Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Big Sexy Dilemma

It all started last week when I tuned into the first episode of Big Sexy. It turned out to be a far more fascinating and thought-provoking show than I had anticipated. You see, I found myself torn. On the one hand, I was excited to see these confident, plus-sized women dominating the screen, showing the world that plus-sized women shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. On the other hand, I found myself profoundly troubled. The beginning of the show saw several of the women speaking emotionally about the insults and criticisms they had endured all their lives. I felt for them. I really, really did. Believe me when I tell you that as a plus-sized woman I have been on the receiving end of some truly horrifying insults. What troubled me, though, was that a scant fifteen minutes after their emotional confessions, the girls sat at a fashion show making cutting remarks about the appearances of the models on the catwalk.

I also found myself bothered by the final portion of the show. Frustrated by the fashion industry’s failure to include plus-sized models on the catwalk, the women decided to host their own exclusively plus-sized fashion show. In effect, the women wanted to show the world that they could put on a show every bit as sophisticated and professional as the straight-sized shows favored by the industry. Again, I found myself torn. On the one hand, kudos to the women for putting together what appeared to be a really terrific show. On the other hand, though, there was something vaguely hypocritical about it all. The straight-sized industry had failed to put plus-sized women on the catwalk, so these women decided to exclude straight-sized women from their fashion show? How does this in any way address the underlying issue of exclusion?

Big Sexy is garnering a lot of attention, and, at least as far as I know, is being fairly well received. Lauded as a body positive show, many have applauded the fact that there now exists a television show that focuses exclusively on plus-sized women. But I think it's worth asking: is Big Sexy really a body positive show? Yes, it is -- to a limited degree. I would suggest, though, that the better question to ask is, “for whom is this a body positive show?” Yes, it’s body positive for the plus-sized crowd, focusing on the lives of a group of women who do a wonderful job of showing that curvier folks shouldn’t be ashamed of their figures. But the show is only body positive at the expense of the straight-sized crowd, which strikes me as backwards.

This afternoon I found myself surfing the web in search of something interesting to read. I decided to sign up for, and browse the forums at Chictopia. My search for “plus size” in the forums yielded a really interesting discussion thread. “Whys [sic] everyone hating on the skinny girls” essentially asks just that: with the emergence of what might be termed a plus-size movement, why has everyone started criticizing skinny girls for being skinny? At the heart of the thread is a discussion of judgment and hypocrisy. Straight-sized women feel that plus-size women discriminate against them, and vice versa.  Put simply, everyone feels judged by everyone else. How sad and unfortunate is it that a group of women is so busy pointing at and judging each other that we fail to recognize all that we have in common?

In reading the forum posts, I found myself flashing back to the Big Sexy fashion show. How is anything ever going to change if plus-sized women insist on having only a plus-size show, and straight-sized women insist on only having a straight-size show? You want to see change? Put on a fashion show that includes people of all different shapes and sizes. Fighting segregation with segregation never has, and never will, work. Instead of thinking narrowly and exclusively, we need to start thinking broadly and inclusively. Would I like to see a plus-sized fashion show? Yes. But that experience would inevitably be overshadowed by my desire to see a more inclusive fashion show that features women who are everything from apple-shaped to pear-shaped, size 0 to size 26.

In the interest of helping me think through my opinion on this topic, Mr. CP raised a very simple, but very difficult question: Why? Why is an inclusive show better than an exclusive one? My initial answer witnessed me rambling on ineloquently about equality. Mr. CP responded with a fantastic point. Hypothetically, Brand X could hold a straight-sized fashion show in a venue one evening, and a plus-sized fashion show in that very same venue, with precisely the same clothes the next night. Wouldn't that technically be "equal?" My facetious response was something along the lines of, "Well, I'm pretty sure there was a big court case back in the 1950's that established the inherent failure of 'separate but equal.'"

The point Mr. CP raised, however, was a good one. What could an inclusive fashion show accomplish that an exclusive one couldn't? I ultimately came to the following conclusion: the point of an inclusive fashion show is to make a statement about fashion itself -- its purpose, and the role it plays in our lives. In an inclusive show, size would be a non-issue. The show itself would highlight the idea that fashion is meant to be fun, that it's a form of expression that anyone and everyone can indulge in and experiment with, regardless of size. Put simply, an inclusive fashion show would make the point that fashion isn't about size. By contrast, any show that insisted upon separating according to size -- no matter how equal it may appear on the surface -- would necessarily make a different point about fashion: that it is all about size. It should be noted that this fact would be as true for an exclusively plus-size fashion show as for an exclusively straight-size one. The trouble lies in exclusivity itself, not in who is being excluded.

I often complain to family and friends that too many brands assume that plus-sized women only want mono-colored, over-sized clothes. It's damn near impossible to find plus-size clothes in any of the adorable prints that you can find on Modcloth, for example. Yes, they offer some plus-size clothing, and yes it's completely fantastic, but where are the plus-sized clothes with cute little fawn or giraffe prints? Or the patterned cardigans? I think that an inclusive fashion show would, at least in theory, force designers to more carefully consider what they are putting on whom. After all, most designers would hesitate to put a straight-size woman in an adorable print on the runway next to a plus-sized woman in a mono-colored mumu-esque get up. Perhaps this would address what I see as a shortcoming of plus-sized fashion: we get very little whimsy in the way of printed tops and bottoms.

The very basic point of this post is that rather than being focused on size-based exclusion, we should all -- regardless of size and/or shape -- recognize the exciting things we could accomplish if we embraced a more collaborative, and less critical dialogue.

Note: You can read the forum posts I mentioned here. Some of the contributors have really insightful things to say, and I think it’s well worth a quick read through.


  1. You raise some really interesting points here, some of which I have considered and tackled before, some of which have never crossed my mind. But your statement that really resonates with me is that: "The trouble lies in exclusivity itself, not in who is being excluded." Very well expressed!

    As an aside, I wasn't aware that Modcloth only offered some of their clothing in plus sizes - I suppose, never having been able to order anything, I just assumed the full range was available in the full range of sizes!

  2. Hi Caroline! I'm so happy to hear that my post resonated with you! =) I knew (at least in the abstract) that I wasn't alone in my convictions, but I'm glad to have a more explicit verification of that fact.

    Modcloth doesn't offer everything in larger sizes at present, but they're certainly offering more and more every day! Hooray! It's one of the few places curvier gals can go to find adorable prints, unique pieces, and the sorts of silhouettes that I tend to favor. I know they do ship internationally, but my suspicion is that the cost of shipping can be prohibitive.