Our obsession with ‘plus size’ role models
A few weeks ago, a picture popped up on my facefeed that encapsulated almost everything I hate about the Real Woman™ celebration we’ve been forced to endure for the past decade or so.
In it, a porcelain-skinned ethereal beauty lies naked, splayed and stomach down on a bed that appears to have Seen Things. She stares into the camera like an ingénue on the cusp; a poster girl for the current spate of ‘erotic’ dreck flooding our bookstores, in which the innocent and inexperienced virgin reveals herself to have a natural talent for both fellatio and multiple orgasms.
While my sexualised interpretation might seem a little heavy handed, I think it’s integral to the overarching problem of the image (which in and of itself has more than a playful smack of 1920s illicit photography about it and is, for that purpose, quite delicious). The caption accompanying the image reads: “no makeup, no hairdo…but still gorgeous.”
Leaving aside the still ever-present male gaze that the photo caters to, it’s presumably supposed to make us feel better about living in the kind of artificial world that tells us we’re nothing without makeup, airbrushing, unrealistic body ideals and an unhealthy obsession with our looks. And on the surface, it seems like a legitimate kind of opposition. Why shouldn’t we appreciate alternative forms of beauty? Who says that only thin, blonde, white supermodels get to be attractive?
But this kind of DIY attempt at culture jamming is little more than another form of body policing dressed up as guerrilla feminism. Because apart from the fact that the conversational circle jerk over beauty ideals is so goddamn boring, almost every meme I’ve seen revelling in women’s ‘curves’ and natural beauty is guilty of three things:
1. Gross crimes against originality;
2. A curiously moronic belief that presence of ‘curves’ is exponentially linked to an increase in size (FYI: ‘curves’ does not mean fat – not all small women look like pre-pubescent boys and not all big women have bodacious bosoms and tiny waists. Stop kidding yourselves.);
3. Betraying the very politics it claims to represent by not just elevating one kind of beauty ideal over another, but continuing to treat ideals as things that matter.
Consider the image of Marilyn Monroe that began floating around a few years ago, in which the tiny (yes: despite a generally touted ignorance that she was some kind of white whale in disguise, she was on the small side of thin) bombshell is compared to a Victoria’s Secret model with gazelle like limbs. Its caption reads: “Fuck society. This is more attractive than this.”
Gleefully, women pasted it on their social media walls and blogs, obnoxiously reiterating to the world that unlike their less sophisticated peers they had a more nuanced understanding of beauty and worth. Real Men, it was claimed, are attracted to Real Women. Women with real thighs, real breasts and real personalities – as if being naturally thin somehow renders you artificial, and depth and breadth of personality needs an equivalently rotund area in which to fit.
Is that what the battle of body image has really been reduced to? A sort of Playtex thunderdome in which the jealousies and insecurities of women who feel victimised by rigid codes of attractiveness take it out on those they assume are favoured by the dichotomy? Defending the rights of women not to be defined by their body shape by arguing that certain women aren’t real plays into an irony that even I can’t get behind.
Recently, the Weekend Australian Magazine ran a cover feature on Australian model Robyn Lawley. Because Lawley is a size 16, she’s classified as plus-size. On that, Lawley somewhat hypocritically says, "I'm a normal size. I wish we could all be known as models, rather than 'plus-size'. It's skinny models who should be called 'minus size'."
The piece treats with great fanfare Lawley’s love of food (the model has a food blog, enjoys mulberry tart and wants to open a restaurant when she retires from being a clothes horse) because everyone knows that attractive, robust women who eat are somehow more evolved and better at sex than their skinnier counterparts – and don’t fool yourselves that this is about anything other than sex. It’s this normality that’s supposedly enables Lawley to ‘operate as a normal-sized human being in the looking-glass world of models and celebrities’.
In the confused backlash against body fascism, models and celebrities like Lawley – for despite what the Weekend Oz posits, she is both – are held up as evidence that normal women can, nay, should be winning some of their own medals in the Beauty Olympics. Ladies, put down the scales and start embracing your curves! Christina Hendricks is IN! Kim Kardashian’s Kurves are Killer! Kate Upton is the new face of Hot Hot Hot! Sofia Vergara? More like Sofia Viagra!
Here is the one fact you need to know about Robyn Lawley’s ‘normal’ sized body: at 188 cm, her proportionate size 16 is roughly the equivalent of a 165 cm woman’s size 10-12. Admire her for her beauty, certainly. Admire her imposing, statuesque figure and the cheekbones that could cut glass. But don’t patronize yourselves by pretending that her success is somehow a win for women whose thighs meet in the middle. Robyn Lawley is paid money to model because she’s beautiful and she looks good in clothes – at 188cm and stunning, she is about as far from normal as you can get.
All of these examples of Real Woman™ have one thing in common. It’s not that they celebrate diversity or that they’re as stale, boring and tired as the kind of limited narrative that suggests only thin women deserve love or praise. It’s that they remind women that the most important thing a woman can be is desirable; that she needs to view herself as desirable, and have that view reinforced by a condescending message of inspiration about how her averageness is actually much more attractive than whatever beauty ideal happens to be fashionable at the time. At its heart, it is an infantilizing, juvenile obsession that still pits women against each other and distracts us from participating in a life free of the pressure that comes from worrying about the stock market value of our looks.
We need to move beyond the comparisons and the memes, the musing over what makes a woman real and what makes her worthy of our contempt. Crucially, we need to start accepting that some women are more conventionally beautiful than others, and that this is okay. We can be adults about it, and accept the diversity we claim to be craving. And maybe if we practice that hard enough, one day we really will cease to care about whether or not the size of our bottoms disqualify us from being either real or attractive, or both.