Anatomy of a meme: The real story behind the Swedish mannequins that looked like “real women”

March 18, 2013
March 18, 2013
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"Normal-sized" mannequins in a store.
In the beginning, there was this photo, which Rebecka Silvekroon featured on her blog.(Rebecka Silvekroon)

Here’s a little lesson in the velocity of news in the internet era, and how the meme cycle has pushed major media into an awkward three-step that might be best described as “post, pivot and shrug”: Get a story up as fast as possible, correct it after the fact and—if there are still problems with the story—hope that readers’ short attention spans mean they’ll have moved on to the next thing and won’t notice.

On March 11, the Facebook group Women’s Rights News posted the above photograph with the caption: “Store mannequins in Sweden. They look like real women. The U.S. should invest in some of these.”

As you can see, unlike the attenuated and atrophied clotheshorses standard to American retail and, really, everywhere else in the world, the mannequins have curves and proportions that actually resemble those of human females—which, sad to say, is what passes for progress in the body-image destroying world of women’s fashion.

What you didn’t see is any kind of attribution for the image—that is to say, any indication of who shot it, when, in what store and under what circumstances; par for the course on Facebook, but far from kosher for most newsrooms. That didn’t stop dozens of major media entities, from Yahoo to Huffington Post to iVillage to the San Francisco Chronicle, from reposting the image widely, prompting it to rapidly go viral, with hundreds of thousands of bloggers, Facebookers and tweeters distributing it far and wide across the social media landscape.

Including me.

In sharing the photo, all of us assumed that the attribution retroactively assigned to the image—Yahoo and other outfits claimed the mannequins were from Swedish fashion chain H&M—was correct, without digging any further. Until March 16, when Delia Lloyd of the Washington Post contacted H&M and received a blunt denial that it had ever used such mannequins. Here’s the pivot: Her subsequent conclusion was that the image was a “hoax,” concocted by a wistful Photoshopper who perhaps hoped it would inspire future retail decorators toward more enlightened representation of the female form. Unfortunately, the pivot was equally incorrect—and the meme cycle has moved on to the next thing (e.g., Did the History Channel choose an actor who looks like Barack Obama to play Satan for its epic adaptation of the Bible?)

Yesterday, I received an urgent Twitter message from Rebecka Silvekroon, a 29-year-old project manager for LBi, a digital communications agency based in Malmö in southern Sweden, asking for assistance in reaching Yahoo, one of the primary vectors of the image’s viral distribution.

As Silvekroon explained, she was the one who originally shot the image, posting it to Becka.nu, a personal blog she writes in when not working on websites for clients, sharing thoughts about her everyday life, travel and other “ordinary things,” she says—naturally, writing entirely in Swedish.

Silvekroon had uploaded the photograph along with a brief caption noting how thrilling it was to see a retailer use normal-looking mannequins, as opposed to ones whose “waists are almost as skinny as my shin.”

What’s startling is that she did it back in 2010. Moreover, the image came not from H&M ironically, a retailer she’d critiqued for its skinny mannequins—but from one of its competitors, Åhléns. The post had been completely ignored for two years, until Women’s Rights News stumbled upon it and reblogged it without translating the accompanying text.

“Before this media buzz about the image, I kept the blog rather private, never writing my last name or telling colleagues about it, because I wanted to separate my ‘digital professional’ presence and my personal one,” says Silvekroon, in an email interview this morning. “But, oh well!”

She says that Åhléns aims at a slightly older audience—still trendy, but “a little bit more mature and a bit more expensive.” In major cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, the chain has flagship stores called “Åhléns City,” that offer a more upmarket selection of brands. “I think they have used the ‘fuller size’ mannequins mostly in these specific stores,” she says, noting that they have been used by the chain as far back as 2007.

As to how the image ended up in the US media and blogosphere: She’s not entirely sure. Women’s Rights News seems to have been the first to blog it in North America, but in Canada, a popular radio station reposted it to its Facebook wall on Friday. It has since received more than 550,000 likes.

“I don’t know who originally found and took the photo from Becka.nu, but my guess is that they didn’t know Swedish and saw that I had written ‘H&M’ in the text, which caused the misattribution,” she says. “I found out about the reblogging via e-mail on Friday” — ironically, because Danish and Swedish newspapers had begun to write about the image, also without citing her blog, until someone Googled the text and found the original post on Becka.nu.

“When I saw the Washington Post writing that it was ‘a hoax’ because H&M denied that it was their mannequins and said they didn’t know where it came from, I was a little frustrated,” says Silvekroon. “Because the mannequins do exist, and Åhléns should be praised!”

The Washington Post has since corrected its story, but she’s not concerned about receiving credit. ”I’m just happy that the image has been noticed and received the attention it has,” she says, because she thinks the issue is important. “I do think mannequins are too skinny!…I consider myself ‘normal weight’ and most people would call me slim, but I don’t have a waist of a 13-year-old.”

Her hope is that the unexpected uproar will give other retailers the courage to challenge stereotypical “size 0” depictions of women. “It would be nice if it got retailers to start using real, beautiful women in their commercials, catwalks and stores,” she says.

Two birds with one stone: It would be nice if it got reporters to start thinking about the rules of engagement around reuse of “viral” images as well.

Follow Jeff on Twitter at @originalspin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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