By Z Zoccolante
Normally I’m not one to write an article in response to something that has already been extensively commented on. However, this time I’m making an exception.
The article in question is titled “Mannequin with Visible Rib Cage Causes Concern,” by Kayleen Schaefer, who presents the issue clearly and objectively states the facts. A clothing store in New Zealand geared towards teens and young women displayed a mannequin with protruding ribs. These mannequins have been making their rounds in various stores, to vast disapproval. People are outraged that a mannequin would show ribs, thus promoting the thin ideal and feeding into eating disorders. The article states that various stores in the U.S. have removed the super-skinny mannequins due to public outrage. The lingerie store La Perla removed the mannequins and issued an apology after someone tweeted a photo and response.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sympathetic to the outrage, having spent a great portion of my life in the talons of anorexia and bulimia. Today, if I saw this mannequin while shopping, I’d definitely contemplate the implications of this mannequin providing, or at least reinforcing, super-thin role models for our youth.
Recently, I was having coffee with a friend, and she explained to me that mannequins are supposed to appeal to the majority of the population. She understood that the skinny, rib-showing mannequins do not represent the way most people look.
But then she leaned in, as though someone might hear us, and told me that her own ribs and her backbone stick out. She confided that she’s uncomfortable wearing swimsuits to the beach, and is grossed out when she sees her spine while changing near the mirror in her room.
First, I want to clarify that my friend does not / has never had an eating disorder, or any weirdness with food. She simply has a petite frame, and due to her slender body type, her ribs are visible.
Coming from a world where skinny seems to be the new everything, I had a million questions for her. She associates seeing bones with being sickly skinny, and told me that her genetically wide ribs are “icky.” People have not told her this, but it’s her view that the world sees it that way.
“I understand that it’s sending the wrong signal to girls,” she said, “but how is it supposed to make people like me feel? I look like that, so people are basically saying that I look disgusting because my ribs show. A lot of people want to be skinnier and automatically resent people who look like that mannequin, people who look like me.”
Hearing her say this, I’m reminded of a pitch I made a few years ago to speak at a high school and educate teens about eating disorders. The supervisor I met with spoke these words verbatim: “Well, look at you. You’re pretty and thin and successful, and you had an eating disorder.” At that time, I wasn’t able to respond because the comment threw me so far off-kilter. The words were said with a jab, like they were meant to hurt me. I remember thinking, That’s exactly what I’m trying to share with these younger women! You can look put together on the outside, while inside you’re dying. It doesn’t matter what you look like externally, if deep down you hate yourself.
I was upset because I didn’t have eating issues anymore, and this was my natural body type. It felt like she was saying, “I can’t take you seriously because you’re ‘thin’ and appear put together.”
In high school, one of my classmates was far thinner than the rest. The day we had a class-wide talk about eating disorders, she was gossiped about and confronted about her “eating disorder,” which she didn’t have. I later found out that after that week, she ate bags of potato chips in hopes to gain weight so people would leave her alone. At our reunion she looked exactly the same, thin and bubbly, and still no issues with food.
Everyone has a natural body type. Yet the paradox of society is inescapable: Don’t be too skinny, but don’t be too large either. Talking with my friend that day reminded me that people’s eyes are on you either way, although you’ve done nothing to deserve their admiration or distaste. All you’ve done is exist in your natural body. It’s like getting a medal or a frown just for showing up.
Later when I was at home, my friend texted me: “If I got to know you and you were exactly who you are and looked like that mannequin, I wouldn’t think anything but that you were a kind and loving person and that I could see your knee bones sometimes when we sat across from each other talking. I wouldn’t hate you or offer you a sandwich all the time. If I never saw you eat, I’d reach out to you for sure. But I’m sure you’ve never thought to offer me food, and my ribcage is visible.”
Hmm. I’d never given a thought to my patellas. And I don’t watch what my friend eats, nor have I been angry with her because she’s petite. It’s simply what her body is.
After our conversation, I noticed the mannequins in windows everywhere. But why all the fuss about mannequins? Aren’t they just inanimate objects? Not exactly. In the insightful article “Why Mannequins Must Reflect Us” (Herizons magazine, 2013), we learn that over the years, mannequins have helped set standards for beauty and perfection. In the past, mannequins were larger, but they also mirrored the shifts in beauty ideals. As time has whittled down our mannequins into tiny, sometimes faceless or headless entities, I can’t help but wonder what messages are being sent to our youth and women in general.
The Herizons article describes a study by Ben Barry, CEO of Ben Barry Models. He discovered that when models were the same size as the shopper, the intent to purchase went up by 200% or more. What’s more, female consumers’ intention to purchase dropped as much as 76% when models weren’t the shopper’s size.
This study proves a simple truth: We all want our bodies to feel included. When we identify with models or mannequins, we are more likely to purchase clothing. The same holds true outside of shopping. When we identify with someone or something, it becomes personal. It affects us more. Suddenly, we feel included, instead of watching from behind glass windows.
My friend reminded me of a simple, peaceful point. It’s not up to us to judge or hate on any body, however large or small. People come in all shapes and sizes and with various genetic backgrounds. But the truth is, until the fashion industry and the media stop glorifying one type of body, be it through real-life models or through mannequins, no one is exempt from body shaming.
Instead of shaming, hating, or gossiping about others’ bodies, we could stop judging each other and love each other instead. We have no ideas what burdens another person may carry, or what their invisible scars are. We could support each other, as women and as people. We could lift one another up, give compliments, and be inclusive. Because we all know in our hearts that, no matter our external shape or size, we are always greater and more extraordinary than the sum of our parts.