Lane Bryant Ad Sparks Weighted Discussion

Before hearing from a Lane Bryant employee on what she thinks about the recent controversy over her company’s overtly sexy ad featuring a non-emaciated model in a bra is really about, do me a favor: Name a beloved fat male celebrity. Jack Black, Jonah Hill, Ruben Studdard, Santa!

Now, how about a fat female celebrity? I won’t even ask that she be “beloved.”  Rosie O’Donnell, Roseanne Barr, the ever shrinking/expanding Oprah, Kirstie Alley?

One of these groups is not like the other. The fat male group is more loved, less judged for their body size and more contemporary ; the fat female group has many members framed as being “bitchy” and “too opinionated,” is judged endlessly in relation to body size and is much less current in the zeitgeist (Gossip singer Beth Ditto is arguably a contemporary fat female icon, but hardly as well-known as the likes of Black).

Underneath the brouhaha over whether ABC declined to air the Lane Bryant ad for discriminatory reasons or not lies the pervasive cultural hatred of fat female bodies. The overt sexualization of women in almost all ads is problematic–even when the ad is attempting to reclaim the fat body as beautiful–but in this case other issues are in play.

As pointed out by blogger Artemis Rage, “Fat people need clothing too!” But there is a definite “size segregation” in many clothing stores, which makes stores like Lane Bryant, dedicated to woman above size 12, a welcome relief. She writes:

It’s comforting to me to when I can walk into a store and not feel ashamed for my body size because they don’t carry it, or barely do.

Yet, she bemoans the fact that Lane Bryant and other such stores are  labeled as “plus size” while there is no ancillary label for stores stocking sizes 0 to 12. As Rage writes, “We aren’t just in a different store, we are the other, the abnormal.”

Donna (not her real name), who once starved herself into being a “walking hanger” in pursuit of a modeling career but now works at Lane Bryant, shares similar sentiments about what’s really normal:

I put most of the blame on how women feel they have to look [a certain way] due to Hollywood and the fashion industry. Most women in the U.S. are 5’7 and a size 14! So realistically, those toothpick-looking girls … are the freaks.

Another aspect of fat hatred is fat’s association with a lower-class body, writes Jill at Feministe:

Size, in the United States, is strongly associated with class and attractiveness. … Marketing a plus-sized line is still perceived as signaling a down-scale brand. Designers don’t want their clothes and their brand associated with larger women because it might challenge their brand’s cache.

Rage recognizes this dynamic as well, noting how stores such as Lane Bryant are usually located in hidden back corners of malls–in the mall’s figurative ghetto. While one cannot a body-barrier break, at least the continuing discussion the controversy has launched takes us a small step towards a future less filled with walking hangers.

Here’s the ad:

Photo above: Long-ago Lane Bryant ad; http://www.flickr.com/photos/dbilly/ / CC BY 2.0

Comments

  1. Jen Morgart says:

    haha, what was wrong with that ad first of all. And second of all, I would hardly call that woman fat. In fact, if we must make a physical comment, I found her to be quite sexy. There is no reason this ad should have been banned.

    • I agree 100%. This woman isn’t fat, but she’s sexy. Once upon a time having thicker hips, thighs, and large breasts was the hot thing.. Well, I think it still is. I wish an ad like this were on the air, because it’s the pin thin women ads that lead to me being 83lbs and in intensive care for bulimia when I was 17. Pin thin is unrealistic, and this.. Well, I simply love this.

  2. It is because of this sizeism and looksism that I wrote “Fat Grrrls,” a song about wanting to see more of a variety of bodies in the media. Plus size? Ha! That’s my attitude!!

  3. I consider myself a feminist, but think that’s not quite fair… who is more loved that Oprah? Or Queen Latifah? Renee Zellweger?

    Brendan Fraser put on a few pounds for a couple of roles and many people were extremely nasty and smug about it. It’s more about the expectations people set up for themselves.

  4. Judy Krum says:

    One of my heroines was Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas. And now, I think that the comments about larger women are approaching the sorts of comments often said regarding people with disabilities: not in my back yard, not in my store, not associated with my brand name, in the back door (if at all). Where is Reubens’ “Venus at the Mirror” when we need her?

  5. Good article, it always bugs me how we label size 12 and up as “plus sized” and smaller sizes are just “clothes”.

    But please, as a small girl – we are not “freaks” either!

  6. First of all, I would like to say that the model in the ad is nowhere near fat. She has large breasts, but she has a flat stomach and I think she has a very nice body. But I would also like to say that skinny girls have it kind of rough too. I’ve had girls hate me who don’t even know me, I’ve been called “anorexic”, I get told to “eat a cheeseburger” all the time, I get teased for looking like a boy, I’ve had men tell me they don’t find me attractive because I’m too thin. I would love to have a little more meat on my bones, but I’m naturally very thin. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be!

  7. marchioness says:

    @Jen Mogart, et al: “I would hardly call that woman fat. In fact, if we must make a physical comment, I found her to be quite sexy.”

    This implies that fat =/= sexy, which kind of misses the point. Comments along the lines of, “She’s not fat! She’s pretty!” embrace the idea that “fat” is a synonym for “disgusting,” “unattractive,” “lazy,” etc. It also implies that if you have “X feature” that is conventionally attractive, you’re not fat, which is just patently untrue.

    @Ashley: “But I would also like to say that skinny girls have it kind of rough too.”

    This brings it around to the idea that women’s bodies are policed and criticized, no matter what they look like. Fatties get a special kind of hatred, but the unobtainable beauty standard in our culture means that every. single. woman. falls short, and is oppressed for it.

    Nectarine is right: thin women are not freaks, either. They’re women, with a body type. Like fat women are women with a body type. It doesn’t help to demonize one group to uplift the other.

    • willothwisp says:

      I am not sure whether this is a factor of the type of people I am around, or if this is actually indicative of society, however I find that no one criticizes my body. I sometimes get comments on how I do not weigh a lot or am small, however, these are usually fact based comments like who can fit where in a crowded car.

      I do find that those who obviously are insecure about their body do seem to attract comments.

  8. I hate shopping (some women do, you know) and buy all my clothes from
    catalogues. I very much appreciate catalogues like Woman Within which
    recognize that not all short women are tiny, and have clothes that fit me
    without having to be altered. As to advertising, it’s true that the stoutest
    woman in an ad is often not really “fat” — just as the darker skinned women
    are often not really “black” — but in these matters of beauty perception,
    what can ya do?

  9. Thanks for expanding the conversation everyone.

    To comment on a few things specifically:

    Emily,
    I would note that Oprah is more loved and praised when she is sliding down the scale, not up. And I am not sure why you mention Zellweger. She is very thin. Yes, she gained weight for Bridget Jones, but imagine if she had kept it on. Would she still be the red carpet darling? I doubt it.

    Nectarine,
    I agree that thin/small people are not “freaks.” I think what the person quoted in the post was trying to convey is that it is actually more common to be size 12 or 14 than the size 0 to 6 championed by the media and fashion industry.

    Ashley,
    I have had many others share similar stories whenever I write or talk about body image. Sadly, it seems that most females are ridiculed for their bodies and/or don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. There also seems to be a sort of dichotomy set up between thin/fat with the two sides encouraged to disdain and attack one another. Yet another iteration of divide and conquer… Thanks for sharing your story.

    Marchionnes,
    Thanks for so brilliantly breaking down the false fat/sexy duality and for emphasizing that the female body is policed regardless of size.

  10. The woman in the ad is beautiful. Constantly hearing that we are all overweight including children, why do the retailers not provide clothing for us? Lane Bryant has regular dummies and pull up the clothes in back to fit. Totally sent me from the store. Hypocrite.

  11. Gail,
    Too true that the fashion/beauty industry promotes both thin bodies and white skin as ideal. But, I do think there are things we can do — productive analysis and complaint, in the blogosphere and in print, as well as directed towards retailers, CAN make a difference. Admittedly, it’s a long road, but trying to re-write the map is worth it (even if only for our own sanity and well-being).

    Wendy,
    I don’t personally like the term “overweight” as it implies there is a standard weight we should all aspire too. I also think the current focus on what has been named the “obesity epedemic” has just as much (indeed, more) to do with making money for corporations/industry rather than trying to promote healthy eating and exercise. Afer all, the latter can be practiced at any size, while the beauty imperative held up by the former relies on forking out money by the wagonload.

    As per Lane Bryant’s mannequins, I was informed by a worker they are size 16 or 18.

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