Guardian Hay Festival

June 2, 2010

Ben outside the Hay Festival sign

On Saturday May 29th, I had the honour of presenting a talk, entitled The Body Image Revolution, to a sold out crowd at the Guardian Hay Festival in Hay-on-Rye, Wales. Founded by Peter Florence in 1988, Hay is one of the world’s leading festivals of authors and thinkers who talk about their latest work. Bill Clinton described Hay as “The Woodstock of the mind.” I spoke about my current research on fashion advertising that reveals a cultural shift in the consumer mindset; they reject artifice, crave authenticity, and make their feelings known at through their purchases. Following is a summary of my talk from a report on the Cambridge University blog:

For decades, the fashion and beauty industries have been selling us unattainable looks and “hope in a jar”. Ben Barry’s research suggests that, as he revealed to his audience at Hay this morning, women are now starting to get wise and demand reality instead.

It’s a little startling to hear society’s predilection for ultra-skinny models being described as a public health emergency, but, according to Ben Barry, the statement is in many ways becoming true.

“There’s a day to day obsession with weight and a large amount of time spent by women on body hatred and wanting to look a different way,” Barry told his audience in the Oxfam tent at Hay this morning. The problem has been so significant, he added, that the American Psychological Association recently presented research showing that on average, American teenage girls are more concerned about putting on weight than they are about the possibility of a nuclear war.

Barry, as documented in our preview feature elsewhere on this very blog, is a PhD student at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, where he focuses on body image and the way in which it both shapes and is shaped by fashion marketing. In an earlier incarnation as the head of a modelling agency which he set up when he was just 13 (he is now 27 years old), he was, among other things, involved in scouting for Dove’s “real women” campaign which broke the mould by placing normal, curvy models at the forefront of its marketing instead of the size 0 ideal that has become the norm.

This campaign has, Barry believes, precipitated a culture shift away from the super-skinny, supermodel ideal. Fashion designers like Cheri Milaney and Mark Frost have followed suit, making headlines by creating clothes for size 12 and 14 models. Smaller scale efforts have been made by the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton, placing size 2 and 4 models on the catwalk at headline shows. Admittedly they hardly resemble the average woman, but, compared with the size 0 ideal these brands have promoted since time immemorial, it represents a significant start.

The shift does not apply just to leading designers and fashion houses. Debenhams have followed Dove with a real-women style campaign and magazines like Glamour have won acclaim from thousands of readers for putting pictures of average-sized models in their pages. In France, Parliament is currently debating whether or not to make it a crime to “incite” thinness.

So have the real women won? Barry warned that these attempts to ensure that advertising represents something other than a largely unattainable fantasy remain anomalies, rather than the norm. “The industry is still trying to sell hope in a jar”, he said. It benefits from offering women unreachable forms of beauty, in other words, because it believes that they think they can reach it by buying its products.

Since arriving at the Judge, he has been examining how far that contention really holds true. For his PhD, he has surveyed 3,000 women in Britain, Canada and the US representing a cross-section of shapes, sizes, age groups and ethnic backgrounds. Each was shown pictures of products being modelled by a similar variety of women. Some represented the supermodel fantasy of a young, thin, usually white size 0 woman. Other items were modelled by people with more conventional looks. The survey group were then asked to say how compelled they felt to buy the product being marketed in each case.

The aim was to see what these women really want to see in fashion and beauty advertising and whether it concurs with the idealised form the industry thinks it should be trying to sell them. Contrary to the views of corporate marketeers, Barry found that in general the women’s purchase intentions increased when a model who reflected their own age and size. In other words women want to buy products modelled by someone who, they think, looks like them.

“The people we surveyed are questioning, challenging and redefining beauty,” Barry said. “The women I met compared fashion to real life and preferred their own reality to the fantasy that advertisers are encouraging them to seek out. They rejected the central premise that their looks and lives could be improved by buying a certain product.”

In subsequent focus groups held with some of the survey participants, Barry confirmed his initial conclusions. The women who had taken part wanted to see an interpretation of beauty that reflected their own lives.

“But,” he added, “this isn’t a case of getting rid of aspiration. Rather, it marks a cultural shift from an unattainable aspiration to an aspiration they can attain.”

Barry believes that consumers are becoming increasingly media-savvy and recognise the artificiality of the manufactured constructs the fantasy models who are put in front of them represent. This is being helped further by social media, not least the “street-style” blogs which feature photographs of ordinary people “modelling” particular looks or brands. In some cases, these now command millions of hits a month, putting them on a par with many leading magazines which deal with similar themes.

This may also be one of the areas in which the recession has actually helped, Barry suggests, arguing that it has led to a “back to basics” culture. Fast fashion, which can reinterpret catwalk fashions for a mass (and ordinary-sized) audience within three weeks, and the emergence of unconventional style icons, like Michelle Obama, have also helped to feed the shift.

The industry is not the only thing that needs to change for the sake of a better society in this sense, Barry argues. As a member of his audience pointed out, far better still would be a cultural transformation in which our attitude to our own looks was defined less by corporations and fashion houses altogether. Until that happens, however, the industry will retain some sort of power over the way in which many women, in particular, see themselves and therefore needs to take responsibility for it.

“My research shows that the body image revolution is not about an end to size 0 or an end to size 2,” Barry added. “It shows that people are ready for the start of body diversity and acceptance of the idea that body is the one you’re born with.”

“For brands, it means they should be looking at who their target consumer is, particularly in terms of age or size. It’s not in their interests to represent everybody for the sake of everybody. But it is in their interests to represent their target market.”

Ben delivering his talk at the Hay Festival


2 Responses to “Guardian Hay Festival”

  1. Calista Says:

    Ben you are so stinkin’ cute in your glasses & bowtie – this does not take anything away from what you have to say, how you say it and the impact you are making on the world’s fashion industry. Kudos as always. 🙂

  2. I simply can’t say how much I agree with this and how thrilled I am to see these changes! Hooray!!! I’m particularly excited about Barry’s research showing that women are MORE likely to buy when a model is realistic and attainable–maybe the industry will finally get the message!

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