Glamour editor Cindi Leive took to her blog yesterday to defend against, as she sees it, outlandish claims from the blogosphere that her magazine hasn't been doing enough to show actual plus-sized women.
Leive specifically references a post by Jennifer Merritt that iVillage appears to have taken down, but which persists for now in Google's cache, and yes — Merritt's post is kind of annoying. Merritt's point seems to be that because few or none of the women the media have nominated as standard-bearers for the Supposed Curvy Revolution approach the average American woman in size, that the effort is ultimately false; that's a fine point to argue, but the way in which Merritt criticizes women like Christina Hendricks, Beyoncé, and Crystal Renn, quoting their measurements and comparing them unfavorably with what she calls "real women" unwittingly echoes a lot of the body-negativity that the fashion industry itself pushes. But for Leive to seize upon this one particularly ham-fisted criticism — it's the only one she quotes and links — as though it were emblematic of "the blogosphere" smacks of a straw man.
But Leive's post, too, misses the mark. While her dislike of the term "plus-size" is reasonable — and considering that plus-size models, including cover girl Crystal Renn, don't always have to wear plus-sized clothing — replacing it with "curvy" does nobody any favors. (You can wear any dress size and be curvy.) And the bounciness is disingenuous, at best: "appreciate your own body, whatever its quirks and eccentricities," is hardly the message any reasonable reader would glean from a fashion magazine.
What I think Leive's piece gets at — and yet notably fails to examine — is the tricky question of what duty a fashion magazine owes its readers. Fashion concerns the body, and so its presentation necessarily impacts our own relationships with our bodies — women have in this way a very intimate relationship with the media that concerns us, and perhaps it's not illegitimate to think that those media owe us some consideration beyond that which a magazine about disembodied issues like politics or interior design ought to show. Considering we mostly have the bodies we're born into. Considering studies show looking at our magazines can make us feel bad about ourselves. Considering it just seems, you know, fair.
But magazines exist to sell things, and one of the most reliable ways of getting a reader in the mood to buy is to play on her feelings of inadequacy. (It's not the only way, but it seems to work.) But what's more, I can't get behind Merritt's "average woman" solution. It's likely that if magazines did feature "average" women, we wouldn't buy them or the things they advertise. Nobody wants to read about the average; ESPN doesn't spend much time covering average athletes, the New York Review of Books doesn't tend towards average writers, and if Vogue never covered another average designer it'd still be too soon for me. And yet many readers of these publications are, well — average. The subtext of Merritt's argument seems to be that, because we read, we all somehow "deserve" to see ourselves reflected in the pages of our media — but I don't think this is a right bestowed at birth. The question of whether or not fashion magazines should do more to represent a wider array of models, in body shape, in race, in age, is derailed by this notion of the "average" woman (or her sister the "real" woman) and their supposed right to warts-and-all representation, as though any magazine that failed to be average enough were failing its readers. Obviously all women's magazines should be booking more plus-sized models, and more models of color, and more models who aren't 14 years old and looking like they're playing in grown-up clothes. They don't have to be average, though.
When you compare the candid shots from the set of Glamour's cover shoot with the final result, it's kind of surprising the amount of averaging that seems to have gone on. The paparazzi and Twitter photos from the shoot show three noticeably different looking women — there's thin, almost bird-like Alessandra Ambrosio, curvaceous but slim Brooklyn Decker, and the gorgeous, larger Crystal Renn. (Is that the full spectrum of female beauty? Hell no — but they do look different one from another.)
Yet in the final pictures, through posing, through the photographer's choices in terms of lens and angle, and through post-production and Photoshop, these three women come out looking almost the same size. It's like they're the tan, the brunette, and the blonde versions of the same slim, curvy body. They were made interchangeable for Glamour's big body diversity showcase. It's pretty ironic if you think about it. And it's not wrong to say this was an opportunity Glamour missed.