Or, "How things can get worse even as they seem to get better."
As of today, December 12th, this site celebrates its 11th anniversary online. In Web years (which are rather like dog years), that is an epoch, and we have watched many entities, both online and in print, come and go in that interval.
We tend to use our anniversary posts as opportunities to express stray thoughts and reflections, so this evening, let's try a thought experiment.
Imagine for a moment that it is 11 years ago today. You are someone in the fashion or media elite who is fanatically committed to preserving the media's androgynous, emaciated standard of appearance for women.
Your greatest contempt, obviously, is reserved for Classical femininity--i.e., for the full-figured ideal of beauty, over a size 14, which is characterized by a soft physique, round face, a full waist, generous limbs, etc.
You find the rise of the "plus-size model" frightening. Nothing could be more appalling to you: attractive women in size 16+ who benefit from all of "your" techniques (clever photography, cosmetics, lighting, etc.), whose images are proliferating, who are reintroducing the public to the long-suppressed timeless ideal of full-figured femininity--an ideal that you had considered long since vanquished.
You are committed to suppressing this traditional vision of beauty--whether because of your biologically determined aesthetic opposition towards such visible characteristics of womanliness, or because of your political antagonism towards this Old World, feminine manner of appearance and all that it stands for.
So how will you do it? How will you keep full-figured beauty from returning to cultural prominence? This troublesome fashion category of the "plus-size model" (a veritable contradiction in terms, in your eyes) is a real threat to your aesthetic hegemony.
The category cannot simply be erased--because your powers, while pervasive, are limited to working within the capitalist system.
Then, the solution hits you.
If you can't eliminate the existence
of the plus-size-model category, what you can do is . . . diminish it. Negate its subversive effect. Nullify it. Whittle it down to something closer and closer to your preferred, modern standard of appearance until it is no longer Classical, no longer timeless and traditional, no longer a reproach to your aesthetic.
No longer a threat.
But how to do this?
Simple. First, you shrink the size of "your" models--the skinny, modern models--from a size 8, to a 6, to a 4, to a 2, to a 0.
Then (you hope) the plus-size modelling industry (which is ahistorically unconscious of its separate identity, and still blindly looks up to "your" standard as the superior brand of beauty) will follow suit.
And over the course of the next 11 years, that's exactly what happens. The standard size of the plus-size model diminishes from a 16, to a 14, to a 12, to a 10, to an . . . 8.
Suddenly, there are
no more plus-size models--at least not in the most subversive sizes, now with most traditionally feminine looks. They don't exist.
Oh, there are still some women in the fashion industry who are categorized as "plus-size models," but their dimensions have shrunk so much that they are now the same size as the straight-size models of the past--the same size that you originally found acceptable for your androgynous standard (!). Now the so-called "plus-size models" are really just straight-size models, merely under a different label.
And those troublesome size 16, 18s, etc.--the gorgeous models with the Old World beauty, who were threatening your aesthetic, who were in danger of bringing back the Classical ideal that you recognize as your greatest enemy--they have been eliminated, driven out of the industry, replaced by straight-size-models-who-are-mislabeled-plus-size-models. Faux-plus models.
It all has a sick, twisted kind of brilliance, doesn't it?* * *
Let's examine that same scheme by way of an analogy. Let's say that two types of water are available to the public. One, Type A, is 50 percent tainted with a narcotic that poisons the mind. The other type of water, Type P, is perfectly healthy, and has no tainted content in it at all.* * *
(This narcotic, of course, represents "the emaciated look that brainwashes women into starving away their femininity"--i.e., the negative cultural and physical effect of the underweight model, which is so damaging that it really could be considered a toxin. Type A for "anorexia," Type P for "plus-size.")
But you are a peddler of the tainted water. You have a stake in making sure that people remains drugged up with the toxic substance that the Type A water contains. You only want the public to be drinking the poison water, the type of water that is 50 percent tainted.
You don't want the good water, the water that is poison-free, to be available to the public because if it is, that's what people will end up preferring. They'll stop drinking your tainted water, choose the healthy water, and your hold over the public will be gone.
Your predicament seems dire. But you have one advantage: most people still believe that your tainted water is better--even the people who make the healthy water. After all, you've been at this game for a long time, and your brand recognition is strong.
So, what do you do? How do you eliminate the availability of the poison-free water?
Your solution is ingenious.
You put more poison in your bad water, raising the taint in Type A to 60 percent, then to 80, until it's 100 percent poison.
The people peddling the good water realize this, and because your water has "quality" status (however undeserved), they increase the poison content in their water, Type P, to match. The more you increase the taint in your water, the more they increase the taint in theirs. From 0 percent poison, the taint in their formerly pure water increases to 10 percent, then 30, until finally it reaches 50 percent taint--which is exactly the same amount of mind-warping narcotic as your "bad" water originally contained.
Now, here's the real brilliance of your strategy: That 50-percent-tainted product is still called the "good" water. It's still called Type P, even though its goodness is now half-diluted. It now has as much poison in it as your toxic water originally had, 11 years ago. The Type P of today is as bad as the Type A of 11 years ago. But because it is out there, and still labelled "good," it prevents anyone from coming out with a new, wholly untainted water, a new Type P, one that is as toxin-free as the "good" water was initially.
And you, the poison peddler, you've won. You don't care if people drink this faux-good water, because it actually has just as much narcotic taint in it as was in your initial concoction. It achieves the same deleterious effect that you original poison water did. People's minds are still warped just the way you want them to be. You can live with that.
The important thing is that the truly good water, the wholly untainted kind, has now been eliminated. It is no longer available as an option. If the public wants to drink anything (and how can it stop?), it can only either drink the water that is 100 percent tainted, Type A, or 50 percent tainted, Type P. The kind that is wholly good no longer exists.
Is this what could happen to plus-size modelling? Let's hope not. But precisely this kind of effect threatens to ruin the plus-size industry completely, watering it down until it simply reinforces, rather than challenges, the modern, androgynous, underweight standard.* * *
On the up side, we are all cheered by the existence of gorgeous and genuinely full-figured models who do represent the timeless ideal. In many ways, the industry has improved greatly in this regard. Eleven years ago, who was there? Shannon Marie, of course, as a teen model whose career was just beginning, as well as Barbara Brickner, and a few others. Now there are many more (although Shannon's absence is keenly felt).
But the most visible print-industry and runway "successes" of plus-size modelling today are extremely problematic, because they usually exhibit the watering-down effect noted above.
Simply grouping ever-more straight-size models into the "plus" category by reducing the size standard means that the subversiveness of plus-size modelling is diminished, even eliminated. True plus-size models who embody traditional beauty are driven out, and models whom the pushers of the androgynous modern standard find acceptable are welcomed in, because the elites know that these models represent no challenge to their aesthetic hegemony.
Is it more beneficial to size-celebration to have attractive size-18 models in plus-size commercial catalogues, or size-8 models doing "edgy" editorial work? The former, of course. Whatever the limitations of the clothing, at least those images of genuinely full-figured goddesses can implant in people's minds the subversive idea that "full-figured is beautiful," because they show the models actually looking plus, and looking gorgeous. The latter example does the opposite. It simply reinforce existing standards.
Or think of it this way. Let's say that someone created a fan size celebrating size-6 and size-8 models. What difference does it make if, 11 years ago, those models would be called straight-size, and now they would be called plus-size, just because the size standards have changed? They're still the same models; their underweight sizes are just as pernicious, just as damaging. The same negative effect that a size-6/8 model like Cindy Crawford would have had 11 years ago is the same negative effect that such a model would have today, regardless of the fact that she would be labelled "straight-size" a decade ago, and "plus-size" today.
Those size 6s and 8s were condemned as damaging to women's health a decade ago, and the condemnation was correct. The fact that today, straight-size models are even worse, even more androgynous and emaciated, even more deleterious, doesn't change the fact that the Cindy Crawfords were a negative influence. Rebranding their sizes as "plus" doesn't change that.
You see now how our earlier analogy applies to this situation. The water has been tainted, and the more tainted it is, the less salutary it becomes. Just because it is still healthier than the 100 percent poisoned water (which represents th size-0 industry) doesn't change the fact that it is 50 percent poison (being faux-plus, or in other words, the straight-size of a decade ago).
The only truly noble goal in the push for the advancement of plus-size modelling is aesthetic restoration--the ability of full-figured models to revive Classical ideals of femininity; and, in the process, to improve women's body image. Failing that, it could end up doing as much damage as that which it is supposedly supplanting.
That's why, at this site, we resist posting about models who are under a size 14. It's not that there is anything wrong with them. But modelling is, in effect, a zero-sum game, and the more success that the faux-plus models have, the more they eliminate opportunities for genuinely full-figured models, models who are more subversive, more effective at challenging media standards, and can sooner restore the Classical ideal.
We don't want this post to be a downer. We generally avoid negative discussions (except in those cases where designers show themselves to be the weight bigots and thin-supremacists that they are). We prefer to celebrate advances in the restoration of true beauty. But an anniversary comes along only once a year, and sober second thoughts can be worthwhile.
Let us hope that in the future, we do see more images of plus-size models permeating mass consciousness, and that more of those models will be genuinely and visibly full-figured, and exhibit true, timeless beauty.
Lillian Russell, the well-fed ideal of a healthier culture:
- The Judgment of Paris Pinacotheca