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London - When is a woman not a woman? Answer: when she is a model. Models, as we are constantly told, are not “real women”. And woe betide the real woman who attempts to be a model. It simply will not work, as the German magazine Brigitte has now discovered to its cost.
Three years ago, the top-selling fashion and lifestyle magazine grabbed headlines when it brought in a zero-tolerance policy on size zeros. In a bold stance against the ultra-skinny norm, it declared that it would no longer use professional models and would instead people its pages with real women, “to restore naturalness in beauty and to show that attractiveness has many faces”.
Except, as it turns out, attractiveness in the magazine world really has only one face - and it's a really attractive one.
Now, two years and 1,000 or so real women later, Brigitte is lifting its ban on professionals. Rather than identifying with the new breed of civilian models, readers found them to be distracting to the fashion, even intimidating with their consistently far from ordinary “real-life” beauty. If you're going to peddle us a fantasy lifestyle/make us feel bad about ourselves, they apparently cried, at least have the decency to go completely over the top.
What's more, editors at the magazine discovered that working with non-professionals was time-consuming and inefficient; they had to scout them out, work around their “real” lives, and then train the amateurs while paying them almost the same as professionals who already knew what they were doing. Principles can be a real pain in the neck.
The crucial factor in its decision to backtrack, though, was the bottom line: giving readers models with whom they could identify did nothing to stop falling sales at the magazine and may even have caused them to plummet further - from 801,574 a decade ago to 601,696 today.
Coming at the start of New York Fashion Week, Brigitte's U-turn may well be another cynical exercise in generating column inches, but its short-lived attempt to promote a healthier approach to fashion consumption was not wholly bad. The magazine just wasn't radical enough. And it went about it the wrong way. It's not a question of professionals vs non-professionals. The idea that anyone can model is just as patronising and offensive as the idea that readers will like something only if it's ordinary, just like them.
Brigitte admitted defeat because the archetype is too deeply ingrained for one magazine to change it - designers, editors and photographers all want super-skinny models and the figures would suggest that readers, perhaps reeling with Stockholm syndrome after decades of being force-fed the same template of beauty, want them too.
The answer is to provide them with a wider range of real models, of all shapes, and to move away from nebulous notions of what makes a “real woman”. Until then, skinny sells. - The Independent