(Originally posted on the Judgment of Paris Forum, September 19, 2004.)
It may seem a bit irregular to cite a straight-size
model's images in order to make a point about the plus-size
fashion industry, but please, bear with us.
The following is a Guess advertisement featuring Ford model Sarah Mutch.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about it, really--a thin model promoting pricey fashions and accessories. If it catches the eye at all, it could be because the model is more attractive than most fashion waifs. Her face has a generally round shape, instead of the pinched, sunken-cheeked appearance so common to anorex-chic girls.
But informed viewers will know that there is "more than meets the eye" to this ad, because the model in question is a size 10, and, in the insane world of fashion, that actually puts her on the borderline between straight- and plus-size modelling.
In fact, Sarah Mutch has a foot on both sides of the divide. At Ford Miami and Chicago, she is (absurdly) listed in the Twelve Plus division, while at Ford Toronto, with exactly the same measurements and size listing, she is more reasonably featured on the straight-size board.
But it not Ms. Mutch's quasi-plus status that compels us to feature her in this essay. Sarah is in no way full-figured, and, in fact, represents the smallest size that any model should ever be. (Anything less is simply anorexia-inducing.)
Rather, this model is relevant to the topic of this forum because she embodies a look that is still glaringly absent from plus-size modelling. And for size celebration to take another step forward in reforming cultural aesthetics, this look must find representation within the full-figure fashion industry.
And what, exactly, is this "missing look"? To identify it more precisely, let's consider another image of Sarah Mutch. This is from a swimwear editorial in the July/August 2004 issue of Brentwood Magazine.
Again, this type of image will be familiar to everyone, since photographs such as these permeate the mass media. Sarah displays the exotic qualities that are characteristic of Victoria's Secret models, Sports Illustrated swimwear waifs, Maybelline metallic lipstick presenters, etc. This is the look of the "wild ingenue," the dangerous seductress, the temptress who enjoys the night life, the "party scene," and specializes in stealing men's souls--or rather, the temptress to whom men give their souls willingly, even eagerly, hoping that the goddess will accept their tribute.* * *
There is more to this brand of modelling than sheer seductive beauty. There is also a measure of craft involved. Again, to use the example of Sarah Mutch, consider the following description of the model's technique, from an informative article (linked below) that appeared in Vancouver Magazine at the beginning of her career:
She looks straight into the camera with no apparent expression, but with an intensity that could melt ice.
What the writer is describing is the "Victoria's Secret" stare--an indescribable mix of desire, sensuality, hunger, and a dozen other qualities, all combined into a gaze that has palpable force.
And if you think that this look, and an awareness of its effect, is a relatively recent discovery, consider the following passage from Joseph Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), in which he describes the young heroine of the tale, and how she captivates her male quarry:
She drew back her head and fastened her eyes on his in one of those long looks that are a woman's most terrible weapon; a look that is more stirring than the closest touch, and more dangerous than the thrust of a dagger, because it also whips the soul out of the body, but leaves the body alive and helpless, to be swayed here and there by the capricious tempests of passion and desire; a look that enwraps the whole body, and that penetrates into the innermost recesses of the being, bringing terrible defeat in the delirious uplifting of accomplished conquest. It has the same meaning for the man of the forests and the sea as for the man threading the paths of the more dangerous wilderness of houses and streets. Men that had felt in their breasts the awful exultation such a look awakens become mere things of to-day--which is paradise; forget yesterday--which was suffering; care not for to-morrow--which may be perdition. They wish to live under that look for ever.
We have seen plus-size models who are the full-figured equivalent of straight-size couture models, of straight-size "lifestyle" models, of straight-size "mature" models, of straight-size junior models, etc. But we have not yet seen the full-figured equivalent of the ingenue model, the temptress who possesses the qualities that Joseph Conrad describes in such heated detail.
There have been some precursors--particularly Barbara Brickner. Her legendary swimwear layout in Mode, photographed by Michel Arnaud, certainly exhibited some of these traits, as did her Douglas B. test, and her French Riviera shoot for Elena Miro in 2000. But a size-18 succubus in Sports Illustrated beach attire--this we have not yet seen.
Some individuals may object to the existence of this category of modelling altogether, and credit plus-size modelling for not venturing into this territory. These same individuals tend to protest the Victoria's Secret show, not because it idealizes emaciation, but because it is too "racy." And while one could counter such a reaction by saying that there are more consequential issues in the world that deserve public protest than a catwalk extravaganza, one cannot deny that this puritanical attitude is a part of the society in which we live.
However, for the benefit of size celebration--which is a noble and just cause--we must all put aside our prudishness, and approach the issue more pragmatically. And from a practical, strategic standpoint, the simple fact is that by resigning this field--the field of "ingenue modelling"--to the straight-size industry, size celebration deprives itself of a crucial opportunity to reform cultural aesthetics.
And why is this category so important?
Because the media has taught the majority of society, both men and women, to understand feminine desirability in these terms. Models like Sarah Mutch, and her even-thinner counterparts, enact a type of modelling that profoundly affects both men and women. It tells men, "This is the type of beauty that you should desire most," and it tells women, "This is the type of beauty that attracts men most." And for better or worse, many people believe it.
But this aesthetic challenge to the plus-size industry also provides it with a terrific opportunity, for when a model finally appears who possesses these seductive qualities, and who is genuinely full-figured (not faux-plus, nor musclebound, but with a soft, naturally curvaceous physique), she will compel society to reevaluate its paradigm of feminine beauty. She will turn the power of the media against itself; or rather, redirect its energy into promoting a size-positive ideal.* * *
The question then arises, "Since the seductive power of the 'ingenue model' is so obvious, why has she not yet appeared in a curvaceous form? Why has the plus-size industry never embraced her?"
Of the many possible explanations, the most persuasive is the simple fact that the industry has not yet fully acknowledged the market to whom such a model appeals.
The fashion world--governed by its own anti-plus bias, and by Hollywood propaganda--has hitherto operated on the assumption that size-18 seductresses simply do not exist. And the result has been a complete absence of modelling opportunities for fuller-figured girls who have the Sarah Mutch look. Agencies have therefore elected not to sign models who possess beauty of this nature. And as a result, when companies finally do come along intending to market more sensual attire for plus-size women, they can find no appropriate models to showcase their wares.
It is yet another catch-22 conundrum in an industry that is rife with such problems.
But on planet Earth, rather than planet Hollywood, curvaceous seductresses do exist. They live wild lives, they are courted by hordes of male admirers, and they are always on the lookout for enticing fashions that will heighten their allure.
And soon, in the very near future, some savvy fashion gurus will discover this overlooked market. And when they do, these clients will need models to whom their target market can relate. Models who have a "seductive look"--and seductive figures to match. Models with the appearance of Sarah Mutch--but at a genuinely full-figured size.
Let us only hope that when this happens, the plus-size modelling industry will be there, ready with talent to meet their needs. And the images that those curvaceous Victoria's Secret models of the future create will finally transform society's view of feminine beauty, once and for all.
- ''14 and Three Quarters''