Liberating the Body: Why I Hate ‘Plus-Size’ Models

September 30, 2011

Words by Samantha Langsdale

I frequent the popular feminist website, Jezebel.com. Their tag line, ‘Celebrity, sex, and fashion… without the airbrushing’, hints to pop-culture content through a critically astute lens. Articles are readable, humorous, and aware of current trends yet offer commentary informed by a critical analysis of identity poli- tics. I don’t agree with every article, but I enjoy their efforts, appreciating that someone is actually saying something real.

I suppose this is precisely why I was shocked to find an entry on 3/8/11 concerning Vogue Australia and their latest ‘Plus-Size’ model, Robyn Lawley. Despite reader com- ments being snarky, Jezebel staff writer – Jenna Sauers – had nothing of her own to say, save a few words naming the publication and the model. Surely, there’s been a mistake, I thought, hitting the reload button. Nope, nothing more appeared. I clicked through the photos of the Vogue spread and became increasingly incredulous of Sauers’ decision to say nothing.

Taking matters into my own hands, I pub- lished the entry onto my Facebook page with the comment, ‘[she’s] PLUS size?!?!’. Women of different ages, backgrounds, geographical locations, and even one rock-star young man (no, really, he’s a budding rock-star and I was his History teacher!) chimed in, echoing disbe- lief that a term like ‘plus-size’ was being used in reference to this model. One comment read, ‘[and] they wonder why young girls develop eating disorders…sad’. Though not upset with this sentiment in particular, I responded with the following comment: “It’s pretty detrimen- tal to adults, in all honesty. Using terms like ‘plus-size’ reinforces size zero models as the norm for women’s bodies, which is LUDI- CROUS because we come in all shapes and sizes! As gorgeous as this woman is, and as amazing as it is that she is getting increased publicity, calling her plus-size perpetuates the belief that there is such a thing as the RIGHT size. Rubbish!”PICTURED: roByn LawLey in vogue magazine

Six people liked this comment and more comments concerning the web page followed through the day. What developed was a rather encouraging rallying. And then…

A moron I went to school with felt it appropriate to add this comment: ‘maybe not “plus sized”, but i think she’s overweight… but I live in Southern California so my perception of reality is warped’ [sic]. My editors have encouraged me to write as I would speak, but there are not enough expletives in the English language to depict my disgust and rage. Not knowing this woman’s height, weight or lifestyle, this man felt it completely reasonable to suggest that she is ‘overweight’.

Despite my brain’s immediate lurch towards ‘who is he to say, he’s just a dumbshit anyway’ type of thinking, I decided to take a little mental step back. Taking a hard line on who can speak about, and for bodies is a slip- pery slope that often has silencing results that perpetuate the already marked problem.

I realised that I am not prepared to suggest that only certain people can speak about bodies. Further, his ‘contribution’ to the FB discussion affirmed my belief that our primary problem when it comes to bodies is not the need for more restrictions–i.e., only positive com- ments –but rather the need to be liberated from discursive ‘norms’ and ideals altogether.

In her book, Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler asserts that although the materiality of bodies is stable – bodies have skin, guts, they grow, feel pain and pleasure – their materiali- sation (i.e., the process by which they become an ‘I’), is an effect of power, an ongoing process of construction. In Gender Trouble, she out- lines: when a baby is born, there is no denying the materiality of the infant body. But it is not until someone declares, ‘it’s a girl’ that the body materialises into an intelligible subject. We begin to understand this body as a subject, and consequently, we begin to understand where that subject will be positioned in culture, because someone (with authority) has declared ‘girl’ and societal norms have taught us what that means.

This new girl continues to materialise through a process of repetition: she wears pink, likes kittens, plays with dolls, etc. Butler says that bodies come to matter – become recognisable – through this process, but also the ways in which they materialise determine how they matter. We assign values to bodies based on how much, or how little they deviate from the norm and those that exist outside of what is intelligible, outside of what we under- stand subjects to be, do not matter both in their failure to form according to discourse, but also in the value they are denied. If we go back to the Robyn Lawley example, I think it will make more sense.

If one were to view photos of Ms. Lawley without context (no headlines, nor descrip- tions), any number of things might go through one’s mind. Many might think ‘wow!’, ‘that’s an amazing dress’, ‘great hair’, etc. But then we are told by the media powers-that-be, she is plus-size’, a series of things begin to unfold. Lawley becomes plus-size, her body materi- alises as one of extra, additional, plus whatever is normal. Now that she is plus-size, we also understand that a body which is not plus – which is ‘size’, as it were – is not this one; we are given a definition of the centre by having a picture of what is at the margin. Here value is assigned: how Robyn matters is effected by ‘plus-size’, and words like ‘overweight’ which are indisputably poisonous in our society, are attached to her body. The photos of Lawley change their value: instead of ‘wow!’, they become ‘wow… for plus-size’.

The problem is not necessarily adjectives; curvy, big-boned, boyish are not violent, but the values with which we assign them may be. Once that happens, not only are the men and women who materialise under these circum- stances relegated to a less central position, to a less liveable life, ‘norms’ which simultaneously re-materialise are reinforced. Calling Lawley ‘plus-size’ pushes her to the margins, and rein- forces her size-0 counterparts as the ideal, the norm. Again, I am not suggesting that we work towards an environment where we ignore bodies for the sake of avoiding dangerous effects of power. We’ve been there done that and the effects are no less disastrous. Nor am I suggesting that we all lapse into somatic hedo- nism, treating our bodies in absolutely whatever way we please with a reckless disre- gard for health measures. Rather, our reliance upon the idea there is such a thing as The Body desperately needs to be revised and expanded.

No one body is identical to another, nor do our bodies exist statically throughout our lives. Butler says when one actually begins to think seriously about how bodies come into being, one realises the impossibility of confining bodies to a single, neat definition. Bodies defy fixed understanding and perhaps, in the sim- plest terms, what I’m saying is that’s OK! It’s more than OK! It’s our reality and the more rapidly we can embrace it, the more thoroughly we can begin to understand bodies as diverse, dynamic, and evolving, the wider the plain of living becomes for all human beings. I don’t see a problem with identifying beautiful bodies, short bodies, chubby bodies, skeletal bodies, or ambiguous bodies, but using those designa- tions in order to issue licenses to live, as full subjects, is both illogical and indefensible.

The Jezebel article on Robyn Lawley is an example, but the liberation of bodies is not only necessary in the fashion industry. All across the world, human beings are denied rights because of the ways in which they are embodied. In my country, gay men and women are denied the right to marry, to protect their children, and to accompany their partners in medical emergencies. The government attacks accessible healthcare for women because they believe women’s bodies are battlegrounds for national politicians to enact their ideological wars. It is undeniable that the ways in which we value bodies fuels the ferocity of these inequities. Learning to recognise and appre- ciate the multiplicity of bodies is not a catchall solution, but if we are to ever make progress in alleviating human injustice, it is surely a crucial and integral strategy

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