Why Looking Good Makes Us Feel So Bad (About Ourselves)

September 20, 2019

by Jenna Flanagan

Spring was always my favorite time of year.

Not for the anticipated thaw or the bloom of new flowers. Nope, I loved spring because it meant an annual trip to the Ebony Fashion Fair!

One of my childhood aunties was an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha or AKA, a historically black sorority that had a Hudson Valley chapter. The organization made sure that little brown girls like me were able to see runway models who not only looked like us, but could stomp the catwalk in the fiercest styles of the late 80’s.

It was a transformative experience, and as a 10 year old, I rushed home to tell my mother that I wanted to do that when I grew up!

“Fashion can be a tough career… especially for a black woman.”

At the time, I didn’t understand my mother’s bubble bursting comment wasn’t borne out of haterism but more from a place of realistic concern, and a desire to prevent my heart from getting broken.

It wasn’t until decades later, after building a career in the equally fraught world of news media that I finally understood what she meant.

The fashion industry thrives on exclusivity for the white elite, yet struggles to reflect the true diversity of its global customer base.

There’s no denying that there’s been a significant increase in the diversity of models we see on billboards, in magazines and on runways, so much so that little girls of all backgrounds can see a model whose body and skin looks like they will one day, promoted as the pinnacle of American beauty. But what about behind the scenes? The global apparel industry generates about $1.5 trillion annually, with women accounting for more than half of the market share. So shouldn’t women be the driving force behind the industry?

Samantha Barry, editor in chief Glamour US

“I’m Samantha Barry, I’m the editor-in-chief of Glamour in the U.S.”

Glamour is one of the 19 periodicals or media brands published by CondéNast. However, for Samantha, Glamour is a media hub, centered on women… All women.

“For us it’s about people seeing themselves in fashion and seeing things that seem for us more accessible than aspirational. And we are very, very committed to telling honestly some of the more underrepresented stories in fashion.”

For most women, myself included, finding clothes that fit and flatter can be a lifelong quest because over half of American women, again, myself included, are over a size 10. And despite the spending prowess of the full figured, curvy or even thick population of women, Samantha says catering to or even acknowledging this customer base is often met with resistance.

“When you talk about size inclusiveness, you’ll get an answer back about you know, ‘well the pattern changes when you take it above a certain size. I think its bullshit.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with designers and retailers and I’ve had conversations with retailers who tell me when they put anything in their store that’s over size 10 it’s sold out within minutes, right? I’ve had designers tell me that some people buy two size sixes of their clothes and sew them together, and that’s for me really interesting. Like the market is there especially when we’re talking about size inclusiveness. The market that 67% of women in America are oversized 10 or 12, I think they have the money to spend and I think fashion honestly needs to catch up.”

Lauren Sherman, chief correspondent The Business of Fashion

Lauren Sherman, is the chief correspondent for a trade publication called, The Business of Fashion.

“When you go to a fashion magazine, women are running that. When you go to the business side of that magazine a lot of times men are running it, so if you look at the big publishing houses who are running them? Men. So it’s still very much a boys club, even though the editorial voice is often driven by women.”

To Lauren, the reason why fashion companies continue to stumble or even blindly walk into issues of diversity and inclusiveness is really quite simple,

“The industry is coming from a place of privilege.

If you look at the top American retail for instance, almost all of those CEO’s are 50 year-old white men or 60 year-old white men. In terms of diversity it’s not good either especially when you climb up the senior ranks. In the past few years there has been more of an effort to bring in more voices whether that’s on a design team or on an editorial team because the product is just better.”

And while there are numerous examples of companies ignoring the double-digit sized woman, Lauren says the industry could no longer ignore the persistent omission by a certain underwear retailer.

“If you look at what’s happening in Victoria’s Secret, it’s a really interesting example because you have every publication from the you know Instagram influencers to The New York Times coming out and saying that Victoria’s Secret needs to change. It depicts women in a way that doesn’t feel appropriate for our era. It’s misogynistic, it’s you know all of these things and that the consumer is not responding anymore to their idea of what sexy is.”

She says the company’s senior creative, Ed Razek, has been incredibly resistant to change, particularly when it comes to women defining what makes them feel sexy as opposed to what they have been told men think looks sexy.

“You know everything that Victoria’s Secret is doing consumer facing feels wrong for this time, and in just the way the culture has changed,and their sales reflect that, the sales are going down.”

He also said there was no interest in plus size women modeling the company’s lingerie.

But making space for more size inclusiveness really isn’t that hard, Samantha Barry, Glamour’s editor-in-chief, says the key to addressing the needs of and marketing to women, means putting more of them in charge of the narrative.

“You have to take a step back as an editor or somebody that’s responsible for a creative, weather that be an editor of a media brand or somebody that’s responsible for the creative a fashion brand, what does our aesthetic say across the board? How are we talking to different people? How are we really representing?

One of the lessons we’ve learned at Glamour is if we’re going to talk about communities or certain people, it’s always best if we get a writer or the video maker who’s part of that community to tell that story rather than parachuting in and telling that story form an outsider point of view.”

Staying relevant means using a wider lense, because women aren’t just diverse in their body shape and clothing size; as half of the global population, she says consumers are demanding cultural and racial diversity as well.

“Nude is not the nude of the past right? When we talk about tights or where you’re talking about lipstick shades, or where you’re talking about makeup, depending on what your skin color is, nude is a multitude of different things. It’s got such a big spectrum, and I think you’re seeing the fashion and the beauty industry catching up with it since no one size fits all.”

For Samantha, ensuring that Glamour magazine’s mission of addressing the style needs of the modern-day luxury consumer also means keeping up with the current events that overlap with their coverage of women’s issues, work, money and law. But progress on inclusion is a two-way street, and one magazine, one fashion line, one advertising campaign can’t do it alone.

“To be frank, it’s on the consumer to find their inspiration from places that feel positive rather than negative… I think there is something about consumers seeking out both in the curation of their social feeds, but also the magazines that they pick up, or the sites that they go to. They should be empowering, they should make you feel better about yourself. They should not make you feel worse about yourself.”

However, fashion’s inclusion problem goes much deeper than size inclusivity.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor in chief Teen Vogue

Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples, formerly with New York Magazine’s The Cut.

“I think I know it’s frustrating because a lot of times I think people have very different feelings about racial diversity than they do size diversity.”

On the next MetroFocus podcast, I’ll continue my conversation on fashion’s problem with diversity.

And if you have a story or a subject you think we should know about, drop us an email at metrofocuspodcast@thirteen.org, so we can cover more of the stories you want to hear on the MetroFocus Podcast!


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