Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The whole debate over plus-sized models is ridiculous.  I will not bore you or keep myself up even later by finding tons of links, but basically (if you're a man or have been under a rock) it started a few months ago with Glamour publishing the photo on this page - a tasteful nude shot of a woman with  curves, including on her belly.  Glamour is actually, among magazines for young women, fairly good about publishing photos of "real women", i.e. modeling which cuts of a particular type of garment flatter various body types.  Still, the photo received a ton of attention, both positive (women saying the shot made them feel so much better about themselves, or something) and negative (she is fat and disgusting and the embodiment of all that is wrong with America, etc.), and enflamed an ongoing debate about the body size of models.  Which basically runs, well, most models are super-skinny, which is because (a) most clothes are made to look best on super-skinny models, and (b) they (usually) starve themselves.  Plus-sized models are actually normal women, although much taller and more attractive, which (depending on your point of view) means (a) they are a breath of fresh air and some kind of feminist statement (i.e. that we have a right to have body fat, which apparently still needs to be stated), and (b) society is degenerating because we are all getting fatter, and having larger models is just giving up.

Now, I'm not totally on board with the "obesity epidemic" panic, but I'm prepared to believe that lots of people could stand to lose some or even a lot of weight.  However, the ideal way to lose weight is to eat reasonable quantities of healthy foods and exercise moderately, not to hate your excess body fat until the sheer force of antagonism makes it disappear.  Moreover, models are not spiritual guides or moral exercises.  Their purpose is to look good while wearing or doing things that their employers want us to wear or do.  When models are in ads for perfume or face cream, their looking like regular people might be a good thing (we can perhaps better imagine ourselves wearing that perfume or face cream) or a bad thing (they are no longer as incredibly glamorous and therefore we are less convinced that buying the product will make us incredibly glamorous), although I think this is probably a small effect.  But when models are in ads for clothes (or articles about fashion or catalogs or web sites designed to sell clothes) there is an immediate effect: skinny models make the clothes look the way they would look on a skinny person.  If you are not a skinny person, the clothes will not look that way on you.  Some clothes look better on women with more shape (menswear-style shirts) and some clothes look worse (any dress without a waist).  Given that one of the purposes of fashion magazines is to advise women on their clothing purchases, and the sole purpose of a clothing retailer's catalog or website is to induce those purchases, I think it would be a really good thing if models had a range of body types.  

Because, except at the highest reaches of fashion, where clothing is art, a garment that only looks good on 1% of the population is not a very good garment, at least for 99% of everybody.  Using only skinny models encourages designers to make clothes that look good on skinny people, and makes it harder for women to get the information that the clothes won't look good on them and therefore harder for us to demand that retailers sell clothes that suit different types of frame.

Because - hard as it may be to glean this from all the debate about the aesthetic awfulness of models who look a little bit like human beings - the purpose of clothes is to fit our bodies.  That is what they are designed for.  It is not the purpose of our bodies to fit into clothes.  It is the purpose of our bodies to run and breathe and eat and have sex.  Not to fit into clothes that have been designed for totally different bodies, which in many cases are not healthy bodies, or clothes that have been designed with no reference to bodies at all.

That is why I am getting rid of my Banana Republic skirt.  I have had it three years and have worn it, I think, twice.  I bought it while shopping with my grandmother, who liked the store and wanted to get me something in it.  I don't particularly like or dislike it; I chose it because I didn't like most of what the store contained and it was on sale.  (It was still more expensive than almost any other garment I owned at the time.)  The reason I don't wear it is partly because I don't wear many skirt and partly because it does not fit.  Pathologically.  It is both too tight and too loose, and appears to have been designed for some other type of being entirely, like a skirt-wearing man.  I do not think any woman of my size could have the proportions required to fit into this skirt.  It is a skinny-woman's skirt blown up for a normal-sized woman.  Did they have any normal-sized women try it on before they started selling it?

So it is not a good skirt for me, and I should not have bought it.  I kept it not because I was seriously planning a regime that would result in the skirt fitting better, but because it seemed like I should fit the skirt.  If everything in my life were properly aligned, I thought, I would always go to bed on time and never want ice cream and magically my body would conform to the mold of a skirt that doesn't even resemble a shape I would like to be.  It wasn't that I wanted my body to have the particular shape of the skirt; it was that I wanted my body to be something that the skirt would fit.

And then I wore it for the second time, and I was uncomfortable the whole evening.  The skirt kept twisting and riding up and the extra fabric was bulging under my shirt.  Fortunately, I was sitting in one place most of the night, but sitting there in a miserable skirt that cost too much money and never fit me and that I don't even like all that much, I realized the whole thing was ridiculous.  It is a skirt.  It is not a person.  It is not a totem of some earlier, legendary, thinner time. It is a small piece of fabric that is utterly useless to me because it fails to conform to the shape of my body.  The problem is not me; the problem is the skirt.

This is obvious to everyone with two brain cells.  And yet all over the (Western?) world there are women whose closets contain garments that do not fit them, that do not look good on them, that do not make them happy.  We keep these garments not because we can't replace them but because we believe, somehow, that it is our bodies' job to fit into them.  And this is silly.  We do not buy glasses that are the wrong prescription for our eyes and insist that we should be able to see with them.  We do not buy books in languages we don't speak and then feel bad that we can't read them.  And yet, somehow, when we have a pair of pants that clearly has the wrong amount of fabric for our frame, or a skirt that ends at a weird spot on our legs, we insist that it is our bodies - even if they are healthy and happy, even if we are satisfied with them outside the context of the garment - that are flawed and not the silly, arbitrary, fueled-by-consumerism-and-outsourcing-and-fashion-industry-peculiarities piece of fabric that should be designed to celebrate them.

Okay.  I am done ranting for the day.  

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