Forum Archive VII

Messages Posted on the Judgment of Paris Forum

Vol. VII: April–June, 2003.

Embroidery—the art of folklore

One of the interesting things about growing up in the New World as the offspring of first-generation European immigrants (German/Polish, in my own case) is that you experience a kind of hybrid upbringing. You learn your native tongue at heritage-language schools, you partake in events organized by your cultural community, and you participate in ethnic organizations of various kinds. And even if you sever ties with your ethnic community in later years, the memory of that immersion in a distinct culture, with its rich traditions and rituals, accompanies you for the rest of your days.

Recently, yours truly found himself in the H&M store in New York, and among the many peasant blouses and similar items that were on offer, there was one—a white “crinkled” top—which featured a detail that immediately caught my eye. This detail was not a lavish embellishment, just an embroidered flower-and-leaf motif. But for some reason, that floral design, as it appeared against the white fabric background, stuck in my mind. It seemed oddly familiar.

I experienced the same sensation of déja vu when I first viewed the following graphic, which is one of Elena Mirò’s ”Forever Beautiful” images, and noticed the ornament on Barbara Brickner’s outfit:

And I experienced that sense of familiarity yet again when I saw the following Reitmans ad, showing Barbara Brickner and Valerie Lefkowitz modelling Spring 2003 basics:

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Once more, the embroidered design on Barbara Brickner’s top caught my notice:

And this time, I realized why these embellishments seemed so familiar. Each was a variation on a floral motif that I knew very well from my youth, because I had often seen such designs adorning the “folk dress” attire that the girls in my local Polish community wore during ethnic celebrations.

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Here is one of the traditional floral motifs of the people of Kaszuby, a region in the north of Poland:

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The design is centuries old, but for Spring/Summer 2003, embroidered patterns like these are turning up everywhere in plus-size fashion.

Each area of Europe has a rich tradition of folk dress stretching back hundreds of years, and the most distinctive features of these historic garments tend to be their embroidered embellishments, which are often quite ornate. Take the Wends of eastern Germany, for example. The outlandish hats that are part of their historic attire catch the eye first, but note the embroidered designs on those hats, as well as on their blouses and dresses. Those designs are uncannily similar to the patterns that are showing up all around us, right now:

traditional Wendish headdress with embroidery; click to enlarge

Historically, the main purpose of these floral motifs was the same as it is today—to make garments look more attractive. From its origins as a mere handcraft—a method of trimming the edges of fabric—embroidery developed into a sophisticated folk art, a virtuosic display of a young woman’s skill in needlework. And over time, as particular motifs became associated with specific regions and peoples, embroidery acquired a deeper significance as a means of cultural representation, and ultimately, of cultural preservation. Rather like the escutcheons of noble families, embroidered motifs became expressions of the common identity of the people of a given region, symbols of their ties to a geographical area, and of their place in a historical continuum.

Folk embroidery took on even greater importance during times when ethnic groups came under assault, either by internal or external forces. In the 19th century, the Romantics venerated the rural folkloric arts as a bulwark against the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution. And as the shadow of Communism spread over Eastern Europe in the last century, many Slavonic peoples took special care to preserve their folk heritage, which the proponents of the new political system endeavoured to suppress in favour of their rootless ideology.

Today, most women who wear garments with embroidered patterns probably have no knowledge of the origins of these designs. They buy embroidered clothing simply because it looks pretty and “girly.” But that is significant in and of itself, because it indicates that this modern reincarnation of a folk art is still fulfilling one of its historic functions—the preservation of identity—but in a different way. In the midst of our own day and age, when much of the clothing that is created for women (and especially for full-figured women) is nothing more than androgynous, utilitarian career wear—a product of the stark functionality of our information age, which threatens to rob both men and women of their essential nature—

click to enlarge

—in such a time, this distaff art form accentuates and celebrates the distinct femininity of the wearer.

Also, in stark contrast to many ultra-modern examples of “high fashion,” which are ego-generated products of designers who couldn’t care less if their aberrant creations are worn anywhere except on the world’s catwalks,

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the folklore-inspired designs that have become so popular over the last several seasons are based on styles that evolved naturally over the course of centuries, and were worn both for use, and for beauty:

Eugene de Blaas (1843-1931), ‘Daydreaming'--click to enlarge

This page at the Fashion Bug site offers a customer-oriented introduction to the embroidered styles. And this link takes you to a personal Web page which discusses the cultural and nationalistic significance of Slovak folk embroidery—but could just as easily apply to the folkloric art of any of the peoples of Europe.

You may never look at those machine-stitched garlands on your blouse in quite the same way…

April 1, 2003

A “body-confidence” issue?

The May 2003 issue of Glamour is, in the words of its editor-in-chief, the magazine’s “second annual body-confidence issue.” It probably isn’t worth spilling a lot of ink on this, because the issue displays the same strengths and weaknesses that we see whenever an organ of the mass media tries to dabble in body-positive rhetoric.

The results are almost always the same—half-measures and mixed messages.

The weaknesses are all too familiar. How seriously can anyone take a “love your body” message in a magazine with pages and pages of ads and editorials featuring waif models? The most unintentionally funny example of this is a layout called “Show Off Your Legs,” which could as well be called, “Show Off Your Twigs.” What in the world is so positive about having a conventionally thin model show off her conventionally thin legs? Also of little value is a page called “Hooray for Hollywood Body Love!” which simply confirms what we already knew—that Hollywood’s body love is reserved for thin bodies, or for thin bodies with implants.

The magazine hypes its three cover girls (Rebecca Romijn, Halle Berry, and Famke Janssen) as being size positive (???), but how it came to that conclusion is a mystery. Is it because these actresses might be size fours as opposed to zeroes or twos? Or is it simply because this trio is starring in the next X-Men film, and Glamour needed a way to work in a promotion for that project? One could easily imagine these three actresses appearing on the cover of an exercise magazine, or of a diet publication, or of any kind of generic celebrity periodical (and they probably will). The body-positive message is invisible.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, Glamour still accepts diet advertising. No surprises there.

Like the 2002 “body-confidence” issue, this edition features an editorial with a plus-size model, but in that regard, Glamour did considerably better last year. Mia Tyler’s bikini shot, which revealed her soft, curvaceous figure, made many readers take notice and reassess their notions of plus-size beauty. But this year’s representative is Philippa Allam, and while we have no quarrel with Ms. Allam as a plus-size model, she is easily photographed in a non-plus way. Or to put it differently, if Philippa is plus at all, it is only in areas which Glamour made it a point to conceal.

On the other hand, it is certainly better to have a size 10/12 model shooting for a fashion editorial than any of the generic waifs which the magazine uses for every other spread. But it would have been so much more revolutionary if—at least for this “special” issue—the editor had decided to break a few rules and use a model who was more visibly plus. Kate Dillon’s “comeback” spread in Glamour, from 1996, was so much more powerful because Kate was a very curvaceous size 16 at the time—and it showed. The breathtaking Valerie Lefkowitz ad from Glamour’s April issue was probably of more benefit to the cause of size celebration than is this entire issue. And interestingly, in the gorgeous inset images of actresses from the 1950s and 1960s which accompany Ms. Allam’s layout, both Marilyn Monroe and Claudia Cardinale look considerably more voluptuous than Philippa.

On the up side, at least one of the “real” (i.e., non-model) women in the swimwear section is full figured. And some of the magazine’s text (we stress—some) is, in fact, quite size positive.

The best feature in the entire issue is a page titled, “Three Reasons You DON’T Want a Hollywood Body,” which points out all of the wonderful things that you could be doing with your time and money instead of dieting and exercising ad nauseam, in the manner of a tinseltown celeb. Glamour gets big points for this item, because it is a very affirmative message, and one which is definitely worth spreading.

Glamour’s editor herself offers the best explanation of the dual-personality nature of her publication in her editor’s preface. She presents us with this picture of the general public’s current state of mind about body image:

So that’s our world: skinner-than-ever celebrity goddesses and rampant plastic surgery…but with a loud, steady, love-your-body chorus in the background. How does it all add up? In politics, there’s a pattern that goes like this: The more tyrannical the ruling party, the healthier the opposition; brutal dictators breed revolutionaries who want to overthrow them.

The military metaphor is apt. We lament the fact that Glamour is not lending more support to the “revolutionaries,” but making so many concessions to the “ruling party.” On the other hand, at least this issue shows that the magazine is doing something positive, and it is light years removed from the practices of Vogue and its ilk, which constitute the most brutal weapons in the arsenal of the media dictatorship.

Glamour’s editor also asks her readers who really deserves the credit for the incremental acceptance of positive body image, and her answer is as follows:

[M]ost of all, you. Because hey, it takes strength and supreme self-respect to thumb your nose at a cultural obsession—to drop the towel and walk, not sucking your stomach in, toward the water. But millions of you are doing it, and each little act of body pride gives other women permission to break the rules too.

April 3, 2003

The turn in thinking

[In response to a message by Ciara, who noted the offensiveness of using the term “slenderizing” to promote plus-size swimwear.]

You are absolutely right. The terminology that accompanies the marketing of full-figure fashion (and especially the marketing of swimwear) stands in dire need of a revaluation of aesthetic values.

It is utterly misguided to market plus-size fashion using words like “slenderize” the describe the intended effect of the clothing. The implication is that there is something wrong with the body that will be wearing it. This approach is based on an outmoded way of thinking about the full female figure—that it is somehow “flawed,” or less than ideal, and needs to be “corrected” (i.e., brought as closely into alignment with modern, straight-size standards as possible).

Nothing could be further from the truth.

For all of its visual weaknesses, at least the Philippa Allam spread in the May Glamour included text that was legitimately size positive, with blurbs like:

Call it the Catherine Zeta-Jones effect. Now everyone wants a softer, rounder shape—so stop covering yours up!

If you’re shapely like model Philippa Allam, stick with fitted (not boxy or baggy) silhouettes.

The dress should…follow a woman’s body, not the body follow the shape of the dress.

The latter statement is also relevant for plus-size swimwear. Let the body shape the suit, not the suit shape the body.

Any time an advertisement for plus-size fashion conveys (explicitly or implicitly) a “change your body” message, it is a de facto case of size rejection. The companies or individuals that are truly size positive are those which base their approach on the notion of love, not change. “Love your body” is the desired message, and no one should settle for anything less.

Instead of “Hide your flaws,” the ad copy should read, “Show your curves.”

Instead of “slimming,” the garments should win favour because they are “revealing.”

Instead of “slenderize,” the exhortation should be, “accentuate.”

And we are not talking about half-measures here, either. Even the phrase, “Accentuate your positives,” is still off the mark. A full figure is a positive.

So accentuate it.

April 12, 2003

Why “Plus-Size” is Positive (as if you didn’t know…)

“I’m very proud to be a plus-size model. And I heard you say, when we were in the back room, that a lot of women don’t want to be called plus-size models. But I’m proud to say that.”
-Randi Graves to Christina Valhouli on the Ananda Lewis show

There is a school of thought now emerging which threatens to undermine the cause of size celebration from within. The idea is that the very term “plus size” must be done away with, and that full-figured models should simply be called “models.” This way of thinking is very fashionable in New York industry circles, where it has an unpleasant similarity to that old high-school mentality whereby ”outsiders” long to be part of the “cool clique.”

But for many reasons, this is a poisonous notion—the first and most obvious being that it is based on the premise that there is something negative about being “full figured” in the first place.

To state that “plus size” is a “secondary” or a “disqualifying” term (as some industry professionals do) is to surrender to the judgment of the straight-size industry, to accept its aesthetic, and to evaluate the plus industry according to straight-size standards.

But once we free ourselves of this skewed, modern notion whereby “smaller” is “better,” we realize that words like “full” or “plus” are not inherently negative at all. These are simply descriptive terms, and they have no valuation until we give them one. In fact, stating that a model is “full figured” is like commenting that she has “red hair”—it is not a negative comment, unless one accepts the notion that red hair is somehow a bad thing.

So, for a representative of the plus-size industry to want to disassociate full-figured models from terms like “plus” or “full” simply means that said person has a negative assessment of those terms himself—an assessment which he has accepted from the straight-size mainstream, and is now helping to perpetuate.

Is this the best that we can hope for—industry representatives who seek the approval of the straight-size industry, and accept its bias against plus?

Rather, we should hope to have professionals at every level of plus-size fashion—from models to photographers to stylists to agents—who love the term “plus” ; indeed, who prefer plus to straight. Who are proud of it. Who see being full-figured as being part of being beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to work in the straight-size divisions unless they had to. Who think that plus-size models are beautiful because they are full-figured, not despite this fact.

After all, if plus-size models don’t embrace and celebrate their identity as full-figured women, then how can members of the general public be expected to do so?

* * *

“One of the reasons I quit being a skinny model was because I felt so bad being part of the entity, the fashion business, that inflicts these ridiculous ideals upon our culture. As a plus-size model I try to use the glamour and allure of fashion to promote a more diversified concept of beauty.”
-Kate Dillon, response to question on PBS’s Dying to be Thin

Beyond the valuation of size-related terminology, there is something extremely troubling about the idea of a plus-size model “aspiring” to the supposed distinction of being “just a model.”

The question that must be asked is, “What in the world are you aspiring to?”

The desire to be called a “model”—period—instead of a “plus-size model” operates on the premise that being an ordinary model is something wonderful or desirable, and being a plus-size model is not. But in truth, the most generous thing that can be said about ordinary models is that…they help to sell products.

Think about that for a moment. Helping to sell products. Helping to sell.

Is this really such an extraordinary accomplishment? Is that really such a notable goal?

On the other hand, the worst thing that can be said about straight-size models is that their images help cause and exacerbate eating disorders, and that those images are the most potent tools in a system which is designed to make beautiful women feel ugly—so ugly that they will starve and torture themselves to alter their natural shape.

If you are a model, ask yourself—is this the kind of industry that you want to associate yourself with?

But a plus-size model has the opposite effect. Whether she realizes it or not, she is the most potent weapon there is against the destructive effects of the mainstream fashion industry. While underweight models make women hate their bodies, full-figured models help women love their bodies.

True, a plus-size model is supposed to sell a product, too—but more importantly, she is there to sell an idea, as Barbara Brickner stated in her recent interview. And that idea is not, “Change your body,” but “Love your body.” It is not, “Buy something to look less ugly,” it is, “You are beautiful—and this will help you to enhance the beauty that you already possess.”

Images of plus-size models embody and reinforce natural human instincts about beauty. Images of straight-size models brainwash people into dismissing those natural instincts in favour of an unhealthy, artificial standard.

How appalling, then, to learn of industry professionals who consider it some kind of “triumph” if a reader can look at an image of a plus-size model and fail to notice that the model is full figured. This usually means that the model’s size has been so effectively disguised as to give the reader the illusion that she is thin. And the only way to do this is either by using faux-plus models to begin with, or by using camera angles and digital trickery to artificially slenderize a model. And what is the end result of this elaborate process, but the creation of images which in no way threaten the entrenched media aesthetic? The public will still be bombarded by images of truly skeletal models, and these non-plus images will do nothing to negate their effect.

On the contrary, the most successful and worthwhile images are those in which plus-size models do look distinctly plus; images in which the models look beautiful and visibly full figured. Those are the images which force viewers to reassess their socially-warped standards of beauty, and which help them reject those standards in favour of their natural impulses.

* * *

“I’m not just being a model. We’re doing it for a reason.”
-Mia Tyler

A plus-size model has influence beyond the immediate visual effect of her work. She is a powerful cultural force, not only for aesthetics, but for the special kind of wisdom that results from aesthetics—i.e., from art. How so? As outlined in an earlier message on this forum, the plus-size model is an inherent paradox in our media culture—a subversive coupling of what the media promotes, and what it rejects—and this can shatter people’s blind acceptance of modern standards in general, and undermine the social reinforcement of those standards.

It is only a small step from discovering that “the media lies about the nature of beauty,” to realizing that, “The media lies about many things.” It is only a slightly larger step from discovering that, “Most people are brainwashed to accept ugliness as beauty, and vice versa,” to realizing that “My own judgments may therefore be valid, even though they are not mainstream, or popular.”

* * *

To revisit our original high school metaphor, the attitude that representatives of the plus-size fashion industry should adopt with regard to mainstream fashion is not that of the outsider who longs to be accepted into the “cool clique,“ bur rather, that of the outsider who realizes that the “cool” kids aren’t really so cool—and aren’t worth envying at all.

April 14, 2003

Missed opportunities

[In response to a message by Melanie, who lamented the practice by several fashion magazines of including fashion layouts promoting apparel “for every body,” but only showing these fashions on straight-size models]

Yet another example of this is the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. This month (one of our readers tells us), the magazine has a feature called “The Best Suits for Your Bod,” with different “bod” categories such as “plus size,” “large bust,” and a few others. But does Cosmo use models to represent these body shapes? Of course not. Rather, it presents the swimsuits on illustrations of two-dimensional cardboard cutouts—and, as a final irony, even the cutouts are not full figured. However, just a few pages earlier, the magazine does have a swimwear layout with living models; but these girls are predictably the typical Cosmo waifs—so thin that they look even more two-dimensional than the cardboard illustrations.

It is truly astonishing to hear of bookers and merchants who think that just because a single plus-size model shows up in a mainstream publication or ad, that this somehow means that full-figured women have been accepted by mainstream fashion, and that the “plus” category is no longer needed. Is that what constitutes “victory” for them—one ad here, another layout there, while hundreds of magazines produce thousands of images of underweight models in order to reinforce their brainwashing? At the very least, if 50% of the women in North America are full-figured, then 50% of the images should show plus-size models. Until that happens, the plus-size restoration has a long way to go.

The media establishment is thoroughly committed to its anorex-chic ideal, and the only way that alternative images of beauty—timeless images of beauty—will ever reach the public in a significant quantity is in separate, distinct publications and advertisements that are expressly directed towards full-figured customers. Everywhere else, plus-size models will always be relegated to the status of tokens, or hidden away from public view.

April 14, 2003

Meagre or Mythic?

[Posted as a commentary on the choice of a stick-thin actress to play the eponymous role in a made-for-TV movie about Helen of Troy.]

Is there a connection between Hollywood’s aversion to true beauty, and the fact that most films are set in the modern world, with its modern values, and modern concerns? Undoubtedly. We have just emerged from a century during which irony became the law of the land for writers in every field, while grand—or epic—or noble—or heroic themes became intensely unfashionable.

Meagre stories about meagre themes inevitably lead to a preference for…meagre beauty.

Anne Rice made the following statement in a CBC interview with Michael Coren about the prosaic nature of modern storytelling. In this excerpt, she laments the dearth of mythic male characters (“heroes and devils”), but this sentiment is equally valid as it applies to the lack of mythic female characters (angels and sirens, enchantresses and seductresses):

I can’t write ordinary stories about ordinary people. I’m interested in mythic figures and extraordinary people. The tradition of literature that looks at extraordinary people is much older and longer and richer than is the recent…romance with realism. I’m not sure many pedestrian realism novels will survive the test of time. But we know that heroes and devils—Faust, Mephistopheles, Macbeth, Hamlet, the heroes of Homer—we know these people stood the test of time, that the imagination craves that kind of mythic figure, that larger-than-life figure…

Rice’s own stories hardly rise to the level of Shakespeare or Goethe, but her comments are valuable as they pertain to contemporary culture. The modern fixation on irony and “pedestrian realism” results in a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the disappearance of extraordinary art leads to the disappearance of extraordinary beauty; but this lack of beauty then leaves artists with nothing to inspire them, nothing to elevate their imaginations to greater themes, and so they create still more commonplace art…and the cycle becomes impossible to break.

Great beauty and great art exist in a reciprocal relationship, and the one must exist for the other to flourish.

April 21, 2003

Coming attractions—“Troy” (2004)

No, this does not mean that the U.S.A. Network’s Helen of Troy miniseries (see above) will be coming soon to a theatre near you. Rather—as a helpful reader of this site informs us—Warner Bros. will be releasing a major new motion picture of the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad in 2004.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (of Das Boot and Perfect Storm fame), this “epic” feature has already attracted the talents of a number of A-list actors, including the extremely unlikely casting of Brad Pitt as Achilles.

More significantly for our purposes, the pivotal role of Helen of Troy has yet to be cast, although Claire Forlani is said to be a leading contender for the part. Forlani, another modern Calvin-Klein-model type, is scarcely a better choice than was Sienna Guillory, who played Helen in the recent television movie. As our reader puts it, Forlani might “possibly cause a barroom ruckus, if not exactly a world war.”

A Web page about the movie appears here.

The film’s producers have stated that their prime consideration for casting Helen is that, “on a scale of 1:10, she has to be a 20.” But truth be told, the only way that a modern filmmaker would be able to conceive of beauty on such a level, and choose an appropriate actress, is if he could cast off his modern sensibilities, and “see” Helen through classical eyes.

Indeed, the limitations of the Troy film as a whole, based on the details provided at the above Web page, are likely to result from the filmmakers’ intentions to approach the story from a modern standpoint. The only way that such a project could realize its full artistic potential would be if the filmmakers were to align themselves with the intensely unmodern, classical ethos of Homer’s world. This is a near-impossibility today, because our world-view is so far removed from that of the Greeks or the Romans.

By contrast, the artists of other eras of Western history were fully capable of adopting the values of antiquity when creating artworks with classical settings, because their own societies existed in close relation to those of ancient civilizations. The Renaissance, for example, was an explicit attempt to import the classical ethos into contemporary culture. Shakespeare, as a writer of the later Renaissance, was able to write self-consciously “classical tragedies” such as Coriolanus and Timon of Athens that, in spirit, would have been quite comprehensible to the ancients themselves.

As E.M. Butler recounts in Ritual Magic (1948), her definitive study of the Faust myth:

[I]n spite of underground movements, resistance movements, partisans and commandos, humanity has not recaptured the lost art of living dangerously which was brought to such a pitch of perfection by the men who stalked the streets of Florence and Rome in the sixteenth century. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the art has now become a science; that the Hotspur of yesterday has become the Commando of to-day, groomed, conditioned and trained to perform deeds of daring and violence with a utilitarian end in view; whereas the bravos of the Renaissance enacted them from purer motives: because they gave savour and significance to life, an intoxicating feeling of triumph and mastery and provided an outlet for the superabundant energy that was storming through their veins. This mixture of savagery and glory, of wild-beast ferocity and extravagant beauty…characterizes the period as a whole.

To make a great film about the Trojan War, one would have to adopt a world-view in which a conflict for the most beautiful woman in the world would not be waged for a “utilitarian end,” but in order to experience the “savour and significance of life.” And one would also have to cast an actress of such “extravagant beauty” that such a conflict would be poetically justifiable.

April 23, 2003

Coffee talk, capitalism, and “created customers”

It was bitterly cold last Saturday afternoon, when the three of us—Terry, Douglas, and myself—met at a local café for some warm tea and some heated debate. These irregular afternoon get-togethers had been a tradition of ours ever since our undergrad days. On this particular afternoon, however, the topic of discussion was rather different than our usual, “scholarly” fare.

This was the day that I introduced my old university friends to the emergent plus industry, and what its greater cultural significance might be. I presented them with a copy of MODE magazine, and shared my hypothesis about plus-size modelling representing a revival of the classical aesthetic of the West that had been suppressed in the twentieth century due to the politicization of the arts.

My theory hit them like surf against a rocky coastline. Their considerable reservations centred on one particular, very powerful factor—money.

Now, I put it to you—which of our positions do you find most persuasive?

* * *

TERRY: [Looking through the copy of MODE] Well, the models are gorgeous, I will give you that. I guess the magazine is good for what it does. But it won’t change anything.

I smiled. It is not for nothing that people had called ours a “contentious” friendship.

TERRY: Ultimately, the magazine is tilting at a windmill. It can’t win. You can’t win. You’re up against the power of money. Money is why nothing will ever change. Too many companies have too much of a stake in keeping things the way they are.

HSG: Oh come on. Money has no intrinsic morality, good or bad. It’s how you use it.

TERRY: Look, how much are the weight-control industries worth? Diet programs, gyms, weight-loss drugs, surgical procedures…how much does it all add up to? How many billions? The nature of making money is to make people dissatisfied with themselves.

HSG: That’s not necessarily true. If companies can make money making people feel good, they will.

TERRY: No, their fundamental strategy is to make people feel inadequate. And that won’t change. If you don’t spend, you’re incomplete. That’s what it boils down to. If it’s not a “You need to lose weight to feel good” message, it’s a “You need to buy this dress to make yourself feel good” message. Same technique.

HSG: There’s a world of difference between the two. In the latter case, a customer buys the dress, gets a confidence boost, and both parties—the seller and the buyer—are happy.

TERRY: But it’s something…external. Superficial. Shouldn’t people focus on what’s important?

HSG: Well, how do you define what’s important? Don’t impose your values on anyone else. People can feel better, internally, by feeling good about themselves externally.

TERRY: But that’s the problem. That’s what needs to change. People should value what’s inside themselves.

HSG: All right, but don’t you see that a person’s dissatisfaction with their body image can be as much of a distraction from other pursuits as an excessive preoccupation with body image? If all you can think about is how bad you look, then you’ll never think about anything else. It’s like a mental prison, like bars that people put up for themselves, preventing them from doing a lot of things that they would love to do.

TERRY: Therefore, we should teach people not to focus on how they look. We should always encourage them to reject materialism, and just accept themselves as they are.

HSG: You’re talking about changing people’s basic nature. Not only is that impossible, it’s also not desirable. People can’t live that way. And most people wouldn’t want to, even if they could. Look at the nations of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The people living in those countries were supposed to be “free” of unnecessary concerns like beauty, and content with living in accordance with an abstract political ideal of collective good. But as it turned out, only barbed wire and submachine guns could keep them from escaping that idealistic prison to come to the “materialist” West—and this despite decades of communist propaganda. People just don’t want to live that way.

At this point, Douglas, who had been listening without saying very much, decided to chime in. And as usual, his words cut through the rhetoric and penetrated straight to the heart of the matter.

DOUGLAS: I hear what you’re saying, but this idea of beauty as a commodity is false, too. Beauty can’t be bought. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s like genius, or like an ear for music. It’s something you can’t acquire. And companies know this, and that’s what makes their strategy so insidious. They trick people into believing that they can buy beauty.

For a moment, I was stymied by this argument. I knew that it was true. In fact, I knew that there was even more truth in what he was saying than he himself realized. Even in the world of plus-size modelling, a world that I was trying to present in such an idealized way. I knew that the lure of money had corrupted many individuals in the profession.

HSG: You’re right, beauty can’t be bought, but the real tyranny of the androgynous ideal is that it prevents people from seeing the beauty that is already there. Its basic strategy is to turn true beauty into perceived ugliness.

DOUGLAS: And the plus ideal is different?

HSG: Completely. At its best, it’s about enabling people see the beauty that they do have, and helping them show that beauty to the world.

DOUGLAS: Why is that so beneficial?

HSG: Consider this—for a long time, plus-size fashion was restricted to career wear. The implication was that full-figured women didn’t have social lives, didn’t have a social identity. The fashion industry was, in effect, suggesting that full-figured women only emerged from the house to go to work, then came home and stayed in at night, probably wearing a “house shirt,” because evening activities—“fun” activities—those were for the thin girls. But the fact that there are now plus-size evening fashions, dance-club fashions, party fashions, “social occasions” fashions—

DOUGLAS: —sends a more positive message?

HSG: Yes, and more than that. It gives full-figured women a social identity. It gives them freedom. It implies that they can have fun, that they can go to clubs and parties—that they can do everything and go everywhere that the thin girls can.

TERRY: That’s all well and good, but people won’t differentiate the positive messages from the negative ones.

HSG: That’s what makes a magazine like Grace so special. It understands the importance of the “bottom line,” the need to make money and remain profitable in order to exist, but it balances this need with certain restrictions on advertising on the basis of principle.

DOUGLAS: Such as?

HSG: No diet ads, for one thing.

TERRY: Okay, fine. That’s one magazine. But that’s an ideal world. Out there, in society, women will still be confronted by a different picture, by weight-control propaganda, by social bullying—

HSG: Yes, but experiencing this ideal world helps build up their resistance to those “other” messages. It helps them develop a stronger self-image, acquire more confidence in themselves. With this new-found confidence, they can reject the mainstream cultural construct in favour of one that is more favourable.

TERRY: Isn’t it better not to have any?

HSG: Any what? Any culture? Again, that’s completely inimical to human nature. Very few people want to be iconoclasts, the “lone voices in the wilderness.” Rather, it is human nature to form communities, even communities of thought. People want to believe in similar things. People want to be part of social groups. That’s part of the reason why the media is so powerful. People today live very fragmented lives, and the media gives them a virtual community.

TERRY: Well, then we should diminish the power of the media.

HSG: It’s much too late for that. The genie is out of the bottle. We live in the information age, and capital is still the fuel that runs the culture. So our efforts should be concentrated on how to turn those powers to the advantage of our cause. We need the power of the market behind us, or nothing will ever get accomplished. Otherwise, all that we will ever have are theories. Without money, nothing will happen. We have to get companies on board. We have to bring them into alignment with our plans.

TERRY: That’s impossible. Don’t you see that you’re fighting a system that perpetuates itself? Look, half a century ago, or maybe as far back as the 1920s, with the “Flappers,” a few quirky individuals may have believed in this strange, androgynous image of womanhood. It probably would have remained just that, just the odd preference of a small number, except for one thing. Big business got on board. The “anorex-chic” look may have started out as the aesthetic preference of a few individuals, but the power of money made it dominant in our culture. Companies realized that pushing this image would make women spend countless sums trying to mold themselves into a different shape, to conform to this artificial standard. And all of the money that women spent on weight-control products then went back into the companies, who put out more “thin-is-in”-type advertising, which made even more women desire to reshape themselves, in a self-perpetuating cycle. That’s still the case today. The money buys the ads, which leads to more purchasing, leading to more money, and to even more ads…it never ends.

HSG: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what happened, and the mechanism that you describe is the same one which will turn the cultural tide. That’s the best part of all. Just as society inadvertently paid for its own brainwashing, now it will fund its own deprogramming.


HSG: By supporting companies that help them feel good about themselves instead of those that try to shame them into conforming to an artificial ideal. Think about it—what will happen when a significant percentage of the money that people now waste on weight-control methods flows into more positive channels instead? The companies that now thrive off creating a perception of inadequacy will lose influence, and those that are size-positive will thrive.

DOUGLAS: But how can you be sure that the “good” companies, as you describe them, will create the kinds of images that will lead to this cultural restoration?

HSG: They can’t afford not to. It makes perfect business sense. Again, money—or the pursuit of it—works to our advantage. Many size-positive companies are realizing that by putting money into advertising campaigns, they create customers. That’s right—create them, as surely as if they were giving birth. Remember, just because the majority of women are full-figured doesn’t mean that, up until recently, they spent a lot of money on clothing. What was there for them to buy? But now, a woman who previously could not conceive of a social identity can look at an image of a plus-size model in club wear, in a club setting, and realize, “That can be me.” Now, the clothes are available for her to comfortably enter such an environment, and to be attractive enough to blossom in such a setting. She will be a created customer, and many like her will comprise a whole new, created market. Serving that market will enhance the profits of size-positive companies, which will then have more to spend on their advertising budgets. This will result in even more images of plus-size beauty, which will mean a stronger assault on the mainstream media.

DOUGLAS: I see what you’re getting at.

HSG: That’s right. All of these images of plus-size beauty—forbidden beauty—add up to a whole “counter-media” which, in time, will challenge and eventually displace the media standard that is currently in place.

I paused, and finished off my cup of very strong tea.

DOUGLAS: Well, it’s a great theory, but as you said yourself, it’s still a theory. We don’t know if it can or will happen.

HSG: No, it is happening. It’s happening already.

May 1, 2003

“Fullness and beauty of form”

[In response to a discussion between Colin and Stacey E., in which the former bemoaned the absence of “voluptuous“ plus-size models, while the latter stated that all plus-size models are “voluptuous,” by her definition of the word.]

Not just by your definition, Stacey—by Merriam-Webster’s, as well. (The OED is definitive, but we do not have the twenty volumes ready at hand.) Here is the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for “voluptuous,” with the pertinent variant underscored:

Main Entry: vo·lup·tuous
Pronunciation: -sh&-w&s, -sh&s
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin voluptuosus, irregular from voluptas pleasure, from volup pleasurable; akin to Greek elpesthai to hope, Latin velle to wish — more at WILL
Date: 14th century
1 a : full of delight or pleasure to the senses : conducive to or arising from sensuous or sensual gratification : LUXURIOUS (a voluptuous dance) (voluptuous ornamentation) b : suggesting sensual pleasure by fullness and beauty of form (voluptuous nudes)
2 : given to or spent in enjoyments of luxury, pleasure, or sensual gratifications (a long and voluptuous holiday — Edmund Wilson)
synonym see SENSUOUS

“Fullness and beauty of form”—yes, that will do nicely as a characterization of the timeless aesthetic that we celebrate at this site. Not just fullness, and not just beauty, but a harmonious union of both.

Colin’s observation illustrates the limitations of using terms like “voluptuous” or “curvy” in describing timeless feminine beauty. In modern parlance, the word “voluptuous” has acquired a rather unfortunate connotation, which results in absurdities such as Pamela Anderson and Mattel’s Barbie being called “voluptuous,” even though their figures are disproportionately gaunt by comparison with their bust sizes. And as for the term “curvy,” in this year’s “Body Love” issue of Glamour, the three underweight actresses who appear in the current X-Men sequel were collectively applauded for being “curvy”—which suggests that the adjective “curvy“ can be applied to any human woman who does not perfectly resemble a roofing nail.

We need something better than this.

Although “plus-size beauty” and “full-figured beauty” are inelegant phrases, they are quite necessary in order to explain that what we are celebrating is a feminine ideal that is very much at odds with mass-media standards, and yet was considered natural and healthy in every age prior to our own.

Etheliya (Wilhelmina girl, 14/16 at 5'8) providing a true understanding of “voluptuous”—i.e., “fullness and beauty of form”:

May 23, 2003

Plus-size models and haute couture

[In response to Velvet’s observations about the benefits of using plus-size models to showcase clothing, rather than laying the clothing out flat, and about how unsuitable haute-couture fashions are for full-figured women.]

Thank you for that excellent statement about the benefits of using models to showcase clothing. The comparison with cellophane-wrapped bedding is apt and quite original.

As for full-figured models and haute couture, it all depends on the nature of the attire in question. It is true that plus-size models cannot redeem the kind of strange, unwearable, modern clothing that has become so closely associated with high fashion as to be a visual cliché. But that kind of clothing—which is the product of a creatively and spiritually bankrupt vision—does not deserve to be redeemed in the first place.

On the other hand, if haute couture turns to timeless designs, including folkloric motifs and romantic ruffles and frills (at it has done, of late—to our great astonishment and delight), then full-figured models are not only suitable, but ideal for presenting it to the world. Indeed, androgynous models look quite out of place attempting to wear it, and their malnourished appearance only detracts from the beauty of the clothing.

It remains a mystery why we haven’t seen editorial spreads in Grace that have capitalized on the “romantic” movement in fashion, especially considering how perfectly such sumptuous designs harmonize with the opulent beauty of full-figured models. The only major presentation of the romantic aesthetic in the plus industry occurred at the 2003 Lane Bryant show, in the acclaimed “Romanesque” segment.

If high fashion is about fantasy (as so many of its proponents say that it is), then this, finally, is a fantasy that is perfectly tailored to the plus aesthetic.

May 24, 2003

An Aesthetic Restoration in New York

One of our practices in examining the clash of timeless, full-figured feminine beauty and the straight-size modern standard is to shed light on this aesthetic conflict by way of comparisons with other cultural developments. Usually, we find these comparisons in the visual arts, since fashion and film are predominately visual media. But every once in a while, a musical analogy presents itself.

Every New Year’s Day, North American classical music aficionados tune in to public television to watch the annual concert broadcast from Vienna, which shows the Vienna Philharmonic performing in its glorious Musikverien hall, with its ornate, 19th-century neoclassical beauty. These events always fill us with a certain sense of envy, because they remind us of what we are missing as concertgoers on this side of the Atlantic. Apart from this one, annual event, most of the concerts that we see during the year originate in New York as part of the PBS “Live from Lincoln Center” series, and feature the New York Philharmonic performing in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

The Avery Fisher, which dates from 1962, is exactly what one might expect any 20th-century building to look like—a Spartan, bare structure, bleak both inside and out, which gives the viewer the sense that the orchestra is playing inside a large brown crate. Hardly a fitting venue, one feels, for the sumptuous brass sonorities of a Richard Strauss tone poem, or for the delicate traceries of a Mozart symphony. The dissonant tones of a 20th-century composer such as Anton Webern seem more appropriate for this austere setting—but few people willingly sit through an evening of modern atonality, and even fewer enjoy the experience.

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To make matters worse, both regular concertgoers and professional musicians have always complained bitterly about the dismal acoustics of the Avery Fisher. Although the hall has been treated to numerous costly remodelling attempts over the past forty years, none of these have improved the music, or silenced the critics.

Frustration with Avery Fisher Hall led to several extraordinary proposals in 2000 for a complete redesign of Lincoln Center. Some of the most intriguing plans advocated a return to the very same, time-honoured classical principles of design that were eschewed by the modern architects who designed the current, unloved center. A contemporary article in New York’s City Journal examined some of these proposals, and described, in a rather entertaining fashion, the inadequacies of the Avery Fisher:

[It] gives the concertgoer the sensation of being in an extremely upscale shopping mall, all its adornments failing to disguise the plain concrete box it really is. Its low-ceilinged lobby and workaday escalators create a sense of placelessness that makes you wonder as you ascend if you will emerge into a food court dominated by Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza.

Presumably, these proposals for a complete rebuild of Lincoln Center were deemed too costly by the city of New York, especially after the tragic events of 9/11. But this left the New York Philharmonic in a bind. The Avery Fisher was unsatisfactory to everyone, and the hall was facing yet another disruptive and staggeringly expensive remodelling job. So what was the orchestra to do?

The answer was anticipated in a statement made by the orchestra’s executive director, Zarin Mehta, who commented wryly that, “The principal problem with the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall is the existence of Carnegie Hall.”

Carnegie Hall, of course, is the famous 19th-century concert hall which the New York Philharmonic abandoned in 1962 for the dubious allure of the Avery Fisher. Celebrated in many motion pictures, and truly qualifying as an American cultural landmark, Carnegie Hall was once scheduled to be demolished (a fate that befell many architectural treasures from previous centuries), and was only saved because of a massive public outcry, and the determined efforts of renowned violinist Isaac Stern.

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Carnegie Hall is a gorgeous, opulent structure in which the atmosphere fairly crackles with the energy of over a century of legendary performances. What’s more, its acoustics are universally regarded as being of the highest concert quality. It looks better, and sounds better, then the hall that replaced it. Small wonder, then, that when legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan brought the Vienna Philharmonic to New York City in 1988 for the last American concert of his life—in a performance of Bruckner’s Eight Symphony, which those who attended it still consider the greatest concert experience of their lives—it was Carnegie Hall, not Avery Fisher, which hosted this historic musical event.

Click to enlarge

Therefore, you can imagine the jubilation that met last week’s announcement by the New York Philharmonic that the orchestra will be leaving the Avery Fisher in 2006, and moving back to beloved Carnegie Hall—which many feel the orchestra should never have abandoned in the first place.

This vivid example of the aesthetic restoration at work provides us with a useful comparison to our efforts at size celebration, and in particular, it indicates why our own battles are so difficult to win. As orchestra director Zarin Mehta stated (above), it was the continued existence of Carnegie Hall that reminded orchestra patrons what they were missing in its modernist replacement. If Carnegie Hall had been demolished according to the original plan, then neither the orchestra, nor the public, would have had a living example of the past beside them, reminding them of what they had lost, and always available to them as an alternative.

However, in fashion, and in the other visual media, the opulent feminine aesthetic was removed from sight. Here there was no extant alternative to the modern, straight-size standard. The inherited legacy of beauty was banished, replaced by inhuman minimalism, and (due to the cultural amnesia that we suffer from as a society), all but forgotten, until plus-size fashion advertising and MODE began to bring it back.

Therefore, since we are reviving this timeless aesthetic virtually from scratch, it will take time and patience to successfully right this aesthetic wrong, to expose the myth that “thinness” has some sort of self-evident merit, and that androgyny is a goal worth pursuing. It will take time, but it will happen, and not in isolation, but as part of the larger cultural movement that we see manifesting itself all around us—of embracing the past that we once renounced, reincorportating that legacy into the present, and using it as a guide for the future.

June 8. 2003

“The Romantic”

[In response to an article posted by Chad, in which the fashion editor of Canadian Elle magazine divided women into six “fashion personalities” (girl next door, romantic, cool sophisticate, take-charge chic, gamine, and hooker chic), and described the “romantic” personality in this manner:

“Catherine Zeta Jones is an example of a romantic,” says Silvan. “The romantic is usually full-figured, aware of sensual fabrics, wears jewelry very well—the type of woman men like to help. Overtly feminine.”]

That little blurb from the article reveals a great deal more than one might think.

For one thing, it is wonderful to have such a clear indication that the aesthetic restoration is affecting the discourse of mainstream fashion. There was a time (very recently) when any Elle magazine editor would have equated the term “full figured” with notions like “frumpy” or “asexual,” and with matronly media personalities such as Camryn Manheim.

But today, we see an Elle editor relating being “full figured” to being “overtly feminine,” and using a living goddess such as Catherine Zeta-Jones as an example of this body type . Also, the editor’s association of this body type with jewelry and with “sensual fabrics” indicates that she also accepts the natural equation of true feminine beauty with a rich, opulent aesthetic.

This is clear and unmistakable progress.

Furthermore, consider the greater implications of these natural associations. Note how each of these factors:

-Romanticism as a cultural movement
-curvaceous beauty
-timeless feminine power (“the type of women men like to help”), and
-opulence in aesthetics

all “went out of fashion” (or rather, were driven out of the cultural consciousness) concurrently, in the 20th century. And observe how all of these factors are returning to cultural prominence simultaneously, even as we speak.

The same forces that opposed any one of these factors opposed them all. And our efforts at advancing the cause of size celebration are part of a greater societal push towards reclaiming the rich legacy of Beauty, in all its manifestations, that we were taught to renounce in the last century.

June 17, 2003

“Naturally curvy”

Here is another example of a size-positive statement coming from an unexpected source. The actress in question may hardly provide the living proof of her own words, but the words are powerful, regardless:

Sexy actress Monica Bellucci has slammed “childish-looking” American actresses for being so skinny—accusing them of being scared to be “real women.”

The Matrix Reloaded star loves the fact she is naturally curvy, and describes herself as “old-fashioned,” in the way she likes to be treated like a lady by men—but Bellucci believes this attitude is far better than her supposedly “liberated” American counterparts.

She explains, “Too many American actresses and models are slender and childish-looking. Perhaps it’s because some men are frightened of real women and are drawn to childlike looks. I’ve never been frightened of being a real woman. I think many men want to see real women with full figures. They don’t want skin and bone. In America, if a man tells a woman she’s beautiful, the woman might be full of plastic surgery, work out two hours a day and spend a fortune on cosmetics and clothes. Then the woman gets offended because she’s being treated like a piece of meat.”

Bellucci was further quoted in another news source as saying:

“I like doors being opened for me and I appreciate it when men make a fuss,” she continues. “This is not to reject women’s rights—because I’m free and independent. It’s just facing facts. That’s just the way it is.”

“I don’t work out and I would never have surgery,” she assures us.

How refreshing to hear a successful actress present a point of view that flies in the face of the Hollywood establishment, and offers a timeless perspective on femininity. The fact that she can express an opinion which is so far removed from media-prescribed values testifies to the fact that she truly is “liberated,” even as many of her peers remain fettered by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of modern society.

This growing identification of femininity and a opulent body shape is immensely encouraging. When an ingénue who holds beliefs such as this, and is both unmistakably gorgeous and undeniably full figured, breaks into the A-list of media elite, then we will be able to say that society’s liberation from the artificial notions of womanhood that have been imposed upon it is imminent, and that we are once again beginning to revere the natural understanding of femininity that we hold in our hearts.

June 20, 2003

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