The fashion industry’s ideal might be compared to a unicorn—many people hope for it, but it doesn’t exist.

“I’ve never seen a woman in real life who fits the ideals of the fashion industry,” said Audie Lauf, a senior from Wenona, Illinois, who is double-majoring in public relations and fashion merchandising. “And what we see on the cover of fashion magazines doesn’t represent the population.” Lauf and fellow students from Associate Professor of Fashion Design and Merchandising Ui-Jeen Yu’s Clothing Behavioral Class studied diversity—or the lack thereof—in fashion magazine covers from publisher Condé Nast, which includes titles such as Vogue and GQ.

Lauf will present the findings at the annual University Research Symposium on Friday, March 31. The annual symposium is a university-wide showcase of students’ research, scholarship, and creative endeavors. This year’s poster presentations will be in Redbird Arena, with a morning session from 9-11 a.m. and an afternoon session from 1-3 p.m.

Conducting a content analysis using Vogue and GQ covers from the 1950s to the present, Lauf saw even as styles changed, the stereotype of beauty did not. “For women’s magazines, you see the ideal persists that emerged in the 1920s—unnaturally thin, white women with blonde hair. For men, you see taller, muscular (but not too bulky) models with brown hair,” said Lauf.

The team compared cover models, using a contour drawing rating scale that assesses body thinness from a range of 1 (extremely thin) – 9 (very obese). “Men were usually in the 5-7 range, and women were a 4 or below,” said Lauf. “In fact, the only women who scored above a 4 were pregnant.”

Model diversity varied little on the covers the team studied. “Men’s magazines did a little bit better, but you are looking at around a 95 percent of white, European-looking, cover models on women’s magazines,” said Lauf, who said the “whitewashing” of fashion magazine covers was reinforced in the 1980s when celebrities began to replace supermodels. “They were simply turning to another industry that holds a beauty ideal of white women.”

Associate Professor Yu noted the lack of diverse models has a far-reaching impact. “Readers who are non-whites or do not have desirable thinness can feel ignored, excluded, and underrepresented,” she said, calling research like Lauf’s important for the future of the industry. “This provides a meaningful insight on the deeply rooted bias of American beauty ideals, which have not truly or realistically represented American women’s beauty and ethnic diversity.”

Lauf hopes to take his studies to a job in the corporate fashion environment. “More people graduating and entering the fashion industry want to see changes in areas like diversity and sustainability,” said Lauf. “And, we’re starting to slowly—very slowly—see the beginning of this change in the industry.”