Plus-size models have, literally, become more visible in the last few years. They are usually wearing lingerie, swimsuits, or nothing at all. Why are they always naked, as plus-size model Clémentine Desseaux lamented in a recent interview with Mic?
Well, it comes down to our cultural understanding of bodies and sexuality. While sexuality is implicit for a thin, straight-size model, a plus-size model must work to overcome the stigma of fat that erases her sexuality and desirability. These intentionally provocative images are meant to counter this stigma.
These images expose the flesh and show plus-size models proudly flaunting their bodies amid a fat-phobic society that seeks to cover it up in shame. These models are not hiding behind clothes or shapwear that “perfects” their silhouettes. Instead, they strip down and arch their backs to emphasize their curves.
As I discuss in my book, this advertisement for Sculptresse by Panache exemplifies this type of overtly sexualized imagery:
The model, dressed in a bright pink bra and panty set, assumes a pose reminiscent of a 1950s pinup girl, complete with a parasol.
The highly stylized image in the ad calls for a rejection of bodily shame and respect for feminine beauty. Kneeling before the viewer, she tilts her head to expose the sensual curves of her neck. While this body positioning speaks of vulnerability, she still commands attention. She smiles with a come-hither stare. Flesh is exposed, and the viewer is challenged to see all of her plus-size body as sexual, desirable, and beautiful.
Now, these sexy images may combat narrow definitions of beauty, but it does nothing to resist our culture’s obsession with objectification:
While this performance of fat appears to support a form of sexual liberation for plus-size women, it is really an act of reproducing heteronormative bodily ideals… Her very pose is an imitation of sexual displays of women throughout the twentieth century and today. The Sculptresse brand, itself, is a “fuller-figured” version of Panache lingerie; Cacique is a facsimile of its “little” sister Victoria’s Secret… Fashion commodifies and reduces this model to a sexual object subject to the male gaze. The difference, however, is that the branding message teaches her that she is as desirable as a “thin” model.
In the end, there is no radical transformation of beauty ideals—just differently sized bodies.