In an interview with Clique magazine last week, model Robyn Lawley argued that the label 'plus size' shouldn’t apply to her because she is no larger than the average woman. “People say, ‘How is she a plus-size model?’ and I'm like, ‘Exactly, this is the point, how am I a plus-size model?’”
The 24-year-old later said the ‘derogatory’ term should be done away with altogether, because it was nothing more than a label used to define people. (Interestingly, Lawley once asserted that it was skinny models should be called ‘minus size’, to much fanfare).
I’m all for doing away with meaningless labels, but Lawley (who has been much heralded across all manner of publications, from Jezebel to NY Mag and Buzzfeed) is hardly a revolutionary on the barricades of women’s empowerment. She is a phenomenally beautiful woman who’s paid to wear clothes and walk down a runway.
Model Robyn Lawley.
And plus size or not, the fact is that neither she nor Crystal Renn, Sophia Dahl, Kate Upton or any of the other women seen as outliers in an industry which typically favours a size 0 or less are champions for diversity.
They may not be on the skinny side of thin, but their beauty is similarly uniform in other ways. They are overwhelmingly white and tall. They have excellent bone structure. And they are, as Lawley argues of those size 10 models stuck in the no-man’s land between a straight size and a plus size, ‘completely in proportion’. In terms of aspirational beauty, most women have about as much chance of looking like Robyn Lawley as they do Kate Moss at the height of heroin chic.
In fact, Lawley is correct when she says that 'model' is the only label which should apply to her -- because when I see her posing in a swimsuit from her new line, I don’t think, “Isn’t it marvellous that someone like me is wearing a bikini in Cosmopolitan!” I think, “Oh look, a model.”
The success of Lawley and her contemporaries appeals to a misguided perception that their presence is somehow a win for the normals among us who are made to feel too much of everything that’s supposed to be bad - too fat, too ugly, too shapeless, too soft, too hairy, too skinny, too too too. And how have we chosen to target that machine which profits from our self loathing? By holding on to the fundamental messages it peddle.
Our attempts to reject these ideals have somehow been twisted and co-opted by the industries themselves, repackaged to us as a brand of positive, You Go Girl empowerment that instructs us of our inherent right to feel beautiful.
We now demand to be included in its practices of objectification to the detriment of ourselves and each other, as if it is our invisibility in the system that is the real problem and not the reduction of our worth to physical attributes. Models like Lawley (whose proportions have been described as ‘perfect’) are supposed to make us feel better about ourselves not worse, simply because they have buxom breasts and curvy waists.
When I clock the amount of hours I’ve spent obsessing over my body and all its myriad ‘faults’, I don’t just feel exhausted. I also feel angry. But I doubt very much that growing up with People Who Look Just Like Me in magazines would have bolstered the self-esteem I struggled with.
There is no fixed size (or age) at which girls and women start to hate their bodies -- and unless we lived in a marketing vacuum, it's near impossible to escape the messages which tell us that if we buy this shampoo, eat this food, exercise in these clothes, lose this weight and wear these shoes that we will finally feel like we’re good enough to claim space in the world.
So while I agree with Lawley that labels such as ‘plus size’ should be done away with, let’s not kid ourselves that such a move alone would signify a more inclusive, less judgmental environment for women.
One of the best tricks the patriarchy ever played on us was distracting us with the obsession of physical beauty, encouraging us to view other women as threats because they happen to fit whatever standard of attraction this decade says is ‘in’. It is so boring to have the same conversations over and over again about how every woman is gorgeous and deserves to feel that way. Are we really so shallow as to have made that our priority?
What all women fundamentally deserve to feel is valued for their contributions to the world, regardless of whether they sport a sizeable thigh gap or have a thick layer of fur covering legs the size of tree trunks.
Liberation won’t come by seeking to define both of these things and all that sits between them as beautiful. It will come by making them absolutely irrelevant to our perception of self-worth. Perhaps then we can start viewing models for what they are, which is neither ambassadors for the women’s cause nor traitors to it - merely, beautiful women in interesting clothes, doing a job just like any other.