Emma Cowing: A mannequin as perfect as we are

MP Jo Swinson at the launch of Debenhams size 16 mannequin range. Picture: PA
MP Jo Swinson at the launch of Debenhams size 16 mannequin range. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

WHEN I was ten, a film was released that I became rather obsessed with. It was called Mannequin, and featured a beautiful plastic model in the window of a department store that magically (something unlikely involving ancient Egypt and a pyramid that’s best not dwelt on) came to life.

According to the male lead who falls in love with her, the mannequin is “perfect”. Oh, how I wanted to look like her. I longed to be “perfect” too, with smooth alabaster skin, white blonde hair, a tiny waist and long tapered fingernails. May I remind you that I was ten years old?

I am no longer ten, and I definitely no longer want to look like Kim Cattrall (for it was she, Samantha from Sex and the City, who played the wide-eyed Emmy in Mannequin). But the influence that such images of perfection have is just as strong, if not stronger now, on young women today.

It was highlighted yesterday by Dennis Robertson, an SNP MSP from Aberdeen whose daughter died two years ago from anorexia. In a members debate at the Scottish Parliament last night, he urged fashion outlets to widen their range of mannequins, most of which are ridiculously skinny, never straying outside the confines of a size eight or ten.

Speaking ahead of the debate he said: “Young people can be influenced by what they see in shop windows, magazines or adverts. I do not feel the sole responsibility lies with medical professionals to tackle the issue of eating disorders, and the media and fashion industry must show some action to ensure that young people especially have positive images of the diverse body shapes and sizes in our society.”

His words pack a punch. His daughter Caroline was just 18 when she died in 2011. Since then he has spoken passionately and movingly about why there must be more awareness of eating disorders in society, arguing that they are serious, debilitating and potentially life-threatening illnesses that need to be treated as such. He has even taken doctors to task, saying in a speech last year: “The people who need to become more aware are those in the medical profession. Our general practitioners and other medical professionals need to recognise that, when a young person goes to their surgery with their parents or a friend, their condition is not to be dismissed as a teenage fad.”

But he is right, too, that young women – and men – can be influenced by what they see in shop windows, magazines and adverts. That is why it is such welcome news that Debenhams has introduced size 16 mannequins. It reflects the fact that the average British woman – who does not have the proportions of Kim Cattrall, whatever the average store mannequin would have you believe – is 5ft 3in, weighs 11 stone and wears a size 16.

This is not to say there are not women who are a size eight or a ten. Of course there are. But they are disproportionately represented by the fashion industry, by clothes stores and by the media, who seem to think that if you don’t talk about women who have waists bigger than a toothpick, if you never mention them, never photograph them and never seek to represent them in any way, they will simply … slim down. Disappear. Vanish altogether from sight.

The truth is that they won’t. The vast majority of the buying public in today’s world does not have a supermodel thin body, never did, and never will. But if you relentlessly bombard them with those images, whether it be in mannequin form or in an ad campaign, you will make them start to obsess that they don’t. You will make them feel bad about themselves, and you will make them feel that they are somehow not good enough. For a handful, you will push them to such extremes that they will develop debilitating eating disorders that may kill them. What an appalling legacy to have.

We should all be shocked that Debenhams is the first – and only – high street store outside of the plus-size shops to produce anything larger than a size ten mannequin. Every shop should reflect its customers, not make them feel like inadequate outcasts. If stores want to reflect real life, they should embrace all sizes of mannequin. Perhaps that way, there’s a chance today’s ten-year-olds might believe a size 14 could also be perfect.