Monday, March 18, 2013

Mannequins aren't mirrors

You might have seen a photo circulated through social media of two underwear-clad mannequins in a display window of a Swedish shop called Åhléns. They were being praised for being "fuller-figured" than regular mannequins and hence reflecting… wait for it… REAL WOMEN! On the other hand, Reddit users were ridiculing the proportions of a plus-size men's mannequin.

For years now we have been having these stupid discussions. I even mentioned how stupid they were three years ago. The 'debate' about mannequin size is so repetitive for two reasons. First, we struggle to imagine and accept bodies that look different to our own. Second, and more importantly, we can't imagine ways to think about bodies in terms other than the visual.

Mannequins are a retail merchandising tool. They aren't mirrors. It is only because of a specific set of aesthetic decisions that these mannequins are even styled like realistic-looking humans. We can try on clothes just as well if they are displayed on plain hangers suspended from the ceiling by fishing wire.

Two weekends ago, when Melbourne was gripped by a heatwave, I was wandering around in Melbourne Central shopping centre because it was air-conditioned. I was struck by these guys, first because they looked so funny and cartoonish, and second, because they were the only mannequins I saw that looked remotely like people:

You aren't meant to look at a mannequin and compare it to your own body. Indeed, you shouldn't look at a magazine editorial spread and compare the model's body to yours! You should see them as jumping-off points for your own imagination. You should mentally dress yourself in the clothes. I'm constantly collecting pictures of clothes I like on Pinterest, but I will never resemble those pictures. My body just isn't like that.

It is childish to demand the world fill our line of sight with people who look just like us. The problem with any 'body image' debate is precisely that – its obsession with images. Instead – and this is much more challenging – we have to develop non-visual ways of understanding bodies. Ways that – for instance – are about what a body can do, or how it feels to be embodied and wear clothes. We need to empathise rather than scrutinise.

I read an essay recently that asked, "What's the point of running?" If we could pop a pill to instantly endow ourselves with all the health and beauty benefits of running, would we still do it? Well, I wouldn't, but some people run just for the fun of it. Too often, we see running as an instrumental activity – something we do in order to get something else. Our lives become meaningless if we constantly defer our pleasure and fulfilment to a time when we've done A in order to get B in order to get C, and so on. 

Similarly, we often see finding well-fitting clothing as something that can only be successfully accomplished after we lose weight, bulk up, get fit, become beautiful. And we're bombarded with cultural messages that our major value as successful social beings is in pursuing these instrumental tasks.

To return to the larger mannequins: they can be a smart merchandising tool. (Indeed, plus-size retailers need them because the clothes won't hang and cling properly on small mannequins.) My research has told me that people really hate trying on clothes in shops. So, anything that removes a psychological barrier between the merchandise and the customer is smart marketing.

But mannequins don't 'reflect' reality.

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