There's A Gap In Media's Message About Women's Bods

Walk into any Gap store right now and you'll see mannequins wearing jeans from the "1969 Always Skinny" line. The mannequins are headless and have unnaturally long legs with thighs the size of a small woman's forearm.

If these legs were on a real female body, we'd worry the poor thing had rickets.

But this is how the Gap sells its denim now, via aspirational anorexia. Not just skinny jeans. "Always Skinny." And from birth, apparently, as Gap Kids also carries $30 Toddler Skinny Jeans. But just for girls.

A blogger named Alice Taylor made the first stir about the Always Skinny figures and placards when she snapped pix in a Gap store in London. (I snapped some at the Gap in Mockingbird Station.) Taylor tweeted out her shots, musing about "death-camp chic" and "famine fashion forward," and caused a blogstorm of commentaries from feminists and fashion writers who decried the bone-thin shapes.

The Gap now joins the British store Topshop in the latest controversies about promoting pin-thinness. Topshop had to pull an ad recently that exaggerated the size of an already gaunt-looking model. And there was that website that sold baby onesies printed with the old Weight Watchers slogan (repeated by model Kate Moss) that "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." (Tell that to a crying, hungry newborn.) Urban Outfitters sold a $28 t-shirt that said "Eat Less." (There's your answer, Somalia.)

Everywhere, skinny this, skinny that. Skinnygirl Margarita and Sangria from Bravo reality star Bethenny Frankel, with which she's just gotten a fat buyout of $120 million from a liquor bottler. Skinny soda cans from Pepsi. And why do we need tall, thin soda cans? "Our slim, attractive new can is the perfect complement to today's most stylish looks," said Jill Beraud, chief marketing officer for PepsiCo.

Slim can = skinny ass. Got it. But they're nuts if they think anyone wearing Prada would drink Pepsi, by the thin can or from a cut-glass flute.

Always Skinny jeans stand (because they're too tight for sitting) at the opposite end of the fashion spectrum from Pajama Jeans. They are a double whammy of marketing flimflam, sending a message to women that thighs larger than a pencil are ugly and that it's OK to peddle pennies' worth of cotton fabric for 70 bucks. How do you make more money selling clothes to the masses? Use less fabric. Try to find a dress with sleeves or a skirt with an actual waistband. It's not fashion; it's foisting lower quality merchandise on a gullible public and sticking a high price on it.

It's also what media theorists call a "cultural indicator." We learn something important about the status of women in our culture by the messages media, advertising and retail merchandising send out. In the matter of the Always Skinny jeans, it's pretty obvious. Starve yourself to skeletal body mass and you deserve this pair of overpriced pants. Don't just be thin -- always be thin. (Hey, in 1969, I was thin, too.)

It's an unreal ideal, of course. Because real women aren't brittle plastic clothes hangers. Our thighs are bigger around than our ankles. We have smooshy hips and poochy tummies. We are soft in nice places.

Tell that to little girls who are going on diets at age 10. In a Wall Street Journal story, fourth-grade girls in Chicago revealed startling insecurities about their weight. A study had found that 75 percent of girls that age were worried about being fat and the reporter didn't believe it. But his interviews with the kids mirrored the study's results. "Boys expect girls to be perfect and beautiful," said one of the young girls in the article. "And skinny."

Which brings me to the reality show Big Sexy, which premiered this week for a three-episode run at 9 p.m. CT, Tuesdays on cable's TLC channel. The promo line for it is "When it comes to fashion fun, they're the biggest thing in New York." Well, at least they didn't say "living fat in the Big Apple."

The premise is Sex & the City with big chicks. "Plus-size" models Tiffany Bank and Nikki Gomez, stylists Heather Roach and Leslie Medlick, and make-up artist Audrey Curry are followed by cameras as they navigate the New York fashion industry. In the first episode, they planned a swimwear fashion show and attempted to get into a downtown nightclub for a fashion biz after-party. When they got to the front of the line, they were given the "wait a second" by the doorman as other not-plus-size girls were whisked in for free. The Big Sexy girls finally got the OK to go in but only if they'd pay a $30 cover. "Is there an official weight restriction?" they asked the door gorilla before leaving angry. Some sort of cellulite penalty perhaps.

Instead of showing them as empowered, intelligent and feisty in the face of size-ism, Big Sexy takes TV's usual attitude toward women who eat, portraying them as insecure, love-starved rejects. "Last time I got laid, dinosaurs were roaming the earth. There's cobwebs down there," says Heather Roach, talking to the camera about her sex life.

Even starring on your own show is not enough validation when you're a big girl in the land of double-zeros. "You get used to your body but you never get used to, you know, that you're a freak of nature," Nikki Gomez says. Someone should snap her out of the shame spiral. She's gorgeous.

But our cultural indicators won't stop telling women, even pretty ones with TV shows, that being anything other than "Always Skinny" means being a freak. TLC enjoys healthy ratings from its nonstop array of freaksploitation shows, from Little People, Big World to Hoarding: Buried Alive to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. With Big Sexy they make five lovely gals into the living equivalents of Macy's parade balloons. Just enormous lady-bodies bobbing hopelessly above a population of fashionable waifs and judgmental door jockeys.

In another scene on Big Sexy, the ladies try on jeans before they go out for a night of "boy hunting." They are not at The Gap, although, 1969 Always Skinny jeans are sold up to size 20.

Go figure.

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