‘Too Skinny’ Mannequins Cause Outrage, or is the Obesity Epidemic the Real Problem?


Apparently mannequins have ribs now…even though they’re not human. While most store mannequins have usually been on the thin side, the “too skinny” ribby mannequins at La Perla sparked uproar. But don’t blame the store. You can thank our obesity epidemic.

Last month the high-end lingerie boutique in Manhattan removed the mannequins that were deemed “too skinny” from the store.

According to TIME magazine, a passerby prompted the removal of the mannequins when he noticed the “emaciated figures” in the window and took his outrage to Twitter. A rash of complaints from other customers soon followed.

La Perla issued a statement:

The mannequin photographed has been removed from the store and will not be used again by any La Perla boutique. We are in the process of redesigning all La Perla stores with a new concept image and the mannequins that are currently displayed in our US stores will no longer be used. We appreciate and value everyone’s comments, thank you for bringing this to our attention.

This isn’t the first incident of this kind. TIME reports that in 2011, Gap was criticized for using thin mannequins to promote the company’s “always skinny” jeans. “In fact, most mannequins in the U.S. are still between a svelte size 2 and a still-small size 6, and often if you peak behind the figures, you’ll find clips pulling the clothes so that they are more form-fitting,” TIME explained.

On average, mannequins are six inches taller and six sizes smaller than most women, reports TIME. And Bloomingdale’s visual director Roya Sullivan told the Chicago Tribune: “Clothes look better on tall, thin, abnormal bodies.”

Granted, a mannequin doesn’t really need to have ribs. She doesn’t need hands either (glove modeling mannequins aside). Nor does she need a nose or eyes. A mannequin is just a slight upgrade from a hanger; showing off the clothes with a tad more accuracy. It’s always been understood that mannequins are there to flatter the clothing—not the customers. If something looks enticing, whether on the rack or on the plastic model, we’re more likely to try it on and buy it.

But America’s expanding waistline has led to extreme sensitivities about these store display figures. “Swedish chain Ahlens has been using full-figured mannequins for years. British department store Debenhams began displaying size-16 mannequins last year. And a trend of mannequins with enhanced breasts and buttocks is sweeping Venezuela,” explains TIME.

As the obesity epidemic spreads, department stores seek to make these customers “more comfortable” by making larger mannequins to fit the larger clothes—clothes, mind you, that have also changed sizes to accommodate obesity. While brand sizes often vary (maybe you’re a size 4 in one pair of jeans and a 2 in another), they now generally run a lot larger, too. “[W]hat would have been a 12 in the 1980s is in fact an 8 today,” Tim Gunn, host of Project Runway told the Huffington Post. That’s because so many more women are overweight or obese. Brands want women to think they’re smaller sizes so they’ll feel sexier and buy more clothes.

But the brands and their mannequins aren’t really to blame.

We’re normalizing obesity. It’s a problem.

We’re also elevating extremely thin women to the gold standard of beauty. That’s also a problem.

The food industry and pharmaceutical industry may love the obesity epidemic, but the fashion industry hates it. There’s a struggle to meet the growing demands of the overweight customer. One of the main problems is that people distribute excess weight differently. For some it’s in the thighs and buttocks. For others it can be in the stomach and chest. It’s hard to make clothes with that many variables. You can’t just make clothes “bigger,” said Gunn. “It’s not a matter of sizing up or sizing down from a size six,” he said, “It’s a matter of reconceiving things altogether. There are just some things that you can’t or shouldn’t do [design-wise].”

One-third of the world’s population—and we’re talking developing as well as the developed world—is now overweight or obese. It’s more than 2 billion people. Two billion people who need clothes.

Some people are naturally bigger than others and still healthy for their size. There are defensive linemen who weigh more than twice as much as I do who could outrun me, twice as fast, too. We are an adaptable species.

And strangely, as the world’s weight escalates, things like “thigh gaps” become more desirable. Lingerie boutiques decide at some point, that it’s a good idea for mannequins to show ribs. The media has does one heck of a job distorting the images of women and beauty to an audience that can’t relate. There is now as much of a delusion about how we should look as there is about how we actually look.

The truth is, many thin people are just as picky about their clothes as people with weight issues. They have insecurities and confidence issues because comfort levels with our appearances are factors of our mental health. We are an emotional species. Some days we feel prettier than others. We’re sensitive and awkward, and it’s probably a big reason why clothes have come to mean so much in the first place–why we allow people to suffer and die for fast fashion. Because we feel so naked, so exposed that we think a new dress will make us, somehow, prettier on the inside too.

If we’re going to normalize obesity, if we’re going to make mannequins with love handles, then maybe there is also room for mannequins with ribs. If someone like me—a healthy size 6—can be called “too skinny” by bigger people, then can we start to call people who are a size 16 “too big?” Of course not. Because even as we continue to accept our obesity epidemic, we’re still all aware that it’s not normal. That one in five children shouldn’t have a weight problem. Or diabetes. Or hypertension. We wouldn’t have “The Biggest Loser” or a huge diet market if that was the case.

Of course some degrees of skinny are too skinny, particularly the Photoshopped kind.But most aren’t. The obesity epidemic surely isn’t the result of people being skinny. So let’s not blame the mannequins. They’re not even real. Let’s actually not blame anyone or anything. Let’s just take the steps to fix this, regardless of what size clothes we wear.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image via BBC

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.