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Is Debenhams taking its female customers for dummies?

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As I wander through high street clothes shops in search for more impractical, uncomfortable and unaffordable yet absolutely necessary items to add to my wardrobe, the odd mannequin display might catch my eye and inspire me to head to a particular section of the store.

For me it's the style of the clothing that attracts my eye, and not the mannequin itself. In my opinion, they're pretty underwhelming; merely a plastic coat hanger displaying a trend. However, for other shoppers, mannequins, and the idealised body image that they portray present a problem, and understandably so. The fashion industry is notorious for promoting an unhealthily 'perfect' image of what women ought to look like through its use of airbrushing in the media, and use of uncommonly slender women in advertising campaigns and catwalks. Indeed, the average size of your high street shop dummy is between a size 8 and 10, possessing a perfectly proportioned body, whilst the national average of the British woman stands at a size 16, lumps, bumps and all. Alas, it seems that there is no hope for all of us who are not blessed with legs like Bambi and waistlines to rival Kylie's in her heyday.

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Fear not! Debenhams has now released size 16 mannequins into their stores in an attempt to advertise its clothing using a more realistic female figure. The larger mannequins will be used in 170 stores across the UK alongside the regular size 10 dummies, so as to give customers of all shapes and sizes a better idea as to what certain clothes will look like on both the slimmer and fuller body shape. Debenhams director, Ed Watson, commented: "having worked on this project for three years, we hope that it will help people in some small way to feel comfortable about their bodies and, crucially, that other retailers will follow." Unfortunately, the retail Goliath, Arcadia Group (behind Topshop and Miss Selfridge) failed to comment on their fellow retailer's positive move.

'Positive' is certainly a word that we ought to attribute to Debenhams' attempt to portray a more realistic female image, and they're undoubtedly taking a step in the right direction. Yet realistic, it is not. Guardian journalist Harriet Walker phrases the issue quite perfectly: "show me a size 16 woman with a flat stomach and I'll show you the folds of flesh that pile up when I sit down." Whilst the new mannequins boast a wider frame and a bust and bum that deserve a bit of attention, their washboard abs and toned limbs simply do not reflect your typical size 16 woman. Whilst the widespread use of perfectly proportioned size 8 mannequins is damaging to the self-image of women, at least we know it's unrealistic, and like I touched upon earlier, we can assuredly consider them as glorified coat hangers. The danger with these new, equally as super-human mannequins, is that they're supposed to be based on 'real' women: a double slap in the face. This is not to say, of course, that size 8 or size 16 women with Kelly Brook-esque proportions don't exist, it's just not realistic or healthy to treat this blessing as the norm.

In fairness to Debenhams, it must be a fine and delicate line between keeping customers satisfied, and making money. Many trends of late tend to have the slimmer woman in mind, and shops only want to promote what they're selling in the way it looks best. In addition, the average woman is a size 16, standing at 5ft 3in and weighing 11 stone: this is not a (BMI) healthy body, and it would be irresponsible of Debenhams to suggest it were. Perhaps then, considering these issues, we might begin to understand why the new mannequin is the notably wide yet hyper toned hybrid that it is.

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, who has backed Debenhams' campaign, stated that "recent research found that women are three times more likely to buy clothes when the fashion models are their size," well, I'm sceptical of this research. We're not stupid. Just as we can safely figure out that using L'Oreal shampoo won't turn us into Cheryl Cole swishing her hair about (dammit), I'm confident that we don't assume that the clothes we see on a mannequin, whether it be a size 8 or a size 16, will look the same on us. Whilst I personally don't associate mannequins with human women of whatever size, what Debenhams' campaign has certainly highlighted, is that fashion is a difficult world. We can either strive to change the values that lie at its core, and I admire those who do, or take what seems to me the easier and more productive approach of discovering for ourselves what clothes suit and flatter our figures whilst simultaneously reflecting our personal style.

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1 Comment

Unrealistic Posted on Saturday 11 Jul 2020

Whilst I would agree with you that many mannequins and women in the media have uncommonly long legs and 'perfect' proportions, I don't think it's really fair to label sizes 8-10 as 'unrealistic'. I'm a size 8 and my BMI is 22.5 (closer to overweight than underweight).
How about we promote women of many shapes and proportions, but only healthy weights?

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