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How should we tackle fashion’s body image issues?

With controversial new laws being introduced to seemingly protect the health of models, five industry figures weigh in on how we can finally shift narrow beauty ideals for good

Is 2016 the year fashion really starts taking diversity seriously? With the phrase ‘body posi’ seeming to eclipse its predecessor ‘thinspo’ in terms of social media hashtag popularity, these days it would be easy to assume the fashion industry’s ideologies are slowly shifting to that of a more inclusive standpoint.

Social media is making it increasingly easy to build a platform and speak out on issues, many industry insiders have used their online leverage to campaign for change throughout all facets of fashion. Models such as Charli Howard and Leomie Anderson have shown that they are far more than “clothes hangers” – appearing more outspoken than ever on the issues that matter (with Howard challenging modelling agency sizeism and Anderson taking to Twitter to contest the lack of suitable shades of make-up for darker skin tones at fashion shows). Further shifts can be traced through campaigns such as #DropThePlus igniting debate across the internet, and Dazed 100 star, trans model and actress Hari Nef signing to IMG after building a reputation for herself online. When it comes to shifting the narrow beauty ideals that have dominated fashion, change really has been led from the ground up.

However, when push comes to shove – and the statistics roll in after each fashion week – the reality is far more bleak. Despite the fact models existing outside the perimeter of fashion’s skinny, white norm consistently walking in shows, the SS16 stats show over 70 per cent of models at New York Fashion Week last season were white, with that statistic only upped by three per cent for this current AW16 season. And with diversity spanning many facets of body image including, size, gender identity and race, it can often feel a case of one step forwards, two steps back.

As multiple countries, (including France, Italy and Spain), introduce so-called ‘Skinny Model Laws’ based on BMI measurements to protect and ensure those participating in runway shows are healthy enough to do so, it seems the wider world may finally be putting its money where its mouth is and investing in a more diverse future. But, while a law that protects the well-being of models is no bad thing, does this new legislation in fact dangerously police how women should look? With brands who force models to eat on set coming under rightful scrutiny, and this Victoria’s Secret model speaking out about the realities of ‘skinny shaming’, it seems the fine line between genuine care and unwarranted concern is one frequently being crossed as the debate thickens.  

We speak to five women challenging the status quo and paving the way in terms of how we think about inclusivity in the industry on tools for change, the difference between legislation and body policing and whether passing laws is the right way to shift body ideals.  


BECCA MCCHAREN: Designer of Chromat, lingerie and swimwear focused New York-based brand and finalist for the influential CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2015. Chromat has built a strong reputation through their inclusive casting choices - championing body positivity, trans models, and all around intersectional politics on and off the runway.

CHARLI HOWARD: After being dropped from her agency for being “out of shape”, Howard penned a viral Facebook post publicly calling out her now ex-agency (and the industry) for suggesting she was unable to work due to her body – despite wearing only a UK dress size 6-8. Howard has since signed with a new agency and continues to advocate a more inclusive approach to fashion.

PHILOMENA KWAO: Aside from being the face of Beth Ditto’s new fashion label, Kwao heads up The Lily Project, an online mentorship charity offering advice to troubled teens. As a plus size woman of colour, the 26-year-old model champions non-convention and uses her platform to open up discussions around body image and race.

CARYN FRANKLIN MBE: Former fashion editor/co-editor of i-D magazine during the 80s. A fashion commentator and expert, Franklin has championed the politics of self-esteem in the fashion industry throughout her 30-year career. Co-founder of All Walks Beyond The Catwalk, (an initiative campaigning and promoting diverse beauty ideals), Franklin also works as a lecturer, consultant, and activist.

NAFISA KAPTOWNWALA: Founder of Lorde Inc, the model agency with a roster consisting only of people of colour set up by Kaptownwala in 2014 to combat the lack of diverse representation in fashion. Utilising social media platforms such as Tumblr to scout talent and promote the agency, Lorde Inc is living proof of how fostering a community online can directly influence an IRL industry.

What steps do you or your business take to promote body diversity and what do you hope to achieve?

Becca McCharen (Chromat): As fashion designers, we have the power to highlight and celebrate beauty in all different forms. For me personally, Chromat women are doing amazing things in all different fields and come from all different places. We wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate those women and have them reflected in our runway show. When you don’t see yourself reflected on the catwalk, it can be really damaging. It is crazy that when you feel like you are recognised, when you see people who look like you in these realms, it opens up a whole new possibility in your mind. It’s weird to me that other fashion designers wouldn’t do that.

Charli Howard (Model, writer & body positive campaigner): It’s hard, because I’m trying to remain true to who I am while fighting the industry belief that thin equals beautiful. But if I can help young girls think better about themselves, I know I’m doing the right thing.

Philomena Kwao (Model, writer & humanitarian): By being present and being true I believe that in my own way, I am promoting diversity. I am not the norm. By signing me, both Models1 and JAG models took a stand and provided clients with the option to use a different model, a dark skinned, plus size woman with cropped natural (Afro) hair. When I first started modelling there was no-one else like me, which speaks volumes about the pace of change in this industry as I have only been modelling for four years. The brands that choose to use me, my agency and social media have given me a face and a voice. I hope to show people everywhere that you can be unapologetically you and still succeed. I also hope that by using more diverse models, brands can see that there is power in diversity, and not shy away from doing something new for fear of failure. The effects are bigger than just the fashion industry.

“Women all over the world are evaluated and oppressed because of their appearance. Age, size, skin tone and appearance of genitals are political issues” – Caryn Franklin

What were your initial thoughts on France’s, (and now possibly California’s)  introduction of these “skinny model laws” ?

Caryn Franklin (Fashion commentator and Professor of Kingston University in Diversity): It communicates the desperation of politicians to do something to protect models when the fashion industry appears fairly complacent. Caroline Nokes chair of the APPG on Body Image is looking into regulation and calling for these young models to be treated in the same way as child actors – mandatory working hours, access to food and drink, proper supervision etc.

She is also looking into the way visas are issued to those models coming in from outside the EU as these are open to abuse. For a start bulimia is rife and most models can maintain the regulation BMI but still put a terrible strain on their heart and create other serious health issues through regular enforced vomiting.

Becca McCharen: Body politics are a slippery slope. It’s a woman’s choice to be who she wants to be – it’s no one else’s place to comment on her body. I find it very disturbing that government officials – mainly men – feel the need to comment and regulate women’s bodies in ANY respect. I do however 100 per cent agree that women who choose to be models should not have to damage their body in order to work in the industry.

Nafisa Kaptownwala (Lorde Inc): I actually thought this was something that people have been talking about for a while. I remember reading that Chanel Iman was getting turned away from shows for being too thin, although she maintains that she is naturally thin – and I don’t doubt that – but many women in the industry are expected to maintain figures that are really unnatural and unhealthy for them. At the very least, we should be fostering a community that isn’t compromising people’s health.

Philomena Kwao: I was horrified by parts of the policy, more specifically the policing of women’s bodies. Size diversity goes both ways and I despise terms such as ‘real woman’. You cannot determine someone’s health by the BMI alone. There are many factors that contribute to the health on an individual. If we’re going to start using BMI to police straight size models, what’s next? The plus size industry? To be honest, if it was down to BMI alone, most plus size models – including myself – wouldn’t be working.

I think that part of the problem is that models are being used as scapegoats for a wider problem. If beauty only has one face, how can we celebrate the differences that make us unique, that make us beautiful? I do, however, celebrate the laws in place to protect models, (especially child models) to ensure that they are protected as if they were in any other industry.

Do you buy into the idea of ‘skinny-shaming’, where naturally thin girls are chastised for their bodies?

Nafisa Kaptownwala: Yeah, it’s definitely a thing. All bodies should be embraced and treated with respect. But, unfortunately, bigger bodies are more marginalised; so unpacking that prejudice might be a good place to start.

Philomena Kwao: The more we celebrate and display different kinds of beauty, the less we are ‘shocked’ by our differences.

Caryn Franklin: Women all over the world are evaluated and even oppressed because of their appearance. Age, size, skin tone and even appearance of genitals are political issues. This is a much bigger issue.   

Becca McCharen: Oh yes, there is definitely skinny-shaming. Even on Chromat’s Instagram – the one place women should feel safe being exactly who they are – people feel the need to comment negatively on models we feature who are slender in build. To get around this, the media has a responsibility to show all different body types and celebrate them all equally.

“I was horrified by parts of the (‘skinny model’) policy, more specifically the policing of women’s bodies. Size diversity goes both ways and I despise terms such as ‘real woman’. You cannot determine someone’s health by the BMI alone” – Philomena Kwao

Should other measures be taken to ensure the well-being of models and those who consume fashion imagery?

Becca McCharen: The well-being of models is more than just backstage at a runway show. It’s creating a safe space in all aspects of the job – from hiring photographers who respect their subjects (as opposed to male photographers who are known predators), to hiring make-up artists who are equally skilled on all skin tones, to bringing different size samples on set in order to ensure there are clothes that fit the model no matter what.

Caryn Franklin: Becca makes important points. There are many studies to show that body image anxiety is affected by the prolific appearance of the fashion normative body. Young girls are evaluating themselves against hyper-sexualised, thin white models. It’s a fact…social comparison cannot be avoided.

The conscious promotion of a broader range of body ideals creates an intervention in thinking and gives broader audiences important visibility. Even Naomi Campbell has been campaigning for that. Our belief systems are fairly fixed at the moment through fear, laziness and resistance to change.

Charli Howard: Most definitely. I can recall many times when I’ve been sent alone to a man’s house to be photographed, simply because he’s asked to see me and wants to take my picture (hello, practically everyone with a camera calls themselves a photographer nowadays). If I feel threatened by that in my twenties, how the hell are teenage girls meant to feel?

Philomena Kwao: Yes. There are many areas where change can be implemented. As Becca has stated, the well-being of models covers various aspects such as job safety and preparedness. For those who consume fashion imagery, I believe that people, especially young impressionable minds should be properly educated so that they have the tools to decipher real from fantasy.

Caryn Franklin: As a mother I have made it my life’s work to bring up my two daughters now 23 and 16 to deconstruct fashion imagery. All young women and increasingly young men need the tools to engage in this discussion and bolster their mental health. Schools – even primary schools – should include this as crucial health education. We have a massive mental health time bomb on the way.

Do you feel like diversity quotas and an enforcement of bodies outside of fashions white, skinny ‘norm’ are important? Or do they lead to tokenism as opposed to the actual alteration of beauty ideals?

Becca McCharen: A very long history of racism and oppression has dictated the standards of beauty up until now. Anything that reverses this narrow and restrictive beauty ideal is a step in the right direction.

Caryn Franklin: I agree with Becca, having been in fashion for 35 years, and agitating for change I see that womenswear bosses in the high street and designer brands are still mostly male, creative teams are still mostly white. It’s the minorities that think about race and gender politics, and the dominant culture that is lazy. We need diversity in front of and behind the lens. But until we get it behind the lens, possibly through quotas, we don’t have enough impetus to drive through lasting change.

Nafisa Kaptownwala: It’s important to call people out and challenge their racism, but establishing quotas is a really whack way to go about it. For one, the bar is so low that if you have two models of colour in a show of 20, you’ve passed the bar and that would be tokenism. We should be asking designers to be more inclusive and challenge their racism, but including only one or two non-conventional models is still reinforcing the status quo.

“The well-being of models (is about) creating a safe space in all aspects of the job – from hiring photographers who respect their subjects to make-up artists who are equally skilled on all skin tones, to bringing different size samples on set” – Becca McCharen

Which other people or organisations are inspiring to you in terms of diversity within the industry?

Charli Howard: Despite their negative connotations, platforms like Instagram have actually brought attention to plus-size models and girls of colour. Hashtags like #DropThePlus appear frequently on plus-size models’ posts, and black models like Leomie Anderson have spoken about the lack of appropriate make-up for dark skin. Before then, we probably wouldn't have noticed these women or issues.

Caryn Franklin: Individuals are hugely powerful. Speaking out and holding an alternative point of view should never be underestimated. Model Winnie Harlow does this. The Director of the Diversity Network Mal Burkinshaw does this. Naomi Campbell and her Diversity Coalition do this. Sara Ziff of Model Alliance does this. A shed load of psychologists and mental health experts looking at fashion behaviour do this. Susie Orbach has always done this and should be credited for her 40-year campaign on behalf of all humans to feel good about their body image.

Charli Howard: There’s a new wave of body positive models that inspire me to keep being myself, my favourites include Candice Huffine and Ashley Graham. What’s great is that if they’re inspiring a fellow model like myself to embrace what I’ve got, they’ll be influencing a new generation of young women following their movements online. I'm not plus-size, obviously, but these girls spread a lot of body positivity which I think should be admired, and which ‘normal’ models don't seem to do.

Do you think the fashion industry is set in its ways? If so, why? Who is to blame?

Nafisa Kaptownwala: Maybe it can change, but capitalism relies on these unhealthy beauty standards so people keep feeling compelled to buy things that make them look a certain way.

Caryn Franklin: There are thousands of individuals in fashion who can use their voice and their creativity to make changes. I always say to my students... ‘You are the change, be part of the solution, not the problem. Own your contribution’.

Charli Howard: I agree with Caryn here. As an industry with role models, it is up to us all to stand together and make a change. We need to be the change we want to see.