward the unexpected as the reigns are getting handed to the general public, and yet what is accepted as “beautiful” seems to remain the same. Many fashion and beauty brands are utilizing social media to establish themselves in the competitive landscape and create exposure. Social media platforms are often used as marketing channels to debut products. It makes setting trends easy and as quick as the drop of a hat. It can also extend a company’s reach virtually worldwide. If a company enlists the help of an “It” girl or boy, they can reach a hyperconcentrated target audience and experience huge profits. Fashion isn’t a trend until it hits the streets and what the general public likes is ultimately what will make the most money. “It” girls are who decide what’s the latest and greatest, as well as what’s a major fashion faux paux. The stereotype for an “It” girl was much like the Paris Hilton type: Young with a privileged upbringing, and most of the time, blonde. As far as “It” boys, it was generally understood that they had to have come from a powerful family. That was the type that adorned the front row of the biggest fashion shows in the industry’s past, before the age of the smartphone.Fashion influencing used to be done through privileged socialites born in the top one percent featured in the pages of society tabloids, the content of a fashion magazine, and starlets on red carpets.  However, now unique everyday style is that “it” factor that launches careers. Fashion influencers are known for their style, and as their lifestyle becomes more intriguing their careers skyrocket. Whether they started as a small personal blog, or as a struggling actor with a YouTube channel, their following is grown organically, and their opinion is highly valued among their hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of followers. Setting trends, consulting brands, promoting brands, featuring in ad campaigns, and blogging about fashion shows, sponsored content created as they globe-trot, these are the jobs for the fashion influencers, along with any other opportunities they may be presented with as a result of such popularity. These are the “It” girls and boys of the millennial generation. The more followers they have, the more desirable they are to companies looking for the face for their next campaign, and the more companies they promote, the bigger their reach becomes as they gain more followers with each post. 

Through the power of social media, influencers have become a sort of celebrity in their own right. Fashion influencing is all about how big of a following one has. While this should open up the industry to a more diverse concept of beauty, the most successful fashion influencer according to Forbes, Chiara Ferragni, still fits the industry’s definition of beautiful. Shea Marie, also known as PeaceLoveShea, an undeniably successful influencer is the classic American Beauty, blonde haired, big eyed, and Caucasian. She isn’t afraid to use her popularity as an opportunity to speak up on issues she finds important. On multiple occasions she has used Instagram to share her views on LGBT rights, women’s rights, as well as call out the fashion industry for not being inclusive enough, to her 1.1 million followers. This kind of transparency is what makes her followers so loyal, the most loved influencers are ones aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. These influencers aren’t popular because the industry decided they would be, they’re popular because the general public wanted them to be, and the industry had no choice but to embrace them. This means that society has adopted the same narrow definition of beauty that the industry is often criticized for. Sociologist have observed that, “globalization – and the way American media has been exported to the rest of the world — has had a profound effect in the way people all over the world perceive beauty ideals,” (Karlin). If the beauty ideals have been defined by American standards, then the problem no longer lies solely on the fashion industry.

Tammy-Christina, also known as wbywhitewolfe, has a following that is small in comparison to others, but she is well-known and is the perfect example of a trailblazing “it” girl. She is a writer, creative director, photojournalist, and lawyer born in Australia and currently residing in Los Angeles, California. Shegoes against the traditional stereotype of an “it” girl in almost every single way, except one. She knows fashion. People like Tammy-Christina are who actually can change the industry and take it in a new direction that makes it more diverse. People are quick to call out a brand for lacking in diversity, which is exactly what happened to the Los Angeles clothing company and e-commerce giant, Revolve. In January of 2018, the company was accused of lacking in racial and body type diversity. With a following of 1.2 million on Instagram and over 40 million page visits each month, the brand is highly influential it in their sales. However, cofounder and cochief executive officer of Revolve, Michael Mente,

reported that in 2017, “70 percent of the site’s revenue was fueled by influencers,” (Strugatz). That’s $700 million dollars in revenue, meaning that the company is partnering with the five thousand influencers that enable them to reach the largest amount of their target audience. If the most followed influencers on social media, where society has a voice in the fashion industry, all fit the profile as conventionally pretty by Western standards, then society is contributing equally to the lack of diversity in influencers and is encouraging the same beauty ideals they claim to fight. If new faces start making their way into the industry, designers may be forced to change as new girls and boys start controlling the winds of fashion. If the number of “it” girls that break the stereotype increases, companies may be forced to take another look at how relatable they are. 

While the faces of fashion are slow to change, the geniuses behind the curtain change at a much quicker pace, and those changes are much more progressive. Luxury brands are merging art with fashion as they present out-of-the-box showcases. This is an effort to appeal to the newest generation. Mr. Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, premiered his showcase celebrating the fashion house’s founder and creator, Cocoa Chanel (Paton D7(L).While this spending trend started a few years ago it’s apparent that designers are increasing their efforts to appeal to the incoming generation of fashionistas while still staying in touch with the roots of the traditional fashion industry. With the “selfie generation” making its way into the industry, designers seem to be constantly looking for more opportunities for their creations to get photographed and shared on social media. Social media is making a huge impact on how designers are viewing their work. Fashion influencers have made their way into the industry, they bring their massive following everywhere, as they have that following, literally, at their fingertips. With social media in play, new lines get premiered almost instantly to the public, and get reviewed within 24 hours or so with the added journalistic aspect of bloggers. This adds a new aspect that luxury brands didn’t have to worry about before. Brands have to fight to stay relevant in the fast-paced environment created by social media. With this in mind companies are changing with an effort to appeal to the millennial generation and the general public. Virgil Abloh was recently named the next artistic director at Louis Vuitton. He was born outside of Chicago, raised by Ghanaian immigrant parents, and has no formal education in fashion. He founded an extremely successful high-end streetwear brand, Off-White, which has had sold out collaborations with major brands such as Nike, Moncler, and Jimmy Choo. Now Abloh is the first African American artistic director for one of the oldest and most powerful European houses in the luxury business. His main objective, “to make Louis Vuitton men’s wear more relevant — and more visible — to the millennial generation,” (Friedman).This is a goal that man brands are currently facing. In addition to making the brand relatable to a new generation, the artistic director’s personal end goal is to “shake things up” in the traditional fashion industry (Morency). This could lead to a complete redefinition of “beauty” as Abloh implements his artistic vision into one of the most influential fashion houses in the industry.

Social media’s influence does not just apply to clothing trends, but beauty trends as well. With users from all over the globe, social media has enhanced the ability to spread beauty standards and generalize what is considered beautiful on a worldwide scale. On Tumblr the stereotypical “Tumblr girls” that are very popular, have the skinny waists, thigh gaps, and collar bones and hipbones jutting out, as well as aesthetically pleasing content that sometimes promotes drug abuse. Instagram is crowded with the fitness accounts like, “Skinny Girl Bible”, and “Fitness Motivation” that post about working for the “perfect body”. This can include washboard abs and big biceps for men, a big butt and a smaller waist, for females, or any other body feature consumers may find desirable. Accounts such as these are constantly used as a form of advertising, along with a growing interest in existing accounts that belong to personal trainers and yogis. This is another example of industry influencers on social media, the same concept of a fashion influencer, but applied in a different industry. The diet and fitness business prospered as people sought optimum health and physical attractiveness. The fitness industry experienced exponential growth largely due to the mainstream media's increased fixation on remaining young and fit, a fixation fabricated by the fashion industry.Gyms that are known for training models, and post content of their celebrity clientele, experience an extreme amount of online engagement in comparison to other gyms. Between photo shopped models and fitness gurus the climate for body image is more damaging than ever. The average everyday consumer According to psychologists, “nobody is born with a body image. The perception of the body is shaped not only by media but by family, friends, and neighbors.” This means that with the climate, created by these industries and reinforced by society, have taught people to have negative thoughts and feelings towards their bodies. The current climate is teaching society to idolize unrealistic images seen in the pages of fashion magazines, and on social media accounts, making both males and females self-conscious to an extreme degree.

The Fashion industry is at a turning point. With such technological advances and social media losing no traction with the incoming generations, the industry is forced to change as society changes. The industry has always affected the idea of beauty, and it still does, but with social media in play, society is reinforcing these ideas more than ever before. The brains of fashion are changing; however, it seems that the industry’s definition of beauty isn’t as quick to change, making the faces of fashion slow to change. At this point in time, the industry really needs to reevaluate if the message they are sending is in fact a good one. Their audience is bigger than ever and is affected even faster than ever; at the touch of a button, really. The interaction between the society and the fashion industry is so intertwined that one does not change without the other. 

Michelle Lee