It feels like I’ve been writing about plus-size models like Ashley Graham/Lane Bryant ads for years now.
Every time you think you're done, one pops up again. And then you are back in the mud pit that is “real women” versus “plus-size." In part, these sorts of ads get a lot of coverage because many people have the luxury of only thinking about plus-size issues when they hit the news. If you are plus-size, your reality is entirely different.
Existing as a plus-size woman is even weirder. And that's because many random elements of pop culture and everyday interactions mesh into one unignorable thought train. When Elisabeth sent me the link to another think piece about the new Ashley Graham ad, it tied into a bunch of things I had on my mind. As a plus-size consumer and plus-size person, I feel differently about plus-size models then I did a few years ago. And all of that has to do with context.
Advertising and the Fat Life Experience
Even five years ago, it was still rare to see plus-size models in lingerie ads, much less in on from Victoria’s Secret. When you looked deeper, it was clear that places like Lane Bryant and Addition Elle (in partnership with Ashley Graham) were more likely targeting suburban moms than urban fashionistas. These ads walked the line reasonably well, portraying lingerie and sexiness as something divorced from the reality of sex as a plus-sized person.
These ads haven’t changed much in feel or format. But in some ways the world has. I discovered this incredible (and NSFW) video from Cosmopolitan the other day where some of my favorite plus-size models talk honestly about sex, love, and consent. I was impressed it existed at all. And more impressed because it's an honest commentary on how being plus-size changes things for women. Tess Holliday admitted that she didn’t have great sex until she was married. Because her husband was the first man who enjoyed her larger body. This felt sad and true and depressingly representative of reality.
These interviews were done as part of a lingerie shoot for the magazine and showcase newly released lingerie pieces. The format isn’t dissimilar from a Lane Bryant/Addition Elle ad. Five years ago, those tame yet plus-positive ads stood out because it was the only time a large segment of the public saw plus-size women in lingerie. Now we have plus-size models on camera talking candidly about experiences to which all plus-size women can relate. So it’s understandable that the more standard advertising campaigns feel false or conservative.
Role Model Diversity
When these ads came along years ago, Ashley Graham instantly became the sole representative of the plus-size fashion and lingerie community; even though she’s not particularly plus-sized. For years, any time a fashion magazine wanted to appear to embrace larger women, they just hired Ashley Graham. Finding other spokesmodels for the fat positive community took work. Since then, Tess Holliday and some others have become more mainstream in the past year or two.
It’s not uncommon now to see fashionable plus-size women at red carpet events (think Octavia Spencer and Chrissy Metz). And you can follow plus-size comedians like Jenny Zigrino. Plus-size women can find women who look like them and use them as fashion inspiration. Plus-size fashion is now popular enough that I’ve seen extensive interviews with stylists about where they find clothes for their plus-size Hollywood clients.
Are You A “Good” Fat Person or a “Bad” Fat Person?
The plus-size community has always recognized the divisions within it. Many of these are based on size and body type. Ashley Graham, while bigger than the standard model, is tall and has an exceptionally defined hourglass shape. Over the past few years, we've seen more hourglass shaped women in the 12-18 size range on social media. They're now our idea of “socially acceptable fat people." These women have many of the attributes that we like in smaller women: larger breasts, a more defined waist, and larger hips. It has helped expand clothing and lingerie available to women who fit into that small subset of plus-sizes. But it hasn’t done much for anyone else.
Look again at the Cosmopolitan video above. Two of the models are frequently referred to as plus-size. Yet Tess Holliday is viewed as obese and a negative role model. When people talk about Tess Holliday, they use the word “fat." When they talk about Ashley Graham or Felicity Hayward, they are pleasingly curvy and acceptably plus-size. When people criticize these ads for not appealing to all plus-size women, these are the unspoken divisions.
If you have smaller breasts and are a size 26, you can't find anyone modeling clothing who looks like you. Not seeing yourself in ads on how to find your “size sexy” seems like rubbing salt in the wound. Don’t fit into the “acceptable plus-size” category? Your plus-size experience may involve people accusing you of infecting the country with your unhealthy ways and telling you to stay home and hide.
Ashley Graham deserves both praise and thanks for stepping up for the plus-size community. Especially early on, when she was uncomfortable with the idea of having to represent every plus-size woman in the world. The issue isn’t Ashley Graham. It’s that we need her and other plus-size models to portray the plus-size community and all it’s complications fairly and accurately.
What's do you think of so-called plus-size models? Do we need more body diversity in fashion advertising?
Featured Image: Ashley Graham vis Grazia UK