(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, March 3rd, 2004.)
April is that "special" month of the year when three of the straight-size fashion industry's dominant magazines put out their annual "body issues," purportedly embracing "all shapes and sizes." Of the three, Marie Claire is usually the first out of the blocks, and this year is no exception.
Marie Claire tends to be considerably less progressive in its approach to "body love" than Glamour, and the magazine's attitude toward full-figured women can be downright insulting (as one its readers points out, in a letter to the editor). But at least Marie Claire stops somewhat short of Vogue's blatant hostility towards the plus aesthetic.
Along the sliding scale from size "tolerance" to "acceptance" to "celebration," the April Marie Claire fits into the first category--albeit barely. The issue conveys a staggering array of mixed messages, even to those of us who are used to this practice from any organ of the media. But if most "shape editions" are thinly-disguised advertisements for various diet companies, then this issue appears to be funded by exercise conglomerates. Instead of "Make the Most of Your Shape," the magazine's banner should read, "Make the Least of Your Shape"--or perhaps even, "Torture Your Shape the Most."
First, let us consider the few good items in the issue. The most size-positive element is, not surprisingly, the work of Valerie Lefkowitz--her wildly popular Fruit of the Loom "Fit for Me" ad. It has now been one year since this promotion debuted, and it has secured its place as one of the most vivid and memorable presentations of timeless femininity brought to life. Kudos to Fruit of the Loom for "invading" so many mass-market magazines with this gorgeously subversive image.
Next in line in the affirmation department is the "One Woman, Two Messages" story. We were initially rather skeptical about this project, in which a plus-size model was photographed in a "neutral pose," and presented with two different self-assessments about her body image--one affirmative, one negative. But the article offers many size-positive statements, and although it does not quite acknowledge the natural human preference for the Classical female figure, it does, at least, concede that beauty might not be contingent upon thinness. Here is a sampling of readers' reactions when the image was accompanied by an affirmative message:
"She's sexy because she has the guts to show herself in a way most women won't. Her confidence gives me confidence."
"She's sexy because she's the size of today's woman. She's not willing to conform to the little-boy shape. She makes me proud to be a woman."
"She looks feminine and beautiful. I'm not crazy about the outfit, but hey, that's just me."
"She is a goddess to behold. Nothing is more sexy than a voluptuous woman--and confidence goes a long way."
"You only see skinny women showing off their bodies on TV, but here, she's saying, "I'm like you, and I think I'm attractive." That's a positive thing to see.
And even readers who viewed the photograph accompanied by the negative self-assessment still considered the model "feminine and sensual," and acknowledged, "I'd be impressed with her body if I saw her on a beach."
The "I'm not afraid to flaunt it" story contains the only other truly progressive image in the magazine. Alisha may not have been photographed especially well here, but she does possess a lovely and genuinely plus figure, and the magazine deserves credit for using a 14+ model rather than a 10 or a 12, and for allowing said model to exhibit her curves. Compare Alisha's profile to that of the sticklet on the facing page, and the advantages of having womanly proportions becomes obvious.
And finally, if it is true that "Fashion is taking its cue from super-sexy, unabashedly curvy pinup girls"--as Marie Claire affirms in a single-page feature--then we have cause to celebrate--even though we have seen much curvier images of both Rita Hayworth, and of Marilyn Monroe.
Now, on to the negative features. The "Naked in a Magazine" story is a sound idea, but horribly executed. The notion of recreating iconic magazine images with women who do not possess waif-like figures is brilliant. However, by opting to use less-than-photogenic "real women" instead of professional plus-size models, Marie Claire missed an opportunity to create a genuinely subversive piece ("missed," or "deliberately avoided"). Readers looking at these unsuccessful recreations will recall the originals and think, "Sorry--the straight-size models were prettier," and they will attribute this (wrongly) to the latter's thinness. Because of this aesthetic mismatch, the article simply reinforces the deception that beauty and thinness go hand in hand. If the magazine had used photogenic plus-size models instead, then viewers' aesthetic assumptions would have been challenged--and possibly changed.
And we must question Marie Claire's extensive descriptions of the various forms of plastic surgery which so many of the "real women" in this article have apparently endured. Could the magazine have expressly selected "real women" who have had cosmetic surgery, so that readers would conclude, "I guess everyone's doing it" (i.e., going under the knife)? Is this another, rather devious method of advertising (akin to "product placement" in motion pictures)? If so, we submit another re-christening of the issue. Instead of "Make the Most of Your Shape," the title should read, "Unmake Most of Your Shape,"--or, at the very least, "Spend the Most on Your Shape."
The rest of this edition features pages upon pages (upon pages) of typical straight-size ads and editorials. One example is an amusing layout titled "Making Waves," which takes a page from Figure's book by showing the crew of a Navy warship joining a painfully malnourished model on a photo shoot. But let's be honest--this model is a far cry from Valerie Lefkowitz, and as a matter of fact, it is amusing to speculate about what might have happened if a plus-size model with killer curves had suddenly shown up on location during the photo shoot. The entire boatload of sailors would undoubtedly have "ditched" this anorexia victim, and make a beeline in the direction of the true goddess.
"The Body Electric" layout exhorts readers to "Show off your shape." But looking at the model in this story, one has to ask, "What shape?" To promote shape-conscious clothes, Marie Claire should at least have exhibited them on a plus-size model who actually has a shape, rather than on a waif who has none.
But ultimately, the real fault in the issue lies not in its minimal representation of plus-size beauty, but in the magazine's blind allegiance to the androgynous aesthetic. Even those stories which do refer to womanly curves display a severe and unreflective bias towards thinness. Indeed, it is not Marie Claire's readers who need a "body makeover" (surgical or otherwise), but the magazine's staff who require a "perception makeover."
The issue contains a slew of fashion articles that advocate minimizing, reducing, diminishing, and depriving, and equate the terms "flattering" and "slimming"--as per worn-out, curve-o-phobic "rules" about style. But progressive readers who realize that fashion should be about celebrating curves instead of hiding them can turn bad advice into good, simply by standing Marie Claire's fashion suggestions on their head. Thus inverted, the magazine's outdated restrictions become worthwhile tips on how to genuinely "make the most of your shape," such as:
-reveal a tummy
-highlight a waist
-dress 10 lbs. curvier
-accentuate sexy hips
-show off your arms
-emphasize luscious thighs
-flaunt your [well . . . you get the idea]
Instead of proffering so-called "figure fixers," Marie Claire needs to realize that a full figure needs no "fixing" at all, because it is beautiful just the way it is.
To end this review on a more serious note, we should assess the issue's most compelling statement, which appears in the rather imperialistic "Women's Ideal Bodies--Then and Now" story. Consider the following observation about the destruction of feminine beauty in China:
"With the rise of communism, femininity and softness were discouraged," Dr. Brownell explains. "A masculine ideal was associated with revolutionary fervor and was emulated because it is also associated with hard work, a communist ideal."
This fact will come as no surprise to readers of this forum. We have often noted how the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe made a concerted, forty-year-long attempt to vanquish all traces of beauty--feminine and otherwise--from the nations that they held in thrall. However, since Marie Claire obviously does understand the political basis of modern attempts to eradicate femininity, then we have to ask--why does it support that eradication, by insisting (with the fervour of the most intractable of commissars) that women should sentence themselves to gruelling torture regimens at their local gyms? Is this "communist ideal" (as Marie Claire identifies it) really what the magazine wants women to "aspire" to?
To take this line of thinking a step further, could this be the ultimate intent of mainstream fashion publishing--i.e., to take the aesthetic of a discredited, artificial, inhuman ideology, and dress it up and make it seem appealing (thanks to North American marketing savvy), in order to subtly legitimize the originating ideology? Or is the business imperative still paramount, and therefore, has this alien aesthetic been espoused primarily because it compels women to squander their resources on trying to attain it? Or (most frightening of all) could it be the result of an unwritten pact between these two forces, in which both parties attain their ends, regardless of the cost to the culture in general--to say nothing of the price in individual lives?* * *
In the end, prospective full-figured readers will glean little that is positive, and much that is negative, from this issue of Marie Claire. Anyone looking for a genuinely progressive approach to beauty is still directed to back issues of Mode magazine--or to coffee-table collections of Baroque paintings . . .
Ali C. (Wilhelmina), 14/16, on the cover of an Italian fashion/cosmetics/society magazine. The cover blurb roughly translates as, "More fullness--more beauty" (which is the message that "body issues" should be delivering).