There have have been several observations in the press and on social media in the past few years that some of the mannequins used to sell women’s fashion represent unrealistic and unhealthy body sizes. But until we started to look into it, the issue had not been researched properly, and the evidence was mostly anecdotal.
Back in 1992, researchers surveyed a handful of mannequins from the 1930s-1960s housed in museums. They concluded that real women of a similar body size would be so thin that they would be unable to menstruate. More than 80 years on, and with women in a very different societal position than previously, you might expect things to have changed.
Sadly, however, that’s not the case. Our newly published research concludes that the body sizes of mannequins being used to sell female fashion on the British high street today represent those of severely underweight women.
In 2015, we conducted a formal study of mannequins by surveying all national chain fashion stores on the high streets of two cities in England – Liverpool and Coventry – that were using mannequins. In total, we visited 17 stores and got acquainted with 58 mannequins, 32 of which were “female” and 26 “male”.
What we found was that all of the female mannequins in these shops had body sizes that corresponded to that of an underweight human. We didn’t find a single female mannequin that was a normal body size on display.
The “ultra-thin ideal” is something that I, and many others across the world, loathe. Size zero culture and glamorisation of unrealistic and unobtainable body sizes has meant that the “ideal” body size frequently and implicitly communicated to women is dangerously unhealthy.
Promotion of the ultra-thin ideal has been shown to cause women to be dissatisfied with their body size. And, in turn, this dissatisfaction is thought to be one step along the path of developing an unhealthy desire or “drive” for thinness, and subsequent eating disorders.
Not everyone will develop an eating disorder from having the ultra-thin ideal pushed upon them, and it is difficult to say why some people develop them and others don’t. However, the academic community is pretty convinced that promotion of ultra-thinness is a major player in eating problems, and that it is responsible for the propagation of body image problems in young women.
An ideal model?
Interestingly, we found that most of the male mannequins in our survey didn’t look underweight – only 8% of those surveyed were too thin. This fits well with what we know about ultra-thin body ideals and gender: it is primarily communicated to women, who are a lot more likely than men to develop an eating disorder like anorexia.
Mean mannequin sizes rated using the BMI-based body size guide rating scale.
Our observation of male mannequin shows that there is no legitimate reason why mannequins used to sell female fashion have to be ultra-thin. If their male counterparts can be a “human” shape and size, then why can’t they?
Although some nation fashion stores say they are using larger bodied mannequins, we found no evidence of this in any of the stores that we visited. Of course, we can’t rule out that there may be some larger mannequins knocking about in a small number of stores, but we found that unhealthily thin mannequins are the norm on the high street.
Mannequins aren’t people, nor do they have a sign on them saying “you need to look like this”. But they are representations of the human body that are used to sell fashion and the idea of beauty. There is clear evidence showing that the ultra-thin ideal is contributing to the development of mental health problems and eating disorders.
There is no excuse for the continued use of emaciated mannequins.