Exorcising the ‘perfect body’: Is negative body imagery haunting Student Fashion Shows?

Last year, I was a model and designer for Van Mildert’s charity fashion show. Preparation was in full swing, and the excitement that filled the air was infectious. But something lurked beneath the good feelings. As the underwear models swept on in a flurry of garters and shy smiles, a girl sitting opposite to me leant in to say “they’re all so thin”.

As a preface: This article is not an attack on student-led fashion shows. Anyone who knows me in my mall goth glory will understand that I hardly typify a model. Throughout my time as a VM model, I was treated with the utmost respect. The team was endlessly patient with me and everyone was welcoming. I didn’t feel judged for the way I choose to dress, and I wasn’t met with dismissal because of it. 

Neither can anyone deny that student fashion shows at Durham contribute towards worthy causes. Certainly, the Durham University Charity Fashion Show indicates the good these shows can do, raising a staggering £106,000 for the Environmental Justice Foundation in 2019. This establishes fashion shows as a vital method of fundraising.

Nonetheless, my experience as a model hammered home some uncomfortable truths. For instance, I overheard some of the models from Grey during my preparation for the show: 

“So, what are you eating before the fashion show – I’ve heard some of the boys talk about eating tissue paper. Maybe I’ll do that”

Consuming paper to keep a flat stomach is a cause for alarm, and can signify a damaging eating disorder. Even as one isolated incident, there was still an obvious pressure to do this, and do it specifically for the show. This implies that unrealistic beauty standards loom over student fashion shows – and I learnt that this was not just an issue at Grey. Word from my fellow VM models and the friends of other college models revealed a disturbing pattern: People felt uncomfortable in displaying their natural bodies on the catwalk. They are certainly not alone. Statistics by Dove suggest 96% of women in the UK don’t feel comfortable in their body

Nor is this just a pressure on women. One Van Mildert model I spoke to pointed to several of the men bracing the underwear walk. He assured me that they had been to the gym regularly for the show. “They feel the fashion show is the motivation for them to go to the gym and feel good about themselves”. While using the fashion show as their own personal ‘motivation’ is unproblematic, he added, “but I’m not so sure about some of the others, it might just be because of the pressure for them”. Men admitted to hospital for eating disorders has increased by 70% in the past couple of years according to recent reports by the NHS. With the pressure on male models to appear with’masculine’ muscules and trim physiques, this paints a troubling picture. As my interviewee summarised “it’s perpetuating negative stereotypes”.

These sorts of pressures are not forced by those running the fashion shows directly. Certainly, as one of my interviewees commented of his friend, a model in the St. John’s fashion show, “she said that she was only going to eat once a day a week before the show”, he frowned, “I don’t understand why she would feel the need to do that. After all, they chose her based on the body they saw in the audition”.

This marks a significant difference to the norm. The administration boards and creative teams behind industry fashion shows are well known for perpetuating the so-called ‘perfect body’.  We’ve all heard stories of models being forced to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, or told beauty is an uncompromisable set of facial and bodily features. Run by students for students, our fashion shows don’t have to follow in these questionable footsteps. Mildert’s policy of ‘sign-ups’ rather than auditions is a positive move in this direction. Anyone can get involved, less than feeling they have to meet the ‘standards’ implied by an audition. Yet, despite this, consulting the chart I was given as a designer, most models participating remained predominantly sized 6/8.

This implies is that the issue is much more latent. Even if they are not inflicted by student teams, unhealthy standards remain on an underlying level. Even if we don’t impose it, there is still the lurking feeling that there is only one way a model should be – as having that ‘perfect body’. Merely making changes to the ways we manage fashion shows is not enough; it doesn’t get to the root of that problem. We move people onto a stage where impossible beauty standards walked before, and we expect them not to be insecure. We are walking in their wake, and we are self-conscious about it.

In short, even if the ‘perfect body’ has, to an extent, has been removed, its ghost remains. And, as long as our shows are being haunted, we are not only making models to feel uncomfortable about their bodies, but also spreading harmful body imagery as they brave the catwalk. 

Undermining this shadow is not an easy process. What makes student fashion shows so appealing, that students (and not the fashion industry) are in control, remains. We are complex, diverse and beautiful human beings. But displaying this is not as easy as ‘allowing’ a myriad of people to brave the runway. Those people will feel undermined by the so-called objectivity of the ‘beauty’ that came before them. To face this issue, we need to recognise that there is an issue in the first place, and we need to address it. This will help deconstruct the toxic side of beauty. Perhaps even more importantly (and in a less abstract sense) if a student model tells us their plans to eat tissue paper, we need to make them aware of how fundamentally unhealthy that is.

Student Fashion shows do have to be seen negatively, and for the most part, they shouldn’t be. But it’s important to recognise the ghost beneath the glitter. As long as models feel uncomfortable in themselves, even if they aren’t pushed to do so, then student fashion shows are struggling to circulate positive body imagery. Being aware of this is the first step in undermining it. If ‘the perfect body’ remains un-exorcised, by shining the torch when it rears its ugly head, we can take positive steps to prevent it from haunting the catwalk. 

*Please note my interviewees wish to remain anonymous 

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