THERE was a slight, pale young woman sitting silently in the office when I pitched up for work one morning at Brides magazine.
In a room full of writers and editors she was more of an absence than a presence, with her scrubbed face and hair scraped into a pony tail. She murmured that she had come for a photo shoot and was waiting for the rest of the team. She must be the hairdresser, I thought.
When the team arrived to lead her to the studio I was astonished to discover she was the model. Next day I saw the photographs.
For the first time I realised a model is a living blank canvas. Such is the symmetry of their features and the slightness of their build (however tall) they can be transformed into any image the creative director wishes to project.
Now, thanks to the initiative of Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, children in 1000 schools will be able to see the metamorphosis for themselves. No longer need they open the pages of glossy magazines and suffer a sinking heart at the poised perfection of the creature on the page by contrast to their own humdrum appearance.
Vogue's 10-minute film shows how the image is created, stage by stage. Children will see the model unadorned then watch as a skilled make-up artist, hairdresser, stylist, fashion assistant, fashion editor, photographer's assistant and photographer work in unison to show her in the best light.
They will see how the art department then gets to work with digital enhancement and airbrushing to remove any remaining flaws.
The picture on the page is this team's creation. The model is a cog in the machine. She can (and often does) leave the studio looking as anonymous as when she entered it.
It's good that a film like this should open the eyes of school pupils now, when body dissatisfaction is at an all-time high. More than 1.5m people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder. This form of mental illness has the highest mortality rate.
The media, along with advertising and celebrity culture, are held to be major influencers on body image. So here is Vogue, the magazine at the pinnacle of the industry, making an effort to draw the sting of the perfection it peddles.
It is laudable, though there is one glitch. The inescapable truth is that 95% of us would not be able to achieve a model look even with a team to transform us. Models are ectomorphs. They are long-limbed and have tiny bird-like bones so that they are slender without being skeletal. The rest of us are mesomorphs with a middle build - like Shulman herself - or we are heavy-boned, sturdy endomorphs. No amount of dieting will change that.
It will be plain to see in the film. The team and the model will look like creatures from two different species. I can say that without having seen the production because it is ever thus. At the end of showing a collection, its male designer will stroll along the catwalk sandwiched between his models, as squat as a gnome amongst elves.
So why do we show fashion on women who don't resemble the buying public?
I've always wondered whether it's because so many fashion designers are gay men who are drawn to boyish figures. But it's also true that clothes hang better on the tall and slender, so that we see the line and the cut. Many of us buy into the fantasy that we too might look that way in the coat or frock: that it might work magic on us.
Now Equalities Minister Jo Swinson is demanding a reality check. She's campaigning to get larger models into shop windows and she is right. It is bizarre that women only see clothes on models twice their height and half their width. The average woman wears size 16 yet most shop windows display a size 10. Why do they do it? I think the industry is lazy.
A really good store would offer larger sizes cut cleverly to deceive. Instead women are presented with tiny sizes and often the same style in every shop. Longer-length skirts have arrived for the winter, as have short coats. If you want a long winter coat or if short skirts suit your figure, you'll have little or no choice. For years women could buy only bias-cut skirts. There wasn't a flared skirt to be had. Yet women's body shapes don't change to suit each trend.
But then the industry isn't geared to serve the buying public. It's we who must adapt to fit what we are given with all the dissatisfaction and psychological stress that brings. Like Cinderella's ugly sisters who forced their feet into the glass slipper, we shove our unwieldy curves into tubes designed for the svelte, only to have them bulge or bounce out over the edge. When a wedding or a party approaches, no wonder we reach for a crash diet. Never mind that 95% of us regain the weight we lose.
With the fashion industry using, as a prototype, a body that belongs to only 5% of the population, why are we surprised that young people are increasingly convinced that their body is the "wrong sort"? No wonder that by the age of 14 half of girls and one-third of boys have dieted; no wonder children as young as five are unhappy with their shape.
This was once a female problem. Now it spills across gender. On Sunday I read an interview with David Gandy, the model who is the face of Dolce and Gabbana.
Gandy breakfasts on a protein drink with beetroot juice, almond milk, nuts, apples and protein powder. On his skin he uses serums and rose oils. Lunch - if he stops for it - is sushi. He notes that once recently he ate fish and chips. (This is noteworthy because it is so rare.) His dinner is marinated black cod or fish pie. He works out at the gym five nights a week. In other words, his body is his profession so he works at it every day. That's what it takes to maintain a modelling career, even when you start out with exceptional good looks. No diet will allow the average spotty teenage youth to close that gap.
Don't think because people are talking about this that the situation is improving. If anything it is getting worse. And don't dismiss it as froth. It's not just about fashion. It is about half of our teenagers growing up feeling inadequate. It's about damage to their self-esteem. It will hold them back, rob them of confidence in their own abilities. They will perform less well in life and in such numbers that it will spill into areas like parenting, even into the economy.
There's pressure on them from all sides. Any extra weight brings on the terror of being thought obese. And it isn't just about looks, it's performance too. Increasing numbers of teenagers are turning to the internet for guidance on sexual behaviour. Boys visit porn sites, think what they see is normal sexual relations and expect their girlfriends to behave accordingly.
Set against this onslaught is Vogue's laudable but small initiative. There is also Debenhams' plan to put size 16 mannequins in its window in Oxford Street, London. There's Marks and Spencer's latest ad campaign featuring women of all ages. Will great oaks grow from these small acorns? We must do more than hope so. It's time we used our purchasing power to support the campaign; to make a difference for the next generation.
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