October 1, 2016

How consumerism commodifies ‘curvy’

Illustration by Emily Ratkewicz

Illustration by Emily Ratkewicz

Anyone casually browsing the internet recently has probably noticed the hype over the inclusion of two plus-sized models in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Many are congratulating Sports Illustrated (SI) for representing new body types, while others argue the women in question are not in fact plus-sized and are therefore not representative of larger women.

This is a complex subject. First off, we should clarify the main differences between these two models. Ashley Graham, brunette, was included in the swimsuit issue as the focus of a paid advertisement for Swimsuits for All (which isn’t really for all – it starts at size 8). Robyn Lawley, blonde, actually had her own feature in the magazine. Don’t confuse these women with three other plus-sized models who can be found in photos alongside Lawley and Graham, also promoting Swimsuits for All. These models were not included in SI.

We can begin exploring this phenomenon by considering a crucial factor: the fashion industry’s definition of “plus-size.”

The term “plus-size” is not specific to any body type or set of proportions; it’s specific to a certain range of sizes (usually for dresses or pants), the minimum of which varies depending on who you talk to.

One tricky thing about the plus-size SI models is that they don’t look that big, but this is partially a function of their height. Lawley, for example, is indeed a size 12 – technically classifying as plus-size by fashion standards – but she is also 6’2”, which significantly downplays the “plus” in her size. Graham is a size 16, but she’s also not a shawty, measuring 5’9”.

It’s not entirely valid to accuse Sports Illustrated of not highlighting plus-sized models, considering SI is very much on the fashion wagon, and “plus-sized” is in this case a fashion standard. Whether SI is representing realistic women and diverse ideas of beauty, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.

I agree SI is not taking vastly new strides in objectifying female beauty. Lawley and Graham might be wider than most models, but they certainly don’t stand out to me as representatives of Wide Women Everywhere. Neither of them are necessarily relatable simply because they’re bigger – they have slim faces and look like supermodels, not like the average, beautiful women I encounter on a daily basis.

One might argue the models are refreshingly “curvy,” but curviness is already rampant in SI and similar magazines, whether the models are thin or plus-sized. It’s not hard to find – curvy proportions are expected of both models and everyday women. I think it’s disingenuous to say the media should feature more curvy girls, because when people say this, they tend to mean they want to see women with more “junk,” not more curves. It’s like when Meghan Trainor sings she’s “bringin’ booty back.” Really? When was the window in time where booty was unattractive, because I lived throughout my skinny teen years waiting to develop one so I could become a “real woman.”

Furthermore, I don’t know to what degree these photos and videos have been doctored, but I see a shocking lack of cellulite in them. If SI wanted to get real about women’s bodies, they’d stop pretending cellulite doesn’t exist.

No, SI is not pushing for truly radical perceptions of beauty. This is because they can’t. SI makes money depicting certain kinds of women in their material, and to deviate too far from this standard would be a huge risk – one they are highly unlikely to take. Those who subscribe to SI are interested in seeing a particular kind of woman, and financially, it is SI’s job to deliver. This magazine is and will not be in the business of revolutionizing beauty.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect better of our media. While it’s important to teach young girls about the arbitrariness of beauty standards and the excessive focus our culture has on women’s looks, we cannot rely on such encouragement to shape their worldview. Every day, girls and women are subliminally bombarded with images of women they are supposed to see as attractive, and boys and men get the same message, which perpetuates the same standards. The media does play a significant role in what people come to expect of themselves.

This is why it’s our responsibility as consumers to support media outlets that aren’t like Sports Illustrated; outlets that represent women of all shapes and sizes genuinely, not as a kind of circus-freak standalone; outlets that go out of their way to encourage diverse understandings of beauty; and outlets that at least attempt to portray women as women, not as clothes hangers and butt goddesses. This might be a vague goal, and such outlets might be few and far between. But voices, votes, views and money make a difference, and when a culture directs them thoughtfully, things really do end up changing.

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