There’s no one reason why fashion models are extremely thin. You’ll hear everything from clients, sample sizes, and agency demands to competition between models and the public that buys magazines featuring them. One of the more steadfast beliefs, though, is that models are thin because fashion is “aspirational” and women want to buy more than clothes: they want some abstract impossible thinness, youth, beauty, etc. As one researcher says, “It’s better to use extremely thin models because that’s what makes women feel bad about themselves and want to buy the products.”
A recent study (and hopefully also your own capacity for critical thought), however, suggests that may not be the case: most women are actually more likely to buy clothing modeled on someone similar in size and shape. Because obviously. And, also obviously, what falls out of this is not that we should ban skinny models but… that brands should show models with a diversity of figures so different women can see how clothes flatter and fall on different shapes.
Explains modeling agent and study head Ben Barry of his thesis:
My research, which was funded by the Ogilvy Foundation, took me to cities across Canada and the United States, where I surveyed and facilitated focus groups with more than 2,500 women. They ranged in age from 14 to 65 and in dress size from 0 to 18, and they reflected a range of ethnicities. I recorded their responses to mock fashion ads—which I created for my study—that featured models who varied in size, age and race but all wore the same Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. Save for the models, the ads were identical. My findings were surprisingly intuitive and yet revolutionary within the fashion industry.
And what happened?
My study found that women increased their purchase intentions by more than 200 percent when the models in the mock ads were their size. In the subgroup over size 6, women increased their purchase intentions by a dramatic 300 percent when they saw curvier models. Conversely, when women saw models who didn’t reflect their size, they decreased their purchase intentions by 60 percent, and women over size 6 dropped their purchase intentions by 76 percent.
It wasn’t just size that swayed decision making, it was diversity of all kinds, such as age: “Consumers increased their purchase intentions by over 175 percent when they saw models who reflected their age; in particular, women over the age of 35 increased their purchase intentions by 200 percent when they saw older models,” and race: “black consumers were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model.”
But that’s not all, Barry chanced on another startling insight that proponents of diversity have been championing for a while: women who see models that reflect them physically actually feel better about themselves:
I also discovered that women—especially those seldom reflected in fashion ads—felt beautiful and confident when they saw models who reflected their traits and felt motivated to buy the dress. When one mature woman saw an older model, she explained: “[The model] does more than make me feel beautiful; she inspires me to go out and get this dress and celebrate my beauty.” While some women in my study felt insecure when they saw idealized models, their insecurity didn’t translate to purchase intentions as the industry hopes; it actually turned them off the product. As one of the participants summarized: “Ads like this want us to be part of their world, but they have the opposite effect for me. I feel excluded.”
Of course there’s the question of whether or not advertising has any business being a mechanism to make people feel better about themselves (and how valuable such a thing would be) but surely it’s better than making women feel horrible about themselves, as many studies have found extreme thinness in advertising to do.
The whole piece is definitely worth your time, though as Barry says up top… the results are quite intuitive: while it’s true that clothes hang differently on different people, a size 8 is probably more likely to purchase a dress seen on a 6-10 than on a 2 or a 14. So, for those of you who see a piece in an ad and go looking for it: how much does the model’s body type affect your decision making?
Also, we imagine the influence of differing models is even more profound in online shopping, where the option to try something on isn’t really there.