Friday, 6 November 2009

Embodying Youth

by Anoushka Boodhna

Last week the world’s media broke the joyful news that Kate Moss had grown boobs and gone “curvy”.

According to some columnists, her most recent advertising campaign for Topshop has ended the size-zero tyranny in fashion, media and advertising (collectively referred to in this article as the Industry), finally lifting an ‘embargo’ on real women’s bodies. A celebrity-watching columnist in The Mail online even went so far as to say that Kate Moss’ rounded belly was akin to Rosa Park’s defiant acquisition of a seat at the front of the bus.

However, are Kate’s pictures simply highlighting how body image in the Industry is being altered more and more in the pursuit of a time-defying youthfulness? The pursuit of youth is one of the core reasons behind the use of young and skinny models in the Industry and indeed a primary reason for the serious problem of body dysmorphia. The obsession with youth in our modern age is worrying for many reasons.

Many contemporary fashion trends have created a form of asexualisation in their attempt to synthesise the pursuit of perfection with the pursuit of youth (the idea of ‘perfection’ appears to be perceived as early adolescence). As Kate pouts seductively at her audience, one cannot help notice that Kate’s new boobs – enhanced cleavage a la Photoshop? – seem strangely disproportionate to her narrow hips. I think of the body proportions of a young girl who has entered the first throes of puberty.

Aren't image enhancement programmes just another one of the many ways in which youth can be pursued? The Industry can tame and perfect the adult human body and create an engineered construct according to its ideals – testing the notions of both ‘real’ and ‘woman’ to its limits – by way of aggressive health decisions and so on. Promoting crash-dieting, slimming pills, cigarettes, drugs (remember ‘heroin chic’?), excessive exercise regimes and, at the extreme end, cosmetic surgery.

The agenda in fashion is frequently changing. Back in the 1990s Kate won her supermodel status for representing alternative slighter body shapes on the catwalk in light of the dominance of the Amazonian-like supermodels, such as Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson – she was one of the shortest and less curvaceous models of her era. Today, the Industry seems to be about preserving that youthful slimness and blemish-free body particularly found in adolescent girls.

Although this obsession with youth has pervaded in society forever, modern consumerism and celebrity culture is new. Alongside the obvious innovations in modern technological and chemical body enhancement there are other features that characterise our particularly modern obsession with body image in the Industry.

Firstly, there has been a downward shift in the age of the trend-setters in popular culture. Today it’s teenagers with pocket money, not adults with salaries and disposable incomes, that direct many things consumable and thus dominate the high street. Facilitated with the increased wealth and liberal standards of their parents they set the trends in music, fashion, even film. With such an invasion, you’re old and past it at 25. Especially if you don’t watch Skins.

Secondly, there are stories of people in the public eye who are aware of this teen dominance and in a desperate attempt to remain contemporary, pursue the projection of their teenage self: an invocation of an empowered (and more popular) version of their adult selves. That transfiguring pop star, Madonna, and her obsession with her 13-year old daughter – “we dress alike, Lourdes is my best friend” – is a good example of that.

Thirdly, there is a greater tendency amongst spotlight-seeking adults to behave like teenagers and view the world through the same one-dimensional perspective that comes from limited experience. And of course, this means claiming to hate politics and/or anything intellectual.

Why? Are these people in the public eye simply creating teen versions of themselves for consumer-ready, idol-seeking adolescents to buy into?

Or does it go deeper? Are they so driven by malcontent with their current adult lives that they find fulfilment in trying to relive their formative years? Are they trying to address adult neuroses by re-staging those painful scenes of being un-cool at the school dance, but this time writing in a happier ending? Or are they returning to a time of supposed innocence and security (before full-time jobs, mortgages, the fear of terror attacks, street crime, obesity) when their best and most exciting years were still ahead of them?

If the Industry (including the more recent growth of celebrity-driven magazines) is responsible for setting these trends then who, we must ask, is responsible for supporting them and thereby driving demand through voracious and indiscriminate consumption their goods and services?

Who these people really are and their psychological motivations deserves some pondering.

And further, if fashion is cyclical, what could come next?

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  1. It is a fascinating yet frightening subject..

    Models alongside singers, actresses and other celebrities have such a huge influence on teenagers and at a young age teenagers, or 'children' have to look a certain way, often forgetting what celebrities endure to look the way they do; crazy personal trainers, personal chefs providing calorie-counted meals etc etc.

    Remember the outrage that Susan Boyle caused and how she shocked the public by having such a sweet voice. This suggests that 'unattractive' people should not be talented, are not expected to have beautiful voices etc etc. Could anything be more wrong?

    The excellent 'Evolution' advert by Dove is a perfect example of how images can be distorted and airbrushed to reveal almost completely different people!

    Yet models and celebrities are getting slimmer and slimmer - what will our childrens perception be of a beautiful body I wonder?

    - Deniz

  2. Please take a look at the Hudson Jeans latest advertising campaign for a worrying example of this idealisation of youth in the fashion industry and wider society in general. Giorgia May Jagger features as the Bardot esque model; pouting through seductively tousled hair, covering her bare breasts with her arms and kneeling with her top button popped open. She also features in another similar shot where her ribs are prominent in her stretched pose and a video which features her writhing around whilst paint is splattered over her. The fact that she is merely 17 (!!!) has negated to raise a concern in any of the influential publications she has graced the cover of (Vogue) or featured in (Grazia et al) since the campaign has launched. Contrarily her age is raised as a positive, almost enviously, as if this is what we all should have been doing at 17 and should even aspire to now. Worryingly this also suggests to the models peers that they should aspire to this kind of sexiness and perfection provided by a glossy magazine.

    In line with the Authors point, the fact that such publications, supposedly aimed at an older demographic, are idolising youth not only for the way they look but for their lifestyles, only goes to cement this obsession with youth. They are promoting an impossible and unhealthy ideal to their readers, constantly promoted by the use of teenage and underweight models and celebrities which emulate this ideal. The use of half naked teenagers in imagery of any sort is wrong. When it comes to fashion why do the rules change?

    It is almost ridiculous that this campaign and its teenage star are applauded by renowned fashion publications surely aimed at an older demographic. These are the women who can affect change and set the trends, why must they aspire to be like young girls?

    Ps. Though serving as my example I have nothing against Giorgia May Jagger personally…I am fully aware she is just the girl with good genes that Hudson knew would sell Jeans.