“Plus-size” coverage is fashion’s version of affirmative action--magazines show us one normally proportioned woman for every ten extraordinarily thin ones. The term gives average-sized and normal bodies a name that makes them seem unusual, rather than the other way around, a dinner-table scrap for those of us with hips, breasts and other feminine parts. We are told that haute couture “looks best” on 18-year old girls who are built like 16-year-old boys, left to doubt our own bodies.
Vogue.com took an interesting turn last year when it featured a refreshing photo spread of beautiful women wearing lingerie--in all shapes and sizes. Their bodies were real and they were glorious, making us want to run out and purchase the lingerie featured (listen up, marketers!). Vogue.com got it really right by not mentioning the words “plus-size” even once in the piece.
This was in marked contrast to Victoria’s Secret’s epic fail with their “perfect body” campaign--featuring what I term the “2 percent”--an estimation of the number of women who naturally are tall, slender, and have small hips and breasts. It’s bad enough they termed any one specific body shape as “perfect,” but to then feature only impossibly young, thin and tall women as the example of this was nothing short of a shout-out to women all over the world to say that they are NOT perfect. (The misplaced marketing strategy was that if you wear their lingerie, you would be perfect).
When women recognize themselves in mass media images, their body image improves. When they feel excluded and overshadowed by “perfection,” the opposite is true: over 80% of American women indicate that they are “dissatisfied” with their bodies. This dissatisfaction can spill over into life--leaving women with lowered self-esteem, increased self-doubt, and troubled relationships with food. When we don’t see ourselves reflected in society’s standard of beauty, we criticize ourselves, rather than the images. The Vogue.com shoot was an opportunity to see beautiful woman who weren’t fetishized for having curvy bodies, who weren’t shown posing with food or babies to “rationalize” their normal bodies, who didn’t seem over-corrected or edited.
Honest photographs like the ones presented by Vogue.com should be commonplace, not astonishing. But until the industry changes, women must learn to be realistic consumers of fashion photography, and stop throwing ourselves under the bus because we don’t look that way. All of us – mothers, aunts, sisters, friends – must teach our younger girls (and boys) that beauty takes myriad forms and sizes.
To be fair, it can’t be easy to be working in media these days. Like the women featured in them, magazines cannot win. Kim Kardashian’s nude shots on the cover of Paper resulted in scathing critiques of her round figure. Red carpet pundits turn body shaming into blood sport, calling women out for being too sexy, too frumpy; too chubby, too thin. It’s “too” much.
Perhaps the perfect image of a woman is a woman. So look in the mirror, instead of in a magazine. Start by seeing the beauty in yourself.