On Tuesday, Tyra Banks congratulated Vogue for the “groundbreaking announcement” that its creators “will work with models who, in [its] view, are healthy.” The supermodel-turned-media-entrepreneur went on in her open letter to the fashion tome to discuss the perils young women within the industry and those without face, as too many idolize models who are pressured to be size 0-4. Vogue magazine has stated that it will no longer hire models who appear to be visibly unhealthy. Banks also encouraged all women to see themselves as “flawsome” — as in both “flawed” and “awesome.”
While the magazine’s long overdue decision to “be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image” is encouraging on the surface, it actually perpetuates the root of the problem. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: a “healthy body” has nothing to do with “image.” The former is determined by the mostly objective conclusion of health science. The latter is exalted by a confluence of opportunistic interests, cultural trends and Photoshop creating shape-shifting images that impact all women across race and ethnicity.
For many American white women tiny fashion models like Gisele Bündchen embody their ideal, while many black women aspire to a curvier figure a la Beyoncé’s. But what is truly at issue is not the celebration of Beyoncé’s curves or Gisele’s angular physique, but the definition of these as singular ideals. Then the Body Image Industrial Complex capitalizes on them, planting and/or preying on insecurities in women’s psyches to pad the almighty bottom line. For both black and white women, these ideals are usually unachievable.
Just as the white ideal drives some to eating disorders in an effort to achieve what is unnatural to their body type, the ideal body image for blacks leads some to dangerous extremes. The pursuit of a maximized gluteus, for example, led former cosmetologist and fashion designer April Brown to black market “pumping parties” where unlicensed practitioners injected her buttocks with materials that ultimately caused her to lose her limbs.
Though African-Americans are the slowest-growing minority group seeking cosmetic surgery according to ABC News, the desire to achieve bootylicious curves has some black women and men buying into the fast-growing plastic enhancement trend of butt implants — contributing to the 43 percent rise in the posterior procedure from 2010 to 2011. Even celebrities are not immune to the pressure black women face to have a big bum. In ‘09, actress Countess Vaughn famously admitted to plumping her rump with the help of implants.
To many, the fuller African-American ideal looks like a healthier alternative to a skinny frame, but that is not always the case. As an outspoken advocate for sexy plus-size beauty, Countess Vaughn’s former co-star on The Parkers, Mo’Nique, was an undoubted boost to the mental health of many full-figured women. But seven years after penning the popular 2003 book Skinny Women are Evil and launching a plus-size fashion line, the Oscar-winner later admitted health concerns and a “wake-up call” from her husband caused her to embark on a weight loss plan which helped her drop over 45 pounds.
Writer Alice Randall blames black culture’s infatuation with big hips and thick thighs for the larger problem of obesity plaguing black America in her recent New York Times opinion piece Black Women and Fat. With close to 80 percent of black women being classified as overweight and 50 percent considered medically obese, Randall advocates “a body-culture revolution in America.”
I have to agree. But that revolution doesn’t start with weight loss or weight gain — it begins with the acceptance that we can’t define a healthy body by the way it looks, or by comparing one person’s body to another’s.
In her Open Letter to Models regarding the Vogue decision, Tyra writes about “models who seemed unhealthy backstage at fashion shows” when she first started modeling. While I’m reticent to argue with the supermodel’s personal eyewitness account, I have to point out the operative word is “seemed.” We tread dangerous ground when we make assumptions about other people’s health without any medical proof.
For this same reason, I’m skeptical of Vogue’s declaration. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t trust Vogue to determine which woman does and does not appear to have an eating disorder — nor do I think they should appoint themselves to make that kind of judgment call without the input of a medical health expert.
A healthy body isn’t something that can be evaluated at in an editorial meeting; nor can health be indicated by how much or how little a model eats backstage at a fashion show, or even by a designers’ commitment to cut larger-sized samples (two issues mentioned by Banks). These are all baby steps in the right direction — yet, saying that thin is automatically unhealthy is as untrue as assuming that “thick” mean health.
What is the solution? It comes down to we as women, especially black women, taking real responsibility for our own health without compromising it for some arbitrary, and passing, ideal promoted — or dissected — by beauty industry leaders.