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Posted Dec 19 2011 9:14pm

Several days ago , I promised a post about H&M’s rather controversial choice to display clothing on virtual mannequins, rather than actual models, on its website. And here I am, delivering. I’m delivery a few days late, sure, but I’m delivery nonetheless.

The story was broken by Jezebel about a week ago, and since that time lots of digital ink has been spilled on the topic. Since the initial uproar, the company has spoken publicly about their process and choice to display their garments on digital bodies instead of real ones, with their spokesperson stating :

It’s not about ideals or to show off a perfect body, we are doing this to show off the garments…This is done for all garments, not just underwear. It applies to both women’s and men’s clothing.

He also describes the way the bodies are created: the clothing is photographed on mannequins, and then the mannequins are made to look like real bodies through digital image editing. Some people have pointed out that this practice isn’t significantly different from the way brick and mortar stores use mannequins–the issue, as H&M states, is about displaying the clothes, and the body is incidental.

And to that I say, okay, sure. If you think that’s a good explanation, then okay. But the whole thing creeps me out, and the way H&M has defended the use of digital mannequins rubs me the wrong way. If they had said they’d chosen to use digital bodies in order to cut down on costs, then that would be one thing (although it would still be weird). But I find it troublesome that the company would go to such lengths to have their clothing displayed on bodies at all when, in fact, the end result is that the clothing doesn’t end up displayed on bodies. You know what I mean?

All that being said, is H&M doing anything that’s significantly different from what all online retailers do? It’s one thing to see clothing in a store, on a plastic mannequin. Does anyone even compare themselves to a mannequin? They may be a size 2, but they’re so far from real bodies that I think most people probably just think of them as elaborate hangers. Mannequins are intended to show off a garment, and blend into the background. There are some online retailers that use mannequins to display their clothes, but there are also many that use models. And that’s where things get tricky.

We live in an age where the majority of the images we see have been manipulated to some extent–even red-eye reduction counts as retouching. The images of bodies we see in print almost never give us an idea of what the original body looks like, and the models we see in online retail is no exception to this. Even though we might all know this is going on, it doesn’t make it any less problematic. These images are still the ones we end up comparing ourselves to, and when we actually go try on the garment that looked so great on the model online, it’s those retouched images we are aspiring to look like. At this point, not even a model looks like a model.

H&M’s use of completely digitized bodies may be an extreme example of image manipulation, but the fact of the matter is that it’s rare these days that any clothing is advertised on a real body. Rather than get our hackles raised once in a while over a single retailer, we ought to be consistently asking for change from all retailers. Consumers deserve to get an idea of what clothing will look like on a real body, and if they’re capable of getting upset when a company admits they’re displaying something fabricated, they should also be capable of getting upset about all the cases in which companies try to cover that fact up.

Let’s be angry about this, and let’s continue to talk about it. But let’s not just talk about H&M, let’s broaden the dialogue and demand a return to reality from everyone.

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