Amanda Czerniawski was working out on the treadmill one day when she had a revelation: What if, to gain insight on the most current modes in the fashion world, she went undercover as a plus-size model? The Temple University sociology professor researches standards of beauty and how they have developed over decades.
That was the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year journey of discovery, documented in her new book, Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling, to be released by NYU Press on Jan. 23, 2015.
Through her academic research, Czerniawski found that the concept of an “ideal” weight originated with a weight table that American life-insurance companies developed to assess health risks around the turn of the 20th century. Through the decades, models’ and mannequins’ measurements have shrunk to new lows at the hip, waist, bust, and thigh alike (take a look at the Victoria’s Secret models of the late 1980s compared with today’s).
Yet with Americans’ average waist size ballooning over the same period, the market has demanded a new kind of model: the so-called plus size, above a size 10. Czerniawski said that genetically privileged, aesthetically exceptional women who never thought they had the right body type to become a model suddenly found a niche. “It was this great transformation for them—so many of them took on this mantle of body acceptance,” she said. Like traditional models, these women “are taller than the average woman, they’re proportional, they have greater symmetry in their faces.”
Yet the job of modeling, Czerniawski would discover, “still reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They’re not women—but breasts, bums, and hips.” Models are put into size divisions, so anyone above a 6 is classified as an “in-betweenie” or plus size; high-fashion models are usually a size 00 to 2.
While thin is always in, plus-size models have to meet another set of standards. “What clients want can change from season to season, and their job as models is to meet the demands,” Czerniawski said.
Models must not only closely track their measurements, but they also must make sure their skin is as clear as possible. After that, they need to be well versed in fashion—meaning they have to know how to dress in current yet flattering styles. And the smoothing out doesn’t just happen digitally. “Everybody’s wearing shape wear—it’s kind of this expectation that everybody has their Spanx on,” Czerniawski said.
The beauty trend du jour in the plus-size industry is a thin face and a curvy body. Typically, people with a thin face will also have a slim body, but society looks to these models to achieve something that’s biologically rare. “Sometimes it goes a little bit further, where they use padding to boost their bust or hip measurements,” Czerniawski said. “Some go and put on basically full-body padding to boost a whole size.”
Brands such as Dove and Aerie are now using models in a variety of body types, but Czerniawski said that she believes there’s still work to do in fostering a better understanding of how much manipulation goes into creating an image.
“It’s not real, and that’s something that needs to be addressed,” she said. “As a consequence, you have the ordinary woman flipping through magazines saying, ‘Wow, here is a plus-size model. We’re the same size, but oh my goodness, I don’t look half as good as her.’ There’s a greater awareness about all the manipulations that are occurring, but I don’t think we really have internalized that because we are bombarded—it’s difficult to really process all of what we see every day.”