A new study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders on Tuesday suggests that ultra thin and “unhealthy-looking” dummies in high fashion stores may spur mental health issues in consumers.
Dr. Eric Robinson, one of the study’s author, told the BBC that he decided to investigate mannequin body sizes after being “perplexed” by the size of dummies he saw on a recent shopping trip.
In 2015, he and a colleague at the University of Liverpool surveyed all national fashion chain stores that used mannequins in two English towns, and measured them up.
What they found is that a majority of dummies used to sell women’s fashion represent the bodies either of young girls or of underweight women who would be considered medically unhealthy. (Of course, the reverse was not true of the average male mannequin body size, which was generally representative of a healthy weight man, albeit more muscular — because…gender bias?)
None of the high street brands gave them permission to actually measure the dummies, so had they had to visually assess their sizes.
“We didn’t find a single female mannequin that was a normal body size on display” Robinson wrote in The Conversation. And although mannequins do not have “a sign on them saying ‘you need to look like this'” he added, there is “clear evidence that the ultra-thin ideal is contributing to the development of mental health problems and eating disorders.”
These findings echo a growing concern in recent years about the power of environmental factors (advertising, subliminal messages) to trigger negative body image. The effects of media messages on young people being well-known, many worry that exposing women to idealized of version of thinness could be detrimental to their psychological well-being.
But while research shows, for instance, that young girls (5-8) who play with Barbie dolls are more likely to consider thinness desirable, to the authors’ own admission, their study says nothing as to “whether ultra-thin fashion mannequins have any observable direct effect on body image.”
The authors only “presume that the widespread use of inappropriate mannequin body sizes may reinforce unrealistic body ideals in some people.”
— Rhiannon L Cosslett (@rhiannonlucyc) October 20, 2015
Several high street fashion UK retailers, including Topshop and Oasis, have nevertheless come under fire recently over the “unrealistic sizes” of their mannequins. In 2015, for example, British brand Oasis faced public backlash after an image of an extremely skinny dummy at one of its flagship locations went viral on Twitter.
But, as industry insiders often point out, ever since they made their first appearances in modern department stores around the country, mannequins have always been a smaller, more stylized (or weirder) versions of the real thing.
“Our mannequins are not intended to symbolize real people, measuring over six feet in height and without distinct facial features, our store mannequins are highly stylized to represent an artistic prop and are in no way any attempt to accurately portray true-to-life proportions” an Oasis spokesperson told Refinery 29 following the Twitter controversy.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2014, a Topshop spokesperson also argued that mannequins were never designed to show real proportions, but to easily let clothes slide over them — like hangers.
“Mannequins are made from solid fiberglass, so in order for clothing to fit, the form of the mannequins needs to be of certain dimensions to allow clothing to be put on and removed; this is therefore not meant to be a representation of the average female body.”
Facing mounting pressure from angry shoppers, several fashion retailers such as J.C. Penney have nonetheless announced that they would start using bigger mannequins.
So while the backlash clearly denotes a growing sentiment among shoppers outside the fashion industry elite that fashion should be less “fantasy-like” and more “realistic”(which is a perfectly fine thing to want) it is a bit of a stretch to claim that women of all ages actually strive to look like headless molds of plastic fiber glass.