Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Every" Shape? Looking at Sizesploitation

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

This morning, I saw this ad floating around which claims to depict what Levi jeans look like on "different" women's body types, with the headline "Hotness comes in all shapes and sizes." (Clearly the subtitle should be: if you wear a size 4 or less.) Seriously, not to snark on these women, because this is not about their bodies...but they're all fairly the same. With the exception of marginally different bust size and butt positioning, they look almost indistinguishable. 

How is this remotely a depiction of "all shapes and sizes?" It reminded me of this Old Navy commercial I saw this weekend: 

Here the bodies are a least a little less similar, but still, realistically, they are within the same size range with the larger person appearing to wear no larger than a size 6. 

Look, I'm glad that companies are responding to the simple fact that every body is very, very different. I think it's pretty obvious that your average consumer is sick of the figurative and literal narrow definition of beauty. In fact, there has recently been an outcry for larger mannequins. It just smart business for retailers to appeal to a wider range of bodies. Those bodies need clothes. They buy at places that provide options for them. (It's for this very reason that 5.7.9., which serves a niche market and capitalizes on a sick pride achieved from small size status, doesn't command a bigger market share.)

However, both of these ads are hardly representative of the real range of female bodies out there. I can't help but feel that we've begun to step into a realm that I will call "sizesploitation." It's pandering to bigger women in a way which exploits them for profit without providing any real size acceptance measures. It's saying things like "hotness comes in all shapes and sizes" but then providing an image which affirms the already present thin beauty ideal. It's telling large women that their shops are a safe place for them, in order to hit them in their wallets, but not really backing that up with clothing that accommodates fit preferences of larger people. It's using size acceptance language for the purpose of making your audience feel like you must purchase your product in order to be sexy. 

If sizesploitation was summarized by a phrase, it would be "real women have curves." This attitude has size acceptance all wrong and plays into the "skinny bitch" problem which I've written about before. 

I can admit, as a consumer, I don't really purchase Levi's so their messaging means nothing to me personally. However, I do buy a lot of things at Old Navy, so I know that their clothing does accommodate a full range of people. I wish their spot had contained a woman who was significantly larger than the standard model, because the Kim Kardashian type of curves is really just another variation on the same old thing. As Tina Fey famously wrote in Bossypants:
But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style. That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired. And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful. 
Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyonce and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.
Fey is right. Sizesploitative advertising and attitudes which say, "Beyonce isn't 'skinny' and she's hot!" just continue to add to the continuously growing list of what women "must" look like in order to be attractive, and complicate the picture of the "perfect" woman even further. (Plus, when people say that Beyonce, Kim, or JLo aren't thin--I can't help but face palm.)

In one activity I've done with young women in my work, we brainstorm what a "perfect woman" looks like--and make no mistake, girls as young as nine have told me that this mythical perfect woman has a small waist but a curvy butt and big boobs. While I'm sure there are women who have this look naturally, to carry some fat in the breasts and rump but not your mid section at all is an extremely unusual physical characteristic. Telling girls that this is the "perfect" look is no different than a thin ideal. It continues to set them up for feelings of physical inferiority (as it is just not a reality for the vast majority of people.) It contributes to body image issues. There's just no way around acknowledging that fact.

What I am getting at is this: real size acceptance (and not sizesploitation) would mean a media which contained images of actually diverse bodies. Those people would not be shamed, mocked, or only depicted engaging in weight loss competitions. They would be shown as beautiful, valuable, whole, and not at the expense of other body types. They would be the main subject of movies and TV shows where the focus is not their weight, but rather their full lives and experiences. Larger people wouldn't be relegated to "before" pictures in advertising. Basically, all bodies would be normalized because all bodies are normal.


  1. Here from Feministe. I like the term sizesploitation and your major points about it. I gotta disagree with hating on "real women have curves." It's an ambiguous phrase that some mistake as "only curvy women are real women" but I believe actually means "curvy women are a subset of real woman." As opposed to not being women at all, which is how we're viewed by most of society. It's a message of empowerment for women who don't usually hear anything positive about their bodies, and it's not meant to disparage other subsets of women, though some people have to make it all about them.

    1. Thanks!

      I think we are just going to have to disagree on the semantics of that statement. Whatever the original intent of its creation, I've always heard it used to mean that "the definition of a real woman is curves" and I take issue w/ that. I wish that it was used to your definition of seeing curves as a subset, but usually when I hear this statement used it's followed by some put down to thin women like "leave the bones for the dogs."

      I'm all for positive messaging for bigger women, God, would I ever love to hear more, but I'm afraid this instance just hasn't been used that way in my experience.

  2. And even when they do use plus-sized models to illustrate "real women have curves" (Ugh...I'm with you...I hate that...), the "bigger" women still have the same bust-waist-hip ratio as the thinner "hot" women. And I am now officially overusing the quotation mark.


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