My Big Fat Problem with Tim Gunn

Criticizing Tim Gunn is like calling Kermit the Frog an asshole: Not only is nobody going to take your side, the odds are good that many people will be actively offended by your sharing this minority opinion.

Jan 5, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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In the event that you have managed to avoid television since 2004, Tim Gunn rose to pop-culture fame as the kindly teacher/consultant (and occasional surrogate source of parental approval) to the competitors on Bravo’s fashion design reality show "Project Runway." His thoughtful commentary and amusing mannerisms made him one of the more beloved television personalities of the past several years.

Oh, Mr. Gunn has his charms, there is no doubt. My disdain is not personal; indeed, I think Tim Gunn is possessed of many wonderful characteristics as a human being. But I have problems with some of his recent comments, particularly as they pertain to plus-size fashion and the ladies who wear it.

This week Gunn is getting a lot of attention for comments he made in an interview with Marie Claire, promoting his new show “The Revolution,” a sort of full-life makeover series focusing on one lucky lady per week. It is a makeover that, among other things, includes a big ol’ weight-loss diet, naturally followed by a new wardrobe.

The comments getting all the play right now are Gunn’s thoughts on plus-size fashion in general:

Have you seen most of the plus-size sections out there? It's horrifying. Whoever's designing for plus-size doesn't get it. The entire garment needs to be reconceived. You can't just take a size 8 and make it larger... In my travels, I've been an advocate for larger women. I've been talking to designers, but only a half-dozen make an effort. Most say, "I don't want a woman who's a size 10 or 11 wearing my clothes." Well, shame on you! It's not realistic. We need to address real women with real needs. At Parsons, we had fit models that ranged in size from 2 to 10. We've got to reconceive clothes for all sizes. Sometimes I say, "I'm going to do a clothing line!" I'd love nothing more to respond to those designers who refuse to address it.

I am down with this, in theory. Gunn is right; a few notable exceptions aside, plus-size fashion is pretty dire when compared with the resources afforded those who wear smaller sizes.

Unfortunately, he seems to think that “plus size” includes women who wear a size 10. Now, I fully appreciate that for folks working in fashion, a size 10 may as well be plus-sized, given that so many designers are straight-up outspoken about their discomfort with women over a size 6 or 8 wearing their clothes. I get it. 

But for the rest of us living in the real world, a size 10 is not plus. Indeed, a size 10 is not even that difficult to shop for, when you compare it with shopping for a size 20. As a result I find Gunn’s assertion that he has been an “advocate for larger women” more than a little disingenuous, although I agree with his point that most designers don’t really understand how to create clothes for a bigger body.

Far more troubling to me is Gunn’s about-face on “aspirational” fashion, as result of his participation on “The Revolution”:

I'm talking to them about aspirational looks — looks they can't wear right now. I didn't believe in aspirational clothes before this. I was always of the belief, "Let's fit the size you are now. Let's not talk about being four sizes smaller." But there is the health issue.

FASHION AND HEALTH, TOGETHER AT LAST. Whatever an individual person’s health issues may be, I am fairly confident that they have nothing to do with the size label on their clothing.

In all seriousness, though, Gunn goes on to explain that he uses clothing as a motivator for his... client, I guess?... to lose more weight. This is hardly a new idea, as it’s a challenge to find a woman who hasn’t either bought an item of clothing too small on purpose -- or who has at least hung on to a too-small garment long past it fitting them any longer -- as “motivation” to lose weight. 

The problem is, it doesn’t actually work; said garment only serves as a symbol of guilt and failure, both of which can be motivating factors, for sure, but they’re not very uplifting ones. I’d argue that self-improvement efforts of all kinds are most likely to succeed when you approach them from a place of self-love and positivity, both of which are more easily cultivated when you’re focused on looking and feeling your most awesome at whatever stage you currently occupy. 

Using clothing as a carrot -- “I will allow myself to wear a dress when I’ve lost X pounds,” and so forth -- only reinforces negativity about yourself and your body, and negativity is a poor source of energy to make positive changes. (Also, “looks they can’t wear right now”? Who says? Is there a comprehensive list I should consult?)

We should all know by now that I am personally anti-diet. We can agree to disagree there as necessary; if nothing else, I hope we can come together on the idea that it’s cool for different people to have different opinions. 

It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that I hate aspirational stuff like this, and that I am incredibly disappointed by Gunn’s reversal, as his prior anti-aspiration position was awfully sane in a culture that is anything but when it comes to our bodies and how we learn to think and feel about them, often as bottomless sources of imperfection and reproach.

His comments are ultimately the same old body-loathing crap we hear all the time, wrapped up in faux sympathy, and therefore I must take issue with Gunn’s self-applied title of “advocate for larger women” as I believe his words do those women more harm than good. Especially when Gunn says of one woman on the new show, “...she'd been overweight her entire life and never known a normal, slim and sexy body.” (Emphasis mine.)

Guess what: Every body is sexy. And normal? Even if “normal” wasn’t a thoroughly subjective and individual notion, it’s totally overrated. I say dress the body you have, in whatever makes you feel marvelous, and aspire to self-acceptance that holds firm no matter what you currently look like, or how you look in the future. That’s my kind of revolution. 

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