In Defense of Kate Moss

Last month, a strange thing happened in the fashion world: Salon’s cultural critic Charles Taylor rhapsodized adoringly about supermodel Kate Moss (specifically about a nostalgic fashion spread in the June 2002 issue of the British magazine i-D)... and nobody wrote in to complain.

Can it be... that it’s finally okay to say you like Kate Moss?

If so, it’s about time. As recently as five years ago, you could search long and hard in the mainstream media and still be unable to locate a single person willing to admit to finding the British supermodel sexy -- let alone call her "my idea of female perfection... a perfect ’60s dream girl" the way Taylor did.

Indeed, it was much more commonplace for Moss to be discussed in terms of outright loathing. "[I have] a predisposition against Kate Moss," reads a typical Web posting, "and [think] she deserves a slow, agonizing death.... I mean, I’m not trying to be offensive to any of the skinny people, but she disgusts me."

"Hey women out there!," wrote the webmaster of a site called Heartless Bitches International. "Don't believe the hype! If we buy into the horseshit of having to look like Kate fucking Moss we are going to collectively waste the rest of our lives in a quagmire of self-perpetuated self-hatred!"

"Kate Moss and [similarly waifish French singer/actress] Vanessa Paradis are disgusting," wrote another Web poster. "Even healthy non-obsessives know this."

For a while, street posters featuring Moss’s ultrathin image became a common target of vandalism --most often, the words FEED ME would be scrawled across her belly, although I can recall seeing several posters in bus shelters where the vandal had gone so far as to scratch out Moss’s eyes and draw blood seeping from the "wounds."

Anti-Moss sentiments weren’t confined to the Internet (traditionally a hotbed of anti-celebrity sniping); academics hated her too. When the author of the manifesto for an anthology of queer commentary called "Revolutionary Voices" lists the terrible social ills she saw around her that inspired her to assemble the book, she names the rape/murder of Brandon Teena, the murder of Matthew Shepard, the lynching of James Byrd... and the popularity of Kate Moss. (Oh yeah, and also the fact that the U.S. government was building more prisons than schools.)

A video by Maciej Toporowicz at the controversial recent Mirroring Evil exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York actually juxtaposed scenes from Leni Riefenstahl pro-Nazi propaganda with Kate Moss’s Calvin Klein ads. (In other words: if you like Kate Moss, you’d probably find concentration camps sexy as well!)

There were thin models before Moss came along, of course, with Carnaby Street icons like Twiggy and Penelope Tree probably being the most famous. But while Twiggy’s unusually sticklike figure was the subject of much comment at the time, her personality was so perky and unthreatening that she tended to be viewed with more amusement than scorn. However, by the time that Moss, a much more dour personality, emerged on the scene in 1992 with attention-getting spreads in Britain’s The Face and Harper’s Bazaar in the U.S., a new wave of feminist cultural commentators had emerged -- most prominently Naomi Wolf, author of the influential study "The Beauty Myth" -- who were not about to look so kindly on the fashion industry’s celebration of superskinny models like Moss.

Some critics accused Moss of helping to perpetuate a ridiculous, completely unrealistic standard of beauty among North American women, the vast majority of whom could never hope to duplicate Moss’s petite physique. Others, including Wolf, went so far as to blame the fashion industry for turning a generation of young girls into anorexics -- a shaky, anecdotal accusation that would nevertheless be repeated in dozens of anti-Moss rants.

Fanning the flames of the controversy were two particularly extreme photos of Moss that appeared within a few weeks of each other in 1993: one was a photo by Sante D’Orazio that ran in Allure depicting her in a sheer Helmut Lang crop top and a pair of Gaultier hip-huggers that left her bare from her ribs to her hipbones; she appears to be sucking in her stomach so that the outline of her ribcage is visible beneath her skin -- not exactly an erotic sight.

The other photo ran as an ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume; it showed a naked, decidedly un-curvy Moss lying on a couch, her figure looking more like that of an adolescent boy than the then-popular, conventional notion of a fashion model.

However, it was the very fact that Moss didn’t look like a conventional fashion model that was part of what made her so very appealing. In the ’80s, the most popular models tended to be tall, Amazonian types like Brooke Shields and Paulina Porizkova and über-California blondes like Christie Brinkley. Kate Moss has become so synonymous with the notion of "unattainable beauty" that it’s easy to forget what an anomaly she was, what a collection of flaws, when she burst onto the fashion world back in ’92.

At 5’7", she was, technically speaking, too short for the runways. Her breasts were almost nonexistent, especially compared to the overflowing bazooms of Brinkley and Porizkova. Her teeth were irregularly spaced and overly prominent. And unlike clean-living role models like Shields and Brinkley, Moss smoked too much, drank too much, liked wild men and stayed out dancing much too late at night.

In fact, that somewhat atypical Allure photo aside, the true nature of Moss’s appeal has very little to do with how skinny she is. It’s Moss’s face that’s her fortune -- those heavy-lidded eyes spaced just a little farther apart in her head than normal, those high cheekbones, that long hair, those cute, irregular teeth.

Moss’s detractors -- probably thinking of how she looked in that Obsession ad -- like to describe her expression as "blank" or "childlike," but to me, her gaze has always seemed mysterious, knowing, deeply sexual, the precise spiritual opposite of an elfin gamine like Twiggy. (Taylor describes Moss’s eyes as being "ready to surrender to seduction or signal you to fuck off... the image of a girl who’s just risen from bed and is looking at you with a frank, couldn’t-care-less provocation.") It’s truly a classic, unforgettable, irresistible camera face, and it’s the reason you recognize Moss’s name immediately but have probably never heard of other, equally waifer-thin models like Tasha Tilberg, Josie Kidd, Amy Wesson and Shalom Harlow. And it’s the reason Moss continues to be in demand as a model when other well-known mannequins of her vintage -- Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer -- have faded from prominence... along with Moss detractors like the hopelessly behind-the-times Naomi Wolf.

Indeed, I’ve talked to several young women who see Moss as, believe it or not, a role model -- or at least by far their favourite fashion icon. Skinny chicks with flat chests need people to look up to too, and it’s about time Kate Moss’s reputation was rehabilitated. (My friend Judy, a naturally thin woman with a decidedly Moss-like figure, says, "The people who hate Kate Moss always go on about how she doesn’t have curves like a ‘real’ woman. And I always think, ‘Well, aren’t I real?’")

Few women have had their physical appearance as relentlessly and cruelly condemned in the media as Kate Moss, and you’ve got to admit, she weathered the criticism and abuse with remarkable grace and dignity. And even if you prefer women with a little more meat on their bones, can we at least agree that, on the grand scale of history’s greatest forces of evil, the Nazis were probably worse?

Paul Matwychuk is managing editor of Vue Weekly, in Edmonton, Alberta.

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