Culture, race, sexuality and body image issues have been brought up in increasing amounts globally as the question of inclusivity in the media is addressed. A western conceived body and image type gained popularity in the last few decades and permeated every recess of the global media. We have, in more recent times, seen a backlash in the form of some designers choosing an alternative looking model or social media campaigns that boast of presenting us with all types of bodies and cultures and celebrities promoting body confidence. There are certain brands that are promoting increased cultural diversity in their advertising, which is encouraging to see, however, this is still far from the norm- a norm that is still predominantly white, cis and thin.
The question of inclusivity within fashion and the media is a nuanced subject within non-western countries like South Africa as we should be defining our own norms and evaluating what trends we follow or promote. South Africa’s industries have a responsibility to increase their portrayal of different cultures, races and sizes in order to provide a more normative reflection of the country. The western standard of beauty is not only something that influences the size and height that society is expected to strive for but there are other standards of appearance that are set that have offensive consequences such as ‘acceptable’ features and skin tones.
The waifish models that dominate the industry promote a very specific ‘type’ of woman and these ideals have not created much space for those that fall outside the scope of these standards to be represented. There are, indeed, certain brands that have begun to play a role in redefining the prevailing images that we see in South African fashion and media but the industry is still dominated by the same problems that are seen in the shops in western countries where clothing sizes are limited to the modelesque figure.
The issue of plus size representation has gained attention in the media globally. Within the US there are a growing number of clothing brands that have plus-size ranges and the choice that is available within these ranges is moving in a positive direction. The issue, of course, goes deeper than that. There are constant biases in the media that disregard people that do not fit the stereotypical mould that has been forged and this extends to there being a lack of representation of different cultures, different races and, yes, different sizes. To only produce clothes that fit a certain type of woman is to create a message of what is acceptable in society and we did not create this prototype of acceptability but merely inherited it. South African women are at the whim of the international media.
The matter at hand, however, does not only apply to women and more thought should be given to the archetypes that we are presenting to men in order to move away from perpetuating harmful ideas of masculinity and power. Addressing the way that gender stereotypes are used in fashion and media should play a role in beginning to reshape the way that we conceive gender and sexuality in society. The non-binary in the fashion industry, although increasing in appearance, still usually only brings to mind a tall, high-cheekboned, fair skinned and thin person and, while gender fluidity has been addressed by some sectors of the fashion industry, it is far from accepted in the mainstream media and there must be caution that those that identify as non-binary are not used as a token by certain brands in the fashion industry that are trying to generate an image of inclusivity. When addressing diversity in all manners, it has to be authentic lest it be found to be insulting.
A more equally representative media should, by now, be the norm but, instead, we are more often than not presented with only enough change to guarantee the illusion of diversity. If the purpose of advertising and media is ultimately to sell products, then surely companies can no longer use the discriminatory argument that alternative sizes, cultures, races, genders and sexualities to those that have hitherto dominated the media can’t get us to buy things.
Writing: Anthea Taylor
Collage: Daisie Jo