Inclusive Fashion is an Ethical Obligation—and a Historical Norm | Opinion

Over lockdown, we have seen an unprecedented rise in body image issues, especially among young women and girls. In fact, recent research found that 80 percent of Australian women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Similarly, the rise of Snapchat dysmorphia, whereby girls want plastic surgery to look like Snapchat filters, shows the unhealthy state of our beauty culture today.

We can expect this to only get worse as we find ourselves in another lockdown, when we spend more time online comparing ourselves with others. However, a walking tour through the history of body image shows us that there are no universal body standards, only norms forged through the economic, social and political forces of the day.

One of the enduring truths is that female body standards were generally created through a male fantasy, and not through female self-expression. It is time for that to change.

Beauty standards are fickle. As supermodels in the West are pressured to eat as little as possible, girls in Mauritania are sent to "fattening camps" before marriage.

The first ever glimpse of female beauty standards available to us is one of the earliest known sculptures, the Venus of Willendorf from over 20,000 years ago. Stout in physique, the sculpture illustrated how strength, fertility and child-rearing capability governed the female beauty standards of the day.

Later, it was the ancient Greek male sculptors who defined beauty. Plato popularized the idea of beauty being dictated by harmony and symmetry, most famously explained by Pythagoras' golden ratio.

If we then skip forward to the Middle Ages, it was Queen Elizabeth I who popularized the use of make-up to create the appearance of pale skin; an indication one didn't have to work outside.

The Victorians famously favored modesty and temperate behavior, especially from women. They achieved the ideal body image of the day which consisted of large busts and wide hips by wearing corsets, in order to appeal to potential male, bread-winning husbands.

The turn of the century saw the drawings of Charles Dana Gibson guide the beauty standards of the day; the trend toward a thinner ideal started.

Then came the fabulous flappers of the roaring '20s, which saw a complete change in body type. After men finally allowed women to vote, a newfound sense of freedom led women to reject corsets and opt for a thinner, androgynous look, thereby triggering the cultural obsession with weight we have today.

Fashion got stripped back throughout World War II as women were forced to restyle men's clothing. A body type too thin suggested you didn't have access to enough rations, while a figure too voluptuous was seen as greedy during a time of frugality. Weight norms slipped back to the center, once again.

The post-World War boom allowed women to enjoy the indulgences of the day, and a more voluptuous figure came back into fashion. The Marilyn Monroe figure became glorified in newspapers and magazines, all edited and produced by a largely male workforce.

A general view of the Valentino store
A general view of the Valentino flagship store before opening during Milan Womenswear Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2012/2013 on Feb. 22, 2012, in Milan, Italy. Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images for Valentino

Then finally, the appearance of Kate Moss in the '90s saw catwalks celebrate the heroin chic figure, and the ultra-skinny androgynous style was back in fashion. Of course, we see the "thick" style set of Kim Kardashian dictating the trend today, along with other body types (including mid-size) as social media creates a broader range of role models.

So what's the point of this history lesson? It is this: Beauty standards are set almost entirely by the social conditions of the time—conditions often controlled and influenced by men. Just as we cannot predict the future, we cannot predict future beauty trends, no matter how hard we try.

It may well have been reckless to promote the thin beauty standards of the '90s, just as it may well be reckless to promote unrealistic curves today. However, the question is not what beauty standards we decide to promote. The question is, who decides what beauty standards exist?

As we have seen throughout history, the female body has been a canvas for the male imagination to project its fantasies on. Wherever our body image trends go next, one guiding principle is that it must be up to women to determine how they look and feel, not anyone else.

As the CEO of a fashion house, I know that increasingly people are taking their fashion inspiration from a diverse range of sources; gone are the days of everyone watching the same TV show and reading the same magazines. We should be celebrating our diversity of taste and embracing its differences.

My message to women and girls today is simple: Celebrate the body you have. Beauty is relative and subjective. Many would be jealous of the features that you see as imperfections, so own them; they're yours and yours only.

The body you have is a tool to live your life and achieve your dreams, it is not merely an object of male fantasy.

That's why fashion retailers need to cater to all sizes and all body types, all of the time. Gone are the days of a single, prescribed beauty standard.

Just as we celebrate diversity in race, gender and sexuality, we must continue to celebrate diversity in body image because without it, the world would be an incredibly dull place.

Jane Lu is CEO of Showpo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.