Can fashion’s commitment to feminism ever be more than lip service?

Feminists have long critiqued the fashion industry, which has often responded by – at best – co-opting feminism as a ‘brand’ in order to sell products. Can the two ever genuinely engage with each other?

Feminists have long critiqued the fashion industry, which has often responded by – at best – co-opting feminism as a ‘brand’ in order to sell products. Can the two ever genuinely engage with each other?

First published by Open Democracy, 22nd November 2015

Feminism and fashion make uncomfortable bedfellows. The fashion industry continues to champion one body type that’s virtually impossible to achieve for the majority of healthy, adult women, and in doing so, denies the diverse reality of female bodies. It places medically unsafe expectations on models in terms of their measurements, leading to hospitalizations, models eating tissues to fill their stomachs, and, indirectly, it could be argued contributed to the death of several young women, including Luisel Ramos in 2006, who collapsed on the catwalk and died of heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa.

Fashion plays an undeniable part in the prevalence of body dissatisfaction in Britain, where one in four girls aged between 11-to-21 would consider cosmetic surgery and almost 10 million women report feeling ‘depressed’ by the way they look. As of February 2015, a report commissioned by the charity b-eat estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are suffering from an eating disorder.

Bar a few high profile examples, fashion largely ignores women of colour and trans women, preferring to populate runway shows, magazine editorials, and advertisements with tall, thin, white, cisgender bodies. Although plus-size models have become more commonplace, the term ‘plus-size’ is entirely arbitrary, illustrated by findings that three-quarters of the plus-size models at BMA models in London were a size 12 or below.

Fashion is an industry that excludes rather than celebrates, peddling the insidious message that we are not good enough to be represented within their ads and editorials, and therefore should continue to spend money on clothes and accessories and beauty products in order to combat this. Designer brands and high street retailers alike have demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the women around the world who produce their garments, the majority of whom live in poverty and are paid starvation wages for their labour. Bearing all this in mind, can fashion ever be compatible with feminism?

Sophie Slater, Sarah Beckett, and Ruba Huleihel, co-founders of the brand new online marketplace Birdsong, are determined to provide that it’s possible. If their initial launch is successful, Birdsong will be crowdfunding to produce non-sweatshop, non-Photoshopped adverts that will be placed on London tubes in the new year. Fans of the brand already include Lauren Laverne and Tansy Hoskins.

I spoke to Sophie Slater, to find out more about this new online marketplace that brings fashion, feminism, and community activisim together. Slater and her two partners met on a free postgraduate course called Year Here, based around social change. She says “we were all in our early or mid-twenties, had done tons of volunteering, and saw the effects that funding cuts were having on organisations. A lot of these groups, like the Age UK centre Sarah worked at, have women making things. The women there had formed a knitting circle that had been going for fifteen years, but they had mobility problems and a lack of digital skills that prevented them from being able to sell the things they were making. We were also excited and inspired by fashion, but knew that sweatshops, and the way that fashion is marketed to women has devastating impacts. So we came up with this idea, tested it, and people really liked it. We won a place on an “accelerator” in January (where they give you money to support your idea, and workshops on how to run a business) and we’ve been working hard to keep generating income for our suppliers since then.”

Slater was determined that feminism and fashion needn’t be in opposition to one another. She has been involved in feminist activism for a couple of years after personally experiencing sexual violence and unhealthy relationships, and has trained with Rape Crisis. Seeing organisations like Eaves having to shut down, after years of dedicated feminist work, prompted Slater to get  Birdsong seeks to support women’s organisations by putting 50-85% of revenue back into the collectives that make the garments and jewellery, and using profits to stop more refuges and non-profits from closing down. Slater says “we want to give them the means to make money, and make them less reliant on government funding that’s let them down”.

Birdsong is launching a campaign featuring inspirational women who aren’t typically represented in the media, that includes award-winning trans activist Charlie Craggs, Muslim feminist Hanna Yusuf and 83 year old knitter, Edna, who knits fairly made jumpers for Birdsong.

Sophie told me “it’s really important to us to empower women and have diversity amongst our models. We use our friends, makers, or people who inspire us, and never alter their appearance with Photoshop. As a team of three young women, we’ve all felt alienated at some point by a culture that objectifies women. A culture that sets unrealistic standards based on our beauty as worth. We wanted to create a campaign that fit in with our feminist values, so we’re launching #AsWeAre this week. We want to create a conversation around the way women are sold things, who gets represented, and in what way.

Most fashion is marketed to us in a way that’s a total fallacy. It’s meant to be ‘aspirational’ and ‘unattainable’ but we know that’s not what women want, or need. Most senior positions in advertising are men, and I think that’s why we still have patriarchal advertising for the most part. But we built Birdsong ourselves so we have the opportunity to do things differently.”

Charlie Craggs, founder of Nail Transphobia, says “as a trans person, seeing trans people being visible and represented is vital. It’s not a luxury, it’s so needed. This is advertising done right”.

I asked Sophie whether the relatively high prices (more than £100 for some dresses and £22 for a pair of plain cotton pants) would alienate buyers on low incomes, like myself. She says “cost is something that really influenced our decision not to become another “luxury” ethical brand. It’s tough, because on one hand, if the items are made in the UK, they need to be a certain price to pay the wages of the working class women who make them.”

“Our items start at £10, but there are things like our Palestinian embroidered dresses that take hours to complete, and are higher priced to cover that. Also, we’re working on a super small scale currently, which makes things more expensive. We want to get the balance right. We’re trying to get our prices as near to high street as we can, whilst still paying fairly and making things that won’t fall apart after one season. Our clothes are made really beautifully and carefully, so should last for years. Some clothes are just really unsustainably cheap, and we can’t compare to that. But hopefully, if you find something you can afford, it’s with the knowledge that a big chunk of that money is going back to working class women or organisations that need it. And in the meantime, we’ll be working on getting bigger, at the same time ensuring our clothes are as affordable as we can get them.

We have fourteen suppliers at the moment. Our jewellery brands Relevee and Jit-Win-Yan are made in India and Thailand, by women who’ve survived human trafficking, or are exiting sex work. They earn middle-class wages with the money they make from selling jewellery. We also sell from maker’s groups in Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and from single mums in the U.S. Our Co-Founder Ruba is Palestinian and grew up in Jerusalem, so obviously the conflict is really close to her heart. She got Two Neighbors on board, who work together to create dresses across Palestine and Israel, that pay for wages for both sides, as well as medical supplies and water in the Hebron hills.”

It’s fair to say that Birdsong is more than just a new place to buy cute underwear and gifts for Christmas: it does make a concerted effort to give back to the local community, supporting the Bradbury knitting circle, and Mohila, a group of mums from migrant communities in Tower Hamlets who make the cute avocado-print sweatshirts. Birdsong also supports the Heba Women’s Project on Brick Lane, who’ve been running a women’s project, creche, and seamstressing for 25 years. Birdsong pairs women from Heba with designers and run workshops to boost their design confidence, and ensures their stories are heard by interviewing them for the Birdsong website.

“We really hope that our defiant no sweatshop stance affects bigger companies, and opens people’s eyes up to the possibility of fashion that’s fairer for women. We’d love to advise bigger companies on how and where they could source ethically, or do more campaigning work to get them to improve conditions in factories they own. It’s totally viable to stop exploiting workers – they have the profit margins to affect huge change. It’s really sad, because even garment workers in the UK are being exploited and paid less than £3 an hour. With Birdsong, as well as selling things that are cool and beautiful enough to change people’s expectations of ethical fashion, we want to challenge all the ideas people have about the fashion industry. We want people to think about the fact that worker’s rights and feminism are linked, as is body image. Fashion is too fun not to want to change for the better. We want to see a fashion industry that uplifts women and workers, rather than doing the opposite.”

It’s not cynical to feel suspicious of highly successful brands co-opting diversity and feminism, for example in the case of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, a world-wide ad campaign that encouraged women to see their ‘real beauty’ more clearly. What was this ‘real beauty’? Superficial, outward appearance, of course.  Brands use diversity as a marketing tool when it suits them, with no real commitment to women’s issues or improving the state of advertising in the long term. Birdsong was built as a feminist project from the ground up, meaning that its series of arresting adverts, featuring women of colour, trans women, and older women, are essential to the ethos of the project, rather than a gimmick thought up by a roomful of ad agents.

 

Although it’s possible to criticize Birdsong for promoting ‘consumer feminism’, the reality is that the majority of us buy new clothes to wear. Purchasing them from an organisation that gives back to skilled female creators and to women’s services is more than simply tossing more money into the gaping maw of the capitalist marketplace. Unless you live an entirely self-sufficient agrarian life, you’re a consumer, and clothing brands that do incorporate a feminist and progressive ethos into their work might just provide those of us who care about women and advancing the aims of feminism with a place where we can feel good about spending money.

Fashion’s Lolita moment: why are campaigns so keen to fetishize young girls?

If you weren’t already aware, little girls are in. Socially, we remain mired in a seemingly unbreakable obsession with youth, particularly when it comes to women.

First published by New Statesman, 2nd October 2014

If you weren’t already aware, little girls are in. Socially, we remain mired in a seemingly unbreakable obsession with youth, particularly when it comes to women. Fashion prizes young girls; repeatedly running advertising campaigns that feature teenage stars, insisting on the use of teenage models,  and pushing childish garments that infantilize adult women. Men can age gracefully and become distinguished, but women are only worth celebrating when they are young.

Young girls have been fashion favourites for a long time, but this trend was made particularly explicit in the early 90s with the ushering in of “heroin chic”. A waifish Kate Moss was snapped topless at sixteen, and topless straddling a shirtless Mark Wahlberg a few years later for Calvin Klein’s infamous 1993 jeans advert. Moss brought her youthful, boyish thinness to the world of modelling, and the tired, circled eyes and vacant expressions of the “heroin chic” craze followed. Curves were out, flat chests and non-existent hips were in, and models got younger and their bodies stayed regressively little-girl in order to fit the trend. Despite the recent gains in fashion regarding the protection of young models and the push to see more diverse body shapes on the runways, youth still reigns supreme and little girls remain fashion’s first choice.

The US clothing site Dolls Kill runs several “looks” on every season. One is titled “La Femme Matilda” and features a model dressed in clothes inspired by the 1994 film Leon: The Professional. The title is a play on both Leon and director Luc Besson’s 1990 film La Femme Nikita. Matilda, played by a pre-pubescent Natalie Portman, is a twelve year old who smokes, curses and tries to initiate a sexual relationship with Leon, played by Jean Reno who was 46 when the film was released.

Dolls Kill’s look for “La Femme Matilda” includes crop tops, short dungarees with a rainbow applique on the chest, combat boots, fetish-style chokers, and tiny denim shorts bearing the legend “Lolita”. The clothes are for adult women, but inspired by a twelve year old character. The model used can be seen lounging in hotpants, wearing a heavy-duty leather collar, and clutching the stuffed rabbit that Matilda treasures in the film.

The character of Matilda is inappropriately sexual and wishes to mimic grown adult relationships, despite not having even entered her teenage years. This is how Besson communicates to his audience that Matilda is damaged by her physically and emotionally abusive upbringing, and the bloodbath that results in the loss of her family. In the film, Matilda’s sexual precociousness is poignant, but Dolls Kill makes it sexy, stylish and a desirable ‘look’ for adult women. Dolls Kill did not respond to requests for comment.

Fashion’s obsession with young girls has caused trouble with the censors. In 2011, the British Advertising Standards Agency banned the ad for Marc Jacobs’ Lola perfume. It featured Dakota Fanning posing with a giant, phallic-looking perfume bottle in her lap. The ASA ruled on the ad due to the fact that Fanning looked to be under the age of 16, coupled with the sexualised pose. It’s strange that fashion advertisements are not banned because they continue to feature eroticised teenage boys. Correct me if I’m wrong, but pubescent and pre-pubescent men are not culturally salivated over in the same way.

Roger David, a men’s clothing brand, was also slammed for using a highly sexualised image of a young girl in an advertisement, with a UPC code stamped on her shoulder reading “SLAVE”. True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld was fourteen when she appeared in a Miu Miu ad. She was depicted on a railway track, appearing to wipe one eye as if in tears. The ad was banned for showing a child in a hazardous situation, although the real question is why an adult brand like Miu Miu needed to use a fourteen year old to model their clothing.

American Apparel, a serial offender when it comes to controversial advertising, was recently forced to remove a schoolwear-themed advertisement that showed a model bending over in a tartan skirt, exposing her buttocks. The ASA banned the advertisement on the grounds that “the images imitated voyeuristic ‘up-skirt’ shots which had been taken without the subject’s consent or knowledge which, in the context of an ad for a skirt marketed to young women, we considered had the potential to normalise a predatory sexual behaviour.” It baffles me that these kind of advertisements get through the design process unscathed. Why is no one saying “hang on a minute, this might not be an okay message to send”? Or is American Apparel so cynical that they are willing to throw out sexist images that they know will cause offense, simply to gain notoriety for their brand? If you’re not convinced that AA adverts are sexist, check out the difference between how the unisex tartan shirt is styled on male and female models.

It might be sensible to ascribe the Dolls Kill look to the current popularity of 90s fashion and retro items that those in their twenties and thirties remember wearing as children and younger teens. The plastic backpacks, My Little Pony printed t-shirts and pleated school skirts are having a real fashion moment right now. There’s nothing wrong with looking back to retro styles, but there’s also something very strange about explicitly childish clothes on grown women. Monster highstreet retailer Primark currently has a whole hosiery section devoted to frilly-topped socks, reminiscent of those I was forced into as a six and seven year old (despite denouncing them to my mum as “too girly”).

The problem with fetishising and sexualising young girls is that it sends the message that all females, regardless of their age or developmental maturity, are fair sexual game. The Daily Mail is one of the most shameless offenders, referring to the eight-year-old daughter of Heidi Klum as a“leggy beauty” who “showed off her best model walk”. The paper also released articles drooling over the bodies of Elle Fanning and Chloe Grace Moretz who were both 14 at the time of publication. The “Daily Mail Reporter” turns teenage girls under the age of consent into knowing temptresses,describing Kylie Jenner (then also 14) as “displaying her trim figure for her two million Twitter followers to ogle at”. The article helpfully provides the pictures so that readers can also “ogle”.Guardian columnist Owen Jones started a change.org petition demanding that the Daily Mail stop sexualising children and introduce stricter guidelines regarding editorial style. Referring to teenagers and children as unafraid to “dance suggestively in skimpy bikinis” or displaying a “maturity and a lifestyle far beyond their years” is distasteful at best and positively paedophilic at worst.

Halloween is fast approaching, and there will be no shortage of teenagers and adult women dressed as sexualised schoolgirls, with little interrogation over the cultural messages that these costumes are sending. Adult women aping childhood fashions is perhaps symbolic of how far our social obsession with young girls has really gone. Is it because we’re looking back with fascination at 90s styles? Partly. But it’s doubtful that American Apparel would have deliberately sexualized a pleated school-style skirt if they weren’t playing, one step removed through the women who buy their clothes, to a heterosexual male audience. Schoolgirls are sexy. Teenaged Chloe Grace Moretz and Natalie Portman and Kylie and Kendall Jenner and Dakota and Elle Fanning are sexy. They weren’t even legal when they were being eroticised and fetishised, but that’s kind of the point.

Fashion shouldn’t need to use the bodies of teenage girls to sell clothing, particularly clothing aimed at women. It’s turning all of us into Humbert Humberts, and I for one am done with this Lolita moment.

American Apparel’s porntastic ads were just the icing on Dov Charney’s sleaze cake

Dov Charney, the founder, president and CEO of American Apparel, found himself without a job this week. I think it’s safe to assume that the prevailing sense among American Apparel staff and management will be one of pure, unadulterated relief.

First published by The Independent, 20th June 2014

Dov Charney, the founder, president and CEO of American Apparel, found himself without a job this week. I think it’s safe to assume that the prevailing sense among American Apparel staff and management will be one of pure, unadulterated relief.

Charney created American Apparel, the best place to buy shiny leggings and see-through leotards with double-take price tags, in 1998. The company has been mired in controversy ever since.
The now-defunct magazine Jane ran a profile of Charney in 2005. Claudine Ko described how he masturbated in front of her during the interview, and called afterwards to explain that he needed to get ‘his release’ before he could properly speak to her.
By 2006, Charney had been sued by three separate employees for sexual harassment; one woman claimed that Charney had a quirky taste for holding meetings wearing only a ‘cock sock’. 2008 saw another sexual harassment lawsuit, this time from an ex-employee who accused Charney of forcing her to simulate masturbation, and ordering a male member of staff to pretend to masturbate in front of her. Charney was also accused of showering an employee with homophobic and anti-Semitic insults, grabbing his throat and rubbing his face in the dirt.Charney’s appetite for personally judging the photographs of prospective staff members is just the icing on the hideous harassment-mixed-with-discrimination cake here. (Don’t ask me what that cake looks like, it isn’t appetising.) He reportedly created rules for the personal grooming of employees, particularly women employees, and encouraged the firing of anyone who didn’t fit in with the “American Apparel aesthetic”. A former store manager told Gawker that they were told to only hire the “right kind” of black women.

In 2010, Charney received a $1.1m bonus, despite the plummeting stock price of American Apparel and the firing of 1,800 workers. One of the reasons that Charney was forced to step down was the lagging profits under his leadership, but since American Apparel’s board have terminated his contract following allegations of misconduct, it would hardly be surprising if his record of employee complaints was the deciding factor. Either way, shares in American Apparel jumped as much as 20 per cent in New York trading after the news of his departure was made public.

Perhaps with Charney gone, American Apparel will have no need for their “At Will Confidentiality Agreement” which stipulates that any worker who contacts the media or disparages Charney in public or online will be liable to pay a penalty of $1m. The agreement also demands that AA employees should not discuss the company at a volume that “reasonably could be overheard by a third party”. Without the looming presence of Charney, they may be able to raise their voices above a whisper.

Whatever you think of American Apparel’s porntastic advertisements and its overpriced jersey basics, the firing of Dov Charney hails a new era for the company and gives his alleged victims at least some justice. The good news is that Charney is history. The bad news is that it took so long to happen.

Are ultra-thin fashion bloggers encouraging young women to starve themselves?

The world of fashion blogging has many upsides. Anyone with access to the internet and an eye for style can get involved. It allows you to enter fashion journalism without slogging away at unpaid internships, and you don’t need to have wealthy parents to support you while you work in London, for free, for an undisclosed amount of time.

First published by the New Statesman 14th April 2014

Content note: This piece discusses eating disorders and contains images which sufferers may find distressing.

The world of fashion blogging has many upsides. Anyone with access to the internet and an eye for style can get involved. It allows you to enter fashion journalism without slogging away at unpaid internships, and you don’t need to have wealthy parents to support you while you work in London, for free, for an undisclosed amount of time. Hugely successful bloggers such as Bip Ling and Susie Lau have transformed their online blogs into legit fashion careers. Bip Ling has signed with Storm Models, while Susie Lau is a FROW regular in London and New York. Both women were chosen asCompany magazine cover girls in 2012. The most popular fashion blogs offer catwalk news, summaries of season style, DIY fashion tips, outfit inspiration and product reviews. Some are like miniature magazines, run by a single writer and style lover. Fashion blogging is the democratic and inclusive route into fashion writing, and the popularity of plus-size blogs demonstrates that many of fashion’s repressive beauty ideals are not immediately transferred to the blogosphere.

However, there are a relatively small number of bloggers who not only conform to the fashion industry’s super-skinny standard, but take it to the extreme. Their bodies are reminiscent not only of the skeletal figures striding the major catwalks, but of young women all over the country who are currently hospitalised or receiving outpatient treatment for anorexia. Whether or not they are healthy themselves, are they encouraging others to be unhealthy? And are their legions of adoring fans encouraging them to stay the way they like to see them, whether or not they are damaging their health by doing so?

When talking about ultra-thin fashion bloggers, there are two examples who spring immediately to mind: Felice Fawn and Violet E Both are wildly popular: Felice Fawn’s “public figure” page has over 178,000 likes on Facebook and she has more than 51,000 Twitter followers. Violet E currently has 90,000 Facebook likes and over 5,000 Instagram followers. Felice Fawn describes herself as a gothic model and blogger, and Violet as a blogger and photographer. Despite their differing approaches to fashion, these two bloggers are united by their super-skinny body shapes. Their pictures regularly end up on pro-anorexic pages on Tumblr and Instagram, and are tagged as “thinspiration” or “thigh gap”. The most-shared image of Felice with the tag “thinspo” can be found on the page of a blog that begins “I have built this website to help inspire me and others to lose weight”. The image has 1,459 “notes”, which includes likes, reblogs and comments.

Violet E offers no written content at all on her blog. She doesn’t talk about how to put outfits together, where she gets her clothes from or how she styles her hair. She doesn’t review products or catwalk trends. Her posts are largely restricted to pictures of herself, an indication that it is these images that generate her following. She’s a Pre-Raphaelite grunge princess, and very, very thin. Her pictures on Facebook are peppered with comments about how her body is “perfection” and how other women wish they were as skinny as her. The occasional comments that encourage her to eat are met with replies from Violet, including “go fuck yourself” and “I hope you die soon”.

From Violet E’s public Facebook page.

MSc student Sophie*, a current ED sufferer, says that she finds the ultra-thin bodies of such bloggers much more upsetting than those of models in fashion magazines, because “they are more like real people, with social lives and drama and success stories”. She adds that “they provide something real and desirable and this can inspire me to keep going, keep restricting, keep vomiting – because it is associated with a glamorous lifestyle, a life that is so interesting that people from around the world want to follow it”.
Ebony Nash, a fashion blogger and English Literature student, describes ultra-thin bloggers as a niche within the blogosphere, although she adds that “there is a correlation between the skinniest ones and their popularity”. Ebony has recovered from her eating disorder, but is clear about the fact she feels triggered by some other bloggers. “Half of me hates her [Violet E] and the other half really admires her – but that’s the sixteen-year-old, eating disordered part of me talking”.
Violet has never spoken about whether or not she suffers, or has suffered, from an eating disorder. By contrast, Felice Fawn has spoken publically about her struggle with anorexia in a blog post entitled “A Response to Weight Critics” (now deleted) and was willing to chat to me for this article. She describes herself as “practically recovered” and says “I know many females struggling with eating disorders who are triggered by larger women and images of bigger bodies, but neither myself or any of these girls would expect larger women/bloggers to censor themselves”.
Felice adds that “trigger warnings and censorship will not solve mental health issues or eating disorders. It’s impossible to censor everything in the world that could possibly be a trigger to someone, so it’s an unrealistic and irrational expectation”. She advocates the use of helpful informational links on super-skinny content, such as “links to scientific research, care centres and help forums instead of just ‘trigger warning’” in order to raise awareness.

Felice does not currently provide either trigger warnings or links to information about eating disorders on her underwear snaps, where her protruding ribs and hipbones take prominence. She’s right that “skinny bloggers should be treated like human beings, and should be allowed to live their lives just like anyone else” but to refuse to acknowledge the effect that certain content has on others seems to run counter to the “compassion, empathy and understanding” that Felice calls for during our interview.

During my eight-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I oscillated between hiding my body beneath layers of baggy clothing and flaunting my thigh gap and protruding ribs, in the hope of receiving words of admiration and encouragement from my peers. Both Felice Fawn and Violet E are gaining this validation from their many thousands of followers, every single day. Eventually I was called out on my behaviour by a friend, who told me that the pictures I posted to social media were triggering and upsetting to her. I was hurt and angry at first, but I realised that she was absolutely right to challenge me. My sickness and the sharing of images of my emaciated body were hurting others. I had to take responsibility for this.

Grace is a 16-year-old who has experienced the damaging effect that eating disorders can have on a family for most of her life. With regard to Violet and Felice, she says “it’s sickening to see so many comments glorifying their skeletal forms on her social media accounts; anyone can access their pictures without any kind of trigger warning, there’s no sensitivity to people suffering or recovering from eating disorders”.

Violet E’s response to a critic of her weight

Leanne Thorndyke, Head of Communications at the eating disorder charity b-Eat, says that “there is nothing wrong with celebrating your body and being body confident. It is skeletal or emaciated images which can be so distressing and triggering for eating disorder sufferers”. She says images on some fashion blogs “are not different to the images we find on thinspiration sites”.
Fashion bloggers who suffer from eating disorders should be encouraged to seek professional help, like anyone else. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and to remain a sufferer is very dangerous. Whether super-skinny bloggers intend to present anorexia in a glamorous light or not, it’s clear their images are attracting a certain fan base and finding their way on to pro-anorexia sites or Tumblrs. It is hard to control where images end up once they are released on to the internet, but it only takes a quick Google search to find a wealth of thinspo and pro-ana sites hosting content from Felice and Violet. If you are aware your content is being used in a potentially harmful way, does it becomes your responsibility to combat this?

There is another dimension to this: the feedback fashion bloggers get from their adoring public. It is harder to convince someone with an eating disorder to change their unhealthy habits when they are receiving thousands of “likes” for their super-skinny pictures.
So what now? To say that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to show their bodies on the internet raises the thorny question of censorship. It seems counterintuitive and repressive in the extreme to ban those with certain body shapes from expressing themselves online. People with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders should not be shamed into hiding themselves, whether they are high-profile bloggers or not, but it’s important to consider the effect that ultra-thin content has on those who view it.
Facebook’s community guidelines state that content that promotes self-harm, including eating disorders, will be removed. In 2012, Tumblr placed a ban on “blogs that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders; self-mutilation; or suicide.” Instagram has since made the hashtags “proanorexia”, “probulimia” and “thinspiration” unsearchable.

The good this has done is entirely debatable (not least because it is hard to decide what is a a pro-ana image, and what is merely a photograph of a thin person). Leanne Thorndyke of b-Eat says: “We remain concerned about the ease with which users can still post, search and access photos that promote starvation and impossible body standards. It’s worrying that with the powerful medium of social networking, people are able to easily access images that encourage the individual to believe that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and to avoid treatment.” She adds that “individuals should be pointed towards pro recovery sites, providing acceptance and support throughout society so that these alternative sites are no longer the only refuge a person feels they can seek”.

Popular bloggers are in a privileged position in that their large fan bases allow them to influence others, for good or otherwise. I hope that fashion bloggers who are currently suffering from eating disorders get the help that they need, and in the meantime consider taking a more sensitive approach to the content they post. There’s nothing wrong with skinny, as long as it isn’t achieved through sickness.

The Fashion Blogosphere: Top Two Blogs to Watch in 2014

The fashion blogosphere is massive and there are so many amazing sites to search for style inspiration and DIY fashion tips, but I’ve narrowed my favourites down to two. These are Stylingo, a joint effort from Coventry girls Claire and Lauren and ELN Fashion, run by Ebony Nash, from Lancaster.

First published by The Huffington Post, 6th February 2014

I guess I’m feeling a little jaded when it comes to fashion mags. The shiny pages and the promise of cool stuff to cut out and stick on my outfit inspiration board just aren’t enticing me like they used to. It might have something to do with my diminishing interest in celebrity gossip or being bombarded with straight girl sex tips or because I’m at loath to support publications that continue to employ the services of an alleged sex offender (Vogue, Harpers Bazar, i-D and W magazine still hire Terry Richardson), but I’ve decided to switch from mags to blogs.

The fashion blogosphere is massive and there are so many amazing sites to search for style inspiration and DIY fashion tips, but I’ve narrowed my favourites down to two. These are Stylingo, a joint effort from Coventry girls Claire and Lauren and ELN Fashion, run by Ebony Nash, from Lancaster.

Ebony interned for ELLE magazine in 2012 and quickly realised that unpaid internships in London are only for those with serious cash. She told me that unlike fashion internships, “blogging is completely what you make of it. If you get your sh*t together and commit to your blog like it’s your job, you’re going to see benefits from it – be that new experiences or even job offers”. She cites blogging as the perfect creative outlet that allows her to write about her own interests and add cheeky celeb satire pieces if she feels that someone has behaved or dressed particularly outrageously (she’s looking at you, Miley Cyrus).

It made sense for the Stylingo girls to join forces and use their blog to recommend or slate products and mount their soap boxes to write lifestyle features. They reckon that variety is key, paring “hilarious posts alongside serious thought-provoking hard hitting pieces of journalism (i.e which lipstick lasts the longest) – so that you get something new every day”.

The most attractive thing about fashion blogs is their individuality. The world of fashion can be very homogenous and exclusive and to see this, you only need to glance at the tall, skinny white chicks who dominate catwalk from New York to Paris. Fashion blogging doesn’t have to cater for one body type or demonstrate slavish admiration for identikit models. Claire and Lauren told me that they are “one hundred percent part of the short girl brigade” and all about “embracing who you are and wearing what you want”. They add that this doesn’t include bum bags.

Ebony Nash is particularly passionate about the text content of her blog and believes that the writing of bloggers should be valued over pastel hair colour, being a size six or having a camera “that makes you look like Charlotte Free”. She says that some blogs have a “formula for success” and that viewers should “actually read blogs more, instead of flicking through heavily edited pictures”. If you have a passion for things style or beauty related, and genuinely enjoy writing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get involved as a fashion blogger. You don’t have to have the most amazing DSLR or resemble Cara Delevingne.

I asked the three bloggers what products they’re desperate to get their hands on for 2014. Ebony’s after a pale pink boyfriend coat and says that “as a lover of all things black-on-black-on-black, I’m looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone with the pastel trends of SS14”. Lauren wants everything in baby pink but if forced to choose, she’d like “a cropped fluffy jumper, the fluffier the better”. Claire’s going to be all over the holographic trend “like a rat on a biscuit”. ELN Fashion and Stylingo are definitely ones to watch in 2014.

Today Debenhams unveils Size 16 mannequins. But fashion superstars like Karl Lagerfeld keep letting women down

Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer and creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own label fashion house, has had a complaint filed against him by a French organization called Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and Okay With It) for making unpleasant comments about larger women.

First published in Independent Voices, 6th November 2013

Karl Lagerfeld, the head designer and creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own label fashion house, has had a complaint filed against him by a French organization called Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and Okay With It) for making unpleasant comments about larger women. When interviewed on the French television show ‘Le Grand 8’, Lagerfeld said that the country’s health care system was struggling due to “all the diseases caught by people who are too fat”. He added that “nobody wants to see round women on the catwalk”, just in case anyone was unsure about why he has such a bee in his bonnet about people heavier than him. Can’t have those pesky realistic bodies infiltrating the runway! Maybe it’s time that someone sat down with Karl and explained that using your public platform to body-shame women isn’t particularly pleasant.

It’s too easy to brush Lagerfeld off as an eccentric, particularly as he expressed interest in marrying his cat Choupette if it were legal and said he hated all children in an interview with a Hong Kong magazine. I’d have no problem laughing off his latest bought of word-vomit if Lagerfeld wasn’t so synonymous with high fashion and still hailed as some kind of hallowed authority on style, artistry and women’s bodies. He’s respected in an industry that is notorious for making women feel really shitty about themselves and that has major issues with size and shape.

We cannot pretend that Lagerfeld’s comments lack context because all is not as shiny and beautiful in the world of high fashion as one might immediately assume. The catwalks are still overwhelmingly populated by women with matching heights and identical jutting hipbones and ribs and spines. They don’t look like anyone I’ve ever met outside my eating disorder clinic, where my peers and I weren’t being given the cultural validation of a brightly-lit runway and thousands of pounds worth of haute couture clothes. During my illness I was obsessed with the size of models. Anyone who says, as Lagerfeld has, that anorexia has nothing to do with high fashion, only has to look at a pro-anorexia website. They are crammed with pictures of fashion models and ‘catwalk diets’ because the model physique at its current, homogenous size-emaciated is what sick women and girls hold up as an example of perfection, of something to strive for.

In 2006, fashion model Luisel Ramos died from complications arising from her anorexia. In 2007 it was Eliana Ramos and Hila Elmalich. Last month Georgina Wilkin, who has modelled collections for Topshop, Gap and Giles Deacon, spoke out about her anorexia and how she was booked for shoots even as her organs were failing and her lips and fingers were blue. She stresses that hers is not an isolated case and this is not surprising. When put on the spot, the modelling agencies cry ‘oh but designers make miniature clothes so we must find women to fit’ and designers wail ‘oh but the agencies send us such thin models that we must make clothes to fit’. The buck has to stop somewhere. The fact that designers send out sample size 6 for someone of 5ft 9 and above sends out a very clear message: that this is the body type that they favour, the one they want to put their clothes on, the most valuable kind of body to have.

The problems of representing only one, specific body type, of forcing women to compare themselves with an unrealistic (for most of the population) body ideal, and of the widespread nature eating disorders within modelling, are not going to magically disappear. Small gains have been made, with H&M using size 12 model Jennie Runk in their 2013 beachwear campaign and refusing to label the collection ‘plus-size’. The retailer Debenhams has become the first mainstream UK store to use size 16 mannequins in their window displays, and will unveil the new mannequins today in their flagship Oxford Street store. However, positive steps towards inclusion and realistic representation of female bodies are undermined when fashion’s big guns, like Lagerfeld, go around preaching distaste for people who are not size zero.

Lagerfeld is doing a pretty good job of representing the worst of fashion; its bitchy exclusivity, its disconnection from reality, and its distain for anyone who doesn’t fit into a very narrow ideal of what beauty means. Stop it please, Karl. Your comments are irresponsible and offensive and you’re letting women down.

Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out in Manchester: plenty of bling – but where was the fun?

For a week, Manchester’s Deansgate has been decked with banners advertising Fashion’s Night Out, presaging the descent of Vogue’s fash-pack in the frozen wastes of the North on Wednesday night.

First published in The Guardian 11th October 2013

For a week, Manchester‘s Deansgate has been decked with banners advertising Fashion‘s Night Out, presaging the descent of Vogue’s fash-pack in the frozen wastes of the North on Wednesday night.
As a Vogue devotee and fashion lover, I decided to drop by and see what all the fuss was about. The event was billed as a ‘fashion extravaganza’ that would involve the city’s chicest shops staying open til 10pm, hosting designers including Matthew Williamson, Sarah Burton and Jonathan Saunders, and featuring celebrity DJ sets from Pixie Geldoff, Jameela Jamil and the Maccabees.

I got to Hugo Boss early, where Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman was tipped to begin her evening, and proceeded to be glared at by a bunch of unfriendly bouncers. I didn’t blame them too much, the southern softies were clearly feeling the cold. As a freelancer, I didn’t have any card or tag that identified me as representing the Guardian’s Northerner blog and for a while, it didn’t look like I was getting anywhere near the door of what seemed to be a private party.

However, I was finally taken pity on by a kind Vogue-related woman and allowed into the hallowed (and very warm) interior of the Hugo Boss. There were lots of cocktails and stretched, lipsticky smiles and people who generally seemed very ill-at-ease, drinking champers in a brightly-lit shop while a crowd of people gathered in the cold outside, trying to see in.

Shulman was soberly dressed and didn’t look as aggressively ‘fashion’ as most of the women present (ie 6ft with eye-wateringly small waistlines). I asked her about whether she thought style was different in the north of England. “I don’t think it’s as simple as a north/south divide,” she said.
“All big cities have their own style. Manchester seems to have a two-pronged approach: one is very glamourous, feminine, out there, partying style. Then you’ve got a very gritty, urban, club music style … In fact, it’s not that different to London in that way.” Shulman added that “Northern designers have a kind of conviction about them, but I suppose all designers have to have that anyway”.

I headed over to Flannels where Matthew Williamson was expected to make a guest appearance. He was fashionably late and told the Guardian: “I think Northern style is very cool, although I don’t like using that word”. Come now, Matthew. You’re a Manchester boy, surely you have more than ‘cool’ in your descriptive arsenal? Before I could press the matter, his bother stepped in to warn me off with a snarl: that’s your one question.

Undeterred, I wandered among the girls having free manicures and picking at canapés and toting hideously expensive handbags. What struck me was that no one really seemed to be having much fun. The whole ‘joy of shopping’ thing that the event was supposed to inspire wasn’t happening. Bored-looking people with deep pockets and seriously uncomfortable shoes browsed rails and when a few of them got to talk to Williamson, they became instantly animated and laughed like wind-up toys.

The proceeds from the Fashion’s Night Out T-shirts, created by GAP, went to Save the Children and the charity chosen by Shulman. Claire Filler, regional fundraising manager for Save the Children said the event was “fantastic for the north-west, fantastic for us, and fantastic for students from the University of Manchester, who have started a Save the Children society and are selling the t-shirts”.
The charitable element of the evening was largely overlooked and none of the browsers I spoke to had any idea that Save the Children were involved, although the sales of their Hermes bags could’ve saved quite a few children.

The free cocktails and sushi looked exquisite, but the whole evening felt empty and lacking point. It seemed to be an opportunity for designer shops to stay open a bit later and for people with large disposable incomes to buy things and have their pictures snapped in the same vicinity as a couple of fashion names. I came out feeling like some kind of poverty-stricken street urchin, and very disappointed that the whole thing seemed to be about spending money, rather than a celebration of style or creativity.

Word on the street: how is Northern style different?

Annie & Lisa, Manchester: “Up North we have a more diverse look, we’ve not got a point to prove and we’re not always on show”
Sabriyah, Manchester: “I think London style is more eclectic, they put more thought into their outfits despite seeming effortless. Northern style is more to do with following trends”
Katie, Leeds: “Northern style is more grungy and urban, we’re not as posh as those girls in London!”
Nicky, Manchester: “Northern girls are more eclectic in what they choose, they’re not afraid to go wild and really dress up”
Danni, Glasgow: “In the North we’re still a wee bit glam… we like our big nights out!”