DEAR FASHION MAGAZINES: An Open Letter Regarding Melissa McCarthy’s Elle Cover

I’m not trying to be hard on you, fashion magazines. It’s just that you seem to be indulging some weird phobia about putting a plus-sized woman on your cover in any circumstances other than a flapping tent or an extreme close-up.
Publish date:
October 18, 2013
fat, fashion, magazines, weight, body politics, plus size

Dear Fashion Magazines,

It seems that one of your representatives, Elle, has once again made its selections for its annual “Women in Hollywood” issue -- the issue that features six different covers with six different actors who are also women. And once again, they have stepped out on a limb and included a plus size variant, in the form of the much beloved (by everyone except Rex Reed, anyway) Melissa McCarthy.

“Well done, fashion magazines!” is what I wish I was saying here. “Way to include a woman of a size rarely featured in your pages, let alone on the cover!” And I’m still kind of saying that last part, still. But let’s look a little closer at Melissa’s cover shot.




My friends, it was but two months ago that I wrote about Gabourey Sidibe’s strangely understyled photo in Harper’s Bazaar. In which she, too, was primarily wearing a big coat -- in Gabby’s case, a leather coat made specifically for her by Loewe. And I have a question.


Two instances is not quite enough for a trend, I'll confess, but I’d like to bring this up before it becomes a rampant problem and we are all buried in a sea of magazines featuring big women obscured in big coats.

To begin, please don’t give me any business about it being coat season. That insults us both. Sure, McCarthy’s image stands beside a coverline talking about perfect coats, but so do other far less voluminously-clad Elle cover ladies Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley, with the latter wearing what could be a swimsuit. PLUS, there is another coverline that mentions “the sexiest jeans ever” -- why not put McCarthy in a pair of those?

Let there be no doubt that Melissa McCarthy herself looks absolutely stunning. Her hair and makeup are fantastic. And I’m not even saying that the coat is ugly. I like the coat. The coat is a cashmere number by Marina Rinaldi and it is the kind of coat I dream about owning one day, when I eventually transform into an adult lady who can wear a cashmere coat without spilling a cherry Icee all over it in the first five minutes after putting it on. It is a lovely dream-coat.

But it is still a coat. And it kinda doesn’t feel super accidental that the one person you put the big voluminous coat on is the woman with the body that looks the most different from everyone else in your pages.

I’m not trying to be hard on you, fashion magazines. It’s just that you seem to be indulging some weird phobia about putting a plus-sized woman on your cover -- or even inside it -- in any circumstances other than a flapping tent or an extreme close-up. Where are the fleshy women in skinny jeans? Why no bodycon dress? Cleavage? Lingerie? A showgirl costume?

("A showgirl costume" is my solution to everything.)

Is your fear that the presence of a visibly and legitimately non-model-thin body on your cover will torpedo sales? I mean I know this is a real worry -- that cover choices can have a dramatic effect on sales of your product.

And I might get you if this wasn't Melissa McCarthy we're talking about. I have yet to meet a fellow human woman who does not adore McCarthy. I’m sure they exist, but it would seem their numbers are not vast enough to have a measurable impact on your newsstand income. Maybe I’m wrong, though -- and maybe the fact that Adele’s cover of Vogue was 2012’s second best-selling issue was because of the shade of red used on the coverlines and had nothing to do with her.

This is not the first time Elle has included a plus-sized woman among its “Women in Hollywood” covers, and in the past they've gotten crap for only showing said women from the boobs up.

Gorgeous shots, indeed (although Gabourey Sidibe’s was a little marred by allegations that her skintone was lightened). But notably absent in any point of reference betraying these women's actual size. So maybe this full-length-but-totally-covered-up approach is the best compromise you could come up with.

But I have a better idea, and I'm going to share it with you, for free, because I keep trying to be your friend, fashion magazines. And I think you need some help on this matter.


More specifically, here's my radical suggestion: publish some full length photos of gorgeous and meticulously styled plus size women representing a variety of shapes (in other words, not just models, but actors as well) wearing awesome clothes that fit them. Deploy the photoshopping with moderation, instead of shrinking and blurring those women within an inch of their two-dimensional life, like you sometimes do with Adele, who, I should note, looks totally fine with her actual body parameters intact.

My point is that the widely-beloved Melissa McCarthy could PROBABLY have been a coat-free cover model and she wouldn't have sent people screaming from the newsstands, dry-heaving, eyes bleeding, cursing the day wretched fate ever decided to blight them with the ability to see.

My point is also that somebody needs to start taking risks on this and I would have been happy to Elle be there at the start, so this feels like a tragically missed opportunity.

Elle has since responded to the controversy, suggesting that Melissa McCarthy herself (or her reps) chose the coat, and that she is happy with the image. This is lovely information to have, but ultimately it's beside the point.

Whether McCarthy loves the photo is not really speaking to the criticism that plus size women who aren't models are too often cropped at the neck or covered up from shoulder to knee in most magazine shoots. (Plus size models, on the other hand, are often simply naked, and cue the jokes about there being no clothes to fit them.)

Also, whether this coat was McCarthy's personal selection or not means little without knowing what her other options were. The coat is lovely; I am not bashing the coat. However, we both know that McCarthy would have had a fraction of the variety made available to Reese Witherspoon, simply because the sartorial options for a woman McCarthy's size are dramatically limited. And that, too, is part of the problem.

No, McCarthy should not be forced to pose in a bikini if she's not comfortable with that -- but there are plenty of women of a variety of shapes and sizes who would be perfectly happy to do so, which you all would know if you bothered to photograph them for your pages more often. And if this diversity existed, then the occasional plus-size woman in a coat would not stand out quite so much -- nor would it draw so much criticism.

Back in 2009, a small image of plus size model Lizzie Miller turned up in Glamour magazine and readers flipped out. In good ways. They flipped out in happy praise-filled good ways, seemingly so relieved to see a woman with visible body fat in the pages of a magazine. And people (both inside with industry and out) were calling this the start of a sea change in how magazines portray women's bodies.

What happened with that?

Now, Glamour is not Elle, and I understand that fashion is its own world, a world that is necessarily one of unreal fantasy -- not the kind of place where women are supposed to look around and see a reassuring reminder of their own familiar bodies, but where they should see impossible wonders, beautiful insanities, and images intoxicating and compelling. Or, as Karl Lagerfeld has put it, fashion is about “dreams and illusions,” and certainly not about reproducing reality.

I just don’t think all those magical things can only happen when the bodies involved are very very thin. Elle had a chance to do something new, to do something groundbreaking, and decided to play it safe. And I'm disappointed. Because it’s not “fantasy” to put a woman who looks like Melissa McCarthy in a big coat and hide her body where no one can see it -- in fact, it’s far too real.