The day you chuck your thin wardrobe is the day that you’ve decided the weight you’ve put on isn’t coming off again. The old you, the ghost you who could slip into those trousers and shiver inside that dress—she has been eaten into submission; she isn’t coming back. And I suspect that when chief [U.K.] medical officer Dame Sally Davies criticizes the introduction of size 16 [a 12 in U.S. sizing] mannequins in Debenhams, it’s because she thinks they represent that moment of surrender on a national scale. We could have a sugar tax and install a cycle network, but maybe this is who we are now: Maybe we’ve simply come to an accommodation with our bigger selves. (Whether our livers or our cardiovascular systems can be as tolerant as our self-esteem is, of course, another matter).
The comments about mannequins aren’t really the most important part of Davies’ report, but there’s substance to them. Selling clothes always means selling an idea about the kind of person your target consumer can be. As the exchange of cash for garb gets nearer, the ideal is shuffled delicately closer to the actual until it seems so close you believe you could just stretch out and pluck it from the rail. The wistful, remote, skinny beauty of the catwalk becomes the slightly less alienating thinness of the fashion magazine, then transmutes into the shop window figure that looks like it could almost be you on a good day, before passing through the most important conversion and leaving the store in carrier bag, swinging hopefully by your side. There is one last miracle, and that’s the one where you put on your new clothes and realize that, rather than changing you into the kind of person who wears this marvellous outfit, you’ve just turned this outfit into the kind of thing that a slightly disappointing person like you wears.
All is vanity, all is dust. And for the most part, fashion relies on it being that way. Your unhappiness is the engine that keeps commerce ticking. Every product is the answer to a problem, one way or another, and if the clothes-buying portion of the world woke up one day and decided they had no problems to which a side-buttoning denim skort was the answer, the British high street would be in a bad way. Maybe it’s a kindness to remove one portion of that perpetual misery by installing mannequins that are closer to the actual size of women. At any rate, if we have to have a model figure, surely better that it’s Debenhams reasonably sized woman rather than something like the Venezuelan “operated mannequins” with their hoisted tits and globular buttocks, designed to match that country’s surgically hewn ideal of beauty. At least you can see yourself fitting into the injection-moulded pattern of the UK’s new standard without having four bags of silicone slipped through four incisions in your body.
But a standard mannequin is still a beauty myth, even if that myth has got bigger. Accepting largeness as a form of loveliness is not the same as accepting every woman’s body on its own terms. A friend confided a while ago that she felt like a misfit on account of her size—not because she thought she was too big, but because she’d started to feel that her size 16 was insufficient to qualify her for the “fatshion” scene, where the attractive standard starts around size 20 and comes in a smartly maintained 50s pin-up package. In line with mainstream fashion imagery, that package is overwhelmingly white—which, given that Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani women are disproportionately likely to be obese (pdf), is a notable enforcement of the usual beauty standards in the middle of something that casts itself as an aesthetic rebellion. And it’s a rebellion that can act like a regiment: several fat accepters have found that the scene’s body positivity started to run out when, whether deliberately or through illness, they stopped having quite so much body to be positive about.
Obesity isn’t a uniquely female problem. But the self-torturing belief that our bodies are somehow an offence to decency by being the wrong sort is. Anorexia, plastic surgery, obsessive dieting and feeling like the wrong sort of fat—these are issues that, in the vast majority of cases, plague women and not men, because it’s women and not men who learn that their physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of their acceptability to society. It’s women who learn that they exist to be looked at, and it’s women who are encouraged to make drastic alterations when they inevitably fail to match the shape they’re asked to be, whether that shape is a wispily unobtrusive size 0, an hourglassy 16, or a voluptuous 20 snapping hot selfies with a kebab in hand. The chief medical officer is right that mannequins are bad for our health. I’m just not sure she understands exactly how right she is.