In which we ask:
Where did the plus-size industry get the absurd idea that the way to make full-figured women buy clothing to dress
their bodies was to imply that they should dislike
their bodies?* * *
One of the long-standing goals of this site is to cultivate a more size-positive discourse. The vocabulary and manner of expression that we adopt surprises many first-time readers, some of whom have never reflected on the size-negative biases that pervade the modern world. Curve-o-phobia is so ubiquitous in our culture that it passes by unnoticed. Anti-plus value judgments are so routine that they seem inevitable--like the weather, or like geologic forces. No other world-view seems possible.* * *
Consider the difference between these two propositions:
"Tectonic plates shift over time" describes an objective phenomenon of nature.
"Clothes look 'better' on emaciated, corpse-like bodies" merely describes a subjective, unnatural aesthetic bias.
Yet both of these propositions are held to be equally self-evident. The latter contention has been so deeply embedded in people's minds that it is accepted as unquestionably as the former, though it is merely a subjective, changeable assessment.
One would think, however, that just as the plus-size fashion industry constitutes an island of size celebration amid a sea of anorexia-worship, a lone environment in which a counter-aesthetic prevails, so would this industry offer a bastion of body-loving discourse, where curve-hating value judgments are set aside and where anti-plus commentary is replaced by pro-curvy utterances and size-positive statements.
But that is not the case.
If one were to examine the textual material that the plus-size industry generates, from the captions that promote fashion items to the articles that describe styling options, one would think that the copywriter was Anna Wintour.
The plus-size industry's promotional text could hardly be less size-positive if it were penned by the most weight-bigoted, pro-anorexic, size-0-worshipping Vogue editors. Most full-figured fashion writing sounds as if it were written by people who viscerally dislike the curvy female body and want plus-size women to feel likewise.
In a way, this is not surprising, for a reason that we discussed in our post titled "Tone Deaf": Many of the individuals who work in full-figured fashion did not find their way into this industry because of a lifelong passion for curvaceous beauty or because dealing with plus sizes was their everlasting dream. No, their passion was to be part of the straight-size establishment. It's where they always wanted to work and still do. In many cases, they took a job in the plus-size sector simply because one became available, and upon entering this field, they brought with them their minus-size aesthetic bias, their preference for skinniness and antipathy to visible fullness. This ambivalent attitude pervades their curve-o-phobic copywriting as much as it shapes their faux-plus model choices.
Consider, at random, some of the appalling text that is ostensibly used to sell plus-size fashion. We loathe using negative commentary and don't wish to belabour the point, so a few examples should suffice.* * *
One recent ad promotes apparel on the basis of its . . . "tighter tummy" properties.
You've got to be kidding.
Is this a fashion promotion or an ad for gym torture? Implicit in that phrase is the assertion that a "tighter" tummy is better than a softer tummy--which is a fine way to repel women who don't have "tight" tummies and to make them feel bad about themselves. Such an ad will sooner have potential customers incarcerating themselves in gym prisons than buying clothing.
Another ad flogs a "minimizer" to "smooth" the body.
Huh? "Minimizing" equals "making smaller," thus indoctrinating in women the assumption that a "smaller" body, a "minimized" body, is better than a maximal body. This will not make someone with a fuller physique feel that her body is sufficiently beautiful to spend her resources adorning. Rather, it will have her channelling her money into self-imposed starvation techniques.
The very name of one especially offensive product references a barbaric surgical procedure which disfigures the body. Can you even wrap your mind around the insanity of this scenario? Think about it: a product is being promoted to full-figured women on the basis that it replicates the effects of physical butchery. What is the idea here? A woman is supposed to feel good because, when she wears this product, her physique supposedly resembles a body has been carved up with a knife? "Get that sliced up look." "Feel as if you hated your body so much that you had yourself gashed open." Can self-hatred possibly find a more acute expression than when physical dismemberment is assumed to be preferable to natural fullness? It's utter madness.
Lingerie promotions take anti-plus assumptions to a new low. Intimate apparel is being sold to women on the basis that they should covet garments that "slim" and "flatten" their bodies, because they supposedly "don't want to bring attention to their rear view." Only a pro-anorexic Anna Wintour-type could think like this. And as if that weren't bad enough, here too one finds a reference to hating the waist, and another appropriation of the language of surgical butchery--as if achieving a disfigured look were a self-evidently desirable goal. What woman will ever consider herself lingerie-ready if she is told that the function of lingerie is to disguise her apparently unsightly figure? The industry might as well go all the way and plug intimate apparel as "Lingerie that helps to hide your hateful body." The very point of lingerie is to exhibit the figure, not to erase it from view, and if a plus-size woman is told that her body is a collection of problem areas that need obscuring, she won't buy intimate apparel in the first place.
The text that appears in plus-fashion advice columns is no better than the industry's ad copy. Right after identifying exciting fashion trends, an "expert" will inform curvy readers that such items are supposedly not appropriate for them (!)--that instead of wearing, say, animal-print dresses, they should hide themselves in something black. "Because of course," such demeaning statements imply, "the skinny girls can wear anything, but you can't, you hideous thing; try to wear something camouflaging, so that the rest of us don't have to see too much of you."
Even ostensibly innocuous fashion advice delivers backhanded compliments. "If you have nice legs . . ." begins a description of fashionable legwear. "If"? So in other words, some legs are not "nice"? Which legs might those be? What a fine way to make every full-figured woman second-guess her legs and to keep her from buying anything leg-baring, for fear that her legs might fall into the no-so-nice category, which she has just been informed exists.
On and on and on it goes.
"With friends like these . . ."
Full-figured women complain, rightly, about the mixed messages that permeate the celebrity media. But the plus-fashion industry's promotional text is often just as bad, in its valourization of the emaciated look and in its subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) put-downs of visibly curvy bodies.
In fact, curve-ambivalent plus-industry ad copy is even worse than celebrity media, in its overall effect, because at least a full-figured woman can look upon a ridiculed celebrity as a "them," as someone other than herself. But full-figured fashion text is directed squarely at the reader. "Now they're talking about me," the curvy woman thinks, when she reads about body parts that supposedly need to be hidden and disguised because they're oh-so-unsightly. "I'm the one with the flaws," she despairs.
How is such text supposed to promote plus-size fashion? What woman will lavish money on clothing to adorn her body when she has been led to believe that her body is repellent? To spend money on herself, a woman has to feel that she deserves it. Curve-o-phobic text from the plus-size industry tells her that she does not deserve it.
Contrast this scenario to the state of the minus-size fashion industry. Underweight women have the entire media telling them, in words and pictures, that their scrawny, cadaverous frames are attractive. Unsurprisingly, these women then go off and spend billions of dollars on clothing--a far greater percentage of their income than do plus-size women.
Wouldn't the obvious conclusion be that telling customers that their bodies are gorgeous and ideal sells clothing better than telling them that their bodies are problems that need to be hidden, disguised, minimized, and artificially deformed?
If emaciated women were told how malnourished they look, they wouldn't spend a dime on fashion, because they'd believe that their corpse-like frames were unsightly. They'd buy the minimum apparel necessary to get by, and devote the rest of their disposable income to other items that make them feel better about themselves.
In short, given that:
Skinny women buy clothing because the industry tells them that their skinny bodies look good in everything.
The obvious corollary is:
Plus-size women would buy clothing if the industry told them that their plus-size bodies look good in everything.
If the full-figured industry wants its customers to spend as much money on fashion as do minus-size women, then it should make plus-size women believe that plus-size bodies are superlatively gorgeous, rather than giving them mixed messages and subtle put-downs.
How can this be done?
Easy. Reject every single bit of text relating to plus-size fashion that implies, in even the subtlest way, that anything "smaller," "skinner," "tinier," "tighter," or "tauter," is in any way better than "fuller," "curvier," "larger," or "softer." Turn that thinking right around, invert it 180 degrees, and operate on the premise that plus is ideal--yes, that plus is preferable
to a caved-in, hollowed-out, minimized, sallow look.
Deploy text that entices full-figured women to prefer soft curves to flat surfaces. To adore fleshy fullness, not bony narrowness. To love sleeveless styles, because they exhibit luscious arms. To snap up figure-fitting, body-baring fashions, because they showcase their flawless, well-fed physiques.
Let this image of Katherine Roll (MSA Models, size 18) be the industry's guide. Every copywriter for plus-size fashion should internalize the ideal that this portrait represents, and craft words that instil this identity in their customer base. The model's ravishing gorgeousness and seductive self-adoration speaks volumes: She knows that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, that nothing is too good for her, that she deserves to have anything she wants--and that she deserves to want the best of everything.
She feels entitled to the most attractive fashions. She believes that any designers would be lucky if she wore their creations. She knows that every Victoria's Secret or Sports llustrated
model wishes she could look like her. She is a starlet, the centre of attention, flawless in every detail.
A woman as gorgeous as this (or, in the case of the average plus-size customer, a woman who aspires to be as gorgeous as this), will devote her disposable income to adorning herself in fashions of every sort.
Size celebration isn't just a noble cause and a social boon. It also makes good business sense.
After many years, the plus-size industry is finally creating pictures of aspirational plus-size beauty. Now it needs the words to go with them.
- Katherine Roll: MSA Models portfolio