Editorial: Plus Sized Models- Publication: LA Weekly - Date: July 2010

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Broader Than Broadway

Another fashion shoot in a stuffy downtown warehouse,  generic Techno echoes through a cavernous warehouse while another learned model does her thing. Pursing her lips and twirling the ends of her blonde Farrah do, she  jumps on command as a  full steam photographer barks,  “lift your butt,  head back, curve your hips,” like a bizarre hybrid  of sports coach and  drill sergeant.

Far removed from the average beanpole  twenty something  hoping to morph into  the likes of Kate Moss or Agyness Dien,  the model in question, Jennifer is different, about  150 pounds different.

Pasadena  born and bred, 250 pound Jennifer is a plus sized burlesque model   AKA "full-figured model," "extended-sizes model,"  or "outsize model", she’s also a part time primary school teacher.

A self proclaimed  entrepreneur, Jen has boosts  the feeble salary she earns as teacher by posing for various websites and magazines specializing in plus sized  burlesque styled lingerie and other fetish outlets. Her shoots include work for burlesque labels like Fairygothmother, Figleaves and XoXo and fetish websites  Dr Sketchy, Mookychick  and Etsy

Before modeling Jen says  she was previously ashamed of the figure she’s had for most of her life. She says she is now proud of her rotund physicality, keenly boasting she’s a “real woman,”  who commands as much attention from men as her emaciated, “coat hanger,” counterparts.

“I  sound like an infomercial, but its true. I was an obese child and indoctrinated with stereotypical notion about body image  and a submitted to them earlier in my life, I was reclusive, inconfident and lonely, “ I seldom dated, resorted to men I didn’t like and avoided social outings during high school.”

“ I was indoctrinated by societal stereotypes to believe I was unappealing, repulsive and should keep covered up and locked away in a dark room, though the modeling changed me and my life.”

Jen confides, “ One day I met a  woman who helped me realize I shouldn’t be ashamed of my body. I  went to a burlesque themed event and met Karen who is also a plus sized model, she suggested I try out for a shoot and the rest is history. I now have renewed confidence and absolute pride in myself I enjoy it, its very empowering, and fun.”

Defying the stereotypical notion of what is deigned worthy catwalk fodder , Jennifer’s modeling career could be championed by many, particularly those out and proud about their  brazen bulkiness,

World renowned designer Karl Lagerfeld alluded to his endorsement of all things plus size with his photographic contribution to V Magazine’s January/ February 2010 Size Issue. Despite his apparent  preference for “skinny models,” Lagerfeld photographed burlesque dancer Miss Dirty Martini for Day 4 of the editorial entitled “Coco a Go-Go.”

Still various fashion industry pundits  and academic studies suggest plus sized models aren’t exactly empowering womenkind or releasing them from the bondage of body image stereotypes.

Welsh designer Julien Macdonald called plus-size models a "joke," after defending "Britain's Next Top Model" -- on which he now serves as a judge -- and its decision to not follow in the footsteps of "America's Next Top Model" by featuring curvier contestants. "There were no plus-size models," Macdonald reportedly said of the show's sixth season."This is a serious show. You can't have a plus-size girl winning -- it makes it a joke."It's not fair on them -- you're setting them up for a fall. I know what would happen to them. They are looked down on."

Meanwhile, according to a new study by researchers at Arizona State University concludes that using plus-sized models in ads is not a good idea since it lowers women's self-esteem. In the study, researchers chose women based on their BMI (Body Mass Index), and divided them into three groups: low BMI's, or underweight women; normal BMI's; and high BMI's, or overweight women.

The study claimed many women experience lower self-esteem looking at plus-sized models. The "normal" and high BMI groups both experienced lower self-esteem after looking at thin, normal, and plus-sized models.  Only the women with low BMI's felt just fine after seeing all of the ads. The explanation? Those with normal and high BMI's identified with the plus-sized models and saw themselves as different from the thin ones, and then felt bad about themselves. Those with low BMI's, meanwhile, identified with the thin models and saw themselves as distinct from the plus-sized ones, and then felt good about themselves.

A similar study conducted at ASU, the University of Cologne in Germany and Erasmus University in the Netherlands  reaffirmed the link between model sizes in advertisements and the self-esteem of consumers looking at the ads.  The study ultimately suggests, increasingly common ads and catalogues featuring plus-size models are unlikely to work on their intended customers.

“We believe it is unlikely that many brands will gain market share by using heavy models in their ads,” said Naomi Mandel, marketing associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. “We found that overweight consumers demonstrated lower self-esteem – and therefore probably less enthusiasm about buying products – after exposure to any size models in ads (versus ads with no models). Also, normal-weight consumers experienced lower self-esteem after exposure to moderately heavy models, such as those in Dove soap’s ‘Real Women’ campaign, than after exposure to moderately thin models.”

Mandel and her colleagues performed a series of experiments based on the popular idea that looking at extremely thin models can negatively affect consumers’ self-esteem and possibly even lead to eating disorders in young girls. That belief is why fashion show organizers in Milan, Italy and Madrid, Spain, recently banned super waif models from their catwalks.

In the experiments, hundreds of female students were categorized as having low, normal or high body mass index (BMI) based on their heights and weights. They were then invited to a lab, but were not told the true nature of the study. They were shown a variety of ads and told to answer several questions, only some of which were truly related to the study. The questionnaires showed the participants’ self-esteem shifted based on the model sizes they saw in the ads and whether they considered themselves to be similar to or different from those sizes

Still such research means little to the likes if Jennifer, who’s transformed life  suggests  she’s not about to slim down any time soon. “I think we are now in an age of diversity. Hopefully that’s the case. I think the lines of beauty and body image are increasingly blurred and there aren’t any real do’s and donts – its really a matter of individual perception after all.” 

Written by Craig Stephens

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