The fashion industry is often criticized for idealizing white femininity. Yet, Chelsea S. was perusing JC Penney’s online catalog and found a rather diverse set of models (pictures below). So, does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness or not?
It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t. In her article, “Size Zero High-End Ethnic: Cultural Production and the Reproduction of Culture in Fashion Modeling,” Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, explains that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, Mervyns, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive. Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.
Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds. High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable. The women used to model high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified. Whiteness, here, is a marker of elite status because white femininity, in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.
In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people. In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models. Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us. Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.
Chelsea’s screen shots from the JC Penney catalog: