Interview with Cosmo

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If you want to know what it’s “really” like to be a plus-size model, check out my interview with Stephanie Shi for Cosmopolitan Philippines! Here’s a peek:

What do plus-size models have to do in order to maintain their size and shape? What do they have to do to be bigger? In your case, when you were asked to move up to a size 14 from a size 10, what would you have had to do to get there?

There is an assumption that these women have undisciplined bodies or don’t diet and exercise. The reality is that these women work hard for their bodies. At times, they engage in severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size. Models have to adapt to changing ideals. If your size isn’t in demand, do you radically transform your body, or do you wait for the trends to shift?

The act of losing weight for plus-size models is interesting, because by losing weight these women are conforming to a general cultural expectation for women; yet, within the modeling world, they are told that they did a bad thing. One model I interviewed really struggled with her unplanned weight loss that altered her dimensions dramatically and she lost clients because she was not hired for her perfect body but, rather, for her consistent body.

At the moment when I started hearing, “You have to be a size 14,” I did feel pressure to change. But that was also what prompted me to step back and say, “Okay, I’m done.” I didn’t want to have to change my body at someone’s beck and call. I couldn’t maintain my body and size and dimensions at that strict level—it was too much pressure.

Read the entire interview here.

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Gender, Sexuality, and Intimacy: A Contexts Reader

I just found out that my article, “Beauty Beyond a Size 16,” is included in a new anthology by SAGE Publishing. Here is the description from the publisher:

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SAGE Publishing

This new anthology from SAGE brings together over 90 recent readings on gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships from Contexts, the award-winning magazine published by the American Sociological Association. Each contributor is a contemporary sociologist writing in the clear, concise, and jargon-free style that has made Contexts the “public face” of sociology. Jodi O’Brien and Arlene Stein, former Contexts Editors, have chosen pieces that are timely, thought-provoking, and especially suitable for classroom use; written introductions that frame each of the books three main sections; and provided questions for discussion.

I am honored to be part of this phenomenal collection of works. Thank you SAGE for continuing to shine a light on the plus-size industry.

Podcast Available on iTunes

A couple of months ago, I recorded a podcast interview about my book, Fashioning Fat, with SAGE Publications.

It is now available for free download on iTunes! Have yourself a listen here.

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Why clothes don’t fit

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Clothing sizes make no sense. PERIOD. Guess what? They never have!

I recently discussed the history of sizing with Mitchell Hartman for NPR’s Marketplace. You may listen to the segment that aired earlier this month here.

While the radio segment provides a brief overview of the development of women’s clothing sizes, I want to provide you with more details on the government’s first attempt to construct a standardized system of sizing.

Prior to the 1940s, standard clothing sizes did not exist. Lavish ladies from high society had clothing made to measure, while everybody else made do with a system based on approximation. Clothing sizes for children were based on age; those for women were based on the bust measurement. The assumption behind this sizing practice was that any woman at home had the requisite skills to alter garments to fit the intended body. In contrast, a ready-to-wear sizing system existed for men since the Revolutionary War. Men’s uniforms were sized according to chest measurements.

2e7ac650719eec91cad30fb43b3556e2The quest for size standardization did not begin until the 1940s. As the catalogue industry began to grow, they estimated a lack of set sizes was costing manufacturers $10 million a year. The U.S. government was also interested in standardizing sizes as a means to conserve fabric during the war. This motivated the Works Progress Administration and Department of Agriculture to ask statisticians Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton to measure 15,000 women in 59(!) different places and analyze the data to come up with a sizing system.

The data the duo collected, however, was problematic for a number of reasons. The sample of measured women was not a true cross-section of the population. Since the study was done on a volunteer basis and paid participants, it attracted women of a lower socioeconomic background who, due to malnutrition, tended to be on the small side. These women were also predominantly white, as the measurements from women of color were often discarded. Additionally, the statisticians assumed women had an hourglass figure (in reality, only 8 percent do) and based their measurements on bust size (again!). So, no, Meghan Trainor, it’s all ‘bout that bust.

From the collected measurements, O’Brien and Shelton devised a system based on height and weight but, in their wisdom, realized that women would not be too happy to disclose their weights to sales clerks. Instead, they formulated an alternative system based on an upper body measurement, height index, and lower body girth index. This resulted in a system comprised of 27 different sizes, and, no, size 0 was not one of them.

To their merit, while sizing, itself, has dramatically changed since their study, O’Brien and Shelton used numbers to indicate women’s sizes that were not, themselves, direct measurements of women’s bodies (as we commonly see in men’s clothing). This may be their one lasting legacy to modern sizing.

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Illustration by Jenna Josepher for Racked

Since O’Brien and Shelton’s landmark study, sizing standards have been reanalyzed, tweaked, infected by vanity sizing, and abandoned. Ultimately, that number on the tag that seems to matter to many American women does not mean much at all. It is, after all, just a number that does not reflect the reality of women’s bodies. For example, when Textile Clothing Technology conducted their SizeUSA study in the early 2000s, utilizing body scanners to collect measurements from almost 11,000 women, they found up to 7 distinct body shapes and a huge disparity within these shapes, e.g., there is a 12-inch spread for hip girth associated with a 28-inch waist.

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Image source via Getty Images

So, please, stop worrying about your size, and, if you are really concerned by the fit of a garment, learn how to sew or hire a tailor. Don’t change your body to fit the clothes. Change the clothes to fit your body.

Closing the Representation Gap for Plus-Size Women

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Today, I was interviewed by John Hockenberry for the radio show, The Takeaway, to discuss the plus-size industry, the new Refinery29 initiative, and Donald Trump:

Some 67 percent of women in the U.S. are above a size 14 in clothes. This is considered “plus-size” by fashion industry standards. If that’s surprising, it might make sense to hear this: Just 2 percent of women shown in media images are plus-size.

In response to this imbalance, lifestyle and fashion blog Refinery 29, along with Getty Images, is launching “Project 67 Percent” in a bid to get a greater variety of body types into the media. This week, Refinery 29 has committed to featuring plus-sized women in 67 percent of their images across their website and social media. The media brand will also make their collection of photos available to other news and entertainment outlets with the hopes of closing what they call the “representation gap” in fashion.

Dr. Amanda Czerniawski, author of “Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling,” worked for two and a half years as a plus-size model. She’s currently an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, and joins The Takeaway to discuss the representation gap in America.

The one thing I would like to add (since they cut it from my response on Trump’s harsh words) is that models are not only hired for their ideal bodies but their consistent bodies. Weight gain or loss can lead to job loss in fashion. Models are not seen as women but voiceless bodies that are easily replaceable.

You can listen to the interview here.

Thank You, Tim Gunn!

Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, wrote an article for The Washington Post yesterday that is pure genius and sticks it to designers who refuse to make clothes to fit American women.

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The plus-size clothing market is ripe for BIG business. As Gunn writes:

The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18, according to new research from Washington State University. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.

As I have said before, the reason many designers do not design for plus-size bodies is fear. Now, there are two dimensions of this fear: a fear of fat itself and a fear of failure to create flattering designs for plus bodies. Gunn also finds there is an undercurrent of contempt towards fat in fashion:

e29d730b5a0efe495d4f103b13ca5169I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt.

Ultimately, the burden falls on designers to reevaluate their bias and fix the problem:

This a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape.

Fortunately, there are signs of change in the design industry. A couple of years ago, plus-size legend Emme started the Fashion Without Limits program at Syracuse University. The goal is to train students to design fashion for full-figured women.

So, in the words of Tim Gunn, “designers, make it work.”

The Decade Long Weight Debate in Fashion

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Image by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Ten years ago today, fashion model Luisel Ramos dropped dead from heart failure brought on by anorexia just minutes after stepping off the catwalk during Fashion Week in Montevideo, Uruguay. She was 22 years old. A few months later, another model Ana Carolina Reston died from starvation-related complications at the age of 21.

These two deaths spurred the thin model controversy of 2006 that has continued to rage through today.

Several of the major fashion capitals considered instituting preventative measures after these sudden deaths. For example, Spain took action by first banning ultra-thin models from fashion week and then banning skinny sizes on mannequins. Britain tried to ban size zero models from London Fashion Week, but that was quickly abandoned after other fashion capitals failed to follow suit. In 2012, the Council of Fashion Designers of America urged designers to ensure that their runway models were not younger than age 16. Most recently, France adopted a bill aimed at banning the use of fashion models deemed to be “excessively thin.”

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Image by AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

Around the same time of these prominent fashion deaths, Velvet D’Amour made a splash in Paris with her appearances on the runway for both Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano. At 39 years of age and nearly 300 pounds, Velvet was beyond what is technically considered plus size, let alone high fashion, but she sauntered down those catwalks with confidence and poise. She was a standout with her fierce presence but the critics were shocked and appalled. This juxtaposition of fat and thin was too much.

A media storm ignited. Velvet received hundreds of emails from women inspired by her work, as well as from those who demonstrated a strong aversion to her fat:

I’ve had people ask me “Do you think you are promoting obesity by you being on the runway?” I think it’s laughable. If what’s on the runway had anything to do with obesity then we would all be emaciated.

Either way, she experienced difficulty in further advancing her modeling career because of her size:

You know, I have gone down the runway twice for two great people, but the reality is there is not a massive amount of work for three hundred pound women. . . I try to create opportunity for other people because I know that that opportunity is very limited, not only for bigger women but older women . . . I think that the reason people admire me is because I give them that sense of possibility. I was able to do it. I was able to break through that barrier.

Given Velvet’s iconic runway walk and mixed media reception, “larger” plus-size models faced hurdles in establishing themselves as legitimate models.

Velvet’s presence in the fashion industry was a statement and not the norm. It was not until recently with Tess Holliday that we have seen another “beyond a size 16” plus-size model make a splash in fashion.

In the past decade, has much really changed in the fashion industry?