Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fashion and Aspiration: Glamour's Plus-Size Models and Our Body Perceptions

In this month's Glamour Magazine is a feature on "the new definition of gorgeous," featuring seven plus-size models: Crystal Renn, Lizzie Miller, Amy Lemons, Ashley Graham, Kate Dillon, Anansa Sims, and Jennie Runk. All seven of them pose nude together (strategically covered), showing off the soft smoothness of their bodies and their ample curves. The feature seems to be a result of the dramatic response to the appearance of a nude (again, strategically covered) photo of Lizzie Miller in September's Glamour, sitting, smiling, and sporting a tummy roll. Women all over the country expressed their relief at finding a gorgeous picture of a woman in a magazine who "looked like them," curves and all. This month's article notes that this image was "just one of more than a hundred of full-figured women (they've) run in recent years, so (Glamour's editors) were surprised when it hit a nerve." Their theories? The recession has us in a "back-to-basics" mood, celebrities have recently spoken out against our less-than-perfect-body-hating fashion culture, Michelle Obama takes fashion risks, and perhaps we're finally tired of the bone-thin models we've seen everywhere for ten or so years. I agree with Glamour's editor-in-chief, Cindy Leive, that it was probably the combination of Miller's belly roll and unabashedly confident smile that did it. The photograph's statement was, "I know I have a belly roll. There it is. I haven't chosen a pose that minimizes it. I'm not hiding it. I'm still hot and feel great about my body! Check me out."

The article by Genevieve Field (which I highly encourage you to read) reveals the difficulties models have in being over a size four (and most runway models are closer to 00). First, sample sizes made for fashion photo shoots aren't made above this size (the writer mentions that designers sometimes make a one-off garment for a larger celebrity, which happened when Queen Latifah was Glamour's cover girl).

Second- and a bit of a surprise to me-, most designer fashion labels don't make sizes larger than 10 or 12, and it's not because there isn't a market for it. The article quotes Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD, as saying "We know that larger-size women will pay almost anything for good-quality clothes that fit, and luxury brands could benefit greatly from serving that need. But there remains a deep stigma against going plus-size in the high-end fashion market. Find a brand that's willing to be its image and licensing revenue by doing this, and you will find a progressive company." So while designers know it could increase their sales to offer larger sizes, it's seen as "selling out," in a way- as becoming less fashionable and less exclusive, a stain on their brand image that might affect their prestige and sales among current customers. As it is now, not just any woman can wear Dior- you have to already bring a fashionable body shape and size to the table before you can try on--or model--the garments (that is, unless you are interested in haute couture, which is even more astronomically expensive and has a minuscule market of celebrities and heiresses).

But fashion will always be exclusive and unreasonable, and I don't think there's anything that can be done to change the fact that underweight bodies are our current fashionable ideal. Fashion is driven by novelty and dictated by excess and leisure. High fashion is only accessible to those with enough disposable income to invest in trends that will inevitably become obsolete and that demonstrate a certain level of status. A white dress that's dry-clean-only, four-inch heels that would never allow you to do any manual labor, over-the-top accessories that get in your way and serve no purpose other than decoration-- there's a reason you don't see housekeepers and waitresses wearing these things. These clothes say "I have money to spare, and it's not because I work at a menial job." Similarly, a fashionable body shape might say, "I can afford a gym membership and health food and I choose to limit my intake because maintaining my body shape is a high priority for me." When rail-thin models become unfashionable, it will simply be because the industry is tired of them and wants a new look, not because they've changed their philosophies. I'm not making any value judgments here, saying that fashion is good or bad; I'm simply stating what fashion is and always has been.

But here is where the change can, and perhaps is, happening. The article mentions "aspirational imagery," a marketing strategy that creates in the viewer a connection with a depicted look-- the consumer imagines an ideal situation created by a product they are seeing advertised. Some who commented on the Glamour article argued that the editors were inspiring women to be content with obesity or unhealthy lifestyles and encouraging them to be complacent about their bodies. But I think we, as a society, have confused "healthy" with "fashionable." Many standard models have unhealthy bodies, and these models, while "plus-size" by industry standards, are far from obese; they are actually sizes 10-14. Two of them, Crystal Renn and Kate Dillon, were previously "straight" (standard-size) models, and found success and happiness in their (now plus-size) work once they allowed their bodies to come to their natural sizes. Another, Amy Lemons, is quoted as saying, "every body has its own healthy weight--it's the one you get to by eating and exercising right, not by pushing yourself to the brink."

In my eyes, the big problem with fashion's underweight ideal body is the prevalence of aspirational images that are so far from what many healthy women look like. Almost every woman that is depicted as beautiful or stylish is also a waif, which makes women connect poise, attractiveness, and sex appeal with a very thin body. The wonderful thing about these images of normal-sized women is that they are stunningly beautiful, confident, and well-dressed. They create aspirational imagery that removes the stick-thin factor from the imaginary situation and allows female consumers to imagine themselves as stylish and attractive without having to lose ghastly amounts of weight. This is an important and healthy change, and one that I am confident that Glamour will continue (see their pledge at the end of the article).

Of course, there is still plenty of unattainability and fantasy in models. For one thing, there is still very little representation of models between sizes 4 and 10 and above size 14. Many-- most?-- of us have imperfections absent in the models we see, regardless of size-- a larger nose, stretch marks, ears that stick out, etc. That doesn't mean that we're bad and they're good-- but it does mean that we don't look like most models. That is where body image will always be a bit of a challenge, and where the importance of detaching value from the fashionable ideal is crucial in establishing our self-esteem and that of young women.

So, while I don't predict that Vogue will feature any substantial plus-size spreads in the near future, Glamour has taken an important step in relating to its target audience and helping women everywhere connect to beauty and style. Because, as Field says, "a generous helping of fabulous--as long as it's extended to women of all sizes."

What do you think? I am very curious to hear comments on this issue.

Read the original article here, as well as an interview with Crystal Renn here, and see a slideshow of the photo shoot here.

Photos of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, plus-sized by today's modeling industry standards. Photo of Monroe by J.R. Eyerman for Life, February 1946; photo of Taylor by Peter Stackpole for Life, February 1950.
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