Once upon a time, many fat women did a bunch of their shopping via mail-order catalogs.
I know. It sounds insane even to me, and I was there. But while plus sizes still have a ways to go, we’ve also come a long distance from the time when options were so limited that some of us were compelled to turn to catalogs mostly aimed at the churchy-grandma market in hopes of finding something cute that fit. There was Lane Bryant (which, confusingly, was divorced from its brick-and-mortar retail shops in 1999, when Charming Shoppes bought the stores and revamped them into something marginally hipper), Jessica London (the fat version of the Chadwick’s catalog), Roaman’s (a stout label that’s been around since the 1960s at least), among others, lost to memory.
There was just one problem: none of these catalogs actually used plus size models. They used standard slender catalog models and often pinned too-big clothes to fit -- sometimes in hilariously obvious ways. (This still happens -- just a couple weeks ago I was flipping through one such catalog and noticed a cap sleeve had been clipped to fit a model’s lithe arm, and the clipped bit was just sticking up in the air like a little flag, I suppose because someone forgot to photoshop it out.) The customer complaints on this are legion; everyone is eager to point out the absurdity of having size 6 catalog models pinned into size 12 clothes, and to wonder why these catalogs don’t simply use bigger models.
The story I’d always heard -- and which I now suspect may be apocryphal as I can’t find it cited anywhere -- was that once, in the 1980s, the Lane Bryant catalog bent to the will of its consumers and shifted to plus size models in its catalogs. The alleged result was that sales plummeted. The proposed reason for this was that fat women, presumably riddled with self-loathing, don't really want to see models who look like themselves, and are more likely to buy clothing that lets them identify with thinner women.
Personally, I figured the real issue was that putting dumpy dowdy clothing on bigger models just highlights how terrible the clothing is, so no one wanted to buy it. But, you know, you say tomato.
The invisibility of plus size women -- and when I say “plus size” here I mean size 16 and up, not fashion-industry plus size, which I think is like an 8 -- in plus size shopping was a strange reality, seeming to underscore the quiet knowledge shared by many fat women, that no one wants to see that. Even you don’t want to see that, it asserts; even you don’t want to see women who look like you, even you can’t bear to recognize what you “really” look like. In most forms of media, our bodies literally did not exist except as punchlines, or as cast-off husks, the grainy “before” photos in weight loss ads. You never saw fat women smiling with their friends and going about their day and wearing nice clothing and simply being normal. And so, it was easy to believe that this never happened.
Culture has changed somewhat since then, because (and despite assertions by stodgy naysayers that things like this are just “the way it is” and will never be different) culture is actually a fairly malleable substance. Today we see far more plus size models than we once did; bloggers and personalities like Gabi Gregg, Nicolette Mason and Tess Munster have massive and dedicated followings, because there is, in fact, an audience of people who want to see a diversity of bodies in fashion, and not all of those people are necessarily fat themselves.
When fatshion blogging (please note that T) was first emerging as a specific internet subculture, part of its effect, if not its overt goal, was to subvert the flood of straight-size models and demonstrate fat fashion on fat bodies instead. In my time as a part of that movement, I consistently received gratitude from readers not only for my awesome style (my reputation as The Catalog Whisperer -- someone who could tease out nonugly outfits from frumptastic offerings -- was entirely earned) but for the simple fact that I was demonstrating what certain clothes really looked like on a non-slender body. Guessing how a dress worn by a size-six model will look on your size-20 body is a real challenge, particularly when shopping from catalogs or websites that don’t provide multiple views of the garment in question.
It’s not an exaggeration to credit the evolution of fatshion blogging with having had an effect on social and cultural expectations of what constitutes a “normal” body. Because things have changed.
Earlier this month, trailblazing multi-size retailer ModCloth released polling data it had commissioned on the subject of size diversity in fashion. Its leading finding is that only 13% of those polled believed that “real women” are accurately portrayed in the fashion industry -- a framing I have problems with, myself. Truth is, I would have been among those 13%, because even the slenderest models are still “real” women, they are just not ALL women. The artificial divide that identifies slim bodies as unreal or fake and other bodies as more legitimately human only serves to move the goalposts in the conversation about which bodies are valid, when all bodies are valid, and what we really ought to be doing is stopping the game.
The study’s other findings were more pertinent: 71% of the women polled think models should be more diverse. 47% feel excluded by fashion; this figure rises to 65% in plus size women specifically. 62% think the fashion industry is harmful to women.
And perhaps most impressively, a majority of women report being more likely to buy from a company that uses diverse models (68%), and minimal retouching and Photoshopping (62%).
ModCloth, for its part, is taking an unusually firm stand on this issue. Chief Creative Officer Susan Kroger is putting her own company on the line and asking others to join her:
It is time to put an end to the extreme Photoshopping and the false and unrealistic expectations placed upon women (and men for that matter). This is why ModCloth recently became the first to sign The Brave Girls Alliance “Truth in Advertising Heroes Pledge,” an anti-airbrushing petition which aims to “do our best not to change the shape, size, proportion, color and/or remove/enhance the physical features, of the people in our ads in post-production.”
On behalf of ModCloth, I am making this commitment to our customers:
Models: We will continue to cast a variety of women sourced from our community, and show them as their true selves.
Merchandise: We will source, make, and sell clothing in a broad range of sizes.
Community: We will listen to our customers as a community and put them at the center of everything we do.
Not bad for a company mainly known for selling 15,000 different varieties of dresses with birds printed on them.
For decades, fashion has argued that size diversity went against their bottom line, but that may be changing now. Multiple studies have found that when women are consistently exposed to slender bodies in media, this does in fact have a measurable effect not only on which bodies they prefer, but on their own individual self-esteem and body image.
For a long time, I sought out positive images of women who looked like me -- that is, fat -- because doing so provided a sense of personal validation; if she is allowed to wear a dress, and show her legs, and smile, and share photos of herself online, and refuse to apologize for any of it, then I could feel justified in allowing myself to do the same. I don’t rely on these pictures as I once did, but their impact on my self-esteem was enormous.
I had to actively seek out size diversity. Imagine if that was just normal, and everywhere. Imagine how that might influence how all women feel about their bodies.
It’s one thing to know something is bad for you; it’s another to try to change it, and sometimes the easiest way to do that is to choose where you spend your money. If ModCloth’s polling data indicate a larger shift in the marketplace, it would seem that consumers are getting on board with supporting more diversity in fashion at last.