A new body image?

Annelle Sheline
9 Min Read

Reading Daily News Egypt’s opinion piece on the V Magazine feature “Curves Ahead, I was struck by the tone of the article itself as well as the comments elicited online.

The highly publicized Dove campaign to show “real women represents an earlier assault of skinny model-dom, the women in “Curves Ahead don’t look how women “really look. They look like models posing for a Rococo painting, not sporting Gucci jeans and Versace shoes.

Daily News Egypt’s article, “Bold Yet Not So Beautiful (published February 6, 2010), criticized the feature for “do[ing] little to help solve the issue of the warped image of femininity and beauty that many women aspire to, thanks to the underweight models who pose in most fashion magazines the world over.

Although most women (and men) can likely remember a moment when the ideals of beauty felt “warped, and thus would probably agree, many readers’ indignation seemed directed at the closing sentence, “They [the images] do not represent the women who care enough about fashion to care enough about themselves.

Readers took offense at the implication that the women depicted, and overweight women in general, do not care about themselves or are not healthy.

Although as an American, my “healthy weight spectrum probably differs from the perspective of my Egyptian colleague, (it’s probably wider), our readers’ vehement reactions required further investigation into V Magazine’s provocative piece.

I first checked the response Curves Ahead had received on the American fashion blogosphere, and was confused that its obvious attack on the fashion industry’s mores educed a homogeneously positive reaction. Comments applauded V Magazine and the models themselves.

Granted, political correctness runs rampant these days. Bloggers who may have felt inclined to write a more complicated reaction than blatant admiration might have faced the same deluge of animosity that Daily News Egypt’s coverage understandably received.

First of all, readers are right for questioning the assumption that the plus-size supermodels featured do not care about themselves. Marquita Pring, Tara Lynn and Candace Huffine are represented by Ford Models, one of the industry’s most powerful agencies. All the models featured have successful careers based on possessing bodies that look the way photographers want them to. Although I do not know where their Body Mass Index would fall on a chart, they earn a living based on caring about their appearance.

The article criticizes the fashion industry’s ability to warp perceptions of beauty. I would say that the fashion industry, and society is general, does less warping than creating. By acknowledging that nearly every society has created its own definition of feminine beauty – women in imperial Japan blackened their teeth, women in Renaissance Europe used lead to whiten their skin – a Platonic ideal of universal beauty recedes into myth.

However, as stated by one incensed reader, most of art history would agree that what we now call “plus-sized used to be called “beautiful. That which today receives admiration as “beautiful history would call “impoverished.

I could partially attribute the transformation to the fact that in the cultural hegemony of the United States, lower income populations experience the highest levels of obesity. In contemporary America, thin often equals rich.

Wealth as represented by slimness accomplishes the primary purpose of magazines: to sell products based on the inherent message that purchasing will fulfill our fantasies of wealth, power, sexual appeal, etc. Many readers applauded “Curves Ahead for showing women as they “really look; on the contrary, the models may be size 10, but they still look like models. They’re half (or entirely) naked, beautifully made-up, and airbrushed.

To answer the question asked by the first article, “What are they trying to say? That fat is beautiful? The answer is no. But to show an increasingly overweight American readership that they do not have to be thin to be sexy generates a new fantasy. And fantasies sell products.

A woman who could never honestly fool herself into thinking that by buying a Prada bag she would suddenly acquire the sex appeal of the nude model using it to cover her 17-year-old frame, the sudden popularity of plus size models does not represent a new conscience for the fashion industry, but a new sales strategy. For a consumer-based economy to survive, dreams have to change in order to maintain sales.

But why now? Fast-food has been fattening us up for decades, so why did it take the industry so long to catch on to a huge demographic?

For clues, I again perused the blogs that mention “Curves Ahead. Amid comparisons to “Avedon’s classic Versace ads and references to Renaissance art, I discovered a burgeoning movement that calls for women to embrace their curves with feminine fashions. On sites such as judgmentofparis.com, the women appear beautiful in clothing that highlights their ample figures.

Yet try as I might to escape societal convention, these women do not look powerful. Portraying full figured models next to equally robust images of females from classical art conjured a period of time when the idealized woman existed in a separate sphere from men. The female form may have been more celebrated than today, which seems to prefer bodies of 12-year-olds, but women could not hold positions of power in business, law, medicine, or nearly any professional arena.

The vehemence with which readers greeted our article echoed the passion typically evinced by discussions of hijab as related to female empowerment. The debate over veiling and not veiling seems related to the question of whether or not to celebrate a woman’s curves, boiling down to “Yes, women are different from men. How will society deal with it?

In Western society, women donned modified men’s clothing in order to enter the workforce, and it is a rare female CEO that sports highly feminine styles today. Average working women in the States can wear more feminine apparel at the risk of not being taken as seriously by either women or men.

In Egypt, the swelling numbers of women entering the professional sphere saw a corresponding upsurge in wearing hijab. Today average working women in Egypt choose to wear the hijab or not; I cannot comment on their experience, but friends have said that wearing hijab (or not) does affect the way in which they are perceived.

I speculate that the childlike androgyny of super-skinny models may be symptomatic of a time period when Western feminism told women they were equal to men, without reassuring them that they were still women. Most Muslim societies never forced women to behave and dress in ways reminiscent of men, with the exception of Turkey and Iran, that later experienced resurgences in women asserting their right to wear hijab and continue to deal with the aftershocks.

The fact that “skinny is sexy has achieved nearly the status of a mythologized universal beauty speaks to the cultural hegemony of the West. I wonder whether America’s falling economic star might lead to a more pluralistic definition of beauty, and the rising profile of full-figured models may represent the first of many challenges to the Barbie-doll look that has dominated for half a century.

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