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Old 14th October 2006   #1
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default ''Figure It Out'': The good, the bad, and the . . .

(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, June 15, 2004.)

Before you look through a copy of Charming Shoppes' new "style guide" titled Figure It Out, ask yourself the following question:

What sort of plus-size "style guide" would someone write who didn't like the fuller female figure? Someone who couldn't bear the sight of curvaceous limbs? Someone who found any trace of softness on a woman's figure an unsightly "flaw"? Someone who accepted the media dogma that "skinny is beautiful, and plus is not"?

What sort of fashion advice would they give to full-figured women?

We will revisit this question presently . . .

* * *

Like everything else that the Figure team produces, their new book of fashion advice is simultaneously a great triumph, and a profound disappointment.

To give Figute It Out its proper due, we will evaluate it according to three different criteria:

(a) its quotient of images of plus-size beauty,
(b) the overall quality of its "production values," and
(c) as an actual "style guide" (which is its ostensible raison d'etre).

The first category is, naturally, the most important gauge of any creation of the plus-size fashion industry, because deprogramming the public of the thin-is-beautiful-and-plus-is-not mantra should always be the industry's foremost goal. And when it comes to displaying curvaceous beauty, Figure It Out succeeds beyond all expectations. Indeed, this book is an absolute must have for all plus-size model aficionados, and here are five reasons why:

1. Megan Garcia in swimwear,
2. Megan Garcia in lingerie,
3. Megan Garcia in closeup, with bare shoulders, and chandelier earrings,
4. Megan Garcia topless (with arms demurely clasped across her chest),

and finally . . . (brace yourselves . . . )

5. Megan Garcia . . . nude.

Yes, you read that correctly, and no, this is not a "trick," nor a tease. Among the dozens of stunning photographs of Megan Garcia in Figure It Out, the book actually does include a nude picture of this living goddess. And it is a more gorgeous image than you can possibly imagine.

To create this particular masterpiece, Figure It Out enlisted the services of Nadine Raphael, and in a testament to this photographer's talent, Ms. Raphael captured Mrs. Garcia's beauty in a way that is both artistically sincere, and breathtakingly gorgeous--a stand-alone masterpiece that nevertheless harmonizes with the rest of the book.

Megan's allure can scarcely be described in words. She looks like she stepped right out of a Rubens painting, or like Aline Charigot, the "Blonde Bather" whom Renoir immortalized in his eponymous 1881 canvasses.

In fact, nearly every image of Megan Garcia in Figure It Out is utterly divine, and in this respect, one can legitimately say that the book picks up where the original Mode left off, and takes the visual side of size celebration to a new level. Even in its most progressive years, Mode never showed a size-18 model in so many lovely ways.

But then again, Megan is unique--a model who is genuinely full-figured, but also perfectly proportioned, undeniably attractive, and blessed with a genuine flair for posing. One can only hope that the Figure team realizes what a star they have on their hands, and will make the most of her potential. (The fact that she appears on the cover of the current issue of the magazine is a very good sign.)

In many ways, Megan is the ideal plus-size model--one of those rare talents who can genuinely challenge, and change, public perceptions about size and beauty. No one can ever mistake her for a straight-size girl, but at the same time, no one can deny her allure.

* * *

So much for the good news . . .

If your only interest in Figure It Out is as an aficionado of plus-size modelling, then you will find it a rare treat. If your interests are more diverse, your reactions will be similarly mixed.

In terms of our second criterion--production values--Figure It Out is somewhat disappointing. The quality of the photography is neither good nor terrible, merely functional. (Less charitable readers might call it "workmanlike.") The creative team warrants praise for neither minimizing the size of the models, nor subjecting them to excessive airbrushing. But the book might have been more engaging if the shoot had taken place in an outdoor setting, or perhaps in some interesting locations.

On the other hand, the last two Figure covers, along with the "Three Faces of Spring" and "Flower Girls" editorials, indicate what a top-notch photographer can do with even a bare, monochrome backdrop. But the photography here is simply not on that level.

The outfits in Figure It Out are, for the most part, rather dull. What a shame that it lacks any examples of the "New Femininity" of the Spring/Summer 2004 season. Some ethereal, fitted, summery dresses would have provided a refreshing change from the book's parade of fashion basics.

* * *

Finally, as an actual, "style guide" Figure It Out is scarcely comprehensible. One could even call it an outrage, except it seems unlikely that many teens or twentysomethings (or thirtysomethings, for that matter) will take these schoolmarmish fashion prohibitions to heart. At times, the book almost reads like a parody of plus-size fashion rules, except that it is obviously meant to be taken "straight."

Now let's revisit our original question:

What sort of plus-size "style guide" would someone write who didn't like the fuller female figure? Someone who couldn't bear the sight of curvaceous limbs? Someone who found any trace of softness on a woman's figure an unsightly "flaw"? Someone who accepted the media dogma that "skinny is beautiful, and plus is not"?

What sort of fashion advice would they give to full-figured women?

Answer: they would write a book that tried to re-frumpify plus-size fashion--a book that told full-figured women to "cover up"--to "downplay" their figures--to "hide" their supposedly unsightly bodies from public view--to disguise "even the slightest bulge," and conceal "even slightly" curvaceous limbs.

Alas, these are exactly the sort of guidelines that Figure It Our offers.

It is not even possible to compare this book's fashion credo to Mode's, because--in terms of its style suggestions--Figure It Out is so far behind Mode that it seems to have been written decades earlier. The advice here is so backward-looking that one is compelled to check the book's copyright page to determine whether the publication date really is 2004 . . . or 1974.

In fact, when it comes to style choices, Figure It Out is basically anti-Mode. It seems bent on depriving full-figured women of every iota of body confidence they have acquired over the past ten years. It encourages its readers to feel bad about their figures, and to cover up every part of their bodies--except, possibly, their forearms and ankles.

(Does that sound like a joke? Well, it isn't. There really is a page in Figure It Out which says that seeing a woman's calves--her calves!--is "too much of a good thing," and that women should wear slacks down to their ankles.)

In case you're wondering--no, Queen Victoria was not one of the co-authors of this book, nor was is published by Mennonites. In fact, if Figure It Out took the stance that all women should "cover up," then at least one could respect its position (even if one didn't agree with it), because its advice would be based on a conservative, but size-neutral aesthetic doctrine.

But that is not the position of Figure It Out at all. The book is entirely based on the premise that fuller bodies and curvaceous limbs are not attractive, and therefore, ought to be hidden away from public view.

The book doesn't even adopt a "live and let live" policy, maintaining that some people might prefer the plus aesthetic, and that others might prefer the skinny aesthetic. Rather, it operates on the belief that any trace of softness or fullness on a woman's body is a "problem" that needs to be covered up.

"Cover." "Hide." "Downplay." There are pages and pages of this kind of appalling and offensive "advice." Even mainstream magazines like Glamour no longer dispense curve-loathing suggestions such as this. In fact, for all of its (many) flaws, Glamour has lately been telling its plus-size readers to show off at least one body part, to display at least one example of their curves. And needless to say, Mode prompted its readers to love every part of their bodies--especially those areas that are visibly curvaceous.

True, Figure It Out includes a number of good points of fashion advice--but only those that have nothing to do with size (e.g., making sure a bra isn't visible through a thin blouse, or not wearing open-toed shoes with full-length pantyhose). Otherwise, Figure It Out makes it seem as if Mode and Emme never happened; as if we were still stuck in those peculiar middle decades of the 20th century, when curvaceous women were ashamed of the fact that they didn't have stick-thin limbs, and tried to bury themselves in as much fabric as possible.

And as a final irony, the book's own images sabotage its message. It includes text with disparaging references to "heavy" or "ample" arms, for example--and then shows pictures of models whose arms are absolutely gorgeous--gorgeous to anyone, that is, except heroic-chic-loving Vogue or Elle staffers.

* * *

So why would any book take such a size-negative stance? Four theories come to mind. Two are unlikely. Two others are more plausible.

The most cynical theory posits that this is an effort by Charming Shoppes to persuade its customers to purchase dull clothing instead of exciting clothing. But that is (to say the least) extremely improbable.

The second theory suggests that this is an attempt to drum up sales through "controversy." But that is also quite doubtful. After all, the mainstream media agrees with Figure It Out's curve-hiding policies. If Figure It Out wanted to cause a commotion, adopting a size-positive stance would have been a much better way.

That third possibility is based on the "target demographic" factor. If Figure It Out is targeting an older audience--baby-boomers and up; i.e., generations of women who were taught to be ashamed of their naturally full figures--then perhaps its creators believe that curve-o-phobia is what those readers want to hear. But how sad if this is the case! Instead of challenging media-indoctrinated size negativity, Figure It Out's fashion advice merely reinforces this prejudice.

The final possibility is that the creative team genuinely believes what it writes--i.e., that they have internalized media brainwashing about size and beauty to the point that skinny body parts really do seem preferable to curvaceous body parts, and that the beauty of soft limbs and generous proportions no longer "registers" on their aesthetic radar.

But if this is the case, then why would anyone with such aesthetic beliefs wish to be involved in the plus-size fashion industry? It would be like someone who preferred the plus aesthetic going into the straight-size fashion biz, and proceeding to advise thin women to "cover up those scrawny arms," and to "hide those jutting ribs."

What would be the point?

Given the opportunity to write a book about plus-size fashion, why would anyone not encourage readers to love their figures, and to delight in showing them off?

That certainly was Mode's approach . . .

* * *

In the end, Figure It Out cannot be called size positive. Quite the opposite. But at the same time, it does contribute to size celebration, because it includes many lovely images of a beautiful size-18 model (which is something that the media never allows the public to see).

Let us simply hope that Figure It Out's positive images will make a more powerful and lasting effect on its readers than its negative attitude.

Megan Garcia joining Barbara in the ranks of the loveliest swimwear models of all time--from Figure It Out:

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