Plus-size beauty is *rare*

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Posted by HSG on May 26, 2005 at 17:44:30:

When we recently commented on John Galliano's designs for the "Outsize?" project organized by Nick Knight, we quoted an excerpt from the project's textual introduction.

Although that particular excerpt was extraordinarily positive and insightful, we should also consider another passage from that introduction--one that is far more questionable.

This passage is significant because it invokes one of the more common arguments that are used to rationalize the suppression of plus-size beauty in the modern world.

The passage begins as follows:

Fashionable dress defines and delineates the body aesthetics of our time. Where once fine art or sculpture promoted the body beautiful, fashion now stands as the most prominent and potent arena for our expressions and fantasies of the ideal body . . .

This may be true enough--although the phrase "our time" implies that the physical ideal is mutable, whereas the true ideal of beauty is timeless.

But the introduction continues thus--and here is where the myth arises:

The ideal body is, by definition, rare: it is the body of dreams rather than reality and, when found, its value is generated from its preciousness.

Notice how the writer commodifies this ideal by applying the materialistic term "value" to it--value based on scarcity ("preciousness"). This is how modern materialism teaches us to appraise wealth, or capital--in terms of supply and demand. We are all so accustomed to assessing the world in a utilitarian way that we cannot transcend this mode of thinking, even when we speak of ideals.

But since we have already discussed how utilitarian thinking leads to a complete misunderstanding of the nature of beauty, let's consider that issue closed, and examine the particulars of this theory.

* * *

The premise that rarity in and of itself defines the ideal body implies that, in another time, women with fuller figures were not as plentiful as they are today, and that their rarity established them as the beauty ideal of the time. The theory similarly implies that thin women define the current beauty ideal because they are rarer today than they once were.

But this is complete nonsense.

First of all, there is no reliable way to gauge the precise size or weight of the general populace, in times gone by. Certainly the stereotypes of the "plump peasant" or the "buxom maiden" were present in many European societies prior to the twentieth century--societies in which the womanly ideal was full-figured.

Second, those individuals who work in the realm of contemporary high-street fashion are surrounded by emaciation. For them, there is nothing "rare" about extreme thinness. It is all around them, at every catwalk show they attend, and in every magazine they read. By the logic of the "ideal through rarity" theory, the fashion world should consider plus-size beauty the ideal, because in high-street fashion circles, it is so scarce as to be practically invisible.

In the Curve documentary, designer Richard Metzger famously recounted that some of his design peers claim that they "don't even know what a size 14 looks like." It is an absurd assertion on their part, but even if it were true, it would only confirm just how rare the full figure really is, in the fashion world. And this would establish the plus-size body as "the body of dreams rather than reality," in these circles, because the "body of reality" that these individuals usually confront is an undernourished one.

And third, thinness is not "rare" at all. Despite the claim of Mr. Metzger's peers, thinness is, obviously, all around is--in school, at work, or out on the town. Someone is buying all of those garments made in sizes 0-12.

And in those cases when thinness does become utterly skeletal (the genuinely rare cases), the public does not regard the bodies of these walking corpses as "the body of dreams" (as the above theory suggests that the should), but the body of . . . nightmares. While the spate of recent press coverage devoted to starving actresses such as Lindsey Lohan and Nichole Ritchie is obviously a publicity stunt, the ensuing discussion has revealed that the public generally reacts with horror to these celebrities' current images. This further confirms that the "preciousness" or "rareness" of their malnourished frames does not anoint them as any kind of ideal.

After all, circus sideshow acts possess "rare" bodies as well, but that rareness does not result in any kind of idealization.

* * *

Now, let's consider the flip side of this theory--i.e., the idea that plus-size beauty is somehow commonplace.

Even advocates of size "acceptance" inadvertently bolster this damaging myth. Take note of the caption that accompanied the Body Shop's seminal 1997 "Ruby" ad:

While the graphic is gorgeous, consider how the slogan actually undermines the power of the image.

There are three billion women who don't look like supermodels, and only eight who do.

The caption suggests that only eight (i.e., only an elite few) women in the world qualify for the "status" of a supermodel, and implies that everyone else is . . . a dime a dozen.

But watch what happens when we revise the caption, thus:

There are three billion women who don't look like supermodels, and only eight who do--and this is one of the eight.

Now, it is the doll's timeless beauty that becomes the uncommon ideal. And this revision is valid, because, after all, how many plus-size models are actually as beautiful as the doll in that Body Shop ad? Eight--or even fewer?

The fact of the matter is that plus-size beauty is rare.

(Remember, we are speaking of aesthetic beauty here.)

It is rare, because beauty itself is rare--as rare as artistic talent, or perfect pitch, or genius-level I.Q.

Why do you think that Barbara Brickner still remains the most popular and attractive brunette model that the industry has ever known? Why has there been no lasting successor to Shannon Marie's title as the loveliest fair-haired model the fashion industry has ever produced?

To be sure, there are many beautiful women in the world. But just as each generation only produces a few great poets, or a few great composers, so does each generation rarely give birth to beauty of such a magnitude that it can inspire artistic creation, and transform the human mind, and move the human heart.

Only a few plus-size models possess beauty to such a degree that they can make even the most blinkered, brainwashed, bigoted individuals stop dead in their tracks, dumbfounded, and begin to reassess their aesthetic conditioning. Only a few plus-size models can create images so undeniably gorgeous that they can settle any artistic argument. Only a few plus-size models define beauty in the ideal way that the Classical sculptors defined it, three millennia ago--so perfectly that the artistic world has been inspired by this example throughout human history.

So, to come back to the original premise:

The ideal body is, by definition, rare: it is the body of dreams rather than reality and, when found, its value is generated from its preciousness.

This theory actually works to the advantage of plus-size beauty, because plus-size beauty is rare, plus-size beauty is precious, and "body of dreams" is not the body of a dessicated runway waif, but the body that defined Classical ideal, which has guided human creation throughout history.

Remember this, the next time someone tries to rationalize media suppression of plus-size beauty on the basis of the supposed scarcity of thinness.

In fact, the theory should run thus:

The ideal body is, by definition, rare [and thinness is not rare]: it is the body of dreams rather than reality [and the human soul dreams of a voluptuous figure, not an emaciated one] and, when found, its value is generated from its preciousness [and plus-size beauty is very precious indeed].

Barbara Brickner, the true ideal of dreams, in one of the most gorgeous lingerie images ever created (for bridal-lingerie maker Carnival Creations):

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