There are probably not many people out there who are going to deny that there is something wrong with North America’s conception of beauty. One constant complaint is the narrow-minded definition of beauty that has been created and its implications, from eating disorders to plastic surgery, self-mutilation to the preferential treatment that those considered beautiful get. One of the narrow measures of beauty, of course, is that of weight; one only has to peruse for a few seconds a couple of fashion magazines to know exactly what weight is considered beautiful nowadays.
The slow but steady increase in plus-size modelling has been hailed as a great success in helping broaden the definition of beauty. In order to gain insight into this industry, sociologist Amanda M. Czerniawski went undercover into the world of plus-size modeling; she went to castings and go-sees, posed for catalogs and walked the runway. She talked to models, casting agents, and clients to try to understand how and how much this segment of the modelling industry was contributing to a change in our conception of beauty.
There are, as always, positive and negative sides to it. On the one hand, plus sized models — who, by the way, seem for the most part to be average sized, which already begs the question of sustainability — are popping out in various places, and their beautiful pictures, in which they pose confidently and radiate poise, elegance, and grace. By being exposed to such pictures, the public can reflect on its negative relationship with any size over zero. These pictures, in other words, are normalizing the conception of bodies over the size of zero being beautiful.
On the other, Czerniawski also uncovered the simple truth that the same negative forces that act on more typically sized models also act on plus-sized models, who have to wield the same discipline when it comes to controlling their weight. Unfortunately, the plus-sized models do so without the same appreciation that the typically sized models get; plus-sized models still have to counter accusations of not being disciplined when it comes to their body size and weight, an unfair accusation when one takes the time, like Czerniawski did, to actually find out how much these models do for the sake of their career — and the health issues of what they do is just as bad as the health issues more typically sized models face.
The psychological trauma is also the same for both sets of models, who fight self-doubt and even self-hate on a constant basis. However again, it is more difficult for plus-sized models, who do not get nearly as much support and following as do typically sized models. While the latter get some sort of comfort in the adulation they get, plus-sized models don’t have nearly as much of a network supporting their efforts to maintain a body considered desirable by the fashion industry.
Which brings us to the crux of Czerniawski’s book: that if we are going to see a change, it has to come from somewhere other than the models, who are, whatever their size, objectified as a “clothing rack”. Czerniawski discusses the responsibility of the fashion industry, more specifically, of the designers. I would like to push the point further by suggesting that it is up to the consumer to contribute decisively to a change in the norms of beauty in our society. Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling gives insight into some of the pain and anguish all models go through; perhaps this is the most powerful aspect of the book, which should stir up empathy in its readers and, hopefully, encourage them to take the necessary steps to helping create a healthier fashion industry in which models will no longer suffer as they do.
First published on Blogcritics.