Debenhams declares ‘big is beautiful’ – as long as ‘big’ is perfectly proportioned

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We are all familiar with the debates and issues surrounding female (and male) body image in the last decade. Sights such as supermodels sporting eye-catching, seemingly hollow ribcages and news of rising numbers of young people being diagnosed with eating disorders are to be found on a daily basis. So Debenhams’s plans to combat negative and unrealistic body images through the introduction of size 16 mannequins to their Oxford Street store must surely be a positive step? I would argue not.

The first issue is the mannequins themselves. Although larger than the tiny, seemingly delicate mannequins normally on display through department stores, these mannequins are still a wildly unrealistic portrayal of female body type. This is evident in their flat stomachs, toned legs and arms, and perfectly proportioned breasts and hips. In fact, it is only possible to tell them apart from regular sized mannequins when placed next to one, when you can use the powers of perspective to differentiate.  This begs the question: who could conceivably fit into this perfectly formed category of female body shape? How can these mannequins adequately display the size 16 clothes they are designed for in a realistic way? It seems we are to assume that body fat is not carried by any women of any size.

The move was backed by equalities minister Jo Swinson, who has a led a government campaign to improve body confidence in women. She stated that: “Nine in ten people say they would like to see a broader range of body shapes shown in advertising and the media.” It has to be questioned, however, how Debenhams is following this goal when there is no change in the actual shape of the mannequins, the size being altered but the unrealistic proportions remaining the same. They are, as stated by the Guardian’s Harriet Walker, “as impossible a shape to achieve as their waif-ish acetate companions.” So much for representing the average British woman.

The example of Debenhams’s size 16 mannequins further highlights the problems women face in society to fit a male dictated body image- an image which relies on beautiful curves and a perfectly proportioned body. Such images are common in the media and across social media where figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Kelly Brook are used to demonstrate the idea that ‘big is beautiful’. This male orientated rhetoric is clearly completely nonsensical as two idolised sex symbols, both of a normal healthy weight, being described as ‘big’ does nothing to address female insecurities. They are both undoubtedly beautiful, but big? It is clear from such arguments that in actual fact these women are not appreciated because of their normal body weight, but their curves, combined with flat stomachs and tiny waists, which most other women could only hope to attain through plastic surgery.

Yet there is another dimension widely ignored in the Debenhams’s campaign. Setting aside the issue of their impossibly flat stomachs, the mannequins are true to average public size, a size which falls into the category of overweight and thus increasing the likelihood of type two diabetes, a stroke, or a heart attack. Is it right that the UK, as the fattest country in Western Europe, with the average woman’s BMI falling into the overweight category, should promote UK average size as good body image? Just as the modelling industry is discouraged from using size 0 models for fear of increasing rates of anorexia and bulimia, using size 16 mannequins normalises women being overweight. How is this a better alternative?

The rhetoric of female body image is caught between two poles: advocating healthy curves, and point blank ignoring the rising rates of obesity in the UK.  Why is it seemingly impossible to show a healthy medium?  Surely we should be seeing size 12 and 14 models and mannequins. Why can’t body image in advertising and media correspond with what a healthy woman’s body actually looks like? What the media and advertising should be promoting is healthy body image, and that doesn’t include the underweight models we have become accustomed to seeing, or the size 16 mannequins we are likely to be seeing more of in future.