THIS WEEK IN FAT STIGMA: “Plus Sized” Swedish Mannequins Good, “Overweight” Canadian Public Art Bad

I'm having trouble seeing these so-called "plus sized" Swedish mannequins blowing up on Facebook as some great leap forward in body acceptance. I KNOW, I'M SUCH A GRUMP.
Publish date:
March 20, 2013
fat, body image, body politics, mannequins

Last week, a blogger for Women’s Rights News posted an image of two “curvy” mannequins in a Swedish department store on Facebook, and the internet went a little bonkers about it. The Facebook posting in question has over 62,000 likes and over 19,000 shares as of this writing, which is kinda the definition of “going viral.”

A couple people pointed this image out to me last week, and I thought, wow, neat how that’s happening in Sweden, but it didn’t really seem all that big a deal to me. The mannequins don’t actually look all that different to me, they just look vaguely fleshy, although the story has been spun hither, thither and yon as the tale of two "plus sized" mannequins and how they won the hearts of American women.

And the Facebook reactions bear that out -- it seems many of the responders have never seen a non-skinny mannequin in their lives, so this is kind of a revolutionary moment for them. Heaven knows I understand the significance of seeing a body that looks more like your own positively represented in public.

But part of me is also thinking, where have y’all BEEN? Lane Bryant has been using “curvy” mannequins since the 90s, at least -- and while there is no love lost between me and Lane Bryant’s megalithic plus-size dispensaries of fatty finery at this point (seriously guys, of my last three underwear orders, guess how many had wrong items/wrong sizes sent? ALL THREE OF THEM) I think it’s worth noting that these mannequins are not exactly fashion unicorns.

Indeed, when Lane Bryant started using their fattequins -- which I’d guess wear about a US 12/14, but I welcome LB employees to correct me -- it was kind of a big deal. A big deal among fat ladies, anyway, as fat ladies are generally the only ones who go into Lane Bryant, and even then it’s only because for many folks, Lane Bryant is one of the ONLY plus size stores in their local area.

It’s struck me that this is one of the drawbacks to relegating plus sizes to special status, that so many women who don’t quite qualify as “plus” but rather in that nebulous and ultimately meaningless no-mans-land of “curvy” might not have ever been near enough to a Lane Bryant to know that these mannequins are hardly a brand new idea. The line between plus and straight sizes is hard-edged and thickly drawn by clothing manufacturers, if not in women's actual lives.

While this relatively new concept of “curvy” is interesting, and while I applaud those Facebook commenters now demanding a variety of mannequin shapes and sizes in their own local department stores, and am glad for their validation, it doesn’t really connect with me personally that much, for one simple and obvious reason: I’m not curvy. I’m fat.

A few months back, New York Magazine’s The Cut blog published a piece taking apart the sudden explosion of “curvy,” which has been so overused at this point as to be without any quantifiable meaning at all.

…[T]he term has been stretched so far in recent years, it’s become a shapeless sack containing all of womanity. Back in March, Us Weekly posted pics of a bikini-clad Taylor Swift “showing off her curves” on the beach. Never mind that the 22-year-old country star’s straight and willowy body is about as curvy as a carrot stick. At the other end of the spectrum, in Italian Vogue recently, Gabourey Sidibe was described as a “curvy actress.” And the New York Daily News characterized Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy as a “curvy comedian.” We all know the magazines are just being polite in these cases.

Indeed. I’ve never been fond of “curvy” simply because I am not curvy in the way people usually mean -- or rather, I am curvy, but not in the way the coded “curvy” means, not in the way most people mean it when they say it. I am curvy in that I have fleshy parts and thick rolls of fat, which are curves in the geometry sense, if not in the popular-women’s-media sense. I have boobs on the small side, barely requiring a B-cup; instead of a defined womanly waist, I have a big middle roll I have most recently called a “chub donut” but for which I continue to solicit amusing names.

So while I want to get all nonskinny mannequin solidarity up in here with my Facebook-commentin’ sisters, I wind up in a place where I’m saying “How nice for you” like somebody’s polite but distant aunt. Because when figures that look like MY body get public attention, they’re either considered a punch line, or a dangerous ideology that must be stopped.

To wit: Sharp-eyed reader Christine recently sent me a news article about some public art sculptures to be installed outside an Ontario recreation center. The city council has condemned the planned designs as being, well, too fat for public consumption.

Regional councillor Colleen Jordan said she was concerned about the message the sculptures were sending the greater community.“A number of the figures look somewhat overweight and were depicted doing passive things such as sitting and lying on the grass, and so on,” said Ms. Jordan, who represents Wards 3 and 4 in Ajax. “And this isn’t the type of lifestyle that we’re encouraging, and especially among our children and our youth.”

Another councillor described the figures -- which are pretty obviously not meant to be true to life -- as looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy, who I guess is a bad role model for future generations. Why we think kids would look at a 15-foot sculpture made out of steel mesh and river stones and think, "I want to look like that when I grow up!" seems insulting to even young children's intelligence -- children who are, already, pretty familiar with fatness as a bad thing -- but whatever.

This kind of thinking, though, is at least partly why we don't see "curvy" mannequins in stores -- because we don't want people to get the idea that being anything other than slender in a very specific, culturally sanctioned way is an acceptable way to conduct one's body. "Curvy" mannequins might give everyday women the impression that there might NOT be anything wrong with their bodies, and we certainly can't have that. Or worse, seeing non-skinny bodies in a value-neutral setting runs the risk of GLORIFYING OBESITY, which we really, really can't allow.

So even when people are freaking out in positive ways over mannequins that are a little more fleshy, the cognitive dissonance is deafening. It seems clear that seeing a diversity of bodies does people good, but this overwhelming and often irrational fear of fat bodies undercuts any real progress we might be making.

Did you notice how many of the Facebook commenters felt compelled to note that those mannequins are NOT “fat” or “obese” or “unhealthy,” but are “normal”? Because “fat” bodies are still bad, yo.

Ultimately all we’re doing here is moving the goalposts a bit, stretching what is acceptable without unpacking why we might dispense with the perceived need for a cultural standard of an acceptable body in the first place. And while slightly widening these expectations might be temporarily beneficial to the body esteem of many women -- and of course that’s a good thing -- it does nothing to address the fascist beauty standards that made those women feel like crap about their bodies in the first place.

And what about those Ontario sculptures? The artist, Geordie Lishman, has agreed to slim down some of the final versions, but intends to keep some of the chubby figures intact:

“I’m going to put a few of them on diets, and that by the time we erect them, they will be thin and good-looking, like the councillors like.”But Mr. Lishman plans to have a range of silhouettes.“I know a lot of people that are heavier and very active…. I would like to put a variety of different people there to show that the community centre is for many people in the community. It’s not just for those who are active. You can sit and relax and enjoy, or you can take your body to the very limits of its abilities.”

Right on. Body diversity is worth representing -- indeed, it’s necessary. And if that’s a dangerous ideology, it’s one I can get behind.