Plus-Size Models More Common in the Fashion Industry

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Plus-Size Wars

Written By: Ginia Bellafante

WEDNESDAY, July 28th 2010 (The New York Times)— Earlier this year, the editors of V, a magazine so recherché it can make Vogue seem like Redbook, published an issue featuring large models in expensive body-baring clothes. In one photograph, a woman in a strapless bathing suit, cut to reveal three rolls of flesh, grabs at her platform stilettos. In another, Tara Lynn, a size 16 model, is clad in nothing but a pair of Dior sandals.

Mainstream fashion magazines have always purported to embrace diverse images of the female body, publishing periodic “shape” issues that juxtapose the thin and very thin with the moderately fleshy. But only in the last year or so have notably larger women been released from the fringes, appearing not only in magazines and on television but also in the more rarefied world of the runway, including a Chanel show in St.-Tropez this spring. This shift dates, more or less, to last fall, when Glamour ran a small picture of a 5-foot-11, 180-pound model comfortably exposing her paunch. So unusual was the appearance of belly fat in this context that the magazine received thousands of letters and comments, most of them roaring with support. The model, Lizzie Miller, appeared on the “Today” show and was profiled in The Guardian.

If defenders saw in these photographs a less-restrictive imagining of the female form, detractors perceived further instances of fetishistic extremism. “This is not a positive look at larger women in fashion but a freak show,” over allone Internet poster wrote of the V shoot. Another pointed out that glorifying the other end of the weight spectrum did nothing to change fashion’s essentially unhealthful message: “We are taunted daily by skeletal fashion models. . . . However, I defy any of you to idolize these women. Nobody wants to be this fat!”

Size is a subject of considerable controversy in fashion, but it is equally so in American life. What is big? What is too big? What is not big enough? The plus-size woman — to use the marketing-sanctioned term — exists in an increasingly populous and contested ghetto. In recent years the fat-acceptance movement, born in the ’60s, has regained momentum online in what is known as the fatosphere, where much time is spent debunking the supposed benefits of dieting and the dangers of obesity. Fat studies have become its own academic discipline. Theorists investigate, for instance, desk size as a mechanism of education’s “hidden curriculum” and will to social control. But in popular culture, any affirmation of corpulence feels decidedly ambivalent. In the series “More to Love,” broadcast on Fox last year, 20 women who weighed up to 279 pounds competed for the affections of an overweight single man: heavy women might be worthy of “The Bachelor”-style indignities but were decidedly unworthy of “Bachelor”-looking bachelors. Similarly, “Huge,” a new ABC Family drama about teenagers’ struggling at a weight-loss camp, casts the pressure to be thin as social bullying while suggesting that it really might be better if the campers stopped gorging on their contraband chocolate.

Perhaps nowhere is the cultural confusion surrounding the larger woman more pronounced than in the clothing industry’s efforts to dress her. According to a 2008 survey conducted by Mintel, a market-research firm, the most frequently worn size in America is a 14. Government statistics show that 64 percent of American women are overweight (the average woman weighs 164.7 pounds). More than one-third are obese. Yet plus-size clothing (typically size 14 and above) represents only 18 percent of total revenue in the women’s clothing industry. The correlation between obesity and low income goes some way toward explaining the discrepancy — the recession was particularly hard on this segment of the market, with sales declining 10 percent between 2008 and 2009, a drop twice that of the women’s apparel overall— but it doesn’t explain it entirely. That figure has been fairly constant for the past 20 years.

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