Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Meaning Behind the Mannequins

Lynne Murray says:

Debbie pointed out this Washington Post blog by Delia Lloyd about “plus-sized” Swedish department store mannequins and the storm of interest in them:

Let’s face it. Part of the mannequins’ viral appeal was no doubt the illusion that they came from Sweden, that Nordic bastion of pushing-the-envelope cultural fare that brought us the likes of Ikea and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” We all secretly want to take our lifestyle cues from Sweden. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.)

But the excitement and interest generated by the mannequins run much deeper than that. “Call it a hunch, but I think we could have quite a discussion here,” wrote the popular syndicated columnist Connie Schultz on her Facebook page, where I first viewed the image. Which is clearly what Women’s Right’s News was after in posting the photos: “Store mannequins in Sweden. They look like real women. The US should invest in some of these,” read the caption.

An in-your-face message about the need to project more realistic, healthy body images to women and girls might easily have been lost, had the appetite (no pun intended) to hear it not run so deep. But it’s an encouraging sign of the times that we’re beginning to push back against the anorexic ideal that is so deeply embedded in our commercial and cultural aesthetic.

(By the way, there’s been some confusion about the truth of this story. Now that the dust has settled, the basic facts are known to be correct.)

In the emotionally fraught War on All Things Fat, any pushback against fat hatred, such as a suggestion that fat people might deserve to know what clothing might look like on their actual bodies is met with hysterical opposition.

Ragen on Dances with Fat notes that the Swedish mannequins

… have started a crapstorm of people falling all over each other to wring their hands and shriek about “promoting obesity”.

… Where is there good research to suggest  mannequins in a size 8 somehow cause people to become larger?  How is it logical that fat people will become happier, healthier and thinner as long as they never see people or inanimate objects who look like them?  Basically this entire idea – that the best thing we can do for fat people is purposefully create a world without positive representations of them –  is an unsubstantiated claim rooted in size bigotry.

Even if this research existed, the idea would still be problematic – is it ethical to try to make people healthier by creating a world that is designed to make them hate themselves and feel hopeless about their future unless they are able to change their body size? Then, of course, there is the added layer of the fact that the vast majority of those who try to change their body size fail? Among those who succeed, even if their physical health was better, would their mental health ever recover?

This is why I think it’s so important that we put representations of ourselves out there using the means that we have at our disposal – Facebook, blogs, forums, media appearances, wherever we can get ourselves out there.  It can also be extremely affirming to look at images of people who look like us to remember that what we are spoon-fed by the media is a stereotype of beauty that is artificially narrow and limited and, thanks to digital retouching, is unattainable by everyone – often including the people in the pictures.

Mannequins began as made-to-measurements dress forms to ensure that the clothing of the rich and royal fit well. One was found in King Tut’s tomb next to a chest full of clothes. sent around among Renaissance nobles sent around “fashion dolls” to share the latest courtly clothing trends.

On Displayarama, a site that sells mannequins, Jodie Deen describes the transition to mannequins as a sales tool and window display art form:

Wickerwork mannequins were certainly around in the late 1700s and were probably filled with stuffing and leather. Wire-framed versions came into existence in 1835 but mannequins were still not in use for store display. The invention of plate glass, the filament lamp and the sewing machine were the catalysts that put mannequins in the store.

…The advent of the department store with its large show windows, behind which mannequins bearing the latest fashions could be admired by the crowds, encouraged window trimmers to be artistic as well as practical. Mannequins slowly developed from being just a simple prop to display the merchandise towards a more realistic form. Mannequins with glass eyes, real hair and facial expressions began to appear.

Modern mannequins both reflect cultural trends and create impossible body types to display the clothing in an eye-catching way that brings people into the store as Tove Hermanson discusses at The Huffington Post:

The 1970s saw more ethnic diversity in mannequins; Decter of Los Angeles presented its Reflections VII collection with Asian and Black mannequins “walking” arm in arm. There was greater attention to anatomical accuracy too, specifically nipples. As short and mod ’60s fashions evolved to the long, flowing, backless or see-through styles of the ’70s, structured bras were worn less by live women and mannequin nipples more realistically displayed these braless styles. Capitalizing on the “natural” look, VIVA Lingerie even had a nipple bra that had padded nipples with the “support you want” (hilarious!).

In the same vein of growing skin exposure, as the fashionable waist was lowered from the natural waistline to the hipline, the torso joint of mannequins’ upper and lower halves was likewise lowered, to display bikinis without the distracting visible split line. tells us that “Plus-Size” Mannequins available in the US are usually size 14, versus the “standard” size 4 or 6–note that the average American woman wears a size 14. You can sometimes find size 18 mannequins on EBay, although not as beautifully molded as the Swedish models.

I find it most interesting that the dressmakers’ form, a tool to provide a better fit for made-to-measure clothing, has evolved into a standardized model designed to flatter clothing, almost completely disregarding the actual sizes of customers, let alone the variety of shapes that fall within the range of a single clothing size. In the modern fashion ideal, shoppers are expected to change their bodies to fit the clothing.

Absolutist vs. Consequentialist Bullshit

Laurie and Debbie say:

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville recently delivered a very satisfactory smackdown to Richard Dawkins when he decided to discuss his opinions of abortion on Twitter. In this series of tweets, Dawkins said, “My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality. Opponents follow absolutist morality. Simple.”

First, to quote McEwen: “Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.”

McEwen makes (for the hundred thousandth time, because she’s such a wonderful warrior in battlefield of women’s bodily autonomy) numerous important points about why no useful abortion discussion can even take place if the experience of the women carrying the babies is not included. But she goes on to challenge the “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language.

First of all, I want to get these terms out of the way, because I don’t want any bullshit rules-lawyering clouding up this post. Dawkins is claiming to parse a difference between Absolutism (which believes that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of consequence or intent) and Consequentialism (which holds that it is the consequence of an action that makes it ultimately right or wrong). So the built-in troll defense for all of the above is that Dawkins didn’t call pro-choice activists like myself “absolutists” as in extreme left-wingers but rather “absolutists” in the sense that we think women have a right to bodily autonomy because it is a basic human right instead of a contributing factor to the greater good. And that Dawkins’ point of view is the consequentialist view of morality and therefore naturally disposed to come up with a different answer than the absolutists.

She’s not wrong at all, but she missed an important point. Simply by bringing up this “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language, Dawkins is engaging in more than one shoddy arguing technique, and responding to him on his own terms only gives this crap some standing. This particular Twitter argument has already scrolled off the bottom of everyone’s screen, but the underlying style of argument deserves a lot more attention than the people who use it. What he’s doing is called “intellectual fingerfucking” and the only good thing about intellectual fingerfucking is that no one actually gets pregnant; otherwise, the practice varies from wasteful to destructive and this is a destructive version.

First of all, if a woman decides to (or decides not to) have an abortion, she is not sitting down and thinking “Am I being an absolutist or a consequentialist?” She’s thinking (and feeling) some version of “I have this very complicated thing going on in my body, my head, and my heart, and I need to do something about it, because it’s going to affect my whole life.” In other words, she’s having a major life experience (which, by the way, is both absolutely happening to her and fraught with consequences, and she knows both those things, though usually not in that language).

Using technical derailing ethical jargon builds a false context for real issues. By setting things up in this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand framework and labeling that framework with big intellectual-sounding words, a “pundit” can redefine a very human problem as if it was taking place in some sterile academic atmosphere, rather than being a problem of blood, bone and tissue, heart and mind, real human life and real human risk.

At the same time as this kind of argument falsifies and dehumanizes, it also bullies all kinds of people out of the conversation.

In a recent post on the concept of “stance,” as commonly used in the litmus tests of many evangelical Christian positions, Fred Clark at Slactivist approaches this problem from another perspective:

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Who does have time for this garbage? Well, let’s start with people (men) who run their own foundations. People (men) in “think tanks.” (Doesn’t that phrase always make you want to drop them into “feeling tanks” and see if they can swim?) Professors. And (here’s the big one), people who advise the lawmakers all over this country (and all over the world) on how they can continue to remove women’s rights, how they can justify their own “convictions” (which were created within the last hundred years and flourish in an ongoing context of absolutism, consequentialism, and stance) and create the kinds of increasingly horrifying anti-abortion laws which are popping up all over–and ruining lives.