You Are What You Do Not Eat: The Problematic Relationship between Fashionable Bodies and the Consumption of Food from Nineteenth-century France to Now

Content Warning: The content of this piece engages with the topic of eating disorders. 

As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one morning, I stumbled across an “inspiration” page. Among snapshots of long-limbed models posing in Parisian couture ateliers and close-up shots of clavicles protruding from power pink, feather-stitched garments, appeared images of decadent food—chocolate-covered croissants, overflowing cheese boards, and creamy pasta dishes. The page staged a clear aesthetic cross-fertilization between economic wealth, physical slenderness, and rich, “pretty-looking” food. The trickery and the dishonesty of this association lies in thinking of this fattening food as being consumed by the emaciated beauty who appears in the picture beside it. Although the women looked positively starving, the ostentatious display of food hinted at their supposed—probably contrived—bon vivant nature. Perhaps unwittingly, this entire page tapped into stereotypical representations of femininity in French culture, where changing fashion trends, cultural roles, and dietary regimes require that, while she must remain slender, the French woman never holds back.

Nuremberg and Venetian Women, Albrecht Dürer

The gazelle-like creature of the “ideal” model goes back to mid-nineteenth-century France, during which time both dresses and bodies were getting slimmer and longer. Women were becoming more active, leaving their stovetops for more enthralling pursuits. The corset’s tyranny was fading and women’s bodies were starting to be liberated from centuries of restraint and decades of containment. Paul Poiret’s designs were much more draped than they were structured, thus liberating women’s upper bodies and elongating their silhouettes. Coco Chanel made hemlines go up and waistlines go down, and clothing—rather than supporting and shaping the body—was slowly but surely reclaiming its own space. 

Meanwhile, although access to good quality food improved during the nineteenth century, the typical French diet remained meagre. In his book France Fin-de-Siecle, Eugen Weber describes the eating habits of the French as “a continuous fast” (Weber, 65). Fashion magazines and beauty manuals of the time encouraged women to not overeat: overeating was described as gastrolary — harmful to gut health — and perceived as greedy, almost immoral. In her Cabinet de Toilette, the Baroness Staffe recommends the following daily diet: a glass of milk for breakfast, an egg and a vegetable for lunch, and a light dinner that must exclude meat, liquors or wines, condiments, and spices. She even encourages eating to be done secretly, safe from the prying eyes of husbands or domestic servants. But around the dinner table, it was recommended that women continue to adopt the air and attitude of someone who both enjoys and engages in the arts of the table. 

In nineteenth-century France, economic wealth and access to food have always gone hand-in-hand. The type of performative eating on display at the dinner table was limited to the women of the bourgeoisie, those who could afford a great deal more than what they were encouraged to consume. In the nineteenth century, a slender figure could be obtained through voluntary self-inflicted hardships rather than through a painful remodelling of the body by items of clothing. As dangerous and unsafe as it was, a corset could have made a plump body look slimmer. As the corset fell out of vogue, it became harder for women to look thinner than they actually were, since food restriction required time, commitment, and consistency. 

Nowadays, fitness and Instagram models have attempted—sometimes with success—to restore the reputation of the corset’s cheap sister: the waist trainer. However, thinness achieved through food control remains a popular method. While the deformation of the body by fashion(able) objects sounds bad enough, a self-inflicted method of starvation seems even worse to me. Food restriction may cause irreversible damage to the organs and the flesh, including thyroid malfunction, severe dehydration, heart failure, and other complications. But in order to reach the highest peak of glamour, I argue that one must never make this sacrifice visible. A woman appearing to indulge in decadent eating is perceived as glamorous as long as she physically looks like she never does. 

We can observe the unfolding of this specific stratagem in modern fashion videos. The world renown fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue recently started publishing short videos of models getting (runway) ready, giving viewers a glimpse into what their daily lives look like. In a video showcasing the Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill, simply entitled “Bergdorf! Bodegas! Hot Cheetos!”, we see Hill lying on the floor of a luxurious fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York City’s most famous and costly stores. She is wearing a sumptuous baby blue gown covered in silver sequins and taffeta flowers, with a bowl of chips nestled between her breasts. “I can eat a whole bag [of Cheetos] in, like, one go,” she says after having already taken a bite out of a lobster sandwich. Suki Waterhouse, in Vogue’s “Diary of a Model” video, is seen ordering a grilled cheese and fries at a restaurant before going to a Jeremy Scott fashion shoot. In “How Model Birgit Kos Gets Runway Ready”, the twenty-four-year-old Dutch model enthusiastically asks for a plate of crepes. 

In none of these videos, however, do we ever see the models take more than one small bite of the junk food in front of them. Indeed, Vogue seems to force-feed the spectator with the distorted idea that stick-figure models eat vast quantities of food every day. The magazine also intends to trick us into thinking that these models’ staged behaviors are absolutely authentic. Could this be an attempt to make the women seem more relatable? Could it also serve the false depiction of the model-like figure as a surreal or unreal creature? A goddess whose body would not be subjected—like us—to the laws of nature? In any case, we are given an idea contrary to the familiar notion that a woman must suffer for beauty.

As a fashion scholar and a freelance model myself, I find it to be the most extraordinary insult to the legitimacy of the fashion industry to make fashion enthusiasts believe these icons are no different than the girl next door, to make it look like the woman who embodies timeless, mysterious, modern beauty standards also has fingers covered in Cheeto dust. This is not to say I wish for Vogue to showcase proudly starving models, nor do I assume that models who claim to eat nothing other than kale and lettuce are lying. I think that fashion should avoid going out of its way to convince us that traditional beauty standards can be achieved through unhealthiness and excess. I believe this process actually takes away from the enunciative role of fashion as an elaborate creative system, both capable of producing beauty and rendering us sensible to it. Instead, it convinces us all that fashion beauty standards are attainable, even and especially when one engages in excess, and reminds us that a true mark of effortless elegance—in good old French tradition—is to seemingly engage in excess without ever truly doing so. 

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