Size Matters: How Fashion Carelessly Cashed in on Body Positive Activism

These days, it’s cool to be body positive. It’s trendy to rock a “beYOUtiful” slogan along with your #SelfieSundays. Body positivity—at least the kind that is advocated for online—has become an integral part to “moral fashion” and an easy fight for fashion activists and the like to jump in on.  Brands and companies are cashing in left and right on style at all sizes. Target, for example, has gone from vanishing plus size lines from stores, to creating an entire line designed by and for plus sizes. The fashion industry is seeing companies build campaigns that rely on the idea and feature heavy copy of body positivity, which is beautiful through a wide-scale lens. Though, if you focus on this much-needed turn for “moral fashion,” it’s the same commercial consumer-based facade we’ve continuously been sold, disguised as something shiny and empowering. Many long-time body positive activists and writers, along with myself, are hanging out in our fat bodies, still feeling a major part of fatphobia. We’re facing the need to defend ourselves when we try to express the sentiment that one token fat body in a major campaign doesn’t feel like enough for us.

It feels relevant to me to compare this type of campaign strategy to Hillary Clinton. I’m a feminist and I support women, but I struggle with the idea that Hillary does not represent intersectional feminism the way it needs to be today. Even so, her feminist reputation is built on the fact that she’s a woman and women should support her. Replace “Hillary Clinton” with any visible “Love Your Body As Is” campaign, and those are my thoughts. I don’t hate Hillary Clinton and I don’t hate moral fashion ideals. I simply don’t relate to them, they don’t represent me and my fat body, and they’re not the full package of what I need.

ashley graham

There are many models, like Ashley Graham, who speak about body politics as if they are the first-born leaders of self-love. While I don’t disagree that these women are inspiring and are certainly making waves, they’re not the first big girls to love themselves. In fact, “Fat Acceptance” has been a major movement since the 1960s. Further more, most of the women getting public praise for their work in body acceptance are US sizes 12 to 16, and do not experience that fatphobia and size discrimination the same way that a US size 26 or 28 would. Many of these women who are speaking about general body politics such as self-love and self-care, only just learned about those nuanced subjects a few short months ago. It’s hard to realize that there is more to body politics and fat space within fashion when you’re still in the 101 class. While their work is important, their voices are often heard over many larger size women, especially women of color, that have been speaking out for a much longer. It’s very easy to get side-tracked on self-love stimulation when you’re a size 12 and still seen as conventionally beautiful and you still are a vision of health in the public’s eye. These women may have had to learn how to love themselves, but they still look like the bodies we’re already being sold, just on a slightly larger frame, and it’s important to be critical of their publicity and what it means for the fat community.

Lane Bryant has been one of the most pivotal disappointments during this brand-building utopia of size acceptance. Their #ImNoAngel campaign was built on the idea of tearing down Victoria’s Secret’s supermodel brigade of tiny tummies, but their #PlusIsEqual campaign quickly backfired when Lane Bryant showed up to live events with T-shirts promoting the cause and only offering up to a size 1X and their audience refused to eat their psychobabble about inclusivity.

Many smaller-size fats, or generally average body types, are really keen on these campaigns. Once a year, around swim suit season, we’re bound to see a campaign of differently sized women standing next to each other. (I work for and have been featured in one of these swim shoots.) It feels great to be in or see this representation. What Lane Bryant, and so many other companies, fail to realize is that we need more than one image to keep us going. While body positive campaigns are all the rage, these story-specific campaigns are allowed to show much more variety then they are on their product photos and on-site promotions. This is where we are reminded that all these body inclusive photo shoots stand for is consumerism. Women shopping for clothes are still seen as people shopping for an ideal image. While my size 24 belly is looking at a slim size 14 model in a dress I’m drooling over, I’m forced to imagine myself in her shoes, as if my belly could ever be flat and my collar bones would protrude just by purchasing the garment. Purchases based on these stretches of mental imagery always end up with me standing in front of the mirror, in a lose-threaded polyester trash bag that is somehow too tight around my waist and big in the bust.

With the mid-size-white woman-fronted moral fashion campaigns, my big belly hangs low in shame. Sometimes it really feels like the larger one’s body is, the smaller the hole they have to crawl inside is. To add insult to my injury, many “plus size” models and designers have admitted to using padding in their shoots to create curves in all the “right” places. As Brittnee Blair said when speaking with Bustle, “Is it realistic? It depends. If you look at it as artistic, then I can respect it. But, as an ideal for women? It’s unhealthy, because not a lot of women are going to look like that.”

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Beth Ditto, one of my personal faves in both music and fat politics, took to the high-fashion market to combat the lack of options in larger-size fats and also the often low-quality sacks plus sizes are flooded with. Her focus was on higher quality fabrics, more extended range of sizes, and hard fashion. When her clothing line launched, it was obvious that Ditto let the clothing speak for itself and didn’t use any flashy body positive gimmicks. Miraculously, the size chart goes up to a US 28. Though I agree that there could be more rolls on those models, and definitely more models of color, it shines as a great example of what shopping as a larger size should feel like. Eloquii also offers up to a size 28 and has adorned some of our most beloved fat celebrities on the red carpet. (i.e. Gabourey Sidibe and Rebel Wilson) Eloquii has shown some serious representation with using Emmicia Bracey for their extended size lookbook. Other retailers seem to think  if they are stocking sizes above a size 12, they are making fashion accessible for all sizes, even when that fashion is a sad sack excuse for a shirt. This type of reinforced and regular representation definitely matters, because I will be buying clothes that I know work for me the way I want them to. With bodies like mine selling clothes in my size, I’ll stop purchasing with something similar to a death wish.

Many newly body positive companies feel like they’re already doing so much for us and by having a plus size woman on the front of a swimsuit magazine, they feel like they are already doing their part. Their media specialists are quick to dismiss the way they tokenize women of color and fat women because these organizations feel like small glimpses of representation are enough to prove the point, so they’re still catering to smaller-sized customers by making sure they feel comfortable shopping with them.

When we ask for more, such as  larger sizes in physical stores, visible women of color who are also fat, or accessible clothing for handicapable bodies, we often  are treated like we are asking for far too much. There’s that one mid-size white model featured in an online clothing campaign and that is supposed to blanket all of our needs, but it fails to combat many of the negative and incorrect stereotypes that little-to-no representation continue to influence.

 As studies over 1993 to 2014 show, fat women are less likely to be hired for jobs simply because they are fat. If fat women are hired, they are likely to be offered less pay than their thin counterparts. With an influx of representation of midsize women as body positive warriors, it creates a larger dichotomy of healthy-size fats vs. death fats. (or, Good vs. Bad Fatty)

People like Meghan Trainor, who sing songs about “all that bass” are celebrating a small feat within standards of beauty, and promoting a body positivity that still focuses on women as objects and beauty as the most important thing that we could have. I want more, but the world isn’t ready for me to ask for that. Especially when I’m a size 24 to 26. Especially when my belly hangs over my legs. Especially when my double chin is very visible from every direction. I’m not packaged with a bow on top, and so my politics are not as visible as those glistening in glitter and perfect cleavage. My ever-glowing bright stretch marks are not “tiger stripes,” as young mothers pun around about, because to them, my fat isn’t a victory, it’s a lost battle.

“Change requires intent and effort. It really is that simple.” – Roxane Gay Illustration by Susy Cirina

Let’s look to activists like Marilyn Wann, who educate on body diversity and fatness within social justice. Let’s buy clothing from those including higher-range sizes and that come from big thinkers, like Re/Dress, Jibri, and the much anticipated Ashley Nell Tipton. Let’s read body politic literature by Roxane Gay.  It’s cool to be body positive and I think it’s time for everyone to jump on that bandwagon, but for this thing to keep moving, we have to build a foundation on our strong body politic thinkers and motivators. Fat acceptance is more than a consumer-driven ploy to buy more clothes only because they come in our size. It’s time that moral fashion find its compass and let the big girls lead the way.

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Rose Water Magazine

Rose Water Magazine is a creative collective where writers, artists, and thinkers educate on intersectional feminism. Feminism helps support all genders, bodies, sexuality, and the human ability to choose and exert their willpower. It's imperative, even for those who don't want to identify as feminist, to understand the importance of a movement dedicated to a broad sense of equality. Rose Water Magazine is hoping that our commentary can trickle down to our readers and community to teach the importance of humanity and social justice.

3 thoughts on “Size Matters: How Fashion Carelessly Cashed in on Body Positive Activism”

  1. I have to agree quite a bit with this post. I began learning, and applying, fat acceptance in the early 70’s with NAAFTA publications as a guide. I remember how thrilling it was when Carole Shaw started BBW magazine. A lot of things have changed in my life at this point: I am not so positive any longer, but it goes on in another form.
    I have a couple of observations about today’s movement. Just in the last few years it has seemingly become one of a different conformity whereas it used to be more non-conformity; of the elevation and subsequent tearing down of the leaders in the community. It appears to be much more focused on how one looks and not so much on rights and liberties – it was a quite political movement at one time. There is a lot of demand for fully sized clothing, but not so much for decent treatment by medical personnel. Focus seems much more on making others agree one is attractive rather than making the establishment fully vest one in their legal rights.
    This current one also seems quite into trying to accomplish too much at the same time. Maybe it was the change from acceptance to diversity; they are not the same thing and each has it’s own battles to be won. It’s like they are taking on all the different subjects and trying to right them with a single formula: not going to happen. You must have dedicated people with “boots on the ground” in each subsection to move that part forward. There is no utopia where everyone can fight each others battles. I agree we should support one another, but singly, the ones involved must care enough to do for themselves. When you have one segment letting other do their work there is the inevitable strain of the worker part feeling resentment and the passive section tearing the work apart over petty items not addressed in the way the wish. It all ends in little progress and a damaged public profile for the issue.
    I am a subsection of what the movement is today – I am still fat, but now I am old; which is a grouping with it’s own set of issues mostly remaining unaddressed currently. At this time in my life I’m not willing to spend what time I have left trying to convince others of my societal worth. I am not willing to step forward against status quo only to be taken down by “friendly fire” either: way too much of that going on in my opinion.
    Nope, I’ll demand my rights when infringed upon, support other on similar paths and live my life to the fullest I can – all the things I believe each of us should work for, period.

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