Why Mannequins Must Reflect Us

Herizons (Fall 2013 Cover Story) | English

I’m thrilled that my latest article, “Model Behaviour: Why Mannequins Must Reflect Us”, is featured as the cover story of the Fall Issue of Herizons magazine, Canada’s leading feminist publication. Mannequins captured my attention back in 2010, when at Adios Barbie I reported on the inclusion of larger-sized mannequins in the lingerie section of the Australian department store Myers. Since then, my fascination with mannequins inspired me to go on a photo safari through Buenos Aires’ mannequin district; invest countless hours investigating the extensive history of mannequins; create a file I continue to fill with images I’ve snapped of store windows from various countries; and interview fashion industry changemaker, Ben Barry. Why? Mannequins are not simply window dressing nor are they just a passive reflection of our current culture. While they do act as mirrors, I argue they are also potent tools for change:

“Triggering women’s insecurity by selling us unattainable beauty has been the golden rule for the fashion industry, but common sense begs the question: Wouldn’t sales naturally increase if consumers actually had models—both real-life models and mannequins—that looked like their own bodies? After all, meta-analyses of existing studies, such as a 2008 review by professors Shelly Grabe, L. Monique Ward and Janet Shibley Hyde, have established that repeated exposure to the thin ideal negatively impacts body image in girls and women and is a significant factor in low self-esteem and disordered eating. It’s no wonder, considering that only five percent of women actually fit this narrow ideal, as social anthropologist Kate Fox confirmed in her 1997 summary of body-image research.

Ben Barry, CEO of Ben Barry Models, presents another convincing argument for normal model sizes. Barry conducted a study involving more than 2,500 Canadian and American women of varying ethnicities, ages and sizes. He illustrated that female consumers’ purchasing intentions skyrocketed when women saw clothing featured on models that looked like them in relation to race, age and size. Further, he found that women’s intentions to purchase actually decreased when they couldn’t identify with the model. Out of the three variables, size generated the most extreme results. When models were the same size as the consumer, their intention to purchase rose over 200 percent; for women greater than a size 6, that number shot up to 300 percent. On the flip side, purchase intentions dropped 60 percent and 76 percent, respectively, when the model did not reflect the consumer’s size.

These results run completely contrary to the insecurity-inducing business model to which the beauty and fashion industries almost religiously adhere. As Barry wrote for Elle magazine in 2012, ‘While some women in my study felt insecure when they saw idealized models, their insecurity didn’t translate to purchase intentions as the industry hopes; it actually turned them off the product.’ As one of the participants summarized, ‘Ads like this want us to be part of their world, but they have the opposite effect for me. I feel excluded’.

If making women feel lousy about their bodies doesn’t boost sales, why do it?”…”

Why, indeed. I further explore the evolution of mannequins, and how activists and governments alike are becoming increasingly more aware of the power “dummies” wield.

You can read the entire article online here but only the print version includes the images (©Fashion Crimes & ©Sharon Haywood). If you’re based in Canada find out where you can buy the magazine. Otherwise, you can order a subscription, or even purchase single digital copies.