Does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness?
It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t. Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, found that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, TJ Maxx, 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 in 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. In this context, whiteness is a marker of elite status because white femininity, thanks to white supremacy 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.
Screen shot from the JC Penney catalog, thanks to reader Chelsea S.:
Originally posted in 2010.
Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.