(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, January 18th, 2004, in response to an article that was favourable about Renee Zellweger's figure-enhancement for the Bridget Jones sequel.)
As is often the case, such isolated "glimpses" of an affirmative attitude in the mass media provide a hint of what a more size-positive world will look like. They offer a tantalizing taste of things to come. However, they also remind us that we already had a revolutionary entity which promoted messages such as this, and not so very long ago. That entity, of course, was Mode magazine.
The Summer 1997 issue included an exciting and revealing article about full-figured women, fashion, and food, which fits in perfectly with Zellweger's comments, and deserves to be excerpted here:
'ROUND THE WORLD* * *
by Barbara Graham
Where a broad goes abroad for ego-tripping
It's true the world over. Men adore women with curves. But for those of us who live in the United States, where some $30-$50 billion is spent annually on weight-loss programs and products, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that almost everywhere else on the planet, voluptuousness is the feminine ideal. Here, women like me, who are shapely without being especially large, are made to feel inadequate. I don't have enough digits to count the number of times I've been reduced to tears in department store dressing rooms because I couldn't fit into any of the clothes I coveted--clothes that obviously were not intended for grown women with real breasts and hips. Still, even though we've been conditioned to think that "thin" and "rich" go hand in hand (remember the high-society "X-rays" in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities?) it's downright liberating to consider than in non-Western cultures, ample flesh is viewed as a sign of prosperity, not to mention beauty and fertility.
Take the experience of Bobbi Allen, the owner of the plus-size clothing store Nothing In Moderation in Chicago; she came back from a vacation in Egypt "thinking I am some sort of goddess. As my husband and I walked through the streets of Cairo, we were constantly being stopped," she reports. "Men would look me over lasciviously and then pound my husband on the back, murmuring, 'Lucky, lucky man!' After about six of these incidents, my husband looked at me and said, 'What the hell is going on?'
"'I don't know,' I replied, 'but we need to look into getting some vacation property here.'"
In India, that font of Eastern culture, reverence for zaftig women goes back millennia. "The erotic sculptures on temples depict women who are pleasingly plump and have prominent bellies and large breasts," says Zia Jaffrey, author of The Invisibles, a study of Indian culture. "Flesh is part of ideal femininity," she adds . . .
"My backside was so adored in Portugal that I thought about moving there after only three days," says Kelly Repassy, a plus-size model who lives in Manhattan. "It was amazing to be seen as the ideal woman instead of the black sheep." In both Portugal and Spain, Repassy found herself dressing in tighter, more revealing clothes than she normally wears--and loving the attention she received as a result.
For women who never felt desirable because of their size, the experience of being in a foreign country can be mind-blowing. "I can't get a head to turn in New York," says Marcy Spanier, whose trip to the West Indies was a revelation. "In Barbados, I walked into a party packed with people and every man in the room did a 180-degree turn," she says. "All around me I could hear them whispering, 'Who is that woman?' I'd never gotten a reaction like that in my life."
The difference in cultural attitudes toward size is glaring when you compare American music and film stars to pop icons in other countries. Think of Italy's Sophia Loren and Cecelia Bartoli. Think of Sonia Braga or Fafa de Belem, the zaftig singer who is worshipped throughout Brazil. Think Anita Ekberg and Ingrid Bergman of Sweden--even Ingrid's daughter, Isabella Rossellini, whose curvaceous glamour is a far cry from that of the Hollywood starlet who prides herself on working out three hours a day, then dining on arugula.
The fact is, the American obsession with thinness is at an alarming all-time high. Twenty years ago, the average fashion model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; she weighs 30 percent less today. No wonder most of us with shapely bodies feel like failures. "Sometimes I think, not only do I live in the wrong country, but I was born in the wrong era," Spanier says, noting that she probably would have been a hit in a time when our reigning goddesses had names like Lana and Marilyn . . .
The same is true in Germany. Just wander into the local sauna in any German town or village, or visit the baths at Baden-Baden, and you'll find buck-naked men and women--large and small--unselfconsciously seated next to one another. And in Ireland, where the average woman wears a generously cut size 12 to 14, women don't torture themselves over their weight.
Then there's food. In Europe, meals are deeply pleasurable experiences--not the highly charged, guilt-inducing affairs they often are in the United States. If I order a substantial meal in a restaurant, I feel as though I'm committing a felony: eating openly and lustily in public. But in Europe, food is meant to be savored, and women--get this--are actually encouraged to eat.
"I'm always amazed at how much people eat, especially in Italy," says Pamela Terry, author of Around the World: A Postcard Adventure. "It would be insulting to eat tiny portions," she explains, marveling at the number of courses even petite women manage to consume. What's more, "Italian men relish watching a woman enjoy her food," Repassy points out, and notes that eating in Italy is considered an erotic experience. "Every night, the cooks would gather enthusiastically around my table and watch me eat my way through several courses."
And, she adds, "I never paid for a single dessert."
The article reminds us that Mode's most effective "plan of attack" in its secret war against the modern world was to challenge the values of that world with alternative values from another culture. However, unlike our own project, which challenges the minimalist modern ethos by contrasting it with the aesthetic values that were dominant in every era prior to our own, Mode challenged the androgynous standard by contrasting it with the aesthetic values that are still held today, in every other part of the globe.
Below is a "spliced" scan of a two-page editorial image which appeared in the same issue of Mode that featured the "'Round the World" article. The image includes these bold and inspiring cut lines:
Getting undressed for every occasion
Summer is about freedom in and from clothes--when more skin and less fabric is the season's best look. Like Andrea Jovine's long, ribbed summer staple skirt, with a scarf tied and rolled to taste (here: very spicey).
Now that's the subversive, steamy, body-loving attitude that has been glaringly absent in every plus-size magazine since Mode folded. Tragically, even the latter issues of Mode itself lacked this tone, once the magazine changed editors. And the image does prove the point of the "'Round the World" article rather nicely, doesn't it? A size-14 full-figured model (Gabi Fuhrig, nee Possman) not only baring her midriff, but even wearing a bikini top, making the heart of every young man in the vicinity beat wildly with desire--that's the kind of fantasy that a magazine for plus sizes can and should be generating.
We will yet have a media that presents North American women with this ideal--with this timeless, natural, feminine ideal--which remains undimmed across time and space.
(Click image to view at a larger size.)