I’ve tried to write this post half a dozen times and never quite felt like I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. The whole “open letter” thing feels a bit like yelling into a well – satisfying for a moment, but with little lasting impact – and this particular open letter always gets pretty rant-y when I tackle it. It also gets pretty rambly, as I have thoughts for both high-end designers and mall stores.
But, boatload of caveats aside, I’ve got diversity on the brain right now so I guess it’s time to just give it a whirl.
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Dear Fashion, Style, and Clothing Industries,
You are doing it wrong.
There may have been a time when presenting customers with an idealized, scrubbed, socially-sanctioned, mind-blowingly narrow version of beauty and fashionability sold stuff, but I’m here to tell you that time has passed. Long passed. You are operating under the assumption that your outdated version of “aspirational images” are motivating consumer actions. They may be squeaking by for the time being, it’s true. But people have learned to resent images and messaging designed to make them feel inferior or excluded. People have begun to rebel against the notion that there is one kind of beauty. People have had enough of the insultingly racist, classist, ageist, sizeist bullshit that you’ve been shoving at us for decades. It’s time you updated your strategies.
If you really want to create brand loyalty, cultivate passion for your products, and break new ground, try being inclusive. And I don’t mean casting a size 10 model and saying she’s plus-sized, or putting a single woman of color on the runway. That is not diversity. Diversity is short, old, scarred, hairy, tattooed, fat, thin, neither-fat-nor-thin, tall, flat-chested, busty, frizzy-haired, wheelchair-using, non-hourglassy, and jiggly. Diversity is gay and bi and hetero and trans and every possible combination and variation of gender and sexuality you can imagine. Diversity isn’t just African-American and occasionally Asian, it’s Latin, Native American, Polynesian, South American, Middle Eastern, Indian, and hundreds more. Diversity isn’t just that one gorgeous silver-haired model, it’s the rosy-cheeked 35-year-old and the vibrant 47-year-old, and the stunning 69-year-old. Diversity is also hundreds of other things that I’m omitting here, and it is changing all the time. It behooves you to celebrate that messy, difficult, ever-changing morass of humanity, even if it scares the pants off of you to contemplate doing so. Because there is beauty in every human, and when you finally start to accept and portray that undeniable fact, you will be amazed by the reaction it will prompt.
I know you’re trying, and strides have been made. The models may all still have the same body type, but there are more women of color modeling now than before. They may still be relegated to their own, separate events, but there are plus-sized fashion week shows and promotions. But in all honesty, it’s not enough. Because you are now sitting around congratulating yourselves for token inclusions and falsifying size diversity. You are claiming to promote positive body image when you’re just trying to sell stuff. You’re starting to do some aggravating laurel-resting, and that simply won’t do.
Promoting true diversity will be difficult and expensive. Representing the gamut of women in ads will be challenging, fitting a variety of body types for the runway will be costly, and expanding your size offerings will be tough. But you must believe me when I say that the goodwill, enthusiasm, and support you’ll generate by doing even ONE of these things will make it worth your while. You don’t need to constantly re-package the same stuff and tell us it’s new and improved. If you just re-cast the same stuff, make versions that fit the actual population, and present it to us as new, we’d be utterly overjoyed to see ourselves reflected back in your ads and merchandise. We’d buy. We’d love to buy your stuff. But we don’t really want to buy it unless you tell us that it’s FOR us, and believe it.
And the “us” I’m referring to definitely includes the lithe, willowy, Caucasian blondes with perfectly straight teeth that you adore. But it includes the rest of us women, too.