The Plus Size Sensation That’s Sweeping The Nation! (Or, You Know. Not.)

There’s a little something going on in the world of fashion: Fat people are starting to be allowed to exist there. Only, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, because it’s “plus size,” not “fat,” and it’s only very special sorts of plus size people. It’s plus size models, specifically, and, like models of all sizes, they are what is sometimes called “impossibly beautiful.”

V Magazine’s recent shoot, “Curves Ahead” (link not safe for work), has been making the rounds across the Internet, with lots of commentary from fat acceptance and fashion sites alike. It’s a good shoot. I like it on an aesthetic level, and I’d like to see the models who are in in a whole lot more.

The only plus size model who’s really known to the public is Crystal Renn, and while Renn is undeniably awesome, the fact that she gets shoots doesn’t necessarily mean that a wave of fat acceptance is overpowering the fashion world. After all, I hadn’t heard any of the names involved in the V shoot until I looked at it, and I do not the names of plenty of “straight size” models. To be fair, I am not exactly up on the fashion world, but I do keep a weather eye on it, and I do tend to take note of models of size because, well, the topic interests me.

The fashion world is around to sell clothes. And to sell bodily ideals. And we need to remember this before we get all excited about the “surge” of using plus size models which is going on right now. We must also remember that there is a lot of fat hatred in the fashion industry, and when I say “fat hatred,” I am not exaggerating. We are talking extreme bigotry, like models and stylists quitting before they will work with larger models, designers flat out stating that they do not want to design for fat women because fat women are so hideous, and, of course, the constant policing of women of all sizes which makes minor weight gain into an epic production.

I think we’ve long ago accepted that fashion models are, you know, not quite like regular folks. In part, that’s because some of them were born with some natural assets. And, in part, it’s because they work, very, very, very hard to make their bodies do what they do. When your living is entirely predicated on how you look, you can damn well bet that you are going to invest a lot of energy in your looks. Not out of vanity, but out of the acute awareness that as soon as you don’t fit in sample sizes, as soon as your body changes, you will be out of a job.

So. Accepting that plus sized models are already being held to a very specific body standard: They can be plus size/fat, but they must be the right kind, are they really making inroads in the industry? The New York Times headlines an article “The Triumph of the Size 12s,” but it’s really an article about Crystal Renn, and that’s pretty telling, I think.

The fact that Renn is getting work is good. But it doesn’t mean that “plus sized” models in general are getting work, or that fat acceptance is necessarily happening in the fashion industry. Most of the big names in modeling right now belong to white, able women with small dress sizes. A handful of women of colour and larger women among the big names does not equality make. And the fact that magazines need to make a big to-do out of featuring them suggests that the fashion world is still rather resistant.

And note, “Size 12.” In the real world, “plus sizes” usually start at 14 and above. So, technically, Renn isn’t even a plus sized model! She may appear that way when compared with other fashion models. She herself says, “They see a roll, and they say, ‘Ooh, a roll!’ And they focus on it.” Renn also isn’t a big fan of the plus/normal size dichotomy. Yes, in the fashion industry, Renn is treated as plus sized. But for women who are plus size in the real world, seeing spreads of Crystal Renn isn’t necessarily inspiring, it’s just a reminder that “if this is plus sized, what am I?”.

Renn actually gets work in which she isn’t pigeonholed as “that plus sized model,” which is how I think it should be. I’d like to see a diversity of body types (and colours) going on in modeling, rather than segregating models to special features and limiting them with labels which suggest that they only belong in certain types of shoots.

One might argue that this is a case of baby steps, and I really hope that’s what we’re working towards. Vogue Italia’s all Black issue in 2008, for example, arose from discussions about lack of inclusion of women of colour in fashion, and it sparked more conversation. Conversation which ended in more diversity on the runway and in fashion magazines, including inclusion of women of colour without comment or fanfare.

So, perhaps V’s shoot and other shoots by mags like Glamour are the first step. First, we must introduce people to the idea that photo shoots can include more size diversity, by showing size diversity. Next, we can perhaps include bodies of more sizes and shapes without needing to comment on them, because people have been primed to accept them by prior exposure. Perhaps, eventually, we could even stretch into the realm of featuring physically disabled bodies in fashion.

Wouldn’t that be nice.