How to raise a defiant finger to fashion
“No fat chicks” is not just a Homer Simpson-esque T-shirt slogan. It’s also the bottom line of the fashion industry. And when I use the word “bottom” here, I’m not referring to a voluptuously padded Venus of Willendorf derriere but one of those pointy Paris Hilton numbers that look like they could deliver a nasty needle-stick injury.
Cast an eye over shots from the big 2011 couture shows and you’ll see scores of emaciated young women limping down the runways with flesh-less knees, stringy necks and rib cages that make ET the extraterrestrial look like a fatty boomsticks.
These human coat hangers are held up as exemplars of feminine beauty yet are eerily reminiscent of Sidney Nolan’s infamous photos of dead-but-alive-looking cow and horse carcasses from drought-stricken Queensland during the 1950s.
Of course if high fashion catwalkers were cattle they’d be the subject of Four Corners exposes, GetUp! petitions and bans on live export. As things stand, they’re not even humanely stunned before being herded into the living death of their modelling careers.
Admittedly this analogy is getting a tad hyperbolic (not least because models herd themselves rather than being yanked helplessly about in pools of their own neck blood by Indonesian slaughterfolk).
Yet there is still a strong argument for the humane production of fashion, just as there is a convincing case for the ethical farming of meat. And, in the case of the former, consideration must be given not only to the treatment of models but also to the well-being of those who look at them.
A personal perspective: most of the time, my build is best described as “lumpy petite” in that the vast bulk (although never quite all) of my bits fit into standard size 10 clobber. Like many ladies, however, pregnancy caused my Body Mass Index to balloon to an official score of “Willy Has Been Freed”.
And there it stayed for several long, round years.
Spending so much time being so much chumpier than I was used to be was confronting – especially when all the celebrity mums in the magazines seemed to ping back into shape seconds after delivery their placentas.
One Rubensian day, when my daughter was about five months old, I decided to buy some fancy, plus-sized undergarments in an attempt to sass-up my industrial-strength s-bends. The snotty woman saddling me into a blimp-sized bra looked me up and down and said: “And when are you due to have your baby, dear?”
I was mortified. But also fiercely determined not to add to the indignity by dissolving into self-loathing. So, in addition to resolving to move more and masticate less, I began collecting photos of foxy full-figured she-celebrities to Blu-Tack over my desk for consolation and inspiration.
The pickings were – excuse the expression – slim. Large women aren’t usually allowed to become celebrities. And those chicks who do have the hide to upsize tend to be derided rather than being offered glamour shoots.
Consider US actress and singer Jessica Simpson whose recent weight gain earned her the nickname Jumbo Jessica, as well as media ridicule for the way, as one commentator put it, her “gut… squeezed out of her mom jeans like toothpaste”.
Nice. And not the least bit like size-ist vitriol squeezing out of a bile-filled gallbladder.
Anyway, after much hunting, I did manage to assemble an impressive gallery of hot celebrity tamales who were built for comfort rather than speed.
These included TV cook Nigella Lawson, lesbian rocker Beth Ditto, Grey’s Anatomy actress Sara Ramirez, curve-tastic 1950s megastar Marilyn Monroe and blues singer Candye Kane (who had the added bonus of being able to play the piano with her boobs).
Since then, I’ve expanded my collection with the addition of portraits of the gob-smackingly gorgeous Christina Hendricks from Mad Men, as well as shoots featuring up-and-coming super-sized models such as Candice Huffine (whose recent appearance in V Magazine depicts belly rolls as things of arresting beauty).
The reason I’ve kept – and kept adding to – these office adornments is partly to raise a defiant middle finger to the barrage of human cadavers in glossy magazines and popular culture. But mostly it’s because I really like the way these women look.
Here, I have plenty of male company in that, time and time again, men tell researchers they prefer looking at average, size 14-type sheilas rather than high fashion stick insects.
Many women, on the other hand, report the reverse. Why? Academic investigation suggests a complex combination of masochism, fantasy and commercial manipulation.
American scholars have revealed that young women suffer a prolapse in self-esteem when they’re shown ads featuring thin models – yet a simultaneous rise in their estimation of the products being advertised.
A 2011 study by Ohio State University, meanwhile, found that magazine readers pore over insecurity-producing photos of idealised bodies – so long as these images are accompanied by suggestions (via dieting regimes, exercise programs and so on) that it is possible to achieve similar looks.
Unfortunately most of these “aspirational” opportunities are chimeras. After all, you can aspire to supermodel DNA as much as you want, yet still fail dismally at reconfiguring your genome.
The sad truth is that scrawniness still sells. Which is why I have such admiration for those fashion labels, agencies and magazines willing to employ models with substance.
Consider the June edition of Italian Vogue, which features a bevy of generously proportioned fleshettes including the Australian size 16 model Robyn Lawley. Drop dead delicious, she looks like she eats several Kate Mosses for breakfast.
A common critique of such shoots is that they are nothing but empty gestures. But the thing about changing deeply entrenched social practices is that the initial steps will always look – and perhaps even be – tokenistic. What we need to do is accumulate enough tokenism to reach a critical mass and establish a new normal.
Imagine if models such as Lawley no longer needed special names and explanations such as plus-sized, full-figured or curvy. Imagine, instead, if Italian Vogue received international media coverage because it featured an under-sized, empty-figured, curve-less size eight model on its cover.
In the meantime, we can only despair at news that Australian model Catherine McNeil has had her fadoobadas (Kath and Kim’s term for those flappy bits on the underside of ladies’ arms) digitally excised in a recent photo tweeted by Britain’s Love Magazine.
Perhaps those of us who appreciate high fashion Michelin Mams can abstain from buying such publications and their advertised products to rapidly de-fat-ify their profits. Now there’s a crash diet that actually sounds healthy.
Emma Jane is a columnist with The Australian newspaper.
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