The British press has ganged up on Victoria Beckham’s cast of “too-thin” models in her latest show at New York Fashion Week, with Piers Morgan leading the mob in the Daily Mail: “Stop with the miserable skinny models, Victoria—this is NOT how we want the world’s young women to look.”
The Daily Mirror culled criticism from Twitter, and The Guardian brought a level of seriousness to the pile-on with finger-wagging voices from women’s organizations.
The eating disorder charity B-eat warned that “young women suffering from eating disorders take these types of photos and put them inside their wardrobe doors,” while the women’s rights Fawcett Society denounced Beckham for employing “uniformly painfully thin” models when she could use her position as a celebrity to “challenge those norms and stereotypes if she wanted to.”
Morgan called for Beckham to “acknowledge that it was a mistake”—a predictable demand in today’s cult of apology.
Curiously, there was no outcry on this side of the Atlantic—no remarks that Beckham’s models were noticeably thinner than the other waifs that stalk the runways every season.
But Beckham has been scrutinized in the British press about her own weight since she was a Spice Girl. The nickname “Skeletal Spice” has haunted her since 1999, when the Daily Mail ran a particularly unflattering photo of her on its cover with the nickname as an alliterative headline.
Posh launched a defensive media spree, telling Morgan, then-editor at the Daily Mirror, that the Mail’s photo was “all shaded and distorted… What bothers me is that all the young kids will see this and think that’s how they want to look.” The image had “reduced me and my mum to tears.”
A feature in The Guardian listed the “two bowls of Sugar Puffs” and “two chicken fillets with loads of vegetables” she was frequently eating for breakfast and lunch at the time. (The Guardian determined, somewhat obsessively, that her BMI was lower than it should be and that “her idea of normal healthy eating is certainly monastic.”)
Beckham said she wanted to “celebrate curves” in her 2010 collection, and when the comment was distorted in reports that she’d banned size-zero models from her show, she set the record straight in an interview with the London Observer: “I never actually said that. Models are thin. But I do take my position seriously and I wouldn’t want to use very skinny girls.”
Not seriously enough, according to Morgan and other media outlets in the U.K., whose criticism of Beckham’s skeletal models hinges on the designer’s “Skeletal Spice” reputation.
She has always been thin, hollow-cheeked, and frequently severe-looking when photographed. Severe was Posh Spice’s look, and while Beckham has long since left the pop band, she’s run with that fierceness in establishing herself as a fashion brand.
But the idea that the models she employed this season are unusually and exceptionally thin is simply not true. Indeed, the buzzy criticism from the U.K. says more about our preoccupation with body image than it does about Beckham’s.
It also suggests that Beckham’s body—more than 15 years after that first wave of criticism and objectification—is once again being subjected to intense scrutiny.
We’re not just judging her petite frame, which looks no different than it did before she had four children; we’re projecting our anxieties about body image onto her. Her thinness has now been grafted onto her models, to Planet Fashion.
Victoria Beckham, infamous once for her own slim body, has become the eternal cypher for how we envision and panic over excessive thinness. There is no escape for her, and no escape from the trope.
Responding to the alarming number of young anorexic people that emerged from a 2011 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a doctor specializing in eating disorders told the BBC that “models and other society influences are, in our experience, rarely a contributory factor” to eating disorders in children.
That same year, Dr. Allegra Broft, a psychiatrist in the Eating Disorders Program at Columbia University, said there is no definitive causal link between media exposure and eating disorders.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about models starving themselves before fashion shows, or the young women who may idealize model figures and develop distorted views about their own body image.
But Beckham’s models are no different in their size to other fashion houses—they are being singled out because of the designer whose clothes they are wearing, and the media’s obsession with her body size.
Body shape and size is highlighted during every major fashion week, when a new crop of young, impossibly thin models make their runway debuts. But the blame aimed at Posh is misplaced—a calculated controversy more about her than the bigger issue that will surely attract clicks, even as it misses the mark in the body image debate.