Face Value

Why should the look of fashion be the opposite of joy? Against RBF on the runway.

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Every few months there’s another finger-wagging piece about models in the fashion industry. Generally, the topic is weight: the epidemic of anorexia; the efforts underway to mandate a minimum weight; praise for more robust models (more robust meaning a few pounds above malnourishment).

The other topic that crops up is age. It was recently reported that some runway models are as young as 13. This hardly seems surprising. If you search “Teen Models” online, you’ll find pages of agencies geared to this group.

But what exactly is the problem with very young models? Is the issue one of child labor? Plenty of teenagers work in theater and play sports in front of large audiences. Those activities don’t warrant outrage.

Is the problem one of aesthetics? Are very young models selling a child-like image of female beauty that infantilizes all women by extension? That’s not the case either since very young models are made to look much older than their years. They are heavily made up and dressed vampishly. It’s not a child-like look that the magazines are after, and it’s not even an issue of thinness — since a teenage girl isn’t necessarily thinner than a 20-something woman.

Instead what attracts the fashion industry to young girls — and what makes their use so damaging — is their malleability. The very young are blank canvases — literally and metaphorically. Their features often haven’t entirely set, so that make-up can be used to map their faces. And their personalities are unformed too. A sense of self isn’t there yet to get in the way of the look the designer wants to project.

And this is the crux of the matter: the look the designer wants. Not the image of a fun-loving, healthy, life-affirming individual but of scowling attitude. A miserable visage, along with a slouching posture, is presumably what shows clothes off best.

Why is this? What is it about a pout and jutting hips that helps make clothes look cool? Why is a straight back and a smile believed to be bad for sales?

My view is that looking sullen, bored, and slouchy reflects a kind of knowingness and sophistication that is supposed to complement the clothes — to make them look knowing and sophisticated. Here is where having very young women as models strikes me as most destructive. It means schooling them in that pout or scowl that cannot help but imprint itself indelibly on their natures. And when other young women look at these images, they learn to think that presenting themselves this way will increase their desirability, just as it presumably increases the desirability of the clothes the models are wearing.

The New York Times recently ran a Cultural Studies piece about what it termed the “Resting Bitch Face” (RBF) — a facial expression that some women project that looks mean, angry, or bored. It seems that this has become an internet meme to describe the faces of women caught unaware by photographers. The point seemed to be that this face is off-putting and can be detrimental to women’s advancement in the workplace. The writer pondered whether this was a sexist fact, since men aren’t taken to task for their facial expression. What wasn’t noted is that the so-called RBF may be a learned behavior—part of the look that women have assimilated through exposure to the fashion industry. Interestingly, an ad for Louis Vuitton right below the New York Times article featured a woman with just such an expression on her face. The ad, read in conjunction with the article, makes my point succinctly: the look models are supposed to project to show off high-end clothes and handbags is precisely the look that can hold women back if they want to be viewed as individuals.

To tackle this problem, the fashion industry needs to be taken to task. Why should the look of fashion be the opposite of joy? I happen to love clothes and believe they are an art form that can complement and amplify one’s sense of self. “I know that a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear,” said Madame Merle in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I couldn’t agree more. How destructive, then, to connect beautiful clothes to blankness and sullenness.

Instead of focusing on weight and age, let’s begin by demanding that fashion models smile. Joy should be part of the art of fashion — part of what sells fashion. Start there — and then see how this affects not only the young women who model the clothes but also those who buy them. •

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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