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Plus-Sized Fashion and the Sociologist's Gaze - Pacific Standard

Plus-Sized Fashion and the Sociologist's Gaze

In a new book, Amanda M. Czerniawski details how the fashion industry objectifies plus-sized models. But can sociologists avoid doing the same?
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Renowned plus-size model Velvet D'Amour. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Renowned plus-size model Velvet D'Amour. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Fashion is thin. Most directly, that means that the fashion industry privileges extremely slender bodies; average American women are size 10 to 14, while the average fashion model is a vanishing size zero to four. Because of this extremely limited range of body types, diversity, in every sense, is constricted.

In this context, plus-size modeling can be an act of resistance, as sociologist Amanda M. Czerniawski explains in her new book, Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling. Czerniawski worked as a plus-sized model herself during her research. She also interviewed numerous other plus-sized models, who talk about their deliberate, politicized effort to change the fashion industry.

One size 16/18 model, Janice, spoke for many of those Czerniawski interviewed when she declared: "Despite all the problems in this industry, I'm rewarded for being myself. I'm grateful for there to be such an industry. I'm honored to take part in this field where I can potentially change minds about beauty." Another model referred to the 300-pound, internationally recognized model Velvet D'Amour, who has walked the Paris fashion runways as "my plus-size superhero." As Czerniawski writes, "contemporary American society discriminates against fat," and even "fat" people often stereotype their peers as lazy. In that context, plus-sized models are making a statement when they show that a size 10, or a size 18, can be normal, sexy, exciting, desirable. Plus-sized models make fashion more diverse, more accepting, and less pinched.

"Women," she argues—including plus-sized models—"experience their bodies as not solely for their pleasure and amusement but as under the constant gaze of others."

Or at least, that's the hope. Czerniawski, though, is not entirely convinced. Though plus-sized models want to change notions of beauty and glamour, she argues, the industry restricts their efforts and their effectiveness. Plus-sized models are not really all that free; though they do not have to be a size zero, their bodies are still regulated and policed. Women are frequently encouraged by their agents to lose weight, maintain their weight, or even, in some cases, to gain weight. Czerniawski herself, at a size 10, was considered too small for some modeling gigs, while being too big for "straight" non-plus-size modeling. And even after all that effort, plus-size models remain marginalized within an industry where "straight" models still get more opportunities, more gigs, more money, and more fame.

As a result of privileging the thin, Czerniawski argues, plus-size models in fashion shoots are encouraged to fit into images of sexiness and beauty that are derived from, or much the same as, those of the straight modeling world and its requirements. Akin to straight models, plus-sized models, she argues, have to distance themselves from their own bodies, privileging the gaze of the fashion industry over their own subjectivity. They must constantly monitor their weight, their appearance, and even their mood in order to get gigs. Models "change their bodies to fit a preexisting image of beauty rather than being empowered in a way that allows them to alter the image to fit their bodies," Czerniawski argues. As a former actor, she was also disturbed by the extent to which modeling agencies cared only about photographs, and barely cared to interview her for jobs. "In acting I used my body and voice," she writes. "In modeling I was voiceless."

Czerniawski argues that plus-sized models still remain alienated objects, shaped by the industry's gaze. I think she makes a convincing case—but I also think she ignores the way in which her own book rather helplessly parallels the same dynamic. She criticizes the way in which models in the industry become "voiceless dolls.” But at the same time, she, as sociologist and academic, overwrites her interviewees' narratives of empowerment with her own more skeptical analysis. She criticizes the way in which models are alienated from their bodies and forced to undertake "self-surveillance." But she mirrors that self-surveillance in her own account of her modeling work. On the runway, "The thrill of all the attention intoxicated me ... I soaked in my moment. I felt fierce." But she then insists that that fierceness was not authentic. She was "lost in the moment.... Under the spell" of a desire to look beautiful. She splits herself in two: the deluded self as a model, who cannot speak truth, and the knowing self as a sociologist, who analyzes, interprets, and breaks through delusion.

"Despite all the problems in this industry, I'm rewarded for being myself. I'm grateful for there to be such an industry. I'm honored to take part in this field where I can potentially change minds about beauty."

Czerniawski even reproduces the economics of the industry. As she writes in her book, the plus-sized industry fetishizes and commodifies curves, breasts, rears, hips. "Women," she argues—including plus-sized models—"experience their bodies as not solely for their pleasure and amusement but as under the constant gaze of others." This is certainly true of the fashion industry. But it's just as certainly the case for a sociological study of modeling, which is, inevitably, more interesting, and more marketable than it would be if it were focused on a less sexy topic. The breasts, the rears, the curves—they adorn Czerniawski's study too, and confer their glamour upon it.

Many of the indignities that Czerniawski details—lack of benefits, arbitrary management decisions, exploitative contracts—are typical of many (most?) labor relationships under capitalism. They certainly sound familiar to me from friends who work in the ever-more-adjunctifying academy. In singling out plus-sized models as particularly exploited, or particularly victimized by false-consciousness, Czerniawski seems to be reinforcing the stigma she wants to combat. "Fat" women are sad, "fat" women are self-deluded; "fat" women are alienated from their bodies. That all sounds a bit too familiar.

This isn't to say that Czerniawski is a hypocrite; it's not even to say that she's wrong. On the contrary, her book is, for the most part, honest, thoughtful, and insightful. But nonetheless, and despite her best efforts, sociology and plus-sized fashion remain eerily similar. Both can focus a gaze upon a deviant, marginalized population. Both usually profess to render that population visible and comprehensible, while basking in its edginess, glamour, and excitement. And, unless great care is taken, both can end up exoticizing and condescending the very people they claim to empower. Fashioning Fat tries, with some success, to create a more comprehensive vision of plus-size models and their world. It's not Czerniawski's fault if, in the end, her vision, like that of the industry she chronicles, feels too narrow.

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