Fat as a Feminine Issue?

“Hips. Tits. Lips. Power” – Silverfish, early 1990’s

There have been some interesting goings-on in the world of modelling this week. Now, normally I would have absolutely no interest in this whatsoever, but when it concerns the desirability (or otherwise) of so-called ‘plus-sized’ women as models, I can’t help but take notice. As a ‘plus-sized’ woman myself (5ft 10ins and a UK size 16-18/US size 14-16), I was fascinated by the decision made by the US edition of Glamour magazine to feature a nude picture of a healthy-looking and non-skinny woman (with a bit of a tummy on her) in their latest edition. In some ways, the lovely picture of model Lizzie Miller printed in Glamour is a step forward for all of us girls who don’t look like the painfully thin stick insects normally seen in fashion magazines and on the world’s catwalks. Not all of us are size 0, and not all of us want to be. But, despite being described as ‘plus-sized’, a term with clear undertones of ‘you’re fat’, Miller is not actually that big – she’s a healthy, normal size. She actually looks like a woman, with curves and a soft body. She’s not ‘plus-sized’; she’s real, like so many women out there, models and non-models alike.

In an interview in today’s Observer, the Icelandic model Inga Eiriksdottir makes this point very vividly, describing how she was told she was fat and was pressured into losing weight by her model agency, despite the fact that she was 5ft 11ins and a UK size 8. “It was awful,” she says, “I couldn’t make myself the shape they insisted on.” So she started eating properly, went up to a UK size 14 (a normal, healthy size), and became what she describes as a ‘real-sized’ model and hasn’t stopped working since. Her jobs have mainly been for well-known department stores, which, like most high street chains these days, tend to stock a relatively wide range of sizes anyway – but major designers still seem to focus on the uber-skinny, emaciated women. The likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Donna Karen don’t design for bigger, real women – in fact, I recall Lagerfeld throwing a very undignified tantrum when he discovered that the range he designed for the high street chain H&M would also be available in a size 14 and above. This is something confirmed by the stunning British model Kate Smith, who is a size 16 and looks pretty damn good on it. “What does my head in,” she points out, “is that I’m a model and I can’t buy designer clothes that fit me.”

That says it all, really. The widespread attitude (amongst males and females) that to be a sexy woman you have to be unnaturally skinny is a dangerous and insulting one. When well-toned and definitely not ‘plus-sized’ women like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez are described as having ‘fat arses’, I start wanting to throw things. Not only does that have dubious and near-racist undertones, it’s also a huge insult to those of us who are naturally curvy. Some of you may remember when The Gossip’s Beth Ditto, no small lady herself, posed nude for the front cover of a British music magazine a couple of years ago. I cheered her to the rafters for doing that – it was a brave and liberating move on so many levels – but the response from a number of quarters was that a girl as big as she is should have kept her clothes firmly on in front of the camera. Why? Because Beth Ditto is not Kate Moss, and thus, by definition (whose?), curvy/fat/real women are not sexy.

I find this sort of dangerously discriminatory attitude distinctly disturbing, particularly as  there is now a whole generation of young women who have grown up not knowing anything different; who have been force-fed (unpleasant pun intended) the ‘rightness’ of the dangerous equation that skinny = sexy and curvy = ugly. I recently read an article by a female journalist in one of the daily papers (I forget which one, possibly The Guardian), which nearly made me weep for this new generation of women. The journalist had sat down with two teenage girls to watch Billy Wilder’s truly wonderful classic comedy Some Like It Hot, which stars one of the greatest curvy film goddesses of them all, Marilyn Monroe (a UK size 14 – at least). Instead of marvelling over Monroe’s undoubted talents as a comedienne, the girls were appalled by her curves, repeatedly commenting on how ‘big’ and ‘fat’ she was. For me, that’s incredibly sad – one of my formative cinematic experiences was seeing this film for the first time; the scene where Monroe, shot from behind, wiggles her way down the train station platform, followed by Jack Lemmon’s stunned gasp of “Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs…” is forever seared into my memory as being synonymous with gorgeous, sassy, curvy, real female sexiness…

In my time, I have dated both men and women of all shapes and sizes. One woman, in particular, sticks in my memory. She was most definitely what the fashion world would call ‘plus-sized’, but she was also one of the sexiest women I have ever met. Why? Because she was intelligent, funny, and utterly comfortable and at home with her size and shape. Her confidence in the fact that she was a real, curvy woman made her very, very sexy, and it is such a shame that outside influences continue to characterise non-skinny women as ‘other’ and as not attractive.

I am well aware that some women are naturally skinny, and it is not them I am criticising here, of course – an individual’s height, build, genetics and metabolism play a major part in whether they (naturally) have non-stop curves or a more boyish figure. However, the fashion world and the media need to remember that skinny is not the natural, default state of womanhood per se, and that by declaring that it is they are setting dangerous precedents. Starving yourself to be skinny is dangerous to anyone’s mental and physical health, whoever you are. That old cliché of ‘childbearing hips’ is very true indeed; the genetic make-up of a woman is different from that of a man for a very good reason. Women give birth. We nurture a child inside us, and our bodies continue to feed the child once it has been born. That’s why we have curves, hips, breasts. In the dim and distant past, men would choose a woman as a mate at least partly on the strength of her curves, seeing them as an outward sign of her ability to carry and nurture healthy children, to continue his lineage (an example of Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’?). Despite the fact that in this modern era, women now have the choice whether or not to become pregnant and have children (and many of us have chosen not to), we should not forget that our curves are an integral part of who we are as women. They give us power.

“I’ve been trying to show you over and over
Look at these my child-bearing hips
Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
Look at these my work strong arms and
You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm” – PJ Harvey, ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’

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4 comments

  1. Rose

    Wise words indeed although I wanted to add some perspective from a skinny woman. I’m probably the “hated” type – slim hipped with visible collar bones but the surveilance doesn’t end with the scales or measuring tape. I look and envy the woman with big boobs; difficult as it is for me to put on weight when it does ends up round my middle with the chest being flat as ever. Notice how many glamour models feel pressurised to having silicone implants.

    Or notice how everything “needs” to be nipped and tucked these days – no good being a size 8 if you have droopy jowls; lop-sided labia, ear lobes that are too long, a line here a line there – all “unacceptable”. Oh and not to mention how you never see disabled models…

    How quick the press were to take kate Moss down when they discovered minus the airbrush – shock horror – she had a few lines on her face!

    Whether we’re size 8 or size 20 women, we all have real feelings, we all laugh, cry, eat and grow older. Shame on those in the fashion and beauty industry who try to make us feel shame for our natural beauty.

    • trickygirl

      Thank you very much for your perspective – it is always interesting to hear a different point of view on an issue like this. I very much agree with you, though. Tall or short, large or small, every woman’s body is different.

      There is no such thing as the ‘perfect body’, and I also agree with you about the pressure on women (and men) to conform to an ideal of physical ‘beauty’ and shape which is just that: an ideal. The fashion and beauty industries are trying to sell us something that doesn’t actually exist and they are damaging women in the process. We are all beautiful. Shame on them for thinking otherwise.

  2. Rose

    Shame they aren’t still showing this on BBC iplayer but you can see a lot of this excellent series on disability and modelling.

    • trickygirl

      Yes, I saw parts of that when it was on the BBC, I thought it was particularly interesting to see the differing attitudes towards these attractive women – women who just so happened to have a disability of some kind too.

      All of us wear clothes, whatever we look like, whatever size or shape we are, or whatever disability we may or may not have – so it seems to defeat the object a little for the fashion industry to prescribe that only skinny, able-bodied girls can be models. We all want to look good!

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