There's a smart, funny read on The Cut right now that gives the overuse of the word "curvy" as a descriptor for All Types of Women a good talking-to. Lauren Bans takes on the fashion and entertainment media's exhaustive use of the term in all situations involving females, citing loads of examples, and shows how, when used so liberally, the word begins to lose all meaning. To wit:
All a woman has to do to be called "curvy" these days is possess a human body. In the last six months, a dozen actresses have been pegged with the nebulous term (or some variation of it, like, "shows off her curves"), everywhere from People to Vogue, and that's probably lowballing the figure. In under an hour of archival spelunking, I managed to find twelve examples: Eva Mendes, size 4; Lady Gaga, size 6; Christina Hendricks, size 14; Taylor Swift, size 2; Christina Aguilera, size 6; Melissa McCarthy, size 16+; Jennifer Lawrence, size 6; Gabourey Sidibe, size 18+; Miranda Lambert, size 8; Lindsay Lohan, size 2; and Heidi Klum, size 4, who described herself as curvy in a recent issue of Allure.
But, uh, all those women ARE curvy to one degree or another. Am I missing something?
I mean, sure, the author is right, in the semantic sense, and this piece should be a primer in all media writing classes as a good example of a word's retirement-readiness. Anything that pushes any writer to look for a more apt description is a good thing. If we are all curvy, yes, then what does curvy really signify as a useful description for the reader? Applied willy-nilly to any type of body, the word is the descriptive equivalent of calling someone "nice," an oatmeal of a description best left off that freshman term paper.
However, this still doesn't mean that those women aren't, in fact, curvy, anymore than it means that lots of people aren't, in fact, "nice." When everyone feels curvy, then curvy democratizes and celebrates the concept of curves as intrinsically female. It goes a long way toward normalizing the spectrum of femaleness, and dismantling the concept of "real women" vs. the other ones, whoever they are. And she goes on to say literally that:
By democratizing and then celebrating "curvy," it makes us feel good about ourselves. It means we're open-minded. Forward-thinking. Because we're so brave to praise a body that defies Hollywood standards.
Yes! Totally! That's true! Or more that we are all women with bodies that have curves, whether we are size 2 or 22. Language shapes consciousness. Believing this is true (because it is!) helps women beat back the evil, tyrannical forces that whisper at them from 'round every corner to obliterate and shrink your body down to curveless nothingness in order to achieve the heights of weightless, free-floating power. March on, curves! To the front lines! Or whatever.
Really, seeing that all women do, in fact, have curves can be an incredibly positive, body-affirming framework for accepting the unique-but-all-curves-having form we call female. It is not all the same kind of curviness, to be sure! It is not supposed to be the same. But there is that which connects us all! Femaleness! Curves! (This body acceptance concept came up in part of a pretty cool Nike ad series about 10 years ago, actually.)
So it is with great sadness that I say that here is where I must part ways with Lauren Bans and bid her adieu:
But it's unwarranted self-congratulation. If curvy can mean anything we want it to - on a scale of size 2 to size 22 - then our reductive thinking on the subject of bodies and beauty standards hasn't actually changed. The ubiquity of "curvy" is just a gloss of body acceptance, not actual body acceptance. Once you start looking for it, for every positive article about celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes, there's an equally negative one; though we're celebrating new shapes and sizes, it all adds up to zero.
If she's talking about the women's magazines - yes, of course they shitbags filled to the brim with contradictory, shit-talking shit and their values are shit values and they are full of unwarranted self-congratulation shit every waking second of their shit lives - always have been, always probably will be. Looking to an industry fueled by body insecurity to help us all feel accurately good is like asking the pharmaceutical industry for homeopathic advice.
But if she's talking about real, actual women who can and do appreciate their actual curves in spite of whatever else they do not appreciate, then I say the opposite of what she is saying. Using curvy to describe all women doesn't mean it can "mean anything we want it to." If so many different body-typed women all accept themselves as curve-having, it normalizes different body types. It breeds sameness and not differentness in an area of constant, often vicious comparions.
Taylor Swift does have curves, in spite of the author's insistence that she is "about as curvy as a carrot stick." (OK, ridges. She has ridges.) Kate Moss has curves, so did Marilyn Monroe. They are/were totally different sizes but both have/had curves. (And the same waist-to-hip ratio, if you're into that sort of thing.) They may be a more or less defining trait in one woman vs. another, but that does not negate their existence. I don't think I've ever actually seen a woman without any curves.
And when she goes on to say outright that the media calling Gabourey Sidibe or Melissa McCarthy is "just being polite," I have to wonder how she can't see that those women are absolutely curvy. Later, she lets us know that Taylor Swift should be called "thin" and the latter two actresses "Rubenesque." But Rubenesque has long been outed as an overused, "polite" word to describe a full-figured woman, and thin is, well, about as fresh as nice. Also, again, you can be thin and curvy. You can be Rubenesque and curvy.
What the author doesn't seem to want to come right out and say is that if you are too fat, you should not get to be called curvy just to be nice. And if you are too thin, you do not deserve to get to be called "curvy" when you don't have enough curves. You should be called other words, and curvy is best left to those who actually meet the definition, whatever that is (it isn't defined).
Also, if "curvy" and "plus-sized" are interchangeable, as she mentions, then women who would not be normally defined as plus-sized calling themselves "curvy" is also a positive dismantling. Because curvy does not mean fat. It means shapely.
Perhaps the real issue is that we just don't have enough words to describe all the larger bodies finally permitted to be on the scene, at least, words that don't carry with them the weight of an absolute, unequivocal value judgment, and that, magazines, grappling ever harder to show some kind of inclusiveness, are guilty as charged of leaning on a big curvy crutch. But that doesn't mean that actual women are — you know, the ones who like their curves in spite of them not measuring up to such fascist, narrowly permitted definitions. And don't we want the magazines to move in this direction, even if it is only one desperate, clingy, lazy, step at a time?