While there’s a growing awareness of the need to represent a range of body shapes in public forums (even Barbie is catching on), fashion designers, advertisements and Hollywood still largely pimp just the one look: thin.
And we’re all familiar with the sight usually gracing clothes shop windows: tall, angular dummies jutting out hipbones at strange angles and draped in outfits that have to be bulldog-clipped at the back.
Now, newly published research focusing on the promotion of unrealistic female body ideals has zeroed in on high-street retailers – and found that the “average female mannequin body size was representative of a very underweight woman”.
The study, published 2 May in Journal of Eating Disorders, looked at the male and female mannequins in 17 fashion chains in two UK cities.
All shops surveyed were part of a national chain in order to produce data that would be most representative of mannequins used generally on the high street. Researchers visually assessed the mannequins against two systems of measurement and allocated an average size for each store.
Despite some chains having said they were introducing more diverse shapes, the researchers found that every single female mannequin in the study was categorised as underweight.
The authors write: “The average female mannequin body size was representative of a very underweight woman and 100% of female mannequins represented an underweight body size.
“The average male mannequin body size was significantly larger than the average female mannequin body size. Only 8% of male mannequins represented an underweight body size.”
Authored by behavioural scientist Eric Robinson of the University of Liverpool, and Paul Aveyard, professor of behavioural medicine at Oxford University, the report concludes: “The body size of mannequins used to advertise female fashion is unrealistic and would be considered medically unhealthy in humans.”
While the new research does not reveal the direct effect of retailers exclusively using thin mannequins on body image (as it did not examine people’s reactions to them), it notes that based on what we already know – that internalised “ultra-thin” body ideals can contribute to the “development of eating disorders and impaired psychological well-being” – widespread usage is likely to have a negative effect.
“We presume that the widespread use of inappropriate mannequin body sizes may reinforce unrealistic body ideals in some people,” the report explains. “Future work would benefit from examining the effect that different mannequin sizes have on women’s body image […]
“If being exposed to ultra-thin mannequins has a similarly negative effect on body image as exposure to other forms of ultra-thin media has then this would further support the need for the fashion retail industry to use more appropriate size mannequins.”
The report adds: “Given that the prevalence of body image problems and disordered eating in young people is worryingly high, positive action that challenges communication of ultra-thin ideal may be of particular benefit to children, adolescents and young adult females.”
Though the male mannequins studied were not classed as underweight in the same numbers as the female mannequins, it was noted that many appeared “unrealistically muscular” and “in the same way that exposure to ultra-thin ideals may negatively affect body image in women, exposure to unattainable muscular ideals may promote body dissatisfaction in men.”
The report encourages further study into the body ideals presented by both male and female mannequins.