A few weeks ago, I was surprised to encounter a lone image of curve model Stella Duval in Madewell’s Instagram feed. Donning a slouchy-chic short-sleeve button-down and a whiskered pair of high-waisted denim, Duval served as the brand’s subtle way of rolling out its extended-size denim line.
With a 33-inch waist and 36-inch bust (making her a US dress size 10/12), Duval is several sizes smaller than the average woman in the United States. Still, devoted fashionistas quickly latched onto the significance of her slightly-larger-than-modelesque figure among a sea of size zeroes.
One commenter remarked, “I’m so excited about the curvy fit!” while another breathlessly exclaimed, “THANK YOU FOR ADDING BIGGER SIZES!!!! AND INCLUDING BIGGER GIRLS IN YOUR VISUALS!! I’M LITERALLY DYING WITH EXCITEMENT!!!!!!!!!” Concurrently, news outlets variously lauded the expansion as “progressive” and “empowering.”
In the days that followed, however, it came to pass that this was perhaps not the inclusive turn that so many had been waiting for. Madewell’s new line was restricted to fewer than a dozen pairs of denim in a limited range of colors and fits; the select pairs were only available online and had sold out in a matter of hours. Adding insult to injury, across the website, the “curvy” jeans — a term now almost universally used to designate larger-than-standard sizes now that “plus size” has become passé (but which Madewell explains refers to shape and not necessarily size) — were confoundingly modeled by slender women.
It also turned out that the sizes had been mislabeled. While the company claimed that the jeans went up to a size 20, the waist circumference of the jeans better corresponded to a size 14, just barely surpassing the straight/plus threshold. Madewell declined to comment on this issue.
This was hardly a revolution; it was inclusivity with an asterisk.
What really struck me about the Madewell denim launch, however, was the use of Duval’s image in its rollout and promotion. While the plus-size fashion industry is currently experiencing something of a renaissance, it nevertheless remains a hotly contested terrain. If Madewell was not really serious about catering to women with “nonstandard” bodies, then why did the company dare to flirt with controversy by using Duval as the face of the campaign?
Although retailers and consumers continue to grapple with how to refer to fat women’s bodies and their dress, a growing number of mainstream retailers have seemed to suddenly jump on the plus-size fashion bandwagon. Much as with Madewell, however, these launches have not been without problems.
It raises some big questions: What precipitated this inclusive turn, and, perhaps more importantly, who ultimately benefits when mainstream retailers use images of fat women in their promotional and marketing materials? If it’s not the consumers who identify as such, then it must be the brands. Yet when fat becomes fashionable — even as women whose bodies place them beyond the spectrum of standard sizes do not reap the benefits — it’s tantamount to appropriation.
Fashioning Fat Stigma
For the past eight years, I’ve been researching the history and culture of plus-size fashion. My research has exposed the fact that since the birth of ready-to-wear in the late 19th century (when plus sizes were charmingly known as “stoutwear”), the fashion industry has largely ignored the clothing needs of fat women. At the same time, images of non-slender and nonwhite bodies are nowhere to be found within the pages of the high-fashion press and in advertising culture at large.
The industry’s marginalization of plus-size fashion stands markedly and puzzlingly at odds with consumer demand. As Business Insider recently estimated, plus-size fashion is worth $21 billion annually that has gone largely untapped, save for a handful of flash-in-the-pan diffusion lines, high-low collaborations, and pop-ups.
This is because up until very recently, plus-size fashion has been regarded as both patently unfashionable and commercially risky, if not irresponsible. If the high priest and priestess of fashion — Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour — declared as late as the aughts that “nobody wants to see curvy women on the runway,” and derided unassuming Midwesterners as “little houses,” what incentive did the Célines and Balenciagas (let alone the H&Ms and Zaras) of the world have to cater to women of size? Amid the media hysteria surrounding the global obesity epidemic, few retailers dared wade into this cultural maelstrom, lest they be accused of glamorizing obesity by armchair “experts” and internet trolls.
Although the fashion industry certainly has a long way to go toward being truly inclusive, there has nevertheless been a positive and perceptible shift over the past several years as brands have worked to incorporate more diverse and inclusive-looking casts of models into their runway presentations and advertising campaigns.
Once the purview of a small but vocal community of internet activists, fat acceptance has gone mainstream via the decidedly safer and more marketable body positivity movement. It’s because of this that Ashley Graham was able to grace the cover of Vogue alongside Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, albeit with a strategically placed hand that partially obfuscated her fleshy bronzed thigh. As consumers increasingly expect to see themselves represented within the rarefied spaces of fashion, companies can no longer get away with openly discriminating against fat people (cough, Abercrombie, cough, Lululemon).
Curves With a Conscience?
Madewell is therefore just one out of a handful of woker-than-thou brands that over the past year have begun to use representations of nonstandard bodies in their marketing materials, ostensibly to win ethical brownie points. While this practice is still certainly far from widespread, the brands that have dabbled in inclusive imagery seem to fit a certain millennial pink profile.
Early last year, Outdoor Voices tipped off this “trend” by hiring curve model and actress Barbie Ferreira to “Do Things” in their tastefully color-blocked leggings and bra tops. Shortly afterward, Glossier unfurled a three-story banner prominently featuring Paloma Elsesser’s shimmering belly rolls on the side of a building on Spring Street to launch its Body Hero line of moisturizers, body washes, and oils. Most recently, Everlane took one right out of Glossier’s playbook and painted a mural of a fresh-faced curve model named Chloé Véro sporting its new cotton panties onto the side of the Dos Caminos at West Broadway and Houston.
Besides serving the 18- to 35-year-old, white, city-dwelling, Hillary-voting, chemical-exfoliating demographic, what all these brands have in common is the fact that they do not cater to the plus-size market in any meaningful way.
Looking at Everlane specifically, what was ironic about its much-ballyhooed panty rollout was the fact that, although it used a curve model as the face and body of the campaign, the range only goes up to a size XL, which corresponds to a 32.75-inch waist, or approximately a size 10 (a.k.a. not plus-size).
Moreover, and much as with Madewell’s extended sizes, most of the larger-size bras sold out on the same day of the launch. While it’s possible that droves of caffeine-addled, fashion-starved plus-size consumers were hitting refresh at 12:01 am on launch day to get their hands on those conservative cotton sets and distressed denim befitting the most basic of bitches, it’s more likely the brands simply didn’t make full runs of the collections.
Commenters on Everlane’s Instagram feed were quick to address the sartorial bait-and-switch. One woman hit the nail on the head when she said, “XL being your biggest size is not exactly groundbreaking.”
Everlane has become known for its transparency, in terms of its ethical manufacturing practices and with regard to its no-BS approach to customer service. When it comes to questions about sizing, however, the otherwise gregarious social media team has been tight-lipped. One persistent commenter called out the brand on this hypocrisy, stating, “I think we all deserve a response as to your lack of size inclusivity in all your clothing. Ethical fashion should be accessible for all sizes.”
Everlane did not respond to requests for comment on this topic.
A New Term: Size Appropriation
The fashion industry is no stranger to the practice of commodifying the likenesses, dress styles, and traditions of marginalized consumer groups to whom it actively does not cater. Most often, this has taken the form of borrowing or outright stealing from racial and ethnic minorities in a practice that has been variously deemed “cultural appropriation” and, more recently, “racial plagiarism,” a phrase coined by the fashion scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham.
Even as an increasingly out-of-touch Marc Jacobs continues to parade white models donning dreadlocks and turbans down his runways, the rest of the industry is slowly coming to grips with this unethical (but not illegal) practice of cultural cherry-picking.
Within this enlightened context, however, it’s still open season for discriminating against and marginalizing fat female consumers, even as more brands jump on the body-positivity bandwagon in acts of what could only be deemed size appropriation.
Fashion and shopping continue to be derided within our male-dominated culture as frivolous; however, fashion makes our bodies decent and appropriate, and it would therefore not be an overstatement to suggest that the exceedingly ordinary practice of shopping is not only a key facet of American culture and identity but a basic right.
Yet even if the industry is finding it harder and harder to get away with racial discrimination, size discrimination is very much a thing and is merely a symptom of a much more endemic problem.
The idea of size appropriation addresses the fact that the sanitized, “safe” images of curvier-than-average models jumping, running, and posing in various states of undress that populate your Instagram feed and clog your inbox are not created for the plus-size consumer whom these brands do not serve. Rather, they are created for normatively sized consumers who get to enjoy the moral satisfaction of patronizing brands that outwardly seem to fit their liberal worldview.
For them, it might feel good to publicly “like” an image of an evidently healthy, happy plus-size model even as they might still harbor some private stigmas and fears of epidemic obesity.
For the brands, these images of pleasantly plump models squeezed into larges and extra-larges portray the appearance of inclusivity without actually having to go to the considerable trouble of reconfiguring their sizing and grading systems for the 67 percent of the population that is plus-size.
For culture at large, these visuals establish new standards for what a fat body should look like (i.e., 5-foot-11 with a Coke-bottle waist and a chiseled jaw). Perhaps more problematically, they promote a false narrative that we live in a society that has evolved beyond fat stigma, even as fat women continue to be employed at lower rates and earn less on average than their slender counterparts.
And for fat women, these images merely serve as constant reminders of their outsider status.
Lauren Downing Peters holds a PhD in fashion studies from Stockholm University and is the editor-in-chief of The Fashion Studies Journal.