This is an article of mine that was originally published in Surface newsmagazine in October 1997. It was a great magazine, and I’m not just saying that because I was the Cultures Editor that year (1997-98) and Co-Editor-in-Chief for 1998-99.Not *that* Surface; this was a Queen’s U. publication which seems to have since bit the bullet–just like MODE. Oh shit, I’ve probably killed the blog craze too…

Reality Fashion

Fashion magazines have always been about fantasies. Vogue presents the new seasonal collections with all the breathless excitement of NASA announcing their latest discovery. The models themselves are impossible visions of womanhood. In the early 1990s, the average North American woman stood 5’4″ and 140 pounds; most fashion models are at least six inches taller and 25 pounds lighter. The designers whose clothing they are selling seem to assume that the women who buy the magazines, look at fashion layouts and scrutinize ads are similarly built. Many couture lines stop at size 12; depending on the store, clothing sizes often only go up to 14 or 16. A healthy woman of average or larger size begins to look monstrous compared to these media images. Paradoxically, they are invisible in spite of being bigger; rarely does one see a fashion model who isn’t tall and rail-thin.

A 1984 survey by Glamour magazine revealed that out of 33,000 women, a majority would rather lose 10 to 15 pounds than achieve any other goal in life; a 1990 Newsweek poll reported that 11% of surveyed couples would abort a fetus if told that it had a genetic predisposition to obesity. The overweight share with the mentally ill the dubious distinction of being the only group in society that it is still safe to make jokes about. In a recent issue of Allure , the editors used computer enhancement to put pounds on movie stars and gave the pictures captions like “Miss Piggy.” Readers responded angrily: “What’s next–making all the celebrities minorities and then printing racial slurs?” “I didn’t think it was Allure ‘s practice to make fun of women with bodies that are less than perfect (whatever that means). At 17, I am comfortable with my body. Shame on you.” Clearly, many are getting tired of a smothering ideal which Naomi Wolf compares to the medieval Iron Maiden, which crushed and suffocated its victims.

The social effects of this attitude are well-documented; eating disorders are epidemic among women, particularly university students, and the potentially fatal “diet pill” combo phen-fen is handed out like candy at some weight loss clinics, even to women who are not seriously overweight. Many women hate their bodies, feel alienated from them, consider their bodies something to be corrected and fought with and somehow moulded into the proper shape. Most fashion magazines feed on this, with article upon article on how to lose weight and camouflage figure “flaws”. Advertisers have a huge impact on editorial content; most women’s fashion magazines are filled with ads for diet aids, creams that promise to smooth away bulges, and ectomorphic models in clothing that seems designed to suit a coat hanger more than a real woman.

In spite of the onslaught, there are hopeful signs on the horizon. Editors and advertisers are beginning to pay attention to the “forgotten woman” (which includes most of us) and her spending power. A new magazine launched this year, MODE, targets sizes 12 and up and features more realistic-looking women with actual breasts and hips and curves. MODE is glossy and hip, imitating the style of competitors like Glamour and Allure , aimed at an under-35 audience. Many manufacturers seem to believe that all women in this age group are thin; ergo, it becomes difficult to find clothing for larger sizes that is youthful and fashionable rather than frumpy. MODE seems to have hit a nerve; reader response has been so positive that the magazine was able to plan monthly publication a year ahead of schedule, and its mail pages are filled with hosannas from joyful women sick of being told to diet and fix themselves to look like grim-faced supermodels.

Regardless of size, MODE’s attitude is refreshing. Readers are urged to remember that style has nothing to do with size and that individuality and inner qualities are key to true beauty: “You respect your body no matter what the trends are”, and “This issue of MODE is a call for a soul connection with yourself. It is an ode to those who believe in the democracy of sex appeal…MODE style is a physical, emotional and spiritual path.”

Magazines like this are pushing the boundaries for many reasons, but the main hope for seeing this attitude spread is economic. MODE has attracted thousands of readers as well as high-profile advertisers like Liz Claiborne, Emanuel Ungaro, and Clairol. Expanding the perception of what’s beautiful is exhilarating for women; it doesn’t hurt that it’s lucrative too. The marketability of this attitude may be what ensures its success in the long run.

Cosmetics powerhouse Revlon has signed larger models Barbara Brickner and Emme for future campaigns, while People devoted a recent cover story to women who are larger than the Hollywood/New York paradigm yet still sexy and stylish. Real women are starting to come out of the media closet.

Perhaps the term “real women” is the wrong one to use. Implying that a voluptuous build is more “real” is just as damaging and limiting in the long run as the current craze for models with surly expressions who look like they’ve been shooting smack nonstop for the past year. Hopefully what MODE and other media are bringing about is a real revolution about the way we think about beauty, and the way women look at their bodies. I have watched many friends diet and exercise obsessively, though they were beautiful just as they were; seen them walk through clothing stores sighing that they can’t wear this and couldn’t fit into that, never thinking that the clothes ought to fit the body instead of the other way around. Size acceptance and emphasis on inner beauty is a healthy thing for individuals and society. Far too many women have compromised their health and peace of mind in search of an ideal that they can never reach. Let us hope that this attitude will become as much of an historical curiousity as footbinding. Women’s bodies, minds and spirits have been crippled for far too long.