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Too Fat For Fashion: I Can See Clearly Now
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Saturday, March 3, 2007

I Can See Clearly Now

There are different ways of seeing. John Berger said that "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak." But after you have words, you see differently.

I wrote on this site recently about the need to unlearn our skewed aesthetic. How, when confronted over and over with bodies of a certain type, and size, we begin to see them differently. And how further, when these are the only bodies we see, other sorts of bodies begin to look different, wrong somehow, almost grotesque.

It seems so obvious to say. But whilst it's easy to acknowledge, intellectually, that our ways of seeing bodies have been skewed by the bodies we've seen, it is harder to emotionally realise it. Case in point: Heroes has just begun in the UK. I think we're up to episode three, where the cop's wife shows up. The cop is played by Greg Grunberg, who in the scheme of things is a bit of a chubster (cute, though). His wife is played by Elizabeth "Lisa" Lackey, formerly of Home and Away. She's an ex-model, perfectly lovely, but not a teeny tiny toned tiny thing - she has boobs and a faint, cute belly. She's woman-shaped. And my brain said, "ah, like husband like wife - it's the fatty family".

It's ridiculous. I know body fascism and the cult of thin is wrong and fucked up, and the obsession with petite actresses, where anything over 5'1" and 100lbs is 'big', is appalling. But my brain has learned something else and it's so bizarre to me, that however much feminist theory I read and subscribe to and however much I intellectually stand for something, there's bits of my brain that I have no control over, because my ways of seeing have been warped.

This is Lisa Lackey:

Just because she’s not Ellen Pompeo-d herself out of existence, I called her fat. (Crazy, when if this was someone I knew, a friend or a relative, I'd be envying her figure all over the place. But when it's someone on TV or in a magazine, I have, against my will, expectations that they will be a certain size, a certain look.) Speaking of Pompeo, she shares the screen with Katherine Heigl, who again, is normal...wait, not normal. She is, in the words of the show, "eight feet tall. Your boobs are perfect. Your hair is down to there. If I was you I would just walk around naked all the time. I wouldn't have a job, I wouldn't have any skills, I wouldn't even know how to read. I would just be... naked."

Katherine Heigl is, basically, a goddess. But next to her co-star it's easy to read her as 'enormous' because comparatively she is twice Pompeo's size. It's easy to see her slight underchin that the camera adds on and decide that she is 'fat'. I know which of the two figures is more natural, more healthy, and more easily achieved by the average woman...but for some reason it's so difficult to emotionally understand it, to really KNOW that Size 0, 2, 4, etc aren't the norm, aren't the only way of being beautiful.

I've learned to see petite as normal and anything bigger than that as 'unfeminine', as if femininity was natural and not a societal construct. Show leads are often very petite - not merely slim or thin but tiny overall. Think Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars, Rachel Bilson in The O.C., and dozens of others. They are tiny. Not just thin women, but tiny overall. Teeny tiny child-like women. And naturally, any normal-sized actor on the screen looks hulking in comparison.

Mimi Spencer, writing in The Observer, concurs:

"When I worked at Vogue a decade ago, one of the editors produced a beach-shoot featuring a size-14 model [nb. this would be a US size-10]. When they arrived in the office, the photos looked great; the model was statuesque, not overweight. But later, on the published page, tucked in between other shoots and ads featuring the starving Barbaras that are the usual glossy fodder, this lovely woman looked huge, as if she'd been inflated with a bicycle pump. No wonder the experiment wasn't repeated. No wonder Sophie Dahl shrank the moment she made it as a model. Given the choice, we'll take thin, thanks."

Why can we know something and not see it? Is it the prevalence of thin and small women on-screen and in magazines, with so few representatives of other body types? Or is it something more, that in addition to what we're being shown, we're being told something.

Claire Coulson, Daily Telegraph Fashion Editor

"In pictures and on the catwalk, clothes hang much better on very slender girls."


Mary McGowne, Head of PR at The Vine

"Clothing looks more tantalising on tall, slim women."

(Daily Express, February 14 2007)

Katharine Hamnett, Designer

"This is so frivolous. Obviously it's tragic for families of anorexics. My bone of contention is that the industry should be ethical and environmental. Clothes look good on thin people and they always have. We weren't having this size zero debate when Twiggy was around.

"Clothes look better on thin people and rubbish clothes look good on thin people. Thin people look good in anything. Don't you think that it is an indictment of an obese society? That's what it is, because we are all fat and think somebody thin is special. It's what's wrong with our society. It isn't just the fashion industry."


Alexandra Shulman, Editor of UK Vogue

"Clothes look better to all of our eyes on people who are thinner."


Alannah Hill, Australian designer

"Models have to be skinny - that's the point. The job is to be a clothes horse and everyone knows the clothes look better on the catwalk on a thin model. No one wants larger girls to show off their clothes; it looks a bit silly."


Gisele Bundchen, supermodel

"Everybody knows that the norm in fashion is thin. But excuse me, there are people born with the right genes for this profession."


Kelly Cutrone, People's Revolution

"If we get a girl who is bigger than a 4, she is not going to fit the clothes. Clothes look better on thin people. The fabric hangs better."


People genuinely believe what they're saying; people believe clothes look better on the thin, the slim, the tall. I sometimes believe it, even though I 'know' differently. How have we learned to see this way, and how do we learn to see differently? One cover girl or one plus-size model isn't enough, because they will automatically look 'wrong' set amongst other bodies of a thinner type.

I'm trying to unlearn what I've seen and what I've heard. I was a life model for a very long time and that helped in giving me an incredibly strong body confidence: I don't look at my own body and see a flabby disaster area, or compare myself to catwalk models or film stars; I see myself as 5 feet two inches and 130 pounds of fabulosity. Yet I look at other women and judge them for bodies 'better' than my own, just because those bodies are different from the 'best'. I'm content with my own little pot belly and big booty, but I judge other women for not controlling theirs, for not having the discipline to be thin. And it does take discipline: I can be, and have been, twenty pounds lighter and two sizes smaller. But all I thought about was food, all I thought about was exercise. It takes up hours of each day that I'd rather spend writing, working, reading, socialising, be thin if you are not naturally so is hard work and dominates your life. Yet a part of me judges women if they don't put in that hard work.

Two things that I'm trying to keep in mind, to unlearn what I've learned, to help me see differently, to help me stop listening to what I'm told about thin and fashion:

Maggie Alderson, former UK Elle editor and fashion writer

"The Princess [Diana] was a great comfort to us ageing babes, too. The closer she got to forty, the better she looked. On one of her last publica appearances, in that tomato-red shift dress, she looked her best ever, glowing in her maturity. I miss that. When fashion magazines are full of malnourished fourteen-year-old girls, sometimes you need reminding just how beautiful grown women with real baby mama tummies are."

and of course, Pulp Fiction:

Fabienne: I was looking at myself in the mirror.
Butch: Uh-huh?
Fabienne: I wish I had a pot.
Butch: You were lookin' in the mirror and you wish you had some pot?
Fabienne: A pot. A pot belly. Pot bellies are sexy.
Butch: Well you should be happy, 'cause you do.
Fabienne: Shut up, Fatso! I don't have a pot! I have a bit of a tummy, like Madonna when she did "Lucky Star," it's not the same thing.
Butch: I didn't realize there was a difference between a tummy and a pot belly. Fabienne: The difference is huge.
Butch: You want me to have a pot?
Fabienne: No. Pot bellies make a man look either oafish, or like a gorilla. But on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy. The rest of you is normal. Normal face, normal legs, normal hips, normal ass, but with a big, perfectly round pot belly. If I had one, I'd wear a tee-shirt two sizes too small to accentuate it.
Butch: You think guys would find that attractive?
Fabienne: I don't give a damn what men find attractive. It's unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.

There are other ways of seeing. I'm not going to stop looking at fashion magazines and beautiful models; but I hope I'm going to look, and see, other things properly too. It's unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same. Maybe we can relearn what we see and how we see it, and maybe what we find pleasing to the touch can become pleasing to the eye.


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