by Gina Brennan
The plus-size movement still has a shockingly long way to go, considering it started its journey in the 1960s. Vogue Business reported that across the fashion calendars in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, only 17 brands featured at least one plus-size look. London Fashion Week had the most mid and plus-size models (mid-size characterised as UK sizes 10-16, plus-size as 18+) but these groups made up only 7.3% of the models on the runway. Despite the growth of the ‘body positivity’ movement in the past few years, there is a disheartening lack of representation on the runway. Coupled with the media promising that the ultra-skinny, ‘heroin chic’ of the ‘90s is back, it foreshadows a gloomy future for inclusivity in fashion.
The consequences of pushing certain body types as more desirable than others are dire. The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that over the last five years hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen 84%, and the NHS is experiencing record demand for eating disorder services for young people.
Eating disorders kill. Anorexia nervosa boasts the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric/mental health disorder. The most common argument against plus-size inclusivity, that it promotes unhealthiness, falls flat against this. If bigger bodies shouldn’t be ‘promoted’ on runways in fear of encouraging people to become ill, then the very skinny models that are the norm should be removed as well to prevent more falling victim to eating disorders. The hypocrisy around the ‘promoting obesity’ argument, and the silence from those same people when it comes to models of the smallest size, proves that it is simply a façade that people hide their fatphobia behind.
The model type that would seem to demonstrate the healthiest image would be the mid-size model, promoting neither an underweight nor overweight body. However, mid-sized models made up just 5.8% of models in London Fashion Week. This proves that the size of the models on the runway has nothing to do with promoting a ‘healthy image’.
Fatphobia runs deeper than people not liking what they see on a runway or advert. Sabrina Strings, author of Fearing the Black Body, explores its racial origins. Put simply, the white women of Europe and the US wanted to differentiate themselves from the black women of Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. An easy way to do this was to demonstrate the practice of self-control.
The white women’s prudishness and thinness became a measure of their self-control over sex and food. It painted black women as over-sexual and gluttonous, two stereotypes that persist into the modern world. Even now, thinness is associated with superior morality just as it was used to portray white women as morally superior to their black counterparts. Continuing to perpetuate fatphobia lends credibility to this distorted view, and it should be recognised as the incorrect and offensive ideology that it is.
Fatphobia also plays perfectly into the hands of capitalism. The sustained fear of being fat has created a global diet industry worth $254.9 billion in 2021, an eye-watering figure that is only going to rise. This is an industry that targets women the most – according to Diets in Review, 85% of consumers are female. However, the vast majority of the companies that make up this industry are headed up by male CEOs. These companies are profiting off the insecurities of women in order to line the pockets of multi-millionaire men.
The removal of fatphobia would mean a sigh of relief from the millions of women caught up in diet culture, but would be catastrophic for these men’s profits. They will do anything in their power to create insecurities for women, hence sponsoring influencers to advertise their products while perpetuating the ‘ideal body’ (Kardashian skinny tea, anyone?). Taking the hard-earned money of women trapped in this way of thinking means more to them than the long term physical and mental health of the population. If industries begin to embrace the plus-size body, they risk destroying this highly profitable market.
In this environment, the refusal to play into fatphobia is a beautiful act of revolution. To love yourself as you are, and feel no pressure to change your body, is radical and necessary. Including diverse bodies on the runway is a step towards this rebellion.
Saying this, perhaps the discourse around plus-size representation in the fashion industry gets too caught up in the financial and political aspects. While it is true that fatphobia enables racism and inequality, and creates an environment where it is the norm to get skinny or die trying, perhaps the reasons behind representation need to be simpler. Fat people exist, and are as beautiful and normal as anyone who is thin. Having your body constantly be a source of disagreement and debate is exhausting. Fat people shouldn’t have to be viewed as a source of rebellion, or a political statement, or medical evidence. They should be allowed to just be. Fat people deserve to be given a break, and to see themselves celebrated. Perhaps it is as simple as that.