By KATE BETTS
I owe Rene Zellweger an apology. Over a year ago, as the editor of a fashion magazine, I pulled her picture off the cover of an issue at the last minute, swapping it for a photo of a lanky swan in a whiff of Dior chiffon. The problem wasn't the usual one that kills covers. The lighting was impeccable. Her dress was a glamorous Galliano, and there was a lot of talk about her new movie, "Bridget Jones's Diary" and a starring performance that would be hailed with an Oscar nomination. No, the problem was much more primal, born of one of the not-so-secret obsessions of the fashion world: she was too fat.
The debacle started with one of those typical negotiations that take place between magazine editors and that elite cadre of longshoremen who do the heavy lifting of celebrity publicity. The actress's team had been negotiating with the magazine's celebrity wrangler for weeks, hoping to snag a cover.
We were leery because the word was that Ms. Zellweger, like Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," had put on weight to play Bridget Jones. The rumor on the street was 30 pounds. One of her publicists swore she had gained just 8. Then the tally was revised down to 2. Just a measly 2 pounds. We went back and forth like a couple of short-weighting wholesalers haggling over a shipment of turkeys.
Finally the photographs came back. It wasn't as if she was wearing Gwyneth Paltrow's fat suit from "Shallow Hal." But that girl-next-door charisma was nowhere to be seen. Even after several thousand dollars' worth of airbrushing, there was no hiding the truth. "It's not in anyone's best interest to publish these," I said delicately. The cover was killed, and I thought that was the end of it. But then the whole imbroglio came out in the tabloid gossip columns, as if a fashion magazine's opting not to publish a picture of an overweight actress was startling and outrageous.
Well, I did feel bad about it. We wanted to put an actress on the cover because of her performance and her talent, and yet ultimately the decision had only to do with the way she looked. It seemed wrong - or maybe regrettable - to judge somebody by such trivially narrow criteria.
These days, fashion's antifat bias and obsession with thinness, so ingrained among those who make careers in the business, is looking increasingly like a blind spot, one that could ultimately shortchange designers, retailers and even magazine publishers. While sales of sizes 0 to 12 have been flat or have grown modestly in the last two years, what is called the "plus size" market has surged as much as 18 percent. It has happened at a time when Americans are aging and growing heavier. Yet, if you want to wear Gucci and Prada - and people who love fashion would feel badly dressed if they couldn't - you'll have a hard time finding anything above a size 12.
"Some of the most powerful women in the world have had four kids, they're a size 12, and you have to apologize to them for 10 minutes because they're really upset that you don't carry their size," said an experienced Madison Avenue salesman, who requested anonymity to save his store from embarrassment. He said that most designers want to serve only a clientele that represents a skinny ideal. "I always believed if they did a size 46 or a size 48, they'd do a lot more business, but they don't think that's their market."
Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, has watched well-off middle-aged women walk through his store morosely, unable to fit into the chic little nothings on the rack, only to console themselves with jewelry from the ground floor.
"It's the last unexplored opportunity in the fashion business," he said. "If I were Tom Ford or Miuccia Prada, I would make upscale, groovy, hip clothes for plus sizes." The problem is a prejudice against large sizes in the fashion business, he said.
Everyone who works in fashion has heard the stories that point to the tyranny of the skinny archetype. There's the American design house where the byword is you needn't apply for a job if you are bigger than size 8. When the look of the moment was more anorexic than usual, there was supposedly a sign in the bathroom of one of the major American fashion magazines that said, "Don't vomit in here."
And then there was the story of the fashion assistant who worked around the clock one night to organize a magazine party, only to be told the following day that her help was no longer needed. She was too "big" for the uniform that staff members would be wearing to the party.
At the same time that I was rejecting Rene Zellweger for a cover, I was struggling with my own weight.
For my entire two-year tenure at the head of the magazine, I was trying to get back to what I weighed before my son was born. On a good day, the readout on the bathroom scale said 150, which, for a 5-foot-9 woman's frame is about average in America. But by the unforgiving standards of the fashion business, I was a butterball.
"You're not fat," colleagues would say consolingly. "You just had a 10-pound baby." Less sentimental friends would slip me the phone numbers of diet doctors, often just after we finished discussing which of the new models needed "to lose her puppy fat." Once at a fashion show, a childless woman I used to work with remarked loudly enough for me and half the front row to hear, "How hard can it be to lose the baby weight?"
A dermatologist went so far as to suggest liposuction. "Everyone does it now," she said one day in the examining room. "You can't compete with women your age these days just by dieting. You've got to get lipo if you want to look like them."
Why didn't I lose the weight? I jumped halfheartedly through the usual hoops: personal trainer, the Zone diet, cappuccinos for lunch. But I didn't really make a concerted effort. Looking back, I wonder if the weight didn't reflect some fundamental ambivalence toward the values of the industry I was in. I wonder if I didn't feel intimidated by the images I myself was perpetuating.
In ancient times, fat was royal, and being thin denoted poverty. Over the last century, _ types have gone in and out of style like hemlines and haircuts. These shifts respond mostly to fashion's changing mores. The stick-straight 1920's flapper silhouette was a reaction to the constricting corset. By the 50's, curves were back, and so were corsets.
In the 60's, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton were ushering in a decade of revolutionary miniskirts and minisize models. Brooke Shields and Christie Brinkley became symbols of a new kind of all-American broad-shouldered sexiness in the 80's. Kate Moss hit the scene in 1992, and waifs in tight sleeves and tiny bias-cut dresses came to define the 90's look.
All of these permutations occurred against a backdrop of larger questions about the role of women and the power of images. Fashion, which can make people feel beautiful and glamorous, can also make people feel worse about themselves if they're not as beautiful, or as thin, or as fabulous as the swans in the pictures.
For the last decade, the images in fashion magazines have been increasingly divorced from the reality of their readers. Models get skinnier and skinnier - the average model in 1985 was a size 8, while today the average model is a size 0 or 2. Yet the average American gets bigger and bigger. (Maybe too big: the Centers for Disease Control says 61 percent of adult Americans are obese and run an increased risk of health problems.) It's almost a perverse relationship: the fatter the country gets, the thinner its icons must be.
The disconnect is widening at the very moment an alternative to the high-fashion combine is gaining momementum - namely, the plus-size market. Once plus sizes were a fashion ghetto. Now they have their own runway show, CurveStyle, which was introduced in February in New York and will continue on the same semiannual schedule as the designer ready-to-wear collections.
"Ten years ago, so many department stores wouldn't even consider carrying larger sizes because they didn't want larger-size women in their stores," said Kurt Barnard, the president of Barnard Retail Trend Report. "Now I think you'd have to look very hard to find someone who does not carry plus-size clothing. If they don't, they are doing themselves an injustice."
At Saks, the plus-size business in the Salon Z department - a whole floor of Saks Fifth Avenue devoted to women's sizes 16 to 24 - has increased more than 20 percent since its expansion in 1999. Many American designers like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Dana Buchman and DKNY have spotted a plus-size opportunity to attract a new customer.
European companies like Gianfranco Ferre and Krizia have also entered the market. Chanel has always provided customers with sizes up to 20, but that is not common knowledge. Marina Rinaldi, the Italian-based company, is even thinking about renting a hotel suite in Los Angeles around this time next year to cater to plus-size Oscar nominees and partygoers.
And Mode, a defunct plus-size fashion magazine, will be reincarnated come May as Grace, to be edited by a former Mode editor, Ceslie Armstrong. Even Vogue's fat-free fashion pages are bulking up with pictures in the April issue of Kate Dillon, a plus-size model, who tells of her battle with anorexia as a "skinny model" and her eventual decision to return to fashion at her natural size. The subject is euphemistically embraced in the current issue as a "celebration of shape."
"The idea was to show women of all shapes and sizes," said Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor in chief. "You can look good whatever shape you are. It's something Vogue and other fashion magazines don't address."
She added that although she was impressed with how much clothing in larger sizes her editors had been able to call in from the designer market, she was unsure whether designers would depart from the thin silhouette, the ultimate symbol of youth and cool.
"Honestly, I don't think you're going to see this trend on the runway," Ms. Wintour said. The only plus-size model that designers really embrace, she noted, is Sophie Dahl, and even Ms. Dahl is not so plus anymore: she recently lost 30 pounds and, as one observer puts it, "she's now as skinny as the rest of them."
Maybe the attention to the plus-size market will inspire designers to start a trend - not just creating larger sizes, but, more important, adapting a more ecumenical approach to beauty and fashion. As the Ford model Katy Hansz points out, weight is not as marginal a subject as the fashion establishment thinks. "Every single woman I have ever met in my entire life has an issue with their body, whether they're a size 2 or 22," she says in "Curves," a new documentary on the plus-size modeling industry.
Since my Rene Zellweger debacle, I've lost some weight, but also the sense of being enslaved by size 0 expectations. As for Ms. Zellweger, well, she might not have won the Oscar for best actress, but in her black Carolina Herrera ball gown, she definitely took home the proverbial gold statuette for most glamorous star on the red carpet. By gaining weight for "Bridget Jones," she defied the cultural archetype and presented an image of herself that permeated the surface. In the theater world they call that bravura. Is that a pose for a cover? You tell me.</dir></dir>
Was it me, or did anyone else who saw Bridget Jones' Diary think that all that talk about Zellweger’s weight gain was utter BULL? She was still skinnier than most people I know.</p>
</font>The current Thread comments from WWDN:
Thanks for posting this. I'm a guy, but I have a pretty strong hate towards the "thin" pressure placed on women. One has to question the integrity of any industry (the weight loss, cosmetics, and fashion industry particularly) that requires that people feel uncomfortable with themselves in order to make money. Women are pressured to look like other women by the advertisements run in magazines. And self worth is tied into waist size, or taking a step back from that, from the ability to attract a mate. Of course, there are more moderate applications of all of those things: some women put on cosmetics because it's fun, and not because they are embarrased to be outside without them. Some people lose weight to be healthy, not to fit into a ridiculously sized dress.
I'd like to focus on the "make people feel uncomfortable with themselves to make money" for a moment as well. I've read a bit on techniques of coercion, brainwashing, and interrogation. (I started on a horrified fascination with this subject after reading 1984.) Analyzing advertisments, especially advertisments in this particular industry, is incredibly enlightening.
In any sort of overt brainwashing and interrogation, the first step is to destroy the person mentally and emotionally. Various techniques are used.. speeding up and slowing down time, drugs, torture, humiliation. The end result of the tactic is to leave a person feeling terrified and alone, worthless, and desperately looking for somone to help them. This is known as inducing regression: you knock the person down to a childlike state.
When someone is in a childlike state, and terrfied, they will do what it is natural for any child to do: look for a parent. The brainwasher/interrogator then steps in, offering both authority and faux-compassion, and will very frequently be taken on as a psychological parent figure. From there, the faux-parent can essentially reprogram a person, rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior. This is textbook interrogation/brainwashing theory.
How does this apply to fashion ads? Well, consider how fashion ads operate. I want to start out by saying that overt brainwashing is far more extreme than fashion advertising, the goal is less ambitious, and there is much more time, and corroberating support of the "brianwasher" than a typical brainwasher would have.
1) Break down self-esteem - Can it really be contested that fashion ads don't make many women feel like crap? I dont know any women iin my life that dont either hate the ads, or else feel inadequate next to them. Only the elite can shop at these absurd stores where they don't sell middle to plus sizes. And if you arent among those people, it is a stigma of shame. Can't go to the beach, cant go to the party because the uniforms only go up to size 6 or whatever. This is an attack, though not as blatant, on self esteem and self image.
2) Step in as the Parent Figure - Fashion magazines will offer advice on how to trim down for swimsuit season. Dieting advice, makeup advice. "We want to help you find that true beautiful you." Sure, just shell out cash for a drawer full of cosmetics, crackpot diet plans and pills, liposuction, etc. Magazine racks are full of advice for women why are die(t)ing to become the elite. More money gets spent.
And of course you'll gladly plunk down an absurd amount of money to fit into that dress you "earned" by losing all that weight, if you manage to accomplish that frequently dangerous proposition. But such body types cannot frequently be sustained in people whom it is not natural for, and so the cycle begins again.
Of course, the fashion technique is not as extreme as the torture technique, but I think that both rely on exactly the same psychological mechanics, of break-down/offer-help. The way to resist it, of course, is to not let people break you down, but unfortionately this industry gets tremendous media support. It's hard to be OK with your body if a million voices are screaming at you that it's wrong. To my eyes, the one of the only ways people can prevent this is through a rather difficult feat of character; saying "I don't care what the world thinks, I'm OK with who I am" It's one of those things that becomes a bit more true, the more often it is said and believed in, I think (but its also an easy place to start lying to yourself.) But when somone is comfortable with their body, and it doesnt fit the fashion industry's absurd mold, it starts to undermine the coercion, it becomes inspirational. The other, is to try and always make other people feel good about their bodies, and be sincere about it. That also undermines the coercion.
Sorry for the stupidly long post.
You know what upsets me? All of these beautiful women like Kate Winslet, Rene Zellweger, and Drew Berrymore are seen as big or fat. They are not. If Marylin Monroe were alive today, she'd be a plus sizes model! This obsession with skinny is rediculous. My guy-friends and I went to the mall the other day, and they spent a lot of the time laughing at the girls in the adds in the windows. They would point and say, "she's got no boobs!" and "Somebody give her a burger, quick!". When we passed a store known for it's plus sizes (most of which, in my opinion, shouldn't be classified as "plus") the girl in the Ad in the window was beautiful. She was curvy and had that old fashioned look. One of my guy-friends stopped and said, "if I buy those pants, would they come with her?"
This idea of beauty that has been plaguing us since Twiggy is warped and twisted in my mind. I guess I'm just gealous because, despite the fact that I am not overweight, I would be a plus-size model.
Ok, just so we all know where this is coming from;
I am a guy
I am one really fat son of a gun
I've been married for ten years.
Basically, I am in no companies desired demographics. No company wants me to be seen wearing their clothes, eating their food, whatever.
I hate the concept of beauty in this country. Hate it. We seem to feel the ideal of beauty is, to quote Spider Robinson, 'a fourteen year old boy with plums in his shirt pockets'. I said this when I talked about MIBII, [talking about Laura Flynn Boyle] women should look like women, with curves and soft lines and all. Now, I am not a 'chubby chaser', I just like human looking women. I don't mind fit looking, I love a woman where you can see a curve of nice bicep and a little musculature, it's sexy as hell. But this uberskinny look, where the collar bone is jutting out like some example of modern architecture or where the thickest part of a woman's arm is her elbow, this is just goddamn wrong.
My two cents.