“The literary equivalent of a summer night, a good friend and a gin-and-tonic: Shannon is a deft writer; a natural storyteller with a wicked turn of phrase and frighteningly specific memory...”

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I Don’t Want to Make the Thin Girl Ugly

My petition to the Yves Saint Laurent CEO, asking her to stop using images of painfully thin models (originally “anorexic models”) at Change.org has created quite a controversy.

My friend Jenni Chiu wrote a thought-provoking rebuttal to my story in The Huffington Post called, “Stop Making the Thin Girl Ugly,” which garnered almost 6000 shares on Facebook. She’d obviously struck a chord. The story was also picked up by The DailyMail Online.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my petition might harm slender women who struggle to keep weight on.

I was discussing this with my mom over the weekend. She looked at the photo of the model in my petition and told me she’d looked just like that as a young teen. And that she’d been teased horribly for being a “bean stalk.”

Shannon Bradley Colleary, thin girlsThe fact is, I was also an incredibly thin young women. I remember thinking (when a boy was strategizing a way to get his hands under my shirt in college), just go back to base camp, this is not a target-rich environment, there’s nuthin’ up there but some ribs and a clavicle.

Even though I, too, was teased for being “as flat as a pancake” and had endured my dad saying, “What’re those two strings hanging out of your shorts? Oh, they’re your legs!” I don’t recall being traumatized by it.

That’s not to say I didn’t pray nightly for breasts (which I now have thanks to 20 post-partum lbs.), but I knew my body-type was the prevailing one. And that most women envied my tiny silhouette.

Still, with Jenni’s criticisms in mind, I tried to rationally determine what I hope to accomplish with my petition.

(When I initially posted the petition I wasn’t rational, but angry. Angry for the 98% of the American population who would have to starve themselves to appear as thin as the model in the YSL ad and angry on behalf of the model, if there was a chance she wasn’t eating in order to keep her job).

I realized the original wording of my petition brought out a lot of commenters who were very critical of the girl in the photo, which was not my intent. And I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to re-word the petition to satisfy the thin women who think I’ve dealt them another blow.

I suspect I won’t ever be able to fully succeed in making everyone happy. So, in revisiting my petition after all the kerfuffle, I’ve gotten some clarity.

These are the two goals I hope my petition can reach:

1. To get the fashion industry to offer healthier working conditions by allowing models to have a weight range, so should they outgrow a size 0 they aren’t suddenly unemployable in the industry.

2. To require the fashion industry and advertisers to utilize several body types in their ad campaigns that accurately reflect the sizes in the human populace, so the average woman (or man) isn’t trying to starve themselves to reach some impossible ideal.

If you think these two goals are of value you can sign my petition HERE. Thus far we have 46,500 signatures and are trying to meet 50,000.

I hope you’ll also check out my body image series at #LoveYourBodyNow Project: Healing Body Image Issues Through Fine Art Nudes.

Finally, if you want to keep abreast of my body image work just sign up for the newsletter HERE. xo S



11 comments

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  1. Kat
    Kat 16 April, 2014, 06:55

    “I don’t recall being traumatized by it…I knew my body-type was the prevailing one. And that most women envied my tiny silhouette.” See, but that’s the thing. Not every thin woman shakes off such criticisms of her body lightly. I once met a friend of my husband’s, and the first thing this man said to me was “Wow, you must only eat lettuce!” My brother once “jokingly” told my husband that he didn’t understand why he was with me because I don’t have boobs. Another time, I was in the grocery store on Fat Tuesday, and a sales associate told me to buy two poxes of pastries, because I “obviously needed the fattening up”. Why is it ok to run commentary on my body and make assumptions about my eating habits when you don’t know anything about me? These comments happen more than I’d like them to and it makes me extremely self-conscious. And most of us naturally thin women don’t really identify with fashion models. I too look through a VS magazine and wish that I had prettier hair, perfect blemish-free skin, longer legs, and bigger breasts. I have never looked at a model and said “wow, she looks just like me!” Thin is the only thing I might have in common with models, but being a petite my body type is entirely different.

    For the record, I appreciate what you are trying to do and I support it. I want to see a greater diversity in modeling, and not just of dress sizes. Of heights and skin colors, too! I just don’t jump on the bandwagon of making assumptions about a person’s health based on a photo.

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    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 16 April, 2014, 08:25

      Hey Kat — I get it. I do. And I appreciate you understanding what I’m trying to do. I started with assumptions about the model and am trying to backtrack on that. But I do think changing what we see in magazines and how it makes us feel is important. All the best, S

      Reply this comment
  2. Jeff
    Jeff 17 April, 2014, 06:42

    Careful ladies… man’s perspective coming up. I find it interesting that women complain so much about media portrayal of thin girls being the look of beauty, about barbie being unrealistic etc etc. You do realize this is a problem of women and not the magazines, tv, designer right? If the majority of women truly had a problem with these ultra thin women then they wouldn’t buy the magazines. It is about what sells and women apparently like looking at other stick thin women. In men’s magazines we have curvy women with boobs and bums so it sure isn’t our fault! Women judge each other a lot more than men do. You think the majority of guys care at all what other guys look like or dress like? Not a chance! Pick up a woman’s magazine and you see a whole bunch of women, pick up a men’s magazine and also see a whole bunch of women.

    The goal of your petition to require fashion industry and advertisers to use a range of body types…why? If women didn’t enjoy looking at stick thin models then the magazines would be filled with girls who are not stick thin so that they would sell. Advertisers know their market and are just responding to it. Do you really want affirmative action for bigger girls? Do we really need legislation to protect the feelings of bigger women? I say feelings because this is not the health issue many who share your beliefs on this hide behind. Anorexia affects 0.5-1% of the adolescent population. Obese teens age 12-19 number at 18.4%. Over age 20 35.9%. And alarmingly “Percent of adults age 20 years and over who are overweight, including obesity: 69.2% (2009-2010)” These stats are from the CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm

    So by your logic, showing very thin women in ads etc causes women to starve themselves and as a result they should show big women also. Following your logic this could cause girls to eat more to be like their favorite model who happens to be large. Which is worse? The epidemic of obesity in America that is near the very top of killers, or the tiny tiny amount of population effected by anorexia? With 69% of the adult population being overweight, advertising with the average woman is advertising with an image of women that is generally unhealthy, overweight, and causes a myriad of other health issues. But I’m sure feeling good about one’s bigger body will be some kind of comfort while laying in bed with heart disease or diabetes.

    More importantly… your argument that ultra thin women in magazines makes women starve themselves is just false. We are more inundated with ads than ever yet we are also fatter than ever. If having only thin women in magazines caused the population to lose weight (which it doesn’t) then if we really wanted to help society and ease the burden on our health care system then plus sized models should be banned from ads not the ultra thin ones!!

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    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 17 April, 2014, 08:43

      Hey Jeff — thanks for the comment and adding the male perspective. I think, perhaps, I either wasn’t clear with my wording or you might have misinterpreted my petition. I don’t think skinny models are making women starve themselves. My concern was that the fashion industry might be causing eating disorders amongst the models who work in it (there are several documented accounts of this by many models — although I don’t know the percentages there and a lot of women who worked as models disagree with me). My concern about the non-model populace is that seeing women who are very thin (and only 2% of the populace in America is considered underweight) is contributing to the low self-esteem and poor body image of young girls and women. And yes, some of these women do develop eating disorders, but many of them also simply become disgruntled and miserable about how they look.

      Reply this comment
  3. Doug Smith
    Doug Smith 18 April, 2014, 07:21

    This was the first article that I have read from your most recent e-mail notice (just showed up). I think your two ending points really hit the nail on the head, so-to-speak. It is not that being overly thin or carrying too much weight is good or bad what is bad is making that “THE” standard. What the fashion industry does this I believe knowingly but not necessarily intentionally (at least that is not their underlying goal). They want to sell their designs and their clothing. They pick a stereotype. Strangely, my mind goes to the Marlboro Man in the cigarette commercials or the current trend of thin, muscular, guys with perfect three-day-old facial hair. The marketer’s idea of what we all want to look like and how we all imagine ourselves looking.

    I somewhat disagree with Jeff. I think the issue revolves around self esteem, or the lack of it. I think people buy the magazines etc because they feel that this is the way society things they should look and they want to fit it. Bottom line is that it is not a simple explanation or solution.

    Just as an aside, photography is a passion of mine. I enjoy working with models or in most cases want-to-be models. There is one group of models, photographers, MUA, etc. that I am associated with that includes models of all sorts of shapes and sizes. I find this refreshing. Refreshing in that they are out there doing what they are doing and that they are accepted for it.

    Anyway, I am now loosing track, but I feel I know exactly where you are coming from. So, now off to sign your petition and then back to read another of your essays.

    Doug

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    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 18 April, 2014, 08:55

      Hi Doug — I always love your comments. I feel like we’re good buddies who are sympatico and I appreciate you always giving me the benefit of the doubt. Hope all is well in your world, and I’d love to be able to see some of your photographs. As a blogger that is what is sorely missing from my site. I am the WORST photographer. Sigh. I keep meaning to take classes but it somehow ends up at the bottom of my list.

      Reply this comment
  4. Doug Smith
    Doug Smith 18 April, 2014, 16:29

    I really appreciated what you said. When I discovered your blog I think I had a similar feeling. I really enjoy your humorous but straight forward way of approaching subjects and how you are willing to open yourself up to the world. I also admire your husband and family since they are such an integral part of your blog because they are such an integral part of your life.

    You may feel a bit challenged as a photographer, but I suspect you are better than you give yourself credit. Though, there is a lot to try and absorb when dealing with f/stops, shutter speeds, ISO, depth-of-field and all of that fun stuff. I do think you would be (and obviously have been)a fantastic model and more importantly muse. I enjoyed the photographs from your youth and then the recreation of the poses a couple of years later. Now this is where you would shine, because after saying I enjoyed them I am having a hard time coming up with the words to express what it was about the series that I loved. It went beyond just nice, artistic photos. The fact you came back and recreated the photo shoot added so much.

    I have a lot of my photos on Flickr, but if you would like to see some of them, a more manageable sample is at http://www.laveenphotography.com. It is still a hobby, but one I thoroughly enjoy. I have never felt I had any artistic abilities, unlike my brother, cousin, aunt, dad, and seems like most of the rest of the family, but I have enjoyed how photography seems to have at least brought some latent talent to the surface.

    Keep up the great writing.

    Reply this comment
  5. C L
    C L 19 April, 2014, 04:12

    I just wonder, if there are any women out there who read things about weight and fall into another category…which is being thin because of being hungry. I live in America, “the land of plenty,” but with student loan bills, trying to raise a family one one income, and the struggling job market where we live…I often go without meals because we just don’t have enough money. It’s crazy to me to have to admit that, but I just wonder if there are others out there who are living the same… I myself and close friends have shared their burden of living on Ramen noodles “till next payday” and wishing to have three meals a day, but we simply can’t afford to. But you look around the world and realize grocery stores FULL of food on every corner is not really the norm; it’s American.

    I am naturally thin, yes. But I am a thin person who worries about my weight in a “IS my hip bone sticking out too much?” Even since I was a child, growing up in fairly poor circumstances, we didn’t always have enough food to eat…so I’m not new to hunger.

    And at least that payday will come, or at least has for 10 years so far, I’m not complaining…just wondering a different perspective perhaps. What about the women who don’t have much of a choice of starving because their children need to eat first..

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 19 April, 2014, 10:38

      Hi CL — First let me say that I appreciate your comment. I don’t think most Americans realize that there is a substantial sector of us who don’t have enough to eat. So perhaps the 2% of underweight people in America aren’t all thin by choice. This is a huge topic, and perhaps separate from my story. I just want to say I’m sorry you don’t have everything that you need and I hope that trend shifts for you in the future. Also, thanks for stopping by and commmenting.

      Reply this comment
  6. Iwishyouwell
    Iwishyouwell 9 July, 2014, 18:14

    It’s rather disingenuous for you to continue tossing around this 2% statistic. It’s bad reasoning.

    An estimated 2% of the population in the United States is clinically underweight. But you are, once again, assuming that the images produced by the fashion world overwhelmingly even feature models who are clinically underweight. However in fashion, actually, dangerously thin, sub-BMI-healthy models are rare. The BMI presents a range, and the low end of healthy is small enough to cover the overwhelming majority of models working in the industry. In fact the average person in the US tends to rebel against the BMI because even the lower end of average, in our climate of mass obesity and overweightness, tends to look “unhealthily” small. Recent statistics are showing that the average weight that Americans see as “ideal” is still overweight according to BMI.

    Saying that, based off one shot of a possibly underweight YSL model, American women are struggling to look like the “2%” is a flagrant misuse of that statistic.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 9 July, 2014, 21:17

      Hi Iwishyouwell — First I love the word “flagrant.” Even though we disagree this endears you to me whether you like it or not. I think to know who is more right than the other (because I think we’re both right to a certain degree), we would have to find credible statisticians to verify both of our claims. I do think the model in the YSL ad looks like she’s standing on death’s door. I don’t think it’s a healthy image to project as Beauty. I also don’t think beautifying morbidly obese people would be a healthy image to project as Beauty, but we don’t see many of those. What I’d like to see is simply more images of women who look like most women look. Somewhere in the middle. I’m not saying no healthy skinny 14-year olds, I’m saying just give us MORE median women to enjoy and consider beautiful. As far as the health of the women in the modeling industry I suspect many of them are quite young and naturally thin, but to say there isn’t a culture of body control (which can manifest in eating disorders) is, in my not so humble opinion, balderdash.

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