Firstly, there is the general discriminatory nature of the industry itself to address. As we all know, more voluptuous women are seriously under-represented, as is the perhaps more Â‘masculineÂ’ look, and older women. Racial discrimination, though of course deeply unfair and unacceptable, must be seen in the context of the generally discriminatory culture of beauty and fashion. Would the industry be forgiven for its support for Â‘traditionalÂ’ beauty and itÂ’s obsession with slimness if it became more ethnically diverse? Would black or Asian models be ok, as long as they were lean, lanky and displaying Westernised dress and features? Essentially, my argument is thus: racial discrimination within the fashion industry is part of a wider package of prejudices concerning what the Â‘idealÂ’ woman should look like. In order to be beautiful, we are told by the media, we must be white, blonde, slim, and traditionally feminine. This is a pack of lies told for various reasons (racism being one of them), and all of them need to be addressed, not just the racist aspect.
Then there is the attempt to right the situation. Fashion industry insiders, ethnic diversity campaigners and politicians will attend a summit in order to decide what to do to Â‘get more ethnically diverse models into the industryÂ’ as Sola Oyebade, managing director of Mahogany, puts it. I am fully behind this idea, and I appreciate the efforts of those behind it. I would love to see women of all skin tones, shapes and sizes on the catwalk. However, itÂ’s the wording that worries me. Â‘Get more ethnically diverse models into the industryÂ’ sounds like a forceful approach, whereas Â‘create avenues for models from ethnic minorities to gain access to the industryÂ’ might be more appropriate. For this is the approach we sorely need.
When faced with an issue of racial discrimination, the attitude of many government bodies, public services and corporations has been either the Â‘quotaÂ’ mindset, or the Â‘recruitment driveÂ’ mindset. These efforts are often short lived. After recruiting a certain number of ethnic minority people, the body under fire can rest on its laurels for a while, and the issue gets swept under the carpet; in short, the symptoms are addressed, and the cause ignored.
There are other problems too. For example, the BBC reportedly hoped to have 8% of its executive represented by ethnic minority people by 2007. This is simply the wrong attitude; it just provokes backlash from people who believe that ethnic minority people are only being hired into the BBC, or the police, for example, because of the colour of their skin (Â‘itÂ’s the PC Brigade gone mad!Â’ wails the Daily Mail hysterically).
The Â‘recruitment driveÂ’ mindset, e.g. reaching out to ethnic minority people especially to make them aware that they can apply for positions in jobs they have traditionally been excluded from is a little better, but ignores the underlying issue; that racism is inherent in the socio-economic system. Ethnic minorities still have less access to the golden triangle of good education, housing and fair representation that white citizens are simply born into. Thus, they have to be Â‘reached outÂ’ to. Until the system as a whole changes Â– until structural, political, educational and social racism is addressed comprehensively – ethnic minorities will always require special measures to gain access to the creative industries and the top salaries.
In short, in order to address discrimination within the fashion industry, those fashion insiders, politicians and campaigners need to see two big, ugly pictures; one is our cultureÂ’s exclusive and frankly unrealistic idea of how women should look; and the other is the deeply-embedded racism that still prevails throughout our whole society. Until everyone recognises this, undernourished white girls will continue to steal the show.