Everyone’s Favorite Thrifting App Favors Thin White Models

Sellers on Depop say they feel caught between wanting to feature more diverse bodies and posting the kind of photos the app spotlights.

Apr 9 2021, 3:05pm

A couple of years ago, when she was still an undergraduate student at Cal Poly, Emma Norland ran an experiment on her Depop shop, Bucktooth. Norland, who’s now 22, listed a pink tank top for sale, modeled by a friend who was 5’10” and had a 31-inch waist. The top received almost no likes or inquiries—weird for Norland’s shop, which was already successful enough to be recognized as a “Top Seller” within the app, a metric determined by the high amount of money and sales the shop garnered per month. She tried a new approach. Using an identical background, lighting setup, and the same camera, Norland photographed the same tank top on a different model, this time on a 5’5” woman with a 24-inch waist. 

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“The top was miraculously featured by the Depop team on the ‘Explore’ page, got 257 likes, and sold soon after,” Norland wrote in a school research paper on Depop selling trends that she shared with VICE. 

Norland had accidentally stumbled into one of Depop’s blind spots: Sizeism, and a feedback loop of what items are posted, what the app features, and what items actually sell that users say reinforces body dysmorphia. As Norland put it in a recent TikTok: “I’ve struggled with eating disorders, all that good shit, my entire life, and Depop definitely exacerbates that.”

Depop is  beloved by Gen Z and young Millennials as a way to sell old clothes and thrifted finds at a profit, is, in many ways, extremely progressive amid the often-regressive fashion landscape. On the other side of the transaction, buying resold, used clothes is way more sustainable than shopping fast fashionThe app’s relatively small size compared to major fashion brands makes it nimble in a constantly changing cultural climate; for example, after the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, the app declared a commitment to uplifting Black and POC sellers, acknowledging that diversity “hasn’t been fully represented on our platform.” (In a statement posted to Depop’s blog in June 2020, the app noted that it had zero Black people on its executive team.)

Comments on Nordland’s TikTok post about Depop’s role in her mental health struggles ranged from “EXACTLY. THIS IS ME,” to  “I literally have specific angles down to make my arms look skinnier, it’s second nature at this point.” A few Reddit threads on r/Depop have also begun to dig into how the service ties into  body dysmorphia and insecurity. One thread, from eight months ago: “Does anyone else feel like their body isn’t good enough for depop?” Another thread from around the same time titled “hey i was wondering if anyone else struggles with body dysmorphia and models photos?” includes a comment: “For me it’s just from browning the app… I have an average/slim build but it’s so disheartening to see the SUPER thin/fit girls with the 23-inch waist being featured/get more exposure...It’s starting to feel like Depop favors them for their bodies.” 

Part of Depop’s allure is its one-person-enterprise model; most sellers on the app source, wash, repair, price, ship, and model everything themselves, giving them total editorial control (within a few house rules on appropriate photos, i.e. no nudity) over the look of their shops.  Seemingly, that would give the app everything it needs to make its Explore page—a tab curated by Depop’s in-house team, that features a few dozen listings at a time and is not currently targeted to individual users—as diverse as its employees want. But as Norland found in her own research, and as VICE observed, the page is predominantly filled with thin, straight-size bodies, and maybe two to three plus-size models at a time.

Screenshot via Depop app

Like Norland found with her pink tank top experiment, sellers have pieced together that they see better engagement and profit when their clothes are shown on a thin, straight-size body, because those posts are more likely to land on the Explore page, giving them a huge boost in eyeballs. Behind the scenes of their manicured pages full of colorful Y2K tops and vintage floral dresses, sellers like Norland said they feel pressure to contort their bodies into appearing thin, and are stuck in a loop of body checking and dysmorphia. 

“As a top seller, I still do it,” Norland said. “I want people to feel good about themselves but I still like, contort my body to pass as really thin. It’s just so frustrating, because what can we do? What is Depop’s incentive to fill the Explore page with more realness? What is their incentive to do that?”

“I’ve struggled with eating disorders, all that good shit, my entire life, and Depop definitely exacerbates that.”

Natalie Marie, 22, who’s been selling vintage clothes on Depop as likenat for three years. Marie is a size eight, and likes that the app allows her to see other models her size—something that almost never happens with traditional fashion retailers—and show potential buyers how clothes will look on their own, similarly sized bodies. 

But she said she also feels the pressure to contort and pose when modeling her finds, mimicking the posing you might find at work in modeling photos for plenty of trendy brands. Traditional retailers are increasingly criticized for a lack of diversity in their product photos, and many have responded by using models of different ethnicities and sizes. Depop has largely flown under the radar of this call to accountability. 

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“[Depop] advertises that modeling your items is the best way to go with selling things; mine are usually against a white background, and I’ll have like a basic pair of jeans and try to accessorize a bit, make it look how I would actually style it,” Marie said. “I definitely kind of lean in, make my waist look smaller. You kind of morph your body to look as flattering as possible in what you’re wearing. I model everything unless it really doesn’t fit, and then I’ll do a flat lay. But they want you to model it, that’s how you get on the Explore page.”

In a statement to VICE, Depop denied that the app’s curation team prioritizes items that are modeled over items shot on hangers or as flat lays. According to a guide posted by Depop, “flat lays, modelled shots, and wooden hangers” perform the best in listing photos. Depop’s guide also mentions, in a “do/don’t” column on model shots vs. flat lays, that using a “diverse range of models so that more customers feel represented in your shop” is a “do.”

“We recognize that not everyone wants to model clothes themselves, so sellers can choose to photograph items either as ‘flat-lays,’ modeled on real people, or on hangers,” Peter Semple, Depop’s chief brand officer, said. “This is the beauty of Depop: that you can set up your shop however you want to.” In a statement to VICE, Semple clarified that the app’s algorithm and curation team aren’t trained to prioritize items that are modeled over items that are photographed on hangers or as flat lays. 

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A Change.org petition from last summer, circulated shortly after Depop announced its newfound priority to feature Black and POC shops and signed by over 800 people, makes several demands along the lines of body diversity, including a point to feature more flat lays and hanger photos on the Explore page, because “sellers with body dysmorphia and body image issues feel uncomfortable modeling their clothing.” In a statement to VICE, Depop said it is aware of the petition, spoke back and forth with its creator, that this issue has already been addressed, and that the Explore page does feature a mixture of photos. 

Via Depop app

Yet a recent scan of the Explore page did not reflect Semple’s characterization: It showed a vast majority of modeled items (on thin, straight-size bodies) over flat lays. And both Norland and Marie said that they’ve seen more success from modeled images than flat lays, which is understandable; buyers who can’t physically try the clothes on themselves, or meaningfully rely on outdated size charts, want to see how things fit on an actual, three-dimensional body. The problem, though, is that Depop’s aesthetic feels, like the rest of the fashion industry, catered to a specific body type. 

“I’m always seeing creators who start with like, 10 followers, and I can just see that they have huge potential on the app,” Norland said. “I remember watching one person with an extremely thin, living Barbie body—just very tall, model-like body—and thinking, She will go super far. And she did. It took our shop four years to get where she got in a matter of months.” 

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Norland feels stuck between her morals and the capitalistic demands of the fashion industry’s influence on the progressive reselling app. She doesn’t like the pressure to uphold a certain beauty standard, but, as a recent graduate whose primary source of income is Depop, she wants and needs her pieces to sell. While Depop can control what it surfaces to the universal Explore page through curation, it can’t control what people post, like, or ultimately buy. Without more data from Depop, all of these issues are tangled together. (Depop declined to provide VICE with data on how listings perform respective to the content users are concerned about, or how that data influences its Explore page curation.) But per the Change.org position, at least some sellers believe responsibility rests with Depop to show some leadership in disrupting conventional beauty ideals instead of reinforcing them, even if it means trading away some profits. 

So how can Depop finally differentiate itself from the rest of the fashion industry? 

Norland has thought a lot about what her dream vision for Depop would look like. It’s simple, really: She wants a shift away from traditional sizing (meaning items would be listed by their measurements alone, which is what most buyers rely on for fit) and more types of bodies featured on the Explore page (of course, measuring out clothes and recording the numbers is a higher ask for sellers than either reading the size off the tag or just putting them on and snapping a photo). If she can really dream big, she wants a shift away from the current distinctions between “womenswear” and “menswear,” and an app where clothing doesn’t have to be gendered. What she wants is a truly progressive, inclusive buying and selling experience, which is what Depop has long-advertised itself to be. If the app can untangle itself from the fashion industry’s long held beauty standards, it may actually fulfill its vision. 

Update: In response to this piece, Depop shared the following statement with VICE:

Depop’s search algorithm does not distinguish between different types of photo, and prioritises only relevant, clear listings from sellers who follow our rules and have positive feedback. Our curation team strives for a balance between modelled and flat lays / hanger photos, and deliberately works to ensure appropriate representation in the content that they feature. Thousands of our most successful sellers rely on flat lays, hangers, or working with friends and family members to display their items – this is the beauty of Depop: that you can set up your shop however you want to. However, ensuring that every individual feels included within the Depop experience is something we consistently think about, and we acknowledge that there is more we can do to fully represent the diversity of our community. We recently launched a global consultation survey called “Who You Are”, to build a better understanding of how our community identifies and enable us to evolve our platform in a way that every community is represented fully.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.

Tagged:

fashion industry, Thrift Shop, body image, eating disorder, body dysmorphia, depop, reselling

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