Mirror, Mirror: There's a place for Spanx

Sara Blakely (in green) surrounded by cameras before the opening of her new Spanx store at the Plaza at King of Prussia Mall November 9, 2012. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

While Spanx founder Sara Blakely was celebrating the opening of her company's King of Prussia mall store Friday afternoon, body image experts across town were knocking shapewear.

Holding it in, smoothing it out, and pushing it up only feed our desire for a lumpless, bumpless, roll-less physique - in other words, the unattainable perfect body, they said. It's a media-driven, man-centric recipe for making women so nervous and riddled with self-doubt that some develop anorexia or bulimia.

Spanx, concluded Margo Maine, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders, are the 21st-century version of a corset. When will it be OK for women to "throw their weight around," Maine asked in a three-hour talk and slide-show presentation called "Body discomfort, the new normal for women: From girdles to Spanx or how we have not come a long way, baby."

"Until women have equal power in our society, it's always going to be about our bodies," Maine said. "[And] the longer we take part in a culture that objectifies women, and we spend money on things like Spanx and makeup, the longer it will take to happen."

The talk was part of the Renfrew Center Foundation Conference, an annual gathering of professionals who help women heal their bodies, minds, and souls from ravaging illness. This year, more than 600 industry experts met at the Marriott Hotel at Philadelphia International Airport for three days of workshops and networking.

The Renfrew Center helps women deal with the demons that lead to eating disorders. And when it comes to recovery, the organization shows them how to combat the triggers that can send them over the perilous I-can't-be-too-skinny cliff that includes everything from watching celebrities on the red carpet to eating at McDonald's.

This year's theme of exploring controversy and building collaboration is timely, as body-image issues have made fashion-news headlines at a constant clip for most of the year.

Despite mandates by the New York-based Council of Fashion Design, runway models continue to get thinner and younger. Older women are suffering from eating disorders now more than ever. Last week's Victoria's Secret runway show forced fashion columnists to ask whether it was even relevant anymore. And on Wednesday, Barneys New York will unveil a controversial holiday window display that includes Minnie Mouse daydreaming she's super-skinny and walking down the runway in a Lanvin dress.

"To take images that are iconic, that we love and respect, and over-slenderize them just for the sake of shocking us or 'enhancing' their look is offensive," said Adrienne Ressler, national training director for Renfrew.

I get how fashion helps women feel less-than. All the subliminal messaging does a doozy on self-esteem.

But I'm just not buying the attack on Spanx because Spanx gives us a break.

As a young tween, I was much more hippy than most of my thin friends. I wasn't comfortable in tight jeans or short skirts, and forget about bathing suits.

My mom, in two ways, guided me away from that slippery looking-glass slope that can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food: She drilled into my head that my legs were strong and healthy, and she told me I was beautiful just as I was.

And she made sure I didn't think there was anything wrong with using the tools that make being a girl fun. That meant using lipstick, perfume, and heels, and although she didn't suggest I wear a girdle, I knew that could be part of the arsenal.

My mom and I bonded, and I would later grow to appreciate that feminist principles do not have to trump aesthetics. They can live harmoniously in the same oversize purse.

Blakely developed Spanx 10 years ago after she bought a pair of white pants in size 2 and was less than happy with the junk in her trunk, so she cut the feet out of a pair of panty hose and was then happy.

I'm fit. I'm healthy. I like my curves. But now, thanks to Spanx, I don't have to forgo that piece of cheese to get into that little black dress, panty-line free.

And that's my idea of perfect.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.