Out Of Shape
Affirm Press, 2013
In the last few years, the question of ‘body image’ has become almost inextricably associated with a particular liberal critique of advertising and media, and more specifically of the fashion industry. Debates rage about the scale of psychological damage that the rag trade inflicts, particularly on young women, with its narrow portrayal of human size and shape, and its steadfast refusal to accommodate the everyday body with all its quirks, bumps, and idiosyncrasies.
The street-level experience, the consumer experience of fashion and clothing as it manifests in suburban shopping malls, factory outlets and vintage fairs, is home ground for Mel Campbell’s Out of Shape (Affirm Press, 2013). Sick of the ‘repetitive, confused and anecdotal ways we talk around size and fit’, Campbell’s debut full-length work begins by expressing a frustration with the cluster of different issues relating to clothing, size and fit that characterises such discussions. Teasing out from this knot the different strands of the body image debate, nostalgia for past eras and images, pop culture and fashion industry marketing, Out Of Shape is Campbell’s attempt to answer the question: ‘Why can we never find clothes that fit?’
To address the issue, Campbell presents us with a new kind of conceptual frame. ‘Much of our angst about size and fit springs from the notion that to be socially successful, we need to constantly tend to and revise our appearance,’ she says. She calls the phenomenon of linking appearance with social currency ‘orthovestia’, a term coined from the Latin words for ‘correct’ and ‘clothing’. The concept has resonance everywhere from the schoolyard to the workplace, and can be seen in the media, in advertising, and in regular social interaction. Out of Shape offers a fresh angle on an old topic, and Campbell has the smarts, the pop culture knowledge, the literary nous, the wit and the counterbalancing gravitas to set herself apart on the issue. Her prose is clean, confident, and pleasantly peppery, and the personal narrative is feather-light, providing a loose structure for what prove to be the most interesting elements of the book: a series of historical and sociocultural investigations into fashion, pop culture, retail, self-esteem and self-evaluation.
It is precisely this fresh approach, however, that frustrates the potential of the work. ‘Orthovestia’ functions within the text as a frame through which to start explaining ‘the reasons why buying and wearing clothes can make us feel so bad’, and Campbell depends on it more and more as the book progresses. But searching a bit deeper within this frame reveals a much more complex set of relations, and one which requires a deeper conversation about industry, economics, politics, and individualism.
What Campbell does well is map how contemporary manufacturing pressures the market into mass consumption of standard sizing, while simultaneously alienating the product (clothing) from the consumer (providing a ‘fit’ that, in fact, doesn’t). These productive forces place pressure on the wearer to fit the clothes, rather than the other way around: a system that explicitly privileges profit over people. This reversal of blame, for lack of a better word, is Campbell’s most important contribution here: it would be nigh impossible to read this book and feel personally responsible for not adhering to the standards set either on the catwalk or on the racks of clothes in one’s local mall. This is no small thing, an important contribution to a debate about the body that, as Campbell herself identifies, can be very difficult to navigate.
Orthovestia can only take us so far, however, and at times Campbell seems to grant it too much explanatory power, attempting to stretch the concept to fit issues that it simply can’t accommodate. In doing so, she risks collapsing massive cultural, economic and political forces into that very body image issue she seeks to disentangle from the discursive knot. (Her treatment of sport and its relationship to contemporary beauty standards, for example, acknowledges none of sport’s history in medicine, its shifting class dynamic or the lingering influence of Greek philosophy that saw physical activity – as distinct from the visual aesthetic of muscular development – as intrinsic to the moral good of a citizen. The history of sport is complex and varied, and its relationship to contemporary beauty and body standards is neither as direct nor as simplistic as is implied here.)
Out Of Shape is smart, snappy, funny and informative, and tiptoes on the brink of this gargantuan political chasm with its chin up and eyes bright. That it avoids taking such a plunge strengthens it in terms of its stated objectives – a distinct achievement – but ultimately leaves the reader feeling curiously unsatisfied.