Plus-Sized Clothing Ads

EMILY SAIDEL: In “The Dress,” episode 9 of season 1 of Drop Dead Diva, the main character Jane sues a clothing manufacturing company for advertising outfits in magazines meant for all shoppers, but not creating dresses in sizes for all shoppers. Although the case does not turn out as she desires, Jane is vindicated when the manufacturer realizes that there is a market of larger sized women who have money to spend on clothes, if only the clothes were available. The episode, from September 2009, seems right on target as a fictional portrait of the issues described in a recent New York Times article, “Plus-Size Revelation: Bigger Women Have Cash, Too.”

Full-Figured Fashion Week highlights the clothing designers that create lines with sizes generally 14 and higher. These manufacturers are fulfilling the capitalist role of businesses. They have identified a demand and are now putting out a supply. But this change in marketing and manufacturing needs to be viewed in a broader picture. The same article states that 28% of the adult population was obese last year, with two-thirds of American women overweight or obese. The difficulty with the increase in plus-size clothing options is not that it exists; it’s that making unhealthy bodies more physically appealing could contribute to cultural acceptance of unhealthy choices.

Plus-sized. Full-figured. Curvy. Larger. Heavier. Big. These are all terms used to describe the clientele for these size 14 and up lines. The only person in the article who mentions fat is a professor who studies body shape. The use of euphemism has lead to a conflation of issues. Clothing contributes to attractiveness. Body size/shape contributes to health. What happens when a clothing manufacturing company markets clothing for unhealthy bodies as attractive?

That’s a great proposition for healthy (as defined by a doctor) women who also happen to be sized bigger and taller than a size 12 (which itself is variable line to line, season to season.) Their array of choices broadens. But what happens to the mindset of unhealthy women who are now empowered by their new, trendy clothing choices? What happens to the woman who never really thought of herself as fat, until the day she couldn’t buy skinny jeans, if the “skinny” jeans continue to be available in sizes 20+? It is not the clothing manufacturers cultural responsibility to serve as a wakeup for a rotund country–just the opposite. But it is our broader social responsibility to look at these trends and ask if this is the direction we want to be moving in–serving the unhealthy’s need to feel attractive, without serving her need to be healthy.

HOWARD MEGDAL: While Emily is right that there is a larger health issue here, I’m just not sure that making an effort to see that the 2/3 of women who are overweight/obese feel a bit better about themselves on a daily basis will lead to a worsening problem with obesity in this country, nor operate as a gateway drug for the other 1/3 to let themselves go.

Instead, the opposite effect may occur- women who start to feel better about their own appearances may decide to take further action to only increase that feeling within themselves. Certainly, with all the societal pressures in the other direction, we haven’t seen any kind of reversal of the obesity epidemic- quite the contrary.

More likely, this is a remarkably small component to any woman’s desire to be in shape or not. So if a commercial, or clothing, can help her to feel a bit better about herself on that day, I am hard-pressed to get particularly upset about it, even as I hope that the obesity epidemic changes in this country, for health and financial reasons alone.

AKIE BERMISS: I’m a plus-sized man and have been for some time.  I was never skinny, no, but I’ve sort of yo-yo back and forth over the years between being large and athletic and just large.  It should be noted that even at my skinniest, I was never really very health conscious.  I might not have had too many extra pounds of fat on my frame, but I still ate a ton of junkfood and fast food and soda.  I guess I’m not particularly self-conscious about my weight either so I’m fine with referring to myself as fat when, in actuality, it may be a bit misleading (and sometimes it has made concerned friends pull me aside to see if I needed some self-esteem boosting) — but when I go clothes shopping (infrequently though it may be) I do experience some serious pangs when looking at all the clothes for those rail-thin, cut, and nicely proportioned people.

For I am none of those things.

When I was six, my shoes were size six. When I was seven, they were size sevens.  Eight? Size eights.  And so on until I was 15 — which is where my feet stopped.  Size fifteen shoes and a 6 foot frame.  Already I was sort of strangely shaped.  Pants have been an issue since my teenage years.  I shot up to 6ft when I was about 12 and just sort of stayed there.  My waist was a 34 or 36… inseam: also 36.  But see, I have this butt that follows me around wherever I go and it has the annoying habit of renegotiating a bunch of my inseam for its own nefarious purposes. As such, I’ve had to compromised and get bigger waisted pants so that there is more room (for said butt to do its thing) and live with the tyranny of constant belt usage.  I wear a belt on my shorts.  It ages me like 20 years.  There are few things more preposterous than a fat man with a comparatively tiny waist trying to hike up his shorts constantly.

Well, all I can say is I am glad I’m a man.  Suits come tailored and most of my clothes are mean to fit loosely about my troublingly curious middle regions.  Still, I wouldn’t mind having some clothes made specifically for men like myself.  I know its not “normal” what I am.  But how different can it be?  I walk down the street and see so many oddly shaped folks. It makes me think probably most folks are oddly shaped and we’re being held hostage by the good-looking oligarchy.

In a serious sense, though, America is getting fatter and fatter and I really don’t see anything wrong with clothing companies taking advantage of that.  Yes, I agree is somewhat unconscionably to promote an unhealthy lifestyle by marketing it as sexy.  But don’t we still romanticize drinking in this country?  Don’t we still encourage women to make all sorts of poor health choices in the name of “beauty?”  (didn’t we just discuss the High-Heel Culture on Perpetual Post a couple of weeks ago?)  Its probably true that being over-weight is more dangerous than most of those other things in terms of its full-on affliction of our society — but making people better is not capitalism’s job.  Businesses are here to make money and if most of the people are fat and they have money — we’d better start giving them things fat people like.  Tell them they look good in argyle, say its plus-sized sexiness, and rake in the dough (so to speak).  I don’t admire it, but I understand it.

And it does worry me.  But since when hasn’t there been some worrisome trend going on in America with consumers and marketers and the free economy and all that?  Unless we institute mandatory weight goals, we’re gonna have to do like August Wilson said and take the crookeds with the straights.

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