By Nathalie Atkinson
There’s new fodder in the movement for greater size diversity in fashion. The latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition features, for the first time, a plus-size model (Robyn Lawley). Another (Ashley Graham) is featured in an ad in the same issue, and she also happens to star in the racy commercial for Canadian retailer Addition Elle’s new Fifty Shades-inspired collection of lingerie. But are these developments cause for celebration?
For insight into the conversation around size acceptance, I talked to Dr. Amanda Czerniawski, assistant professor of sociology at Temple University in Philadephia. Her new study book,Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling, juxtaposes academic analysis with diary-like chronicles of her own experiences over two years among the agents, bookers, clients and retailers of the plus-size fashion world, peppered with her interviews with 35 other plus-size models. She’s not convinced the supposed body-diversity imagery lifts the taboo on fat itself – the rolls, lumps and reality of the body. The plus-size fashion modelling industry may have merely internalized the problems and issues of the straight-modelling industry, as the sector covering sizes 0 to 10 is sometimes called.
Is the ‘curvy-girl revolution’ really happening?
There might be a fashion magazine issue devoted to ‘curvy’ bodies – and they’ll put Scarlett Johansson in it. Or Kate Upton. Or Terry Richardson’s photos of Crystal Renn surrounded by food – bingeing. What we have to remember is that even though these models are a little bigger than what we’re used to seeing in fashion, they are still atypical bodies. They still are taller than the average woman – and they have proportional body shapes, symmetrical facial features, the intangible X factor. They are special women already, and then they do so much to improve upon their bodies. Then makeup artists and hairstylists are improving upon them, then photographers capture the best look and Photoshop makes it even better. In the end, as with all the straight-fashion images, it’s all these huge manipulations that are just an illusion of what actual bodies look like.
Then what do you think of the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition issue and the reactions to it?
Robyn Lawley is a plus-size model at the small end of the spectrum, a size 12. I don’t know that anyone even really realized that she was plus-sized just from looking at the photo. She doesn’t embody our vision of what a plus-size model should look like and that’s part of the issue. What is plus-sized? In retail, it means size 14 and up, and in modelling agencies it is anything above a size 8.
I was surprised to read about the common practice of smaller plus-size models getting the higher-paying, or ‘prestige,’ advertising gigs, then padding out their bodies in photos. They have to be fat enough to be relatable to the average person but with a thin face that is still somehow aspirational to the straight standard.
You see the continuation of thin privilege! It remains within fashion – a thin face and a larger body. It’s an illusion. New online designers, women who are plus themselves and start designing because they are disappointed by the options, are the ones who are using larger bodies to represent their clothes. One designer in Atlanta uses a size 20-22 model because the customers themselves demanded it. If you are going to sell the clothes in those sizes to women, they want to see how it looks on their size body. There is an opening, if you listen to what people want.
But it’s still on the fringes. Often mainstream retailers only offer their plus-size ranges online.
And the thing is, larger bodies come in different shapes and you need to try on the clothes in a store. It’s more hassle to find the right fit, extra shipping costs and returns.
That seems ridiculous. Maybe in the modelling world, plus-size is in the minority, but in the Western population, it’s the majority.
A lot of people don’t like the word plus-size because it doesn’t reflect the reality of these bodies. In the U.S., the average is a woman’s size 14. A few years ago [plus-size retailer] Lane Bryant featured Ashley Graham in a lingerie commercial, but the network refused to air it, [saying] that it was inappropriate. Yet [it was] airing Victoria’s Secret ads. What is the difference? It’s still a highly sexualized woman being represented. Is it because she had a more voluptuous body, too dangerous and too scandalous?
In New York Fashion Week, there was a higher level of diversity than usual. Do you worry that it’s used merely as a publicity stunt?
Absolutely. But sometimes you have to have the spectacle to get people’s attention and just hope that the momentum will carry through. There were more plus-size models, a model with a skin condition, a woman with Down syndrome … That’s something that reflects more of who we are. It’s not that plus-size models want to topple and take over the industry; they just want to carve out a space for themselves.
The British plus-size clothing company Taking Shape just sent models dressed as birdwatchers out into the street near the hub of London Fashion Week for what they called ‘skinny bird watching.’
It’s not appropriate to shame anybody for their bodies. But we do have to remember that the thin body is still privileged in our culture. There is this antagonism to fat that exists. Can you say that thin-shaming is the same as fat-shaming? I don’t think so. Nobody should shame anybody, but you can’t equate the two.