The Lydian MODE

or, MODE Mattered (and Why It Really Did)

Lydian (lid´e en), adj. 2. (of music)
softly or sensuously sweet; voluptuous

From September to December of 1998, Simone Magnus contributed a series of messages the old “MODE Matters” bulletin board. These messages were quite popular, and drew praise from many of the contributors to the MODE forum. At the time, however, the MODE site did not archive past messages, so to keep these gems from vanishing forever, they have been given a page of their own, here. The eyeglasses symbol Look indicates messages that are particularly noteworthy.

More recently, the author of this Web site has had occasion to compose a number of reflections on plus-size beauty are also included here.

Simone Magnus:


A Radical MODE

[In response to a contributor who claimed that MODE is not political enough.]

I couldn't disagree with your comments more strongly.

By operating just the way it is, MODE is doing far more for women's self-esteem than any of the old, frankly embarrassing, “larger sizes” fashion magazines ever did.

How? By causing nothing less than a revolution in public perceptions of beauty.

Let's consider the “teenage girl” question you mention so dismissively. Every day of their teenage lives, plus-size girls are surrounded on all sides by “well-meaning” (but ill-doing) parents, teachers, and peers (not to mention the myriad elements of popular culture), with their outmoded ideals of “how women should look.” Each of these assaults them, constantly, with ridiculous notions of what attractiveness is.

In order to combat this, MODE must not take the “sour grapes” approach to beauty that is sometimes associated with “size acceptance” (i.e., the resentful attitude which tries to say, “oh, you're not beautiful, but don't worry, dear—you didn't want to be, anyway”). Quite the opposite!

Telling young girls that beauty is “unimportant” is based on a misguided approach to teenage psychology. Young girls know very well how important beauty is. Only by showing them images of unapologetically gorgeous plus-size models will these girls will finally be freed from their guilt. Seeing images of women who look like Sophie Dahl, or Kate Dillon, will do far more for their self-esteem than any psychological counseling, or resentment-driven rhetoric, ever will.

To this end, MODE's images of its models make a far more radical statement than just, “look, full-figured woman can be beautiful like Cindy Crawford.” What they say is, “Cindy Crawford can't hold a candle to us!” Instead of telling its audience that these models are beautiful despite being plus size, or that they are beautiful…and just happen to be plus size, MODE says that these women are beautiful because they are plus size.

That is a genuinely revolutionary message. And it is this very message that will appeal to young girls, if anything will. By learning to find pleasure in their natural appearance, young girls stand a better chance of avoiding the many self-destructive habits associated with ill-considered weight loss, such as sentencing themselves to painful exercise regimens, or suffering under agonizing diets (which leave them miserable at best, and anorexic at worst), or taking up smoking just to control their weight.

Now that they have MODE, plus-size teenage girls can tell their waif peers to eat their hearts out: “You've just been taught a lesson,” they can say. “Not only are plus-size girls happier, healthier, and more interesting than you are. They're also more beautiful than you can ever dream to be.”

And, as they mature, they will carry this newfound confidence with them, into adulthood.

So don't ever think that MODE isn't radical enough, or that it's taken the easy way out. Believe me, MODE is the most radical magazine on the racks, just the way it is.


Kelly vs. Kelly

[“Kelly C” had attacked “Kelly” because the latter had acerbically defended MODE’s choice of models.]

For “Kelly C”:

I can understand that you might disagree with Kelly's statements, but don't try to deflect attention away from her valid criticisms by telling her, “you have some issues you need to deal with concerning yourself.” You're not answering Kelly's criticisms, but merely attacking her motivations—especially by using emotionally-charged words like “rude” and “nasty.” That's no better than name-calling. Such tactics have shock value, but no substance. If Kelly follows your method, she can easily answer your statement, “If you are tired of the 26+ women complaining, then don't read those posts,” by saying, “if you are tired of MODE’s choice of models, then don't read the magazine.” And where will that get us? Nowhere.

Actually, your annoyance at Kelly's choice of wording merely prevents you from understanding some of the important points that she makes.

Kelly is absolutely correct when she points out that, before MODE, there was no magazine for anyone of her size. It was as if women of those sizes weren't supposed to exist. The situation was much like what we still see in Hollywood, where there are, as of yet, no “MODE girls” at all—and haven't been since the days of Anita Ekberg and Kim Novak. Actresses still look either like Wynona Rider or Roseanne, but with no one in between.

So a magazine for sizes 12-18 was long overdue.

You, and some other women, have been demanding more “diversity” among the MODE models, but remember that, in North America, diversity is not about “this doesn't represent everyone—so it must be changed.” (There have been other social and economic systems based on such a lowest-common-denominator premise, and, thankfully, those systems are no longer with us.) For years, people complained that Vogue should be forced to use plus-size models. Nothing came of it. But then some enterprising people decided to start MODE. What happened? Bang! Fashion revolution!

True diversity does not say, “your magazine doesn't represent me, so I'll force you to change.” True diversity says, “your magazine doesn't represent me, so I (or someone like me) will start one that does.” That is what real diversity, and real fairness, is all about.

MODE doesn't deserve criticism for the kind of magazine it is not. It deserves praise for the kind of magazine it is. And if it isn't the kind of magazine you want, start such a magazine yourself.

I am not just being flip when I say that. I am perfectly serious. And don't tell me, “it's impossible.” Three years ago, everyone would have said that MODE was impossible. Instead of complaining about MODE’s “12, 14, 16…” designation, launch a magazine with a “22, 24, 26…” banner. Believe me, no one will be sitting around waiting for such a magazine to fail, just to say, “See? I told you so.” Personally, I would love to see a “22, 24, 26…” magazine, and would read it with the same interest that I read MODE. But MODE is not that magazine.

Let Vogue have its waifs, let MODE have its size 16s, and let whoever wants size 26s get cracking.

And as for Kelly's point about the importance of selling magazines, consider this: what if MODE had started up as just another BBW-type magazine, and failed within its first year? Or, at best, limped along, selling not a tenth of the issues that it does now? Perhaps it would have been more “inclusive,” then. But it would also have been irrelevant to the general public—and the mainstream fashion industry would still have been the unique domain of Vogue, Elle, et al, with their ghastly heroic-chic waif models.

MODE, which displays at checkout counters in supermarkets, right beside People and Cosmopolitan, is doing far more to change societal perceptions of beauty than any politically-hypersensitive magazine tucked away in the last racks of downtown bookstores ever could. And it's doing so because of its sales.

What Kelly said may not have been “politically correct.” But it was accurate, all the same.

1998—early October

In Praise of “12, 14, 16…”

[This message pertains to an early debate on the forum. Some larger-size contributors felt that they were being “marginalized” by the “three dots” on the cover of MODE—that they were, in effect, being relegated to the status of a dot.]

I, for one, really like the “12, 14, 16…” blurb on the MODE cover. It was exactly what drew me to the magazine in the first place, since the model on the cover of the premier issue was not visibly plus size. And I especially like the ellipsis points (the three dots). Why? Because so many of the other fashion magazines (and the diet-industry propaganda they carry) imply that an “8, 6, 4…” progression in dress sizes is an admirable trend. By contrast, the “12, 14, 16…” blurb, which MODE places right there alongside its gorgeous cover models, suggests that those cover models may themselves have gone from size 12, to 14, to 16, and so on…and just look at how happy, healthy, and beautiful they are!

Think about it: a weight gain, with no apologies. A weight gain that one can (*gasp*) celebrate. That is a wonderful and inspiring message to be sending. MODE at its best!


Can You Believe This?

[This message is especially significant because a fragment of it is quoted in Amy Calabrese's “MODE Matters” column, in the January 1999 issue (p. 22). This proves that at least one MODE staffer glances at the Web site from time to time, since it is safe to assume that Ms. Calabrese—or another staff member—became acquainted with Amy Hunter's comments through this message.]

For those of you who've been complaining about MODE not being “inclusive” enough, I think you should read the following infuriating item, which I came across on a Web site called “The New Millennium.” It's called The A to Z of London Fashion by one Anita Hunter, and it sums up last year's English fashion trends (and tastes):

Weight—There's been a lot of controversy this year about the use of skinny models in catwalk shows and magazines. Big bottoms and rounded bellies may have been the feminine ideal in the Middle Ages but slim has been the shape that women have sought for most of this century. Wallis Simpson summed it all up when she said that “you could never be too rich or too thin.” But waif models with xylophone ribs have taken the obsession too far and 1997 has seen a bit of a backlash. Sophie Dahl, a statuesque size 14/16, 38DD was taken on by the Storm model agency and has graced numerous magazines and a number of catwalk shows. “The Clothes Show” launched a campaign for more realism amid concerns over the link between unrealistically thin models and the increase in eating disorders. Omega watches withdrew their advertising from Vogue in protest over the gauntness of the models. Vogue hit back with a fashion spread featuring the voluptuous Sara Morrison. Trussed in over-tight black jersey, she looked more like a Beryl Cook fat lady than a fashion diva. A rejection of unnaturally thin models must be a good thing but I don't think that we'll see too many larger ladies in our magazines or on the catwalk. After all, fashion is all about aspiration and few people aspire to be fat.

Can you believe that? That's the kind of asinine ignorance that MODE is up against. Fashion most certainly is about aspiration—aspiration towards beauty. But Hunter's attitude is that “beauty” and “weight” are mutually exclusive! So before MODE worries too much about “inclusiveness,” the most important thing it can do is show the world that weight can not only coexist with beauty, but even enhance it. Which is exactly what it's doing.

By the way, Sara Morrison is a goddess, and an appearance by her in MODE is way past due. In fact, that Sara Morrison Vogue fashion spread is the best argument that I know of against Hunter's assertions. You can find two pages of this layout at the Unofficial Sophie Dahl Web site. Decide for yourselves.


Sophie Dahl—Shrinking Violet?

[Quite a few contributors had posted messages expressing the hope that the lovely Sophie Dahl would someday grace the pages of MODE. And then…]

Those of you who've been clamouring to see Sophie Dahl between the covers of MODE will be disappointed by the following item, which was posted on the Web site of British Vogue. It's called “Sophie So Svelte,” dated September 18, 1998:

Helena Christensen may have been named Model of the Year, but it was Sophie Dahl who stole the show at the Elle Style Awards held in London last night. Sophie, who was quickly hailed as the Next Big Thing when she made her modelling debut in the Vivienne Westwood show last year, has since lost a stone [14lbs., or 6½kg] from the curves which made her name. And she proudly paraded her trim new figure in a snug red and black leaf-print dress at yesterday's ceremony. Her secret: three sessions a week sparring with celebrity trainer David Marshall—a.k.a. The BodyDoctor. “I feel so much better,” she gushed, as she pulled up to Awards show. “I'm back to a size 12. I'd love to lose more weight, but my size has become a public fixation. This isn't a fat or thin issue, it's just about looking the best I can by being healthy and toned.”

Miss Dahl has every right to look any way she wants, and no one can tell her otherwise. Still, her choice is truly regrettable. It's not the fact that she still equates being “toned” with being “healthy” that's so troubling (although that's quite debatable in itself), as the fact that she equates “looking the best” with being “back to a size 12.”

I for one (and I have surprisingly many male friends who concur) truly believe that Sophie looked better as a size 14/16. Moreover, what was so great about having her as one of Lane Bryant's “V-Girls” was the fact that teenage girls (ever the most vulnerable to diet-industry brainwashing) could always look at her and say, “See, she's full-figured, and she still drives the blokes wild!” Now, it seems, the message has reverted back to that old lie: “you won't really feel good until you start punishing away the pounds.”

Again, Miss Dahl can do whatever she likes, but let's hope that the young girls who've been drawing inspiration from her do not (because of her “apostasy”) lose their carefully gathered stock of self-esteem, but find it in other examples of plus-size loveliness. Or better yet, in the beautiful images that they could see in their own mirrors, if they would only dare to look.


Lillian Russell—MODE Beauty and Timeless Beauty

[Lillian Russell was featured in October, 1998.]

Flipping through the latest issue of MODE, I was delighted to see mention made of Lillian Russell, the original “American Beauty.” Any MODE readers who want to feel better about themselves should find out more about her, or at least dig up some old pictures. You'll be pleasantly surprised! I found a couple of books about her (Lillian Russell by Parker Morell, and Duet in Diamonds by John Burke) at my local library. What amazed me most, in reading them, was to learn just how much notions of beauty really have changed in the last few decades.

Morell quotes the reminisces of one theatergoer of the time. This should tell you what a different meaning the word “beauty” once had:

We all wanted to see her. There was nothing wraithlike about Lillian Russell; she was a voluptuous beauty, and there was plenty of her to see. We liked that. Our tastes were not thin, or ethereal. We liked flesh in the [18]90s. It didn't have to be bare, and it wasn't, but it had to be there.

Burke gushes about how Russell was already a “MODE girl” in her youth:

She was then slender but paradoxically voluptuous, with a small waist and jutting breasts and (later to be revealed) shapely legs. She was a golden blonde with what fancy writers then called a retroussé nose and a complexion that seemed to partake of rose petals and fresh cream. And there was something provocative in her blue eyes, the swing of her hips; there was a hint of the coming opulence of her figure and just that touch of vulnerability essential to every love goddess.

If you're one of those people who developed early, and then gained weight quickly in your teens, you can probably relate.

Burke also quotes Oscar Tschirky's comments on seeing her eating in a New York restaurant. For me, this is the finest description ever of a MODE girl:

I was captivated by this fleeting glimpse. I remember the smooth flow of her blue gown, the exotic effect of her golden hair, but most of all the banked-down fire that smouldered in her beautiful face.

Best of all, Morell also confirms that, for most of her life, Russell felt no need to torture herself with dieting:

With a blithe contempt for the consequences, she continued for years in the habit of eating her way through such 14-course dinners as left even the voracious Diamond Jim Brady sated. Pounds and pounds were accumulating on her already stuffed figure. But what of it?

This is what's best about MODE. It's not just introducing the world to a new standard of beauty, but resurrecting an ideal of attractiveness that's timeless. Though she weighed over 180 lbs. at the height of her career, Lillian Russell was not an exception in the annals of beauty, but the norm. So were history's other paragons of loveliness, such as Lady Emma Hamilton (considered the most beautiful woman of the late-eighteenth century), Maria Beadnell (whom Charles Dickens loved to madness), Fanny Cornforth (D.G. Rossetti's model), and Hélène Fourment (Rubens's second wife). Each of them would be considered “overweight” by today's artificial standards, but in their own day, they were goddesses.

Just as MODE girls should be. Just as MODE girls are.


MODE Beauty—The Most Dangerous Kind

[The previous message was still on the board when Simone posted this one—using the opportunity for a little “cross-promotion.”]

A recent message on this board about “Lillian Russell” brought to mind a character in a novel I just read, called The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. It's considered an “American classic” for reasons that I won't go into here (and not all of which I agree with), but the character that I find most memorable is Adèle Ratignolle. She isn't the “heroine” of the book, unfortunately, but regardless, she is definitely the novel's most interesting element.

Here's a description of her that Chopin provides early in the book:

There are no words to describe her save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fairy lady of our dreams. There was nothing subtle or hidden about her charms; her beauty was all there, flaming and apparent: the spun-gold hair that comb nor confining pin could restrain; the blue eyes that were like nothing but sapphires; two lips that pouted, that were so red one could only think of cherries or some other delicious crimson fruit in looking at them. She was growing a little stout, but it did not seem to detract an iota from the grace of every step, pose, gesture. One would not have wanted her neck a mite less full or her beautiful arms more slender.

Later in the novel, the author even takes time out to make some excellent comments on plus-size fashion—anticipating MODE by almost a century:

She was dressed in pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles that became her. The draperies and fluttering things which she wore suited her rich, luxuriant beauty as a greater severity of line could not have done.

But Chopin is hardly alone in conceiving such a powerful MODE woman. Similar characters also turn up in the works of Charlotte Brontë. In Jane Eyre, for example, we meet Georgiana Reed. In youth (we are told), Georgiana:

was universally indulged. Her beauty, her pink cheeks, and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault.

Then, when Jane Eyre meets her later in life, she describes her thus:

The other was certainly Georgiana: but not the Georgiana I remembered—the slim and fairy-like girl of eleven. This was a full-blown, very plump damsel, fair as waxwork, with handsome and regular features, languishing blue eyes, and ringleted yellow hair.

and later:

the blooming and luxuriant younger girl had her [mother's] contour of jaw and chin—perhaps a little softened, but still imparting an indescribable hardness to the countenance, otherwise so voluptuous and buxom.

Characters such as these appear in the works of many of history's greatest authors, including Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Gaskell, and George Eliot, to name only a few.

True, these full-figured beauties are used almost exclusively as foils for the authors' wispy “heroines,” but what's so fascinating about the relationships of these plus-size goddesses to their flimsy rivals is that, in every case, it is the heavier female characters who are acknowledged to be the emphatically beautiful ones. As for the slight heroines, when they are in the presence of their fuller-figured rivals, they have to struggle mightily, even to be noticed. And though “vanity” is the cardinal sin that is almost always associated with these opulent female characters, it is never intimated that their vanity is misplaced, or unwarranted—merely that they are supposedly not as attractive in personality as they are in appearance.

The saintly waif-heroines in these novels never triumph over their plus-size rivals through beauty, but through such “consolation prizes” as having “good personalities,” or being “more virtuous,” and the like. (Incidentally, it is exactly on account of their so-called “negative” qualities that I find the full-figured characters much more interesting, and much more contemporary—that is, contemporary in a good way—than the heroines.) If any character in these novels gets a patronizing pat on the shoulder and is told, “it's too bad no one sees how attractive you are; you have such a pretty face…” it's never the luxuriant beauty, but always her insubstantial, self-effacing rival. In other words, it's not the heavier women who have to be consoled for a lack of looks, but the thinner ones.

I always love discovering characters like this in the great library of classic literature, because nowadays, even if someone writes a “MODE-type” character in a book, she is usually an object of pity (which is far, far worse, in my opinion, than being the villainess!). But in the classics of world literature, MODE women are usually the dangerous ones. And despite the best efforts of their authors to contain them, they manage to be strong and powerfully individualized characters—yet powerful through (not despite) their femininity.

Well, that's the way it was then…
…and that's the way it should be, once again. :)


It's time to put an end to “size acceptance!”

[In one of the earliest “flame” threads on the forum, someone called MODE’s method “questionable” because it contributed to size acceptance. This had the desired effect—shattering the esteem of some of the more vulnerable members of the forum community.]

Okay, you've told us how you want to change MODE. But what you haven't told us is why you think “MODE’s method is questionable.” To do so, you would first have to determine what MODE’s purpose is. (I mean, its purpose apart from being a successful commercial enterprise.)

If MODE’s purpose were, “to encourage plus-size women to lose weight,” then perhaps you would have a point. But that isn't MODE's intention at all, and—thank God—it never has been. If that had been its purpose, it would have been a very annoying publication, and would have long since gone out of business.

From the very beginning, MODE's real purpose—and I dare say that most of its readers have intuitively understood this—has been to change public perceptions of beauty, and thereby to cause little less than a revolution in popular aesthetics.

That is why I find it sad (I would find it funny, except that this is actually a serious matter) to see messages on this forum repeating typical, culturally-programmed statements like “thank God I've lost weight because of MODE,” or “MODE should be about weight-loss exercise and low-calorie cooking.” But sadder still are the meek responses that such messages receive, which tend to run along the lines of, “Why are you saying such things, when I'm still trying to accept myself?”

For once and for all, let's get over this “size acceptance” rhetoric. One of the dictionary meanings of the word “accept” is:

to endure without protest or reaction (e.g., poor living conditions)

and this is the meaning that most women tend to adopt when speaking of “size acceptance.” What a mixed message! “We full-figured women know that our size is still wrong,” this seems to say to society, “but please, please don't discriminate against us. Just learn to tolerate us.”

Is it possible to die of terminal modesty?

But thankfully, MODE is ahead of you all. It is not saying that we should just humbly, quietly “accept” plus-size beauty, but praise it, glamorize it, revere it, and enjoy it! Instead of size acceptance, it promotes size acclamation, even size exaltation.

One person who responded to this “MODE method” thread said that she wants to know “which fabrics and styles to wear to hide that ugly cellulite.” To anyone who holds such sentiments, I can only respond by saying: Stop hiding! Stop hiding your desires, and thinking of them as sinful. Stop hiding your beauty, and thinking of it as ugliness.

Stop hiding.


Plus is Positive (Isn't that Obvious?) or, How to Get More Dates

[Unfortunately, I don't recall the message that Simone praises here. However, the “someone” on the “Ask Me” board who coined the phrase “minus-size” modelling was actually…me. I don't think that anyone else used the term before I did (“straight size” is the customary industry lingo), but one way or another, I dreamed it up myself—and, as you can see, Simone found it useful.]

I loved your message, and I agree with every word you say. For years the fashion industry used the power of its images against plus-size beauty (“true beauty,” as one book rightly calls it), and therefore, against the majority of women. MODE has brilliantly employed that very same power, the power of beautiful images, to revolutionize popular aesthetics. Not only has this magazine shown us that MODE beauty is not “shameful,” but that it is even enviable.

On a related note, a contributor on the “Ask Me” board recently coined a wonderful term for the world of ordinary fashion models, calling it “minus-size modelling.”

Minus size. I love that phrase. It says so much, and helps to overturn many of the upside-down notions that we still have about weight and beauty. I think that we have really gotten somewhere if we have realized that the “waif” ideal is, after all, a minus—in other words, an ideal based on deficiency, on having too little. From there, it is only a small step to realize that plus is a better ideal, because it denotes a state of advantage, of having the upper hand. Only in our confused discussions of weight do we speak of “gain” in the negative, yet gain is an inherently positive term, just as “loss” is inherently negative. Hearing a list of dress sizes that proceeds “12, 14, 16…,” with its suggestion of an increase in an individual's weight, should have no stigma attached to it at all; and in fact, if that individual is enjoying life proportionately more as well, why shouldn't it be applauded?

This reminds me of some remarks Christine Alt once made, on a British documentary:

Ever since I started plus-size modeling, I've worked so much more as a plus-size model than I ever did as a straight-size model. When I was a size 4, I had very few dates. Nobody would ever ask me out. I think they were afraid that I would bend and break, that somehow they'd hurt me or something like that. When I started to gain my weight, and also started to gain other womanly assets, I got asked out on dates much more than when I was a size 4. And I also had someone come up to me one time and say, “when you were so thin you looked dead. You had no life in your eyes. You are so beautiful now, there is so much life in your eyes, you have so much more personality than you did when you were a size 4.” I feel very healthy at this size, very comfortable, because I can live a little bit more!

Her experience doesn't surprise me a bit. In all honesty, I have never met a single guy who found a miserable woman on a diet more attractive than a plus-size woman who is enjoying life to the fullest. If I may be so presumptuous as to say so, Alt learned that subtracting from her life to be a size 4 diminished it; whereas adding to her life to become a size 14 augmented it.

I think that we would all do well to remember what our physics teachers used to tell us: plus is positive, minus is negative…and that's all there is to it. :)


Plus-Size Swimsuit Calendar?

[Guess who that “male friend” of hers is.]

One of my male friends recently remarked (quite seriously) that for plus-size beauty to really take off and become a new cultural standard, what someone out there has to do is create and market a plus-size swimsuit calendar—i.e., a swimsuit calendar featuring the world's most attractive plus-size models (Emme, Liis, Kate Dillon, etc.).

A friend of mine who was with me at the time thought that his idea was totally sexist, and boy, did she ever let him have it! But I wasn't so sure—and later on, the more I considered his proposal, the more it made sense. Maybe he really is on to something. I mean, the whole problem we've had with the fashion industry for years is that it has been using the overwhelming, suggestive power of its images to promote a standard of beauty that isn't beautiful at all—and terribly unhealthy to boot. That's why MODE has been such a great leap forward, because it uses that same power—the power of beautiful images—to promote a healthier and more glamorous standard of attractiveness, one which says that women don't have to suffer and starve to be beautiful, but can be beautiful while enjoying life to the fullest.

So doesn't the same argument apply for the swimsuit-calendar industry? A few months ago, I remember reading many posts on this bulletin board from contributors who were enthusing about the summer issue of MODE. It featured a plus-size model in a black swimsuit, just emerging from a pool. The contributors were saying how surprised they had been to hear the many positive comments that their male friends had made about that cover.

So why not a whole calendar? No matter what feminism says, men are always going to go ape over images of beautiful women—so why shouldn't those images at least be of MODE women, instead of starving, prepubescent waifs, or silicone-filled aberrations?

My friend has a problem with the very idea of swimsuit calendars, but I'm not as persuaded by Naomi Wolf's hyper-puritanical theories as she is, and I wouldn't feel too bad about those calendars at all, if the women wearing the swimsuits had real, womanly bodies. Beauty, after all, is no myth; only “Vogue beauty” is. And this could do more for “size-acceptance” than any number of books ever will.

Just a thought.


There is only one kind of weight problem…

…and that is, when someone has a problem with their weight.

Let me tell you a real-life story about the positive impact that MODE is making on our society. My cousin's life used to be complete misery, thanks to her so-called “weight problem.” But MODE helped her solve that problem, once and for all.

When she was young, she was incredibly cute, in the way all of us wish we could be, at least once in our lives. She was the “little princess” in the family—everyone's darling—and if she was a little bit spoiled, no one really minded. But then, when she hit adolescence, she gained a considerable amount of weight very quickly. At first, this didn't seem to bother her much, since she always felt really good about the way she looked. But then, when she stopped getting the compliments on her looks that she was used to getting, and eventually became aware of some under-the-breath catty criticism from “friends” and family, the trouble began. I won't say that the parents behaved too badly toward her—at least, I don't think they did—but her sisters were another matter. Envy can breed a special kind of malice, as most of us know.

What happened next was really painful for me to watch, because I was always partial to her. She had (and still has) a keen mind, and loved to read all the books I gave her for Christmases and Birthdays. However—this being the pre-MODE world—inevitably, her ordeal began. First it was dieting. One diet after another. As a young, developing girl, she naturally had a big appetite, and not eating was making her miserable all the time. Besides that, for whatever reason, the weight was not coming off. Then came the punishing exercise regimens, which she hated even more than dieting. Her mother told me how she would sometimes cry about how all her friends had stayed slim, while she couldn't stop getting heavier.

I felt sorrier for her than you can imagine. Girls are just not meant to suffer like this, and besides, I was beginning to wonder if she would have to go through such self-loathing her whole life.

But then MODE came along, at just the right time. She started to see herself in a whole new way. She started contrasting her plus-size figure favourably with the minus-size figures of her friends. Best of all, she gave up her self-imposed punishment of exercise and dieting, and began enjoying herself again. Pretty soon, she seemed like her old self, vivacious and full of life. And naturally, she landed a boyfriend not long afterwards. I'm guessing she's about a size 18 now, maybe a little more, but she's happy and healthy, and the boyfriend is just nuts about her. She eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and as much as she wants; and if she exercises, it's only for fun, and never in some stuffy gym.

So you see, she did have a “weight problem”—i.e., that she had a problem with her weight. But this was a problem that was easy to solve. She just had to start loving herself again, and the problem went away.

It really is true, you know. MODE does make a difference. Not just at the societal level, by changing cultural aesthetics (which is true), but also directly, on the personal level. It's so rewarding to see someone from the younger generation escape the absurd and artificially-induced shame that was drilled into members of a generation not too much older than her own.

People make a lot of disparaging comments about “today's kids,” about how little respect they have, or how “rebellious” they are. But when I see my cousin indulging in a second helping at dinner, or cutting herself an especially large piece of cake for dessert (something that some of us, at her age, would have been far too timid to do), I see something better than mere “rebellion.” I see true freedom. And it's a wonderful sight.

And for contributing to that freedom, MODE deserves special praise.


Would you rather “control your appetite,” or be in control?

[This is something of a sequel to the previous message.]

I keep reading a lot of stories about teenage girls who are pressured by parents or siblings to lose weight. Such cases never fail to raise my ire—they hit too close to home.

Well, this is a special message for every teenage girl out there whose parents or siblings have told her to “control her appetite.” When they say things like that to you, what you immediately have to ask yourself is: are they just trying to “control your appetite,” or is it part of a larger effort to control you?

When a beautiful young person I know began to gain a lot of weight in her teens, her sisters—jealous of her as no one but sisters can be—saw this as an opportunity to throw a lot of nasty comments her way. They especially liked to say that her appetite was “out of control.” And you know what? They were right. It was out of their control. You see, she had decided that she—and no one else—was going to choose what she ate, and how much. And that was that. They were trying to get control over her, by making her feel bad. But it didn't work.

(Did she keep gaining weight? Definitely. But she never stopped being prettier than they were, and today, she has a boyfriend, and they don't.)

Remember this, the next time your family or friends try to tell you that you've “had enough,” or if they try to cajole you with “well-meaning” phrases like, “do you really need to have that?” You've only had enough when you don't want any more—not when anyone else doesn't want you to have any more. And it is exactly when they ask you if you “need to have that” that you do need to, most of all. Because you've got to establish that you're the one who's going to be in control of your body, and no one else.

It's curious, but sometimes just having an extra helping at dinner, or finishing off the whole box of cookies, can be as important for setting your boundaries as any grand gesture of independence might be.

Trust me, if you don't get a good attitude about this in your teens, if you let anyone else tell you to “control your appetite,” then you'll have people trying to control you for the rest of your life. And it won't just be about weight, either. Weight will just be an easy way for them to start, because they'll always pretend to justify their attempts at manipulating you by saying something like, “it's for your own good.”

And that's the biggest lie there is, because it isn't for your good at all. It's for their good. It's just so they'll be in control, and not you.

If you really feel the need to lose weight—well, fine, but make sure it's only because it's what you want, and not what anyone else wants. But if you don't lose weight, or if you keep gaining—so what? Just look in the mirror, remind yourself of how beautiful you really are, and make sure to live your life whichever way makes you happiest. Whether that means travelling the world and going wilderness camping, or dancing and partying, or shopping and relaxing in front of the TV (or all of the above)—that's fine. As long as it's your choice.

And the next time someone says to you, “your appetite is out of control,” don't hesitate to laugh them off. Because that just means that no one else is controlling it.

Or controlling you.


Girl Matters—and Why It Did Not

[Simone has not posted on any of the various incarnations of the MODE bulletin boards for quite a while, but the following issue prompted her to share her thoughts.]

This is a cautionary tale.

An article by Greg Morago that appeared in the Hartford Courant this week confirms a fear that many of us have long held: it's all over for Girl magazine.

Don't get me wrong, the magazine is not going bankrupt. But it is changing. Morago writes that Girl “recently shifted its editorial focus to reflect the interests and needs of African American girls,” a change that will be reflected in its new issue.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a magazine targeting the African-American teen audience. Such a publication is long overdue. The trouble is that, by zeroing on one under-represented minority group, Girl is shifting its focus away from the most under-represented minority group of all. I say the most under-represented minority group, because it actually comprises the majority of teen girls (over 60% of them): and that is, plus-size teen girls.

Few magazines change their focus if they are doing well, so it's reasonable to conclude that the popularity of Girl wasn't exactly skyrocketing prior to its editorial change. Whereas MODE jumped from quarterly to monthly status in just under a year, Girl could never break out of its four-times-a-year prison.

Why? Why did one magazine take off, win many awards, and rock the fashion world, while the other languished in obscurity?

Simple. The magazines' respective slogans explain everything: “12, 14, 16…” for MODE, versus “Fashion for Every Body” for Girl.

MODE targeted its audience—again, the most under-represented audience, the most silenced majority in the world—and gave them exactly what they wanted: beautiful clothes on beautiful plus-size models. MODE didn't just say you could look good as a size 16, it proved it to you, by showing you Barbara Brickner in a form-fitting knit dress.

Girl did not target its audience. It tried to be all things for all teens, whatever their size. Maybe in theory this was a nice idea, but the execution was abysmal. Except for an occasional OnyxNite ad, most of the models in Girl look pretty much the same as the models in Seventeen, and in every other teen mag.

Any fuller-figured woman reading a copy of MODE would see many beautiful women, most of whom were approximately her size—or a lot closer to it than what they could see in any other fashion glossy. But any fuller-figured teen picking up a copy of Girl would either see no models her size at all, or, if there were any, would see them stuck at the back of a photo shoot dominated by waifs. Bitterly, she might even consider this a fine metaphor for her life.

I said this was a cautionary tale, and it is. It is a warning to the current editors of MODE. If MODE follows the lead of its little-sister publication and tries to be a magazine “for ever body,” it will end up being a magazine “for no body.” It will be undifferentiated from any other fashion mag, and lose its loyal target audience.

There's one more thing that needs to be said here. Every once in a while, someone argues that the goal the industry should be working towards is to eliminate having any categories among models—that size-6 models should be walking down the same runway as size-16 models. What the people who make this assertion fail to realize is that, if this happens, it will mean the end of plus-size modelling. Without a definite “plus” category to be distinguished from “straight,” larger models will vanish, because plus-size models (so the publishers or advertisers will say) only represent plus-size women, while straight-size models represent “everyone.”

(Even tough the case of Girl proves, for once and for all, that this is not so.)

What MODE needs to do is simple: Don't change! Don't ruin a great formula. Don't insult your audience by using straight-size models to display plus-size clothing, the way certain retailers do in their catalogues. Remember the “12, 14, 16…” motto, and keep it on the cover, to remind yourselves and your readers who your target audience is. Women who wear single-digit sizes have a plethora of fashion glossies to represent their needs. Women who wear larger sizes only have one magazine to represent them—and that's MODE.

Please don't ignore the silenced majority.


Barbara Brickner—The Ideal

Ever since MODE magazine debuted, many of us have taken great interest in the plus-size models who appear in the magazine—both on account of their untimely beauty, and their obvious potential to shatter media stereotypes about the “ideal” feminine figure.

Yet although it was (and continues to be) exciting to see models who wear double-digit dress sizes posing in a national fashion magazine, the gulf between the celebrity status of plus-size models and their mainstream, minus-size counterparts remains wide. Many of us have dreamed of the day when we would see images of famous plus-size models in every corner of the world; when plus-size models would do photo shoots in exotic European locales; when plus-size models would have their own calendars—just like the Cindy Crawfords and Christine Brinkleys of the world.

Now, what would you say if I told you that all this has already happened…that a plus-size model has had all of these successes, and achieved precisely this level of recognition? Because it has.

Elena Mirò might well be called the “Lane Bryant of Italy.” Besides operating stores in every Italian city, Elena Mirò has outlets in France, England, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Russia—even Tunisia and Kuwait. But what really distinguishes Elena Mirò is that, unlike Lane Bryant (which insists that the models in its ad campaigns look as much like straight-size waifs as possible), Elena Mirò takes very seriously its mission to redefine public perceptions of feminine beauty. Nothing more clearly testifies to this than the company’s choice of a model to be their official “face.” To represent Elena Mirò to its worldwide customers, the company has selected one of the most beautiful of all plus-size models, and one who cannot possibly mistaken for a waif with a little padding—none other than the celebrated Barbara Brickner.

Barbara Brickner has been the face of Elena Mirò for several seasons now. Her images have graced the company’s catalogues, advertisements, magazines, and even the company’s recently-published book, titled Ciao, Magre! (which loosely means, “Take a hike, you starving waifs!”).

But for 2001, Elena Mirò has outdone itself by releasing a gorgeous, not-to-be-missed Barbara Brickner Calendar, with twelve images showcasing the model in the most feminine, sensual, yet elegant poses imaginable (yes, even in swimwear).

According to Elena Mirò, the shoot for this calendar took place in exotic St. Tropez (on the French Riviera, no less), and the company is promoting the calendar with the following, very affirmative statement (which surely sounds even better in the original Italian):

The Millennium changes, lifestyles change, women change. The Third Millennium mainly brings about a new way to be beautiful. We were the first to have the pleasure to express this change. Elena Mirò has chosen a woman to interpret a new, splendid ideal of beauty—certainly sensual and attractive, extraordinarily lovely and sunny—in this calendar. We dedicate the Third Millennium to her.

The company also proudly lists the model’s measurements: 104cm-84cm-114cm (or, in inches, 42-34-46).

While this project is definitely a cause for celebration, it raises the question—why did it take a European company to do something as progressive as this? Lane Bryant would rather go out of business than employ models over a size 12, and the number of models who are size 14 and up in MODE has been dwindling steadily—much to the magazine’s detriment, and to its readers’ frustration.

Hopefully, this calendar—and all of Elena Mirò’s creative efforts—will persuade its North American counterparts to follow its lead in rejecting androgynous mainstream-media standards, and in helping to redefine public perceptions about the feminine ideal through the power of beautiful images of genuinely full-figured plus-size models.

2001.02.19 (posted on the MODE forum)

A Beauty of Their Own

What we must first acknowledge to ourselves is that plus-size modelling does not exist in a vacuum. Its existence is inevitably tied to that of straight-size modelling—rather the way Canada’s identity is defined in large part by its relationship with the United States. But assessing the nature of this relationship is something of a challenge. Two of the statements that are often used to describe plus-size modelling reflect the sharp divide in common thought about how plus-size models compare to their straight-size counterparts. One of these assertions is useful, and leads to a fruitful line of enquiry. One is not, and has had a pernicious influence on the industry. Let us start with the latter.

“Plus-size models are just like straight-size models, only bigger.” One hears this phrase parroted all the time, in the most uncritical of ways. To be fair, there is a kernel of truth in it. Obviously, plus-size models should have flawless complexions (freckles are permissible), perfectly straight white teeth, and healthy-looking hair. But from there, this notion can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. The worst consequences are the attempts that are regularly made to force plus-size models to look as much like straight-size models as possible—by hiring only those models with unnaturally thin facial features, by disguising their shape, by adjusting their stance, by selecting body-minimizing camera angles when shooting them, and, the most egregious travesty of all, by manipulating the photographs themselves (e.g., vertically “stretching” them in image programs, to increase the height-to-width ratio).

The fallacy of such an approach is obvious. First of all, it is prejudicial and discriminatory (a valid equivalent would be digitally enhancing the skin tone of African-American models to make them appear as Caucasian-looking as possible). But from a practical standpoint, this is also stupendously foolish. Plus-size models can never match straight-size models on “their” terms. They can never look as gaunt, emaciated, and androgynous as their starving peers. But more to the point, they shouldn’t. Instead of indulging in vain attempts to mimic the appearance of straight-size models, what plus-size models should embody is a type of beauty that their starving peers cannot ever hope to achieve, a style of beauty that is uniquely their own.

This brings us to the second common assertion concerning plus-size modelling, which is, “Whereas straight-size style emphasizes the line, plus-size style emphasizes the curve. This phrase actually originates in discussions of plus-size fashion, but it has equal significance for plus-size modelling. Underlying it is the premise that plus-size modelling demands a radical revamping of all of the “rules” that apply to straight-size modelling—in fact, that those rules need to be turned on their head. What is a disadvantage in one school of modelling becomes an asset in the other, what is a flaw for one type of model is a boon for the other.

In short, plus-size modelling demands a total revaluation of straight-size modelling’s values.

But before we begin to itemize the unique strengths of plus-size models, we should point out that the aesthetic rules that shall be outlined here are not merely reactive. That is, in creating them, we have not merely said, “Let’s simply do the opposite of whatever straight-size modelling is doing.” We must always remember that, in fact, it was straight-size modelling itself (and, more broadly, feminine couture since the 1920s) that stood millennia of received thought about female aesthetics on their head. In other words, when we discuss the ideals of plus-size modelling, we are not inventing new rules, nor are we replacing one set of rules with their opposite. Rather, we are recovering the rules that held sway in Western aesthetic thought in every century prior to the twentieth.

A richer legacy than this, and more solid precedent for one’s ideals, one cannot imagine.

First of all, in plus-size modelling, we favour the ROUND FACE over the oval. The famous beauties of Western art were always depicted with round faces, whereas boys and men always exhibited more oval visages. The oval face, with its inevitably drawn, “thin” quality, came to prominence as a natural compliment to the androgynous, emaciated female figure of the twentieth century. It is only natural for rounder figures to be complimented by rounder faces. Preferring the round over the oval is only the first of many instances in which we favour the curve over the line.

Continuing on the topic of ideal facial features, it is permissible and even preferable for plus-size models to exhibit VISIBLE WEIGHT in their faces (dimples, rosy cheeks, “double” chins, what have you). That old truism about fuller-figured women—“she has such a pretty face”—has a perfectly reasonable basis, as the TKDS Webmaster recently pointed out to the author. Indeed, plus-size models do have pretty faces. The softness that is a natural consequence of added weight is aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, from a practical standpoint, because the garments that models exhibit tend to fall into the category of form-disguising career-wear, fuller facial features immediately announce to the public that a model is genuinely fuller-figured, and not a waif with padding. Many customers rightly balk at seeing straight-size models advertising plus-size apparel.

Shorter hair for women only came into fashion in the 1920s, and was part of the deliberate attempt by the “flappers” of the day to look as androgynous as possible. Just as the introduction of short hair and starving bodies went hand in hand, so is it preferable for fuller-figured models to have LONG HAIR. While it is true that some models achieve beautiful results with short hair (e.g., Lara Johnson, Tracie Stern), these are rare exceptions, usually confined to models on the smallest end of the plus category.

HIGH CHEEKBONES are one of only two features associated with traditional feminine beauty (i.e., plus-size beauty) that have tentatively carried over into straight-size modelling (a notable bust-line is the other). But prominent cheekbones naturally belong to the world of the curve, not the line, and may be the single most important feature in feminine facial beauty.

It is no use generalizing about EYES, other than to say that they should be SPACED APART sufficiently widely. Eyes that are set too close together are not attractive in any circumstance. While it is true that light-coloured eyes give a model a certain advantage because of the fascinating lighting effects that good photographers can achieve by highlighting these features, many of history’s most famous beauties had dark eyes, so light colouring is not essential.

A RETROUSSÉ NOSE, on the other hand, is a crucial feature for the harmonious beauty of a round face. Lillian Russell is, of course, the classic example. Roman noses, which tend to be long and drawn, more naturally compliment oval faces, and the rare models who possess Roman noses (Kate Dillon, Philippa Allam) tend to be photographed in ways that minimize this feature—for good reason. Wide noses are also undesirable, as they have an unfortunate tendency to “masculinize” the look.

FULLER LIPS are preferable to thinner lips, although this feature should not be exaggerated. A WIDER MOUTH is also far more attractive than a pinched, rosebud mouth. The ’20s introduced a deservedly short-lived vogue for rosebud lips that even the waif craze did not attempt to revive.

A ROUNDED CHIN is absolutely crucial for facial harmony, and here, plus-size models have a great advantage over their starving rivals, because weight can often soften the look of a girl with a harsh jaw-line. For example, Kate Dillon exhibited a ghastly pointed chin during her straight-size modelling days, but this feature was blessedly minimized after her weight gain. Unfortunately, as she has lost weight, the unattractive jaw-line is again becoming evident. However, we must hasten to add that the other extreme is also disadvantageous, because square jaw-lines, like wide noses, give the look an unappealing masculine quality.

We could say a great deal about preferable body types, but here, plus-size modelling suffers from another popular misunderstanding. While it is true that models’ figures should be proportionate (a word that is much bandied about), this does not mean that they need to have perfect, hourglass shapes. In fact, part of the special allure of plus-size models is that their bodies are different and unique—not at all like the cookie-cutter, mass-produced stick-figures that straight-size models exhibit. For example, two of the most famous plus-size modelling icons, Barbara Brickner and Shannon Marie, have notably “pear shaped” figures, where their hip measurements are notably larger than their bust sizes, but this only enhances their allure. Many famous classical sculptures, such as the Venus de Milo, and the women in Renaissance paintings such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, also exhibit this pear-shaped tendency. By contrast, even at the peak of her beauty, Kate Dillon’s bust measurement was always disproportionately large compared to her waist and hips—but because the latter measurements were also generous, her figure still presented a harmonious outline. Liis has a full waist, but also still presents a beautiful silhouette. The only important fact is that there must a notable DIFFERENCE between the figure measurements. Ten inches—a number which one sometimes hears—is an arbitrary and faintly absurd rule, but anything less than, say, six inches’ difference would minimize the allure of the body shape.

On this topic, we should also rid ourselves of the ludicrous notion that plus-size models should have thin limbs. Usually, this requirement is couched in euphemistic terms like “toned” rather than “thin,” but let us be honest with ourselves—“thin” is what is usually meant. This is patently false. Especially at her current size, Kate Dillon’s full arms are her only saving grace—the only feature that still visibly identifies her as a plus-size model, whereas Philippa Allam’s thin limbs are too slight for a plus-size model. Barbara Brickner’s voluptuous legs are far preferable to the straight-size limbs of a Liris Crosse. CURVACEOUS LIMBS, therefore, are advantageous features for plus-size models.

We shall conclude by refuting one particular criticism that might potentially be made about this strict emphasis on beauty:

“But what about ‘edgy’ looks?”

Indeed, here we encounter the familiar modern misconception of the notion of “edginess,” (which is our twenty-first-century term for a concept that, in another time, would have been called “avant-garde,” or “modernistic”). Regrettably, the word “edgy” is sometimes mistaken as a synonym for “ugly,” and this notion has become so prevalent that some have gone so far as to take ugly images and attempt to excuse them by calling them “edgy.” What nonsense. Such thinking would inevitably lead to the conclusion that all straight-size models have “edgy” looks (because of their gaunt features), whereas only the smallest plus-size models can be “edgy.” This is all an outgrowth of the twentieth-century antagonism towards beauty that led to the rise of the androgynous ideal in the first place. We must rid ourselves of this absurd notion. Not only can beautiful models create “edgy” looks, but, in fact, it is precisely the most beautiful models who should be selected for creating successful “edgy” images—i.e., images that will be arresting and intriguing, but not revolting.

This seemingly paradoxical need for beauty in creating successful “edgy” images can best be explained by a comparison to music. Igor Strawinsky’s dissonant ballet, Le sacre du printemps, famously caused a riot in Paris when it premiered, but what music historians often fail to mention is that this riot was prompted as much by the slovenly playing of the orchestra as it was by the music itself. By contrast, when the great conductor Herbert von Karajan recorded his technically flawless version of the ballet, he completely redeemed the music—in fact, his interpretation gave it the masterpiece status that it enjoys today. How did he do this? By teaching his orchestra to play it beautifully. As the conductor himself once explained, “even when there is a dissonance in the music, it is our responsibility to play that dissonance as beautifully as possible.”

It is in the tension between dissonant music and beautiful playing that an “edgy” or avant-garde effect is achieved. Likewise, the tension between an avant-garde style and a beautiful model is what makes an “edgy” image successful. Just as a unpolished, out-of-tune orchestra playing dissonant music will only produce meaningless noise, so will an ugly model in an avant-garde photograph only create an ugly image—and will herself be made to look still uglier.

One of the best-known and most successful examples of a plus-size model in an “edgy” spread was the “KateScape” layout in the September 1998 issue of MODE. This was photographed at a time when Miss Dillon was at the pinnacle of her beauty, and the contrast between her innate charm and the gaudy makeup and working-class setting of the layout was what made that spread so successful.

These are some of the characteristics of feminine beauty that were always favoured prior to the twentieth century, that are unique to plus-size models, that became unfashionable with the rise of the androgynous ideal, and that straight-size models cannot hope to emulate. These are the aesthetic grounds for admission to the Judgment of Paris page, and moreover, comprise the essence of genuine feminine beauty. With the dawn of the new millennium, these ideals are proving worthy of the label “timeless,” as we increasingly reject the artificial standards of the past century, and rediscover the image of true beauty that is graven in the human heart.

2001.03.04 (personal correspondence)

Lara Johnson—Classical Beauty

Page 214 of the April 2001 issue of Glamour magazine leads in to an interesting article titled “Curves . . . Yay!”, but it is principally this lead-in page that arrests the reader’s attention. It features Lara Johnson, a lovely Ford model who regularly appears in MODE. What we see here, however, is not just another picture of a plus-size model. In this image, we see Miss Johnson standing beside a life-size plaster replica of the Venus de Milo, with her arms draped around the famous sculpture. The image is accompanied by the following quotation:

“‘It’s a great time to be curvy! Stop worrying about being a size 6. Be healthy and enjoy life!’—Lara Johnson, plus-size model.”

We have never been treated to a more deliberate depiction of the continuity of plus-size beauty than this Lara/Venus comparison. The curves of the two-thousand-year-old statue perfectly match the curves of this gorgeous, twenty-first-century goddess.

When we speak of the “classical beauty” of plus-size models, we are not merely mouthing a meaningless phrase. Plus-size models genuinely embody the voluptuous ideal of feminine beauty that was revered in Western culture from the time of classical Greece through every century prior to the twentieth. It is a natural ideal—a timeless ideal—as imperishable as the marble out of which the Venus de Milo is hewn, and its return to prominence in our culture is both welcome and assured.

It also confirms that the twentieth-century androgynous look that we find so tedious was nothing more than an unnatural aberration in the history of aesthetics—a detour, an insignificant blip, and one that will soon be forgotten.

2001.03.09 (posted on the MODE forum)

Timeless Beauty

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COUNTER SET 1999.02.14