Term Paper: Gender and the Fashion Industry: Blaming Gay

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Gender and the Fashion Industry: Blaming Gay Men for the Emaciation of Women

One of the most recent controversies particular to the fashion industry that has spilled over into the larger media conversation about female beauty is the shrinking BMI (Body Mass Index) of fashion models. Some major fashion shows, most notably the 2006 show in Spain, have attempted to instate a cut-off BMI of 18.5 for the fashion models exhibiting designer's clothing. However, the way that this issue has been phrased in the media has proved troubling. Many media sources, such as one blog called 'Feminine Beauty' have targeted, not commercial or cultural pressures that encourage women to tailor their bodies to fit the image of the moment -- whether that be fat or thin, voluptuous or skinny -- but instead have cited gay men's dominance in the fashion industry as the reason that so many thin models dominate the catwalks. Is this supposed cause of female emaciation endemic to the popular media's homophobia, or does it have its roots in academic discourse? And how can academic discourse help us escape this polarization of gay and feminist liberation ideals, or are these two movements really opposed in their larger cultural and epistemological aims?

In the 10th anniversary edition of her feminist classic, the Body Betrayed, Susan Bordo tartly refers to the tendency of diet and fashion industry publications targeted specifically at women as idealizing a masculine form or attitudes. This can be seen in diet advertisements, where in delineating women's supposedly ravenous appetites: "the mental state depicted is most like that of a growing teenage boy; to be continually hungry," apropos of a Sugar Free Jell-O advertisement (Bordo 105). Bordo also criticizes the fashion industry's idealization of a lean, taunt athletic physique as synonymous with overcoming the appetite for food, and achieving a successful defeat of the female, physical self (Bordo140). However, one must overcome the tendency to merely state that Madison Avenue or Vogue causes eating disorders, Bordo cautions. Bordo points out the fact that the "relentless pursuit of thinness" embodies certain cultural values of what it means to be a woman of a certain class and temperament and it is not simply the obedience to the whims of designers (Bordo 67).

The desires of an individual designer can hardly explain the validation of a certain body type for an entire media industry that spills over into advertising and other forms of representational culture, not simply fashion. The aesthetic discourse privileges images of masculinity transposed upon women's bodies, according to Bordo, not femininity, and masculinity is associated with wealth, intelligence, hard work, and restraint. That is why women strive to embody slenderness, not because fashion advertisements 'tell' them to do so, or because designers are consciously communicating explicitly anti-female messages.

Writing around the same time as Bordo, Robert Radford noted in the Journal of Design History, that the blame for negative or desexualized female images being laid at the feet of gay men is long-standing within the academic discourse of psychoanalysis and cultural criticism. In 1953, Edmund Bergler, author of Fashion and the Unconscious, wrote: "that fashion is a male problem, deriving from the need for reassurance as to masculinity and from men's unconscious, masochistic fear of women's bodies. Women's fashions are so foolish, uncomfortable and constrictive because 'women are dressed by their bitterest enemy, the male homosexual,' with the result that 'unsuspecting women are the victims of a fashion hoax'" (Radford, 1993, p.116).

As with Bordo, women are unwitting cultural victims and consumers in such an analysis. Critics like Bergler pitted men and women against one another quite explicitly, by implying that to be 'out' of fashion, presumably, and to opt out of the fashion hoax would be to shed a feminine victimization status and association with the enemy. A clear-minded woman, in Bergler's analysis, presumably returns to the heterosexual, male ideal of a more voluptuous figure.

Judith Roof has noted that, although quite often the political projects of feminist and gay cultural critics seem complementary, and they tend to make use of similar epistemological strategies, male and female ideological projects are not necessarily harmonious, in every circumstance. The analysis of the fashion industry is one such example, whereby even gay-identified male critics may approve of the ambiguity of sexual images of models as showing the homoerotic potential of the heterosexual ideal of the female body, while feminists will see such images as imposing strictures and a metaphorical corset upon images of female beauty.

Roof notes that the epistemological project of feminists is usually to alter the current construction of normative female behavior, as exemplified in literary criticism: "Unlike the feminist version, however, gay male recovery work does not need to focus on bringing to light forgotten or ill-considered authors;" or concepts such as the beauty of a non-traditional feminine ideal, "instead it [gay male criticism] uncovers the homosexual encoded within works for the most part already established in the canon or envisions the material effects of homosexuality," in a positive light (Roof 1992, pp.359-360). Instead of threatening the centrality of male standards for achievement, like feminist criticism, gay male criticism "challenges the academy's homophobic suppression of anything but heterosexuality" and celebrates how homosexual ideology and iconography can be found even in the most cherished bastions of heterosexuality (Roof, 1992, p.360).

However, feminist critic Diana Fuss would strongly disagree with such a notion. "Women's fashion photography, and the industries of mass clothing production and commercial advertising it supports, all presume and indeed participate in the construction of a heterosexual viewing subject. This 'photographic contract,' like the 'cinematic contract,' appears to operate as a cultural mechanism for producing and securing a female subject who desires to be desired by men -- the ideal, fully oedipalized, heterosexual woman" (Fuss 1992, p.713). When viewing fashion, women are not asked to see themselves as a homosexual male might see a woman or an androgynous figure, rather a woman is encouraged to see her own body, and reconstruct it, according to what she perceives as the demands of the male, sexualized gaze of desire for the ideal female body.

Fuss takes her analysis from film theory, which suggests that regardless of the gender of the gazer, an observer must see a film as a male, as the male body is denatured of sexual potency, and the female body is rendered the site of desire through the deployment of the camera. Whether the designer is homosexual or heterosexual, male or female, is of no importance, what is critical is that the female body is posited as "sexually irresistible," and thus women desire to physically embody the image, regardless of what it may be -- women are asked to gaze as lesbians or men, according to Fuss (1992, p.714). Fuss' analysis provides perhaps the most liberating point-of-view to understand and critique fashion. The question is not simply what the image may be, but how people are asked to read it -- why are men asked to desire only the female body in a certain fashion, and why do women, gazing upon fashion, feel called upon to become the impossible?

Position Paper

Be careful whom your allies are, when critiquing the fashion industry. Although many critics of the industry may be feminist, not all criticism of the fashion industry is feminist and progressive. Demonizing and blaming a socially marginalized group such as gay men for the oppressive images of women in fashion today, does not advance the feminist cause any further, even if feminists may welcome the current debate about the body type expectation of models. Critically reading the homophobic discourse that blames male designers for emaciated images of women in fashion today reveals a very dangerous assumption, not simply that gay men dislike women, or that 'real' women do not have figures of underdeveloped teenage boys, but that there is a certain body type that constitutes a 'real' woman.

The argument that gay men are perpetuating images they find attractive merely implies that fuller-figured women who are presumably more attractive to heterosexual male gazers should replace the current stable of models on the catwalks. This assumption does not threaten the industry. This statement merely implies that women should tailor their physiques to yet another, different fashion ideal preferred by the critic. True, to cite Bordo, a more realistic feminine ideal may embody cultural concepts that are less apt to associate masculinity with restraint, discipline, and eradication of the feminine, physical, maternal trappings of womanhood like breasts. But to encourage women to still identify with a concept of femininity still constructed through the gaze heterosexual male desire is no better. Would progress be made if more women got breast implants to embody a more voluptuous feminine ideal? That is still as artificial, if not more so, than extreme thinness.

Moreover, as noted by Fuss, constraints of beauty having nothing to do with thinness can be equally time consuming and confining, from high heels, to large breasts, to a carefully made-up face. Both male homosexual critics… [END OF PREVIEW]

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