It must be Christmas. The house is filling with catalogues.
One of them is from Saks. It’s called “Beach wear” and it features a model who is painful thin in a couple of shots. She can’t weigh more than 100 pounds and because she is model-tall, she made me wince a little. (It reminded me of that line from the movie Notting Hill. Like Julie Roberts’ character, this girl looks like she has been “hungry for a decade.”)
We use ourselves as instruments. And when we wince at a photo and when we are surprised by this reaction, we’ve been put on notice. Something is changing. A new expectation, a new standard of thinness, is taking up residence in us. And because we pride ourselves on having relatively ordinary tastes, we know that what is happening to us must be happening to others. Our culture is in transit. We are rethinking ideal weights and what models should look like.
The old line was you couldn’t be too rich or too thin. But in the last few years we have heard a protest come from inside and outside the fashion industry. The incidence of bulimia and other afflictions have caused some to accuse the fashion world of manufacturing misery. Silvia Lagnado noticed that only 2% of women believed they qualified as beautiful. And from this came the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It’s not hard to see some of the things that are moving us to rethink ideal weights and what models should look like.
What a perfect little problem for a Chief Culture Officer. The questions are straightforward. When did we begin to rethink ideal weight? Who and where are the early adopters? How fast is this change moving? What are the things that drive? Is it moving across the world uniformly or does vary according to region, age, income, etc. We need a model and some data, and we need to work with the problem until we get to know what it is as a problem. And then we are in position to say to Saks or any given client, “for these purposes, this is the sweet spot. Model weight should fall in this range.”
I wonder if one of the trends that matters here is a certain retreat from American extremism. In the old model, America the plentiful, the one that celebrated the sheer scale and abundance of the American success story, everything drove to the extreme. No one could be too thin. No cars could be too large. No teeth could be too white. No lifestyle could be too lavish. In the 1950s we were all Texans. (I am of course exaggerating for effect. I’m a Texan too.)
And now that the American dream is looking for ways to mediate and moderate itself, it may be that lots of decisions must now be made as judgment calls. And in that event, we need someone who is prepared to say what the middle is and where the tails now are. After all, if we leave the decision on “how thin” to the fashionistas, some of them of them are likely to create a catalogue that does not merely fail to sells clothing. They are going to create a catalogue that does damage to the brand. As in “Ew, Saks is a slave to fashion and they use slaves of fashion as their models.”
As America continues to change, more and more decisions will call for judgment, not extremes. Call it Aristotle’s golden mean, call it Goldilocks’ preference, new rules will perhaps apply.