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Style To truly change body-image norms, we have to go beyond awareness

Every summer, I pull out a photograph of Tove Jansson swimming. The Finnish author's head is crowned with wildflowers as she frogs in the sea near her summer home, her delighted grin bobbing above the surface. It's safe to assume she is not worrying about her beach body. The rhetoric of the summer beach body – slim, toned and everything that's idealized in lifestyle catalogue frolick – starts in earnest well ahead of vacation season, with exercise, diet and cleanse-themed magazine articles and influencer posts. They all suggest (and that's putting it lightly), with increasing degrees of alarm as July nears, that the winter (read: average) body is shamefully not beach ready.

"Fashion makes people dream, and sometimes have nightmares," says former model Victoire Dauxerre. The recent decentralization and supposed democratization of power from fashion magazines to social media has not improved visions of reality, it's merely added more pervasive channels to spread the fantasy.

I encountered the extreme version of summer beach body bull – and was reminded of how complicit the custodians of mainstream body image culture are – speaking with Dauxerre earlier this spring as her bestselling memoir Size Zero: My Life as a Disappearing Model was published in English. Dauxerre was scouted in her hometown, Paris, at the age of 17 (she was once featured on Canadian designer Jeremy Laing's runway). At the time, on the cusp of graduating from high school, she weighed 127 pounds and was 5-foot-10 but was nevertheless instructed by her French agent to lose a kilo per week over the summer in order to get down to 110 pounds in time for the September fashion week castings in New York. Dauxerre found herself replacing three square meals with an apple a day and "nothing except Pepsi Max for energy," the former model, now 23, explains from London, where she is now an actress. She hid her starvation diet from her family during summer vacation. Her book recounts how the backstage pastry buffets and craft services at photo shoots seen in Instagram posts are a sham, with models "fake-biting into a croissant" then spitting it out after posting, all the while starving themselves in real life.

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Dauxerre joins the ranks of models like Crystal Renn and Ashley Graham, both of whom have written their own memoirs about the unhealthy size expectations of both the industry and the world at large. Dauxerre and I commiserated that even as models break the code of silence, again and again, the news they reveal is not shocking any more. New laws and proclamations around model size always get ink when they're announced, as did the recent French decree requiring designers and agencies to employ only models over the age of 16 and who have health certificates that reflect the controversial idea of a healthy body mass index. But enforcement is often another issue. Shortly before this law was proclaimed in May, there was the case of the Danish model who came forward about how she was dropped from the Louis Vuitton fashion show for being too large (she was a size 2) after being told to consume nothing but water for a day or two.

I've been covering the business of fashion for more than a decade and have watched the industry's whistleblowing and body image backlash, followed by the promise to reform, happen time and again – it's as cyclical and fickle as any fad. Why does the disconnect persist? Dauxerre holds designers responsible. Their sample size garments are at the start of the supply chain. "The trouble is they really don't want to change," she says. She then tells me of the meeting she recently had with a high-ranking French government official who said that Paris designers had told her, in no uncertain terms, that if they actually applied the law, the designers would go away and take their lucrative fashion shows with them. Money is power.

"It is from the top – but then, everybody's responsible," Dauxerre adds. When women, surrounded by images and messages at every turn, don't have anything else on offer, "it's so hard, when you have that in your brain, the damage is done. Even if you say to yourself you know better. That is the power of image – that's why marketing works. They know how to manipulate. The damage is done." Fashion, which claims to celebrate women, is actually a denial of their reality, insists Dauxerre, who regularly receives messages from girls aged 14 to 20 who equate skinniness with happiness. She also often hears from women who are over 50. Anorexia rises during these two age periods, she says, "because it's the two times when your body changes. You still want to be beautiful [in menopause] and go into stupid diets."

I fall in between and should know better. I do know better. Yet I read Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln, a psychology professor and researcher on body image and gender at Northwestern University, as much for work as for self-help. Engeln's new book grew out of her TEDx talk on what she calls "beauty sickness," the constant worry about outside appearances and a compulsion to perfect the body, and how to reframe the conversation and attitudes around narrow ideological norms and false ideals. It's with resignation that Engeln cites the recent WHO report "Growing Up Unequal" and its findings that, after surveying more than 200,000 young people in 42 different countries, girls at age 15 are more likely than boys to report they feel "too fat." And as girls turn into women, they don't grow out of body dissatisfaction. Fashion and advertising images don't help since most don't represent familiar adult bodies and faces. "At a certain point, our body ideal became so removed from what most women look like," she explains, "that it was easier to find the ideal in young girls than grown women."

I zeroed in on Chapter 9, titled "Media Literacy is Not Enough." Engeln describes one teen who is a body-image activist at her high school and debunks pictures and advertisements that feature flawless models, yet even the teen admits that the smart, critical girls in her class who know full well the girls in the ads are "genetically impossible" still want to look like those airbrushed images. And if I'm being honest, so do I. "This is a fundamental weakness with what's commonly called media literacy," Engeln says of now-mainstream awareness. Mere knowledge is not enough to resist let alone recondition and reform.

Instead, Engeln takes the namesake classic song Walk Away Renée literally: "When I encounter these Photoshop images, I walk away. I close the magazine. I look away from a billboard. I switch to a different website. I 'flag' an ad. I unsubscribe, unfollow, mute. In whatever manner possible, I walk away. I turn my eyes elsewhere, and I turn my thoughts elsewhere." Control. That extends to much of what's on movie screens, what with Vulture recently raising the alarm over Zac Efron's Baywatch bod going an ab too far ("Zac Efron is too swole"), creating ridiculous body standards expected of mere civilian males. Welcome to the clubhouse, guys. She suggests curtailing the negative body talk that's often a habit among both men and women and, instead, refocusing on the body's usefulness with mantras like "I use my arms to …" to focus on function rather than creating value from how they look.

I come back to that photo of Jansson, creator of the endearingly lumpy Moomin comic strip characters. Her submerged body, and its precise shape and size, is left to the imagination. What draws me to the shot is the carefree attitude she exudes. My arms are powerful. I use my arms to swim hundreds of pool laps, to body surf at the lake with my friends. To suit up, and jump in.

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