Skin, bones and a fat suit

A couple of weeks ago, the “plus-size” model Marquita Pring revealed that she sometimes uses foam padding to fill out the clothes she models. The usual furore ensued about skinny models and plus-size models and middle-size models, and all the other models who people claim are a bad influence on us.

It’s not really fair, is it? They’re mostly teenage girls who happen to be tall and beautiful enough to make a few quid and travel the world. Modelling is, by all accounts, not an easy life and it’s not an easy career (although I’m 5ft 3in and what fashion types would describe as “curvy”, so I don’t talk from experience here!). For most, it offers a shelf-life that is shorter than that of an athlete.

Like so many of the other people we all like to blame for our ills – teachers, doctors, journalists, bankers, politicians (actually, scrap the last two) – they’re just trying to make a living and live an enjoyable life. And why on earth are we relying on models for our moral cues anyway? Bring back philosophers!

What I find particularly galling about the world of “curvy” models is the insistence on making the images wildly sexualised, as if the ownership of boobs and booty automatically makes a woman a thick slapper. It’s misogynistic and stupid.

Even the much-feted Italian Vogue cover for June features offers an image of beautiful, voluptuous women in their underwear slavering over a restaurant table covered in food. Hardly smashing down stereotypes, is is? Meanwhile, the very thin get to do edgy editorial shoots wearing wonderful, intellectual Miu Miu and Yohji Yamamoto. And the rest are consigned to commercial catalogue modelling (“commercial” being the greatest sin in fashion).

Fashion is about extremes: you’re fat or you’re thin, and most participants in the game aspire to be thinner. For some reason, this industry finds it painful acknowledge that sizes between UK4 (US zero) and UK14 (US 10) exist, even though the majority of the people they sell to (particularly in high fashion) fall into this category. They don’t see that it’s not a question of giving up exercise and scarfing burgers. I think some people see food as something of a vice, an addiction: it’s all about lust and excess and indulgence.

But most normal people don’t have that feast-or-famine approach to food and are quite capable of eating a healthy diet, neither existing on egg-white omelette or gorging on chocolate at the first sniff of a Malteser. Equally, no one is demanding Beth Ditto in every show (wonderful though it was when Jean Paul Gaultier put her in his), but simply a healthier standard for models: perhaps, at 5ft 11in, a size 8 or 10. Radical.

I don’t think that the stylists, designers and editors who are currently feting “the new voluptuous”, as if it’s some kind of great liberation for women, would ever even dream of giving up their alfalfa sprouts and goji berries to actually join the “curvy revolution”. Fashion is fickle, and today’s shape issues are tomorrow’s abandoned Peta “Go Naked” campaigns.

Regardless, if designers think they can only make their clothes look good on a 4 – the proverbial blank canvas – then perhaps they’re in the wrong business. These are fine clothes you’re flogging, people, not fine art.

Don’t, then, blame the poor models; they’re just doing what they’re paid to do, and some of them are going hungry as a result.

So I wrote a piece for The National about it. Enjoy!

The rise of the plus-size model raises many questions
The National, August 7 2011
What a difference a century makes. In 1911, after a foray into pregnancy clothing, a dressmaker called Lena Bryant decided to tackle fashion for the “stout woman”. Lane Bryant, as the business was eventually called, cornered the market in clothes that, to quote a 1930 advert, “make the stout figure fashionably slender”. Continue reading…

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