It must be a funny life, being an “it” girl. You wake up, you get dressed, the paparazzi rock up and the Instagram “hearts” roll in. Not because of your brains, your talent, or even in most cases your personality, but because of the parties you go to, the clothes you wear, and the way said clothes hang off your body.
It is an irony that professional cool girl, Alexa Chung – an “it girl” with more brains and personality than most – is well aware of. In a February interview with UK Elle, Chung spoke what she called her “model hang-ups”: her fear that friends thought she was “some rich bitch whose dad paid for her to [live in New York],” and her feeling, standing on stage alongside designers at the 2011 British Style Awards, that she had been “given a prize for having a pretty face."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the comments that have fielded the biggest response have been Chung’s thoughts on body image: specifically, the awkward position her gamine figure occupies in the endless public dialogue over women’s bodies (as if our bodies are something that can be changed according to fashion or whim).
On the one hand, bodies like Chung’s are glorified and privileged, held up as icons of glamour, style, and seemingly effortless cool. On the other, they are demonised and railed against; resented for representing an impossible ideal that even many naturally thin women cannot aspire to without compromising their health. As Chung put it, “[E]ven though it’s not the ideal weight, it kind of is as well. So it’s really f*cked up.”
She continued: “How do you know I’m not looking in the mirror and going ‘I wish I could gain ten pounds?’ Which is actually quite often the case. But if you say that you sound like you’re bragging that you’re naturally thin, and you’re not allowed to do that.” The price of looking like Alexa Chung, as one blogger friend of mine put it, is that you can’t talk about what it’s like to look like Alexa Chung.
But maybe we would all be a bit better off if more people did talk about it. One of the misconceptions that skinny privilege relies on is that life is better when you’re thinner. It sustains itself on the belief that even the most incremental differences in size and shape will have a profound effect on how we are received; whether we will be rejected and passed over, or embraced and revered.
It’s not that thin privilege isn’t real – it is. A 2008 Yale study found that weight discrimination has increased 68 percent since 2000, with obese people being 37 times more likely to report discrimination in the workplace than their averaged-sized counterparts, and rated less desirable as sexual partners than almost all other groups.
But the ways in which that privilege manifests itself are more complicated than a clear cut continuum in which thin people win and everyone else loses. It is possible to benefit from thin privilege and look nothing like Alexa Chung – most people who fall within the “normal weight range” do. And I’ve spent enough time around models to know that being tall and thin with a good bone structure is neither an instant formula for popularity, nor a vaccination against insecurity.
The growth of image-based media such as Pinterest, Instagram, and street style blogs means we’re unlikely to stop being inundated – or inundating ourselves – with pictures of women who look like Chung any time soon. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to challenge the pervasive belief that thinner is better.
One of the things glamour relies on, after all, is an aura of mystery; a glossy façade at the expense of a more complex truth. It is easy to project your longing for a better life onto an artfully composed snapshot, or a fawning magazine profile of the latest “it” girl. It is harder to idealise a three-dimensional human being with thoughts and flaws and vulnerabilities – no matter what her body looks like. But that’s what happens when, as Chung puts it, we stop “judging women on their appearance and more on their intellect.” And that can only be a good thing.