I’m a skinny girl, I always have been, blessed with one of those metabolisms that allows me to eat whatever I want with no apparent effect. Also, I’ve always been fairly pleased with my physical appearance and have no experience with eating disorders. So when it comes to body size issues, my usual policy is to keep my mouth shut. I’m pretty sure the experience of someone who is privileged in both size and self-esteem would not be reassuring to anyone who is experiencing real social problems related to appearance. In this article, Alexa Chung provides a pretty good example of how body talk is the one thing skinny girls can’t pull off. Still, she’s inspired me to give it a long shot.
I first befriended Danielle after I interviewed her for a story I wrote about ‘it girls’, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to the ultimate early 2010s it girl, we disagree (albeit in a different way to our original discussion).
I liked Alexa Chung’s comments last week about body snark and style iconhood. I thought they were honest, feisty, and yet another sign of a woman who is wisely ambivalent about the accolades she has been afforded for her ability to wear clothes well. Danielle, on the other hand, thought they were in bad taste; as she put it on Twitter, “Size talk is the one thing that skinny girls can’t pull off.”
The differences in our responses can be attributed partly to the fact that I read about Alexa’s comments on Jezebel – which boiled the interview down to a couple of prize quotes about existing in a particular body shape not being the same thing as promoting it, and Alexa having ripped her prized fashion sense from Jane Birkin and Francoise Hardy – and Danielle reading them in their rather more rambly form on Fashionista.
But there are a few points she raises in her response that I’d like to respond to in turn.
‘Skinny girl’ privilege
Danielle argues that a skinny girl talking about size is like a multi-millionaire talking about money. Sound too pleased with your body and you’re boasting; complain and people will think you’re petulant and ungrateful. As a life-long “skinny girl” (which I am not), it’s safe to say she is speaking from experience.
But I’m not wholly comfortable with the privilege she describes in her post. Or rather, I don’t think it tells the whole story: either of the advantages of being a woman who remains pint-sized no matter what she eats, or the experience of standing at any other spot along the body type continuum.
If skinny girls “have every other advantage” (aside from the ability to speak openly about their body issues, or lack thereof), that raises the question of a) what kinds of advantages they have, and b) at what point the advantages of being a “skinny girl” kick in.
One advantage, I suppose, of being the kind of skinny Danielle is talking about might be never being plagued by the worry that you are “too fat”. But I have known enough present and former models with histories of eating disorders to know that’s not always the case.
I have also spent enough time around models to know that being tall and thin and having a great bone structure is not an instant formula for popularity, or a vaccination against feelings of physical awkwardness. The traits that win you a contract with an international modelling agency are not often the same traits that put you in the running for homecoming queen (or equivalent) when you’re sixteen.
The point is, whether we look more like Alexa Chung, Lena Dunham or Rebel Wilson, we all have embodied experiences which are complex mixes of privilege and not-privilege, and each of those are valid. The Blake Lively-esque prom queens have their stories to tell, too: rarely as pretty or perfect as their outer visages would suggest.
The embodiment of the ‘it girl’
I enjoyed Alexa’s comment that, “You can appreciate my style without having to appreciate my weight. It’s not actually mutually exclusive. I just get frustrated because just because I exist in this shape doesn’t mean that I’m like advocating it.”
And she’s right. Just because she is naturally waif-like (even by model standards, going on other interviews I’ve read), doesn’t mean she wants everyone else to be a waif, too. Nonetheless, Danielle is also right when she point out that “Chung owes her entire career to being appreciated for her appearance. Protesting that her size should have nothing to do with it is at best, naive, at worst, a calculated spin.”
As I’ve written here before, style icons aren’t just born through the clothes they wear on their bodies, but through the bodies that wear the clothes. And the widespread appreciation of Alexa Chung’s wardrobe has as much to do with the shape and size of her body as it does with what she wears.
I don’t think this makes her a hypocrite, and I don’t think it makes her “thinspiration” (at least, not intentionally); she can’t help the body that she was born into. But it is understandable why the women who were harassing Chung on Instagram were frustrated, even if their frustration was misdirected. In an age of smart phones, Instagram and lifestyle blogs, we are evaluated on our images more than ever.
When ‘style icons’ speak out
But the point I appreciated most about Alexa’s interview with Fashionista was that she seemed so cynical and blasé about her “style icon” status. Take this quote: “I’ve been dragging my ass around castings for years without anyone saying, oh you’ve got unique style. I think it was very much a case of being in the right place in the right time. I’ve really just been ripping off Jane Birkin.Sorry, has no one else seen a picture of Françoise Hardy? Look it up. I’m just the middle man.”
Danielle argues that “Chung is in the business of being judged on appearances, not intellect, and when she wanders into the world of words … she comes off as a sub-articulate babe in the woods.” But I disagree.
Like most people with a superficial streak, I enjoy looking at pictures of pretty people in pretty clothing – and I do like the way Chung dresses - but it was only when I started reading interviews with her that I began to get an inkling that I might also like her as a human being. And the more I read, the more I like her.
She’s honest. She’s got that whole British self-effacing thing going on. She seems to get that her current position in this world is utterly bizarre. And while she might put her foot in it sometimes (don’t we all), she seems like a genuine human being, rather than a carefully calculated brand.
Related: I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that so many of the women we’re sold as role models don’t actually DO all that much.
Sorry, that dress/jacket/pair of skinny jeans won’t turn you into Chloe Sevigny
The secret lives of beautiful women
To Alexa or not to Alexa… (see also, Part Deux)
Elsewhere: My response to Alexa Chung and body image (Final Fashion)
Alexa Chung on body image (Fashionista)
Alexa Chung doesn’t want to be your thinspo (Jezebel)