Opinion: Jo Swinson’s latest campaign is certainly more than average

I love shopping. I’m not afraid to admit it and frankly if I had to say I were addicted to one thing, it would be buying dresses; daytime dresses, smart dresses, dresses I know I’ll never wear because they’re just plain weird but I justified them as ‘individual’ at the time. I reckon there are many women in Britain who could admit to the same sort of love for clothes shopping. What draws me in though isn’t the colour or the number of sequins (well sometimes it’s because of the sequins), but the whole shopping experience in general. A good shop window display will catch your eye as you walk past, a great one makes you visualise yourself as part of the scene. This is where Jo Swinson’s latest campaign becomes relevant to an average Saturday afternoon of shopping for British women.

Earlier last week, major UK retailer Debenhams unveiled a new range of female mannequins. Mannequins that truly represent the average British woman who (according to Google) has brown hair, blue eyes, 2.5 children, but most importantly – is a size 16. Equalities Minister and co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence Jo Swinson was at the reveal in the flagship store in Oxford Street to endorse the new style mannequins and see what her campaign has achieved.

It’s so refreshing to finally see  this leap in high street retailer attitude realising that size 16 models are ‘average sized’. Too long have shops been marketing outfits to British women that are three sizes smaller than the majority of their female clientele, too long has there been a stigma attached to models that are used for clothes bigger than the smallest size the company sells, too long have average sized British women felt out of place as they stare into a shop window, unable to picture ‘that dress’ on themselves.

It was only when I happened across another piece of news about mannequin proportions that I realised how important Jo’s latest victory has become. Shop windows in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas are filling up with a very different new style of female figure ever since the cosmetic surgery industry has begun to boom in the country. To put it simply, Venezuelan high street retailers want to make women with enhanced chests and tummy tucked waists imagine themselves in their outfits. I can’t begin to think how detrimental this normalised view of a surgically altered body will be to the body confidence of normal sized women in South America.

Constant debates over what is considered a healthy weight and dress size by both men and women irritate me. We as members of a society obsessed with body image need to promote a view that concentrates on what is healthy – which could be a 6 or a 16. It’s crucial that retailers and the fashion industry as a whole should be welcoming of all shapes and sizes. Being on the small-yet-lanky side, personally I’d be screwed if they started only selling the average UK size. It’s also their responsibility, though, to promote a healthy and representative body shape to customers – not just the type that’s ‘sexy’ right now.

Jo’s body confidence campaign is becoming increasingly more important  and it’s great to see that there have been such great victories on a large scale that will impact the ideas of millions of British shoppers that cross the threshold of Debenhams in weeks to come.  I hope that other retailers and Debenhams stores will follow suit, recognising that the size 16 mannequins in their displays shouldn’t be in the ‘plus size’ section of their stores but as their default sized models for women’s clothing.

* Lizzy is a committee member of the York Liberal Democrats and is the comment section editor of York Vision newspaper.

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  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Nov '13 - 9:18pm

    “the average British woman… is a size 16. .. It’s so refreshing to finally see this leap in high street retailer attitude realising that size 16 models are ‘average sized’. Too long have shops been marketing outfits to British women that are three sizes smaller than the majority of their female clientele.”

    That’s not what the statistics show though. Recent large-scale surveys by organisations like Mintel and the clothing industry’s National Sizing Survey show that most women in Britain are a size 14 or less, with the most common size being 12. So it’s not correct that the average shop mannequin (industry standard: size 10) is “three sizes smaller than the majority of their female clientele”.

    It may well be that the mean average dress size in the UK is 16 (though most sources actually say 14), but of course this is skewed upwards by the increasing number of women who are way larger than that; it does not mean that most women are a size 16 or above.

    “It’s crucial that retailers and the fashion industry as a whole should be welcoming of all shapes and sizes.”

    Of course – but it’s already a lot easier going out and buying size 16 clothes than it is size 6. (Source: my size 6 wife who really struggles to find any dresses that fit, anywhere.) Increasing numbers of shops have signs in the doorway stating that they only stock clothes in size 12/14 or above. Clothes retailing isn’t nearly as thin-centric as the body confidence campaign likes to make out, and with size 6 women being nearly twice as likely to experience body confidence issues as size 16 women (http://www.styleite.com/media/women-who-wear-larger-sizes-happier/) I think it’s high time the campaign stopped focussing entirely on those who are size 16 and above.

  • Being distinctly plus sized myself (a 22) and fully aware of the health risks associated with obesity, I frankly don’t give a toss about Debenhams’ or any other retailers’ view of my healthiness. It’s patronising drivel.

    The key thing about the campaign surely is to reduce the pressures on youngsters who might otherwise succumb to anorexia, by showing diverse body images. “It’s OK to look like you, whatever that is.”

    Accompanying it by nannying pronouncements about obesity is surely undermining the campaign, as all a chubby teenager will hear is “here’s an average mannequin but by the way we are still telling you thinner is better”.

  • I missed out the context – i.e. that much of the press has added in commentary about whether this is encouraging obesity. And I believe a Debs spokesperson was talking about healthy weight. Which is not the point here! It’s supposed to be about reflecting what customers do actually look like. Not what the fashion industry thinks they should look like.

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th Nov '13 - 6:58pm

    ” It’s supposed to be about reflecting what customers do actually look like. Not what the fashion industry thinks they should look like.”

    I’m not sure where you get the idea that the fashion industry thinks everybody should look like a model. That’s a bit like saying the car industry thinks we should all be driving our cars round the French Riviera the whole time because it looks good in car adverts. Fashion companies choose tall and thin models because that physique tends to show off clothes better. This is no more sinister than a toothpaste company choosing a model with a nice white smile. The fashion industry is doing what every other industry in the world does – it’s trying to show its products in the best possible light. The fact that the fashion industry – more specifically, the *female* fashion industry – is the only one getting this sort of scrutiny the whole time seems weirdly misogynistic to me.

  • Why does one need to be confident in one’s body? Confident that one’s body is what? Do we mean confident that it is able to complete an assault course, or do we really mean confident that it is attractive to members of the opposite sex and thereby likely to help us land the partner we ourselves want?

    Actual research on British men suggests that there is a range of preferences but the peak atttractiveness is of BMIs in the range of 19-23 – i.e. almost the same range as healthy weight (BMIs 18-25), similar to the models appearing in men’s magazines but somewhat larger than the models women like to have in their magazines. Given that we presumably still think it is ok to choose ones sexual partners based on their bodies (although perhaps men liking healthy body weight is a sexual orientation too far for some liberals), then I don’t see how any significant progress in terms of body confidence is going to come from this campaign, particularly among teenagers, for whom getting the first serious boyfriend and girlfriend can become the be-all and end-all of everything.

    In the last 4 months I have lost 10 kilos and finally got to be officially non-obese (BMI 29.94). This has improved my body confidence a lot. I can see that women are looking at me in a different way now and I get the occasional compliment, which I didn’t get before. I have also started dressing more smartly and looking after myself more generally, as I feel different now. I am pretty surel I have a wider choice of possible sexual partners than before (women also judge men based on body type, so it seems), although I haven’t collected a representative sample on that one 🙂

    I think what this shows is that the best way to improve your confidence in something is to improve the reality. One can be a more confident violinist when one learns to play the violin better.

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