Because plus-size models are still seen as deviating from the norm they are viewed as exotic, as a curiosity, as aberrant
Today a special guest post from Ethel Tungohan, on so-called ‘plus-size’ models. Ethel is a PhD Candidate in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. She has a masters degree in Gender and Development from the London School of Economics and a bachelors degree in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies from the University of British Columbia.
‘Plus-size’ models are the new fashion ‘it’ girls, according to numerous pundits, trend-setters, and fashionistas. The seeming ubiquity of plus-size models make it appear as though beauty standards have been modified to fit more realistic standards, whereby the diversity of female body types are celebrated.
Alas, further scrutiny shows that the rise of plus-size models may not be a sign of progress. The pervasiveness of ‘love your body’ magazine issues and the growing prominence of plus-size models are likely to be little more than tokenistic attempts for magazines to appear more inclusive. In reality, little has changed in the fashion industry.
The rise of plus-size models and love-your-body magazine issues could be construed as positive developments. They may be interpreted as showing that beauty ideals are shifting. Previously, plus-size models only graced the pages of plus-size clothing catalogues and were deemed to fulfill the very specific demands wrought by the niche, plus-size market. Because they were ‘large,’ they were automatically seen as anti-fashion. So their inclusion in the fashion industry was purely functional – because plus-size brands need plus-size models, a limited number of women were grudgingly given entry into the fashion world.
Today, plus-size models are arguably achieving mainstream legitimacy. For instance, American plus-size model Crystal Renn can be seen posing in high fashion magazines like Vogue and modeling clothes for couture houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier, highlighting the way conceptions of beauty are expanding.
Further, the demand for ‘plus’ size models has allowed plus-size modeling agencies like BGM Models in Australia to transform itself from an agency catering to a niche market to one that is on par with other mainstream agencies. Magazines have also clamoured to feature ‘love your body’ spreads, from V magazine – which celebrated plus-size bodies in its most recent issue – to Glamour magazine’s “naked” plus size shoot in its November issue.
Though these attempts have not led to a dramatic overhaul of the fashion industry, with thin models still dominating the runways and photo shoots, some say that these changes can be seen as a step in the right direction. At the very least, the fashion powers-that-be now seem to recognize that catering to diverse body types is in their interest: even if their motivations may be more financial than feminist, the effects speak for themselves. After all, even tokenistic inclusion of plus-size models in their campaigns is a positive development.
Whereas plus-size models were never featured before, now there are at least a few, which invariably encourages appreciation of body diversity; different parties, from designers to magazine editors to readers to fashion connoisseurs, are shown that models not fitting into the ‘skinny’ model archetype are also beautiful, which may in turn encourage them to make plus-size models a mainstay in their campaigns. It is difficult to alter the fashion industry’s perceptions immediately. Change – however small and incremental – is good.
Nevertheless, it is too soon to be optimistic? The fashion industry is hardly the bastion for progress. The way plus-size models have been depicted shows that the industry is only making cursory attempts at inclusion.
A quick look at plus-size fashion shoots show that plus-size models are usually shown as naked. Though fashion editors can easily justify the nudity of plus-size models by asserting that women’s bodies should be shown in all their glory, it is bizarre that a large number of plus-size fashion spreads hardly seem to have any fashion content, preferring instead to depict plus-size models in one of two ways: either they are overly sexualized or they are revered for being ‘real’.
The former is best exemplified in V Magazine’s Spring 2010 issue. Helmed by fashion power house Karl Lagerfeld, the shoot featured Miss Dirty Martini, a New York City burlesque performer, practicing her ‘come hither’ look while wearing adhesive patches over her breasts, black underwear, and leather. Though Miss Dirty Martini looks beautiful in these pictures, it is striking that the shoot is explicit in its disavowal of fashion. Instead, the entire shoot focuses on Miss Dirty Martini in a variety of ‘cheesecake’ shots, blatantly pandering to stereotypes of ‘large’ women as being sexually voracious and wanton.
In contrast, the models shown in ‘love your body’ shoots are celebrated for being ‘different.’ Alongside pictures of naked models are headlines extolling the virtues of diverse body types; though ‘flaws’ like stretch marks, birth marks and cellulite were air-brushed, models’ body sizes remained untouched.
Taken within the larger context of the fashion industry, it soon becomes obvious that these are the only ways in which plus-size models are shown. Because plus-size models are still seen as deviating from the norm, they are viewed as exotic, as a curiosity, as aberrant. Every magazine lay-out and runway show that includes plus-size models are heralded with as much subtlety as an MP trying to get your vote during election day; magazine editors, fashion designers, and stylists involved with the shoot pat themselves on the back for a job well done and, as soon as the campaign is over, immediately forget all of the empowering ‘love-your-body’ messages they ostensibly advocate. Business resumes as usual the next day, with nary a plus-size model (or any model that deviates from the norm, such as models-of-colour, etc.) seen on the pages of ‘regular’ shoots. The need to include plus-size models into runways, magazine shoots, and advertising campaigns is conveniently forgotten, until the next year’s ‘plus-size’ issue.
It is clear that the inclusion of plus-size models hardly signifies an overhaul of the fashion industry. Nevertheless, the fact that these (problematic) attempts at inclusion have led to a backlash shows that the fashion industry remains opposed to body diversity. Fashion industry ‘experts’, ranging from American Vogue magazine’s Anna Wintour to Australia’s Next Top Model’s Charlotte Dawson, have criticised plus-size models on the grounds that they encourage poor health and are therefore too ‘big,’ too ‘unhealthy’, and too ‘unsightly’ to be in fashion.
In making these statements, these purported experts betray their ignorance. To reify the fat/thin unhealthy/healthy dichotomy is to ignore how health professionals have long refuted the body mass index as an accurate measure of health. More crucially, encouraging the belief that being thin is not only ‘beautiful’ but also ‘healthy’ may ironically lead to a rise in unhealthy behaviour among those who see fashion power-players as role models. These ideas are not only antiquated; they are also misleading and dangerous.
Plus-size issues that ‘celebrate’ plus-size models in an insincere manner is arguably just as offensive and as disempowering as fashion spreads that condemn their presence. I cannot help but wonder whether a better indication of a genuine appreciate for body diversity occurs when plus-size models and models who are ‘different’ are integrated into the fashion industry without the same amount of fanfare.
Though it is true that part of the fashion industry’s mandate is to market different products, it is absurd and short-sighted to assume that the only way this can be done is by heightening women’s insecurities through depictions of inaccessible, glamorous, and thin models. If anything, the favourable response garnered by ad campaigns featuring different types of women proves that promoting body diversity is an untapped marketing resource. Fashion industry experts who say otherwise are merely being complacent, uncreative, and lazy.
If fashion experts are truly concerned about the lack of body diversity, then they would put models from sizes 6 to 22 into their campaigns and shows. If women can be beautiful because of their diverse body types, then plus-size models can legitimately be given equal treatment along with other models against the likes of Gemma Ward and Kate Moss, and not only have to be satisfied with ‘sexy’ cheesecake or ‘celebrate’ your body shots. If designers are truly invested in proving that they have the skills to design for all types of women, then clothing will be made for all types of bodies.
Plus-size models – and, by extension, all women who do not fall into the fashion industry’s thin ideal – should not have to settle for anything less.