Plus Size Mannequins and Models: Helping or Hurting the Fashion Industry?

The recent  fashion designers’ inclination to promote the so-called “Inbetweenie models” don’t represent society’s difficult-to-attain standards of beauty but the ordinary women’s body instead. This new trend of political correctness gives the fashion industry the opportunity to increase its profits by promoting a new beauty aesthetic standard where larger models are as “equally beautiful, equally sexy and equally talented” (Mas, 2015) as the other super skinny top models. Larger models are, indeed, gaining more popularity between “normal” women and fashion designers, who have started to embrace this new beauty idea of “curves in style”.  But the controversy surrounding plus size mannequins still remains. Several people claim this new beauty aesthetic  discourage anorexia, while others sustain that it promotes obesity and therefore a variety of connected serious health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure. But, do plus size models and mannequins  help larger women feel better in their extra pounds?

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Missguided +

Many women struggle  with  the idea of body image on a daily basis. On the one hand, extreme thinness is not good for young women aged 15-25, who are much more prone to Anorexia Nervosa. On the other hand, rotund young models might also influence young girls’ unhealthy eating habits with their larger bodies displayed on runways and catwalks. The distinction between healthy, toned, curvy bodies and obese and fat bodies is also important. As suggested by the Fat Families TV presenter Steve Miller: “Being overweight is linked to so many health problems such as: diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure.”

The larger, new “improved mannequins” (Rowell, 2011), which are challenging the fashion system, are used by many high-street stores, famous for their diversity campaigns about plus size models. While on one side, many women are very happy for this new challenging introduction, on the other, several others working in the fashion industry have different opinions regarding 16-plus mannequins which might make “fat” reasonable. In fact, a lot of “High-end fashion designers are not interested in designing clothes” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013) for larger women or even exposing larger mannequins in their shop windows because they are mainly focused on promoting and selling “the dream” of fashion. Countries such as France, famous for their haute couture tradition, are unwilling to promote the elite fashion designers’ collections on larger mannequins, mainly because their clothes are expensive and therefore not designed for the vast majority of women.

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Vogue Italia’s Cover – June 2015

This new trend of curvy models is changing the general aesthetic imagination. Myla Dalbesio for instance, a generous size-10 model from Wisconsin, USA, has been chosen for the 2014 Calvin Klein Underwear campaign. And Jennie Runk, a majestic size-14 American model, was chosen by H&M for its 2013 bikini campaign. Candice Huffine, a size-16 American model shot by Steven Meisel for the 2015 Pirelli Calendar, has been democratizing the fashion system as well.

The idea of a healthy body is also being compromised by 16-plus mannequins used by several high-street department stores. In fact, in a 2014 interview with Reveal magazine, Miller states: “As a nation, we are putting out the message that obesity and poor health are ok” (Whiteley, 2014). If larger women are exalted as ideal beauties, overweight women will consequently be influenced by them and encouraged to get “fatter” even if their health might be compromised. One important study, conducted by two Italian researchers at the University of Bologna and presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2000 annual conference, has confirmed that if the ideal beauty is represented by an overweight body the result will be that society will tend to emulate it. In fact, “almost the 40% of western society is obese” (Pagani, 2011). This study conducted by the two researchers tended to raise awareness about eating disorders to governments and advertisement companies around the world.

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Several European countries, including the UK, have signed specific agreements with the fashion system in order to redefine the beauty standards offered to the public.

These standards include: larger models on runways, more size-comfortable clothes available in stores for women and men and prohibition to define size 14 “outsized”.

According to Jennifer Craik, fashion and textile professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, “Many women are influenced by general trends in fashion and follow the activities of the fashion industry. The relationship between couture (elite designers and consumers) and everyday fashion (high street designers and consumers) is complex. Everyday fashion is also influenced by the system of looks generated by high street designers, endorsed by the editors of fashion magazines and the buyers for large department stores and fashion boutiques” (Craik, 2005).

She also points out that “Above all, fashion must be wearable and suit lifestyles that involve active doing (work) rather than leisure. Consequently, successful high street designers must be attuned to the patterns of everyday life and stylistic trends among ordinary consumers” (Craik, 2005).

This is the reason why many high-street stores have introduced plus size mannequins by pointing on meeting the needs of ordinary women whose average size is around 14. According to the Include Asia Conference 2013 Report, there are limited high-street fashion brands which are promoting “inclusive design principles” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). Examples of inclusive designs are: Marks & Spencer which “has recently promoted advertising campaigns and clothing ranges designed for consumers from all ages and H&M, whose clothing is also designed for female consumers sized 16-30” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). Even though the average British woman dress size is growing, it is still difficult for elite fashion brands to display in their shop windows 16-plus mannequins. Karl Lagerfeld once said: “The world of fashion is about dreams and illusions and nobody wants to see a round woman.”

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Plus Size Latina Model Denise Bidot

As per Craik’s suggestion, there will always be a tension between the promise of fashion and the lived experience. On the one hand, elite designers perceive skinny size-six models as “blank canvas, easy to work with” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). On the other hand, they are unlikely to represent the vast majority of curvy women even though skinny models may be considered to wear the same clothes much better. In Miller’s opinion, mannequins should promote the fit and healthy bodies. Plus-size mannequins instead are leading customers to obscurity and confusion by distracting and intriguing them.

At this point, it is worth mentioning the difference between overweight bodies and plus-sized bodies by introducing the body mass index (BMI) topic. “BMI is a specific measurement that adults can use to examine if they have a healthy weight for their height” (NHS, 2015), which approximately defines if the adult is underweight, normal weight or overweight. “Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated as the weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of the height (in metres)” (BMI Calculator, 2015). As suggested by the NHS, “for most adults, an ideal BMI is in the 18.5-24.9 range. If the BMI is 25 or more, the adult weighs more than is ideal for his/her height: 25-29.9 is overweight, 30-39.9 is obese and 40 or more is very obese” (NHS, 2015). Certainly, current 14/16-plus-sized models can’t be considered as overweight bodies. Even though they feel healthy and fit, “they are unlikely to model any haute couture collections in the near future” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). It is also important to determine at what extent a model is considered a “plus-size” by the fashion system. In fact, size-10/12/14 models are considered to be “Inbetweenie models”, who are in “an ‘in-between’ stage between the ‘straight models’ and plus-size models, who generally start at size 16” (Mercer, 2014).

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Plus Size Lingerie Model

Kelly Rowell, Philadelphia Magazine’s writer and public speaker, focuses on lingerie products by stating: “There is nothing particularly desirable about lacy underwear when it’s stretched over broad, white plastic hips” (Rowell, 2011). She also adds: “No matter what size we really are, we still want to be shown the ideal. And by changing the ideal, the message is that an ever-expanding population is just great. Never mind those pesky health ramifications and the healthcare costs that go along with obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Just make bigger sizes and bigger mannequins” (Rowell, 2011). It is important to educate people to get rid of their extra pounds by promoting specific advertising campaigns rather than introducing plus-size mannequins, which “are doing nothing but inflating instead obesity figures” (Whiteley, 2014).

As pointed out by Craik, “everyday body shapes do not conform to the ideals of fashionable body. There is a dynamic relation between body and habitus inflected through clothing, behavior, personal demeanor and occasion” (Craik, 2005). Furthermore, “the idea that clothes constitute a language and means of communication has been central to the proliferation of the fashion industry and its promotion through women’s magazines and by sanctioned role models” (Craik, 2005). Susan Bordo (1990), a modern feminist and philosopher, argues: “By controlling the intake and physical form of the body, women exhibit mastery over it. Moreover, they demonstrate male qualities of detachment, self-containment, self-mastery and control that are perceived to offer freedom from a domestic destiny and empowerment in the public arena” (Bordo, 1990).

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Plus Size Sewing

All the above reflections support the idea that “dieting is the peculiar consequence of a culture fascinated by individual competition, dietary management, the narcissistic body and the presentational self” (Craik, 2005). If on the one hand, extreme thinness stereotypes should be destroyed, on the other hand, overweight people need to be warned on their issue because some of them may be in total denial. According to Dame Sally Davies, England Chief Medical Officer, 52% of English overweight women and 30% of English overweight men don’t admit to have a problem with their extra pounds.

This over-size political correctness is shifting the attention from the scourge of obesity.
For this reason, Dame Sally Davies launched a campaign against sugar and sweets in 2014, imposing a “sugar tax” to decrease the spread of sweets, sugary drinks, smoothies and juices. 16-plus Mannequins are not helping overweight people to feel better with themselves or to feel accepted by society. Instead of confronting this serious problem which affects this category, they are trying to find different alternatives to the issue. The best way to raise awareness on the obesity issue, is not the acceptance of oversize mannequins, but the promotion of educational nutrition programs in schools, universities and media. Young generations must be educated and made responsible to the correct acceptance and selection of the images offered by the media in order to better understand how to naturally coexist with their body imperfections.

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Plus Size Mannequins

Even though plus size mannequins and curvy models are gradually achieving great priority among high-street brands, “elite designers are just not interested in even designing or producing larger sized clothing for women” (Grebe, 2010). Ashley Grebe, lecturer at the California Polytechnic State University, in the light of a conversation held by Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Analysts of the NPD Group and expert on consumers’ behaviour, with one elite American designer, states that “very high-end designers simply don’t want to see a woman wearing their products in a size 12 or 14 because it is bad for their image” (Grebe, 2010). In response to this statement, she suggests that “if plus sizes are made and sold in a store, they cost more money than do ‘regular’ sized clothes” (Grebe, 2010). Furthermore, “if plus size clothes are sold, they are hidden, harder to find section of the store and separated from the ‘regular’ sized clothing, perpetuating this way the idea that clothing manufacturers are telling women that it is not acceptable to be larger than a size 12” (Grebe, 2010).

Plus-sized clothes cost more than “regular sized clothes” (Grebe, 2010) in terms of production, because “plus-sized clothes require more materials than those in sizes 6-12, therefore, a pricing strategy needs to be thought through” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). For this reason, elite designers prefer concentrating on women size 12 or less without displaying oversize mannequins in their shop windows because their only purpose is to sell ‘the dream’. A better solution could be instead the smart use of “sub-brands” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013) such as ASOS, which has launched on its website a new range of clothes specifically designed for curvy women. This solution “could help achieve the right balance between serving main customers and plus-sized women” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013). It is important that on one side, all department stores support and accept the idea of body diversity by giving their customers the opportunity to buy clothes in different sizes in order to not make them feel left out. But, on the other side, they should not display their clothes on over size 12-14 mannequins, otherwise, they may promote the idea of an unhealthy beauty by propagating the message that “fat” is beautiful.

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Plus Size Mannequins in Australia

Women are continuously struggling over their bodies. “The recent popularity of aerobics and fitness, as adjust to the diet industry, are generalized manifestations of the approaches to body management. Firm bodies, muscles and working out have been redefined as a symbol of correct attitude” (Craik, 2005). In fact, women’s bodies are the basis of extreme conflicts and massive hard work, which involve “reconciling techniques of being female with techniques of femininity appropriate to a particular cultural milieu” (Craik, 2005). The media promotes the general rule of “women focusing on their physical appearance and constantly loathing their bodies” (Grebe, 2010). In fact, “this allows women to be controlled and therefore increases the inequalities between men and women and perpetuates sexism in our society” (Grebe, 2010).

In conclusion, all forms of discrimination in terms of body weight should be eliminated. The general opinion needs to be much more flexible and tolerant in terms of aesthetic imagination by undermining all kinds of unrealistic beauty stereotypes offered by the media and the fashion industry. Larger women should not be excluded from the shopping concept. An “inclusive retail experience” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013) should be introduced to make them feel accepted by the society. To recap, oversize mannequins are unlikely to help larger women to feel better in their extra pounds. Instead, as suggested by Dame Davies, “sugar taxes” should be introduced by all countries to decrease the spread of sweets, sugary drinks and “junk foods” by raising awareness about obesity issues among women and men. “Main-stream fashion collections and plus-sized clothes should be easily found in stores at their well-designed layouts instead of confusing customers” (Include Asia Conference Report, 2013) with the exposed plus-sized mannequins which should not be considered “overweight mannequins” but simply “larger mannequins”.

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