I’m sure you’ve noticed it. I have before today, but it really struck me this time. Recently I’ve been seeing an ad on the subways for Reitmans, a women’s clothing store that carries plus sizes. The woman in the picture is ostensibly plus sized. The copy next to her reads “Comes in small, medium and fabulous.”
I know I’m supposed to feel all special and empowered by this declaration of my fabulousness as a plus sized woman, but I just feel sort of condescended to.
Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has also used this particular trick. Some time ago they had billboards up around the city showing the image of a woman and two descriptive words. The public was invited to e-mail in their opinion of which word was more accurate. For example, one was a very freckled woman and the listed options were “ugly spots” or “beauty spots.” The options on the billboard I’m thinking of were “fat” or “fab.”
Understandably advertisers are not going to touch a word like fat, and all its negative connotations, with a ten foot pole, unless they are positioning it next to a more positive word—like fabulous. I get that it’ll probably be a while until we’re able to unpack a word like “fat” and allow it to just be a descriptor of size rather than an attack on character. It’s just odd that in a culture apparently suffering an epidemic of obesity we still can’t manage to find a way to talk about size that doesn’t make it feel like we’re avoiding swearing. Instead we’re busy re-claiming and disowning and doing everything in our power to avoid using the word fat.
The Reitmans ad verges on being confusing because the woman pictured is so very close to being a regular size. In fact, she very likely is a “regular” size. Barbara Brickner—one of the most famous plus size models in the industry—is a size 12. Whitney Thompson, winner of cycle 10 of America’s Next Top Model is considered a plus size model, and her size fluctuates between 8 and 10. I guess fair is fair—regular models are laughably unlike real women, so I guess the same goes for plus size models. My point is that the women used for plus size advertising are so normal looking if they’re not placed next to a “regular” model that it can actually be confusing. I wondered at first if the ad was just indicating that clothes at Reitmans also come in large or extra large. It took an extra second for me to make the connection that fabulous was a euphemism for plus.
As it is, fabulous is a word that has been squeezed of all its original meaning anyway. It seems to be the word people use when they want to describe a situation, item or person they actually find far from fabulous while still leaving everyone’s feelings intact. In fact, I’m sort of suspect of someone the minute they use the word. I start to immediately doubt their sincerity about everything that they say. And maybe that’s what I’m keying into in the ad. I don’t actually believe these advertisers think plus sized women are fabulous at all.
The Dove ads use the word in a different way. They clearly buy into all the bad connotations of the word fat because the woman pictured cannot apparently be fat and fabulous—she must be one or the other. Well frankly, given advertising beauty standards, she kind of has to be both. She’s a great looking woman who is quite well proportioned and bigger than average (at least for a model): fabulous and fat.
Both ads leave me with the impression of a sort of whitewash; a complete negation of fat people from advertising existence. We’ll either be acknowledged in euphemisms or not at all because apparently some of us can be too fabulous to even be fat. I’m pretty sure that I don’t fall into that category.
I’m not sure I’m ready for the word fat to be used in advertising. I think even I’m too painfully aware of all the baggage that word brings with it and I don’t know that I’d want to identify with an ad campaign that used the word. But it seems like fabulous doesn’t quite do the job either. Some clothing manufacturers have made an art form of referring to plus sizes and the advertising industry could probably get some pointers. I wouldn’t recommend all the things I’ve seen on clothing labels in my time—“Above Average” and “Encore” are some of the more amusing ones that come to mind—but there just has to be a better way. I mean, it would be nice if we could just say, “this clothing line comes in plus sizes” or “this woman is, incidentally, both fat and conventionally attractive (i.e. you don’t have a have a raging fat fetish to think she’s cute).” Clearly I’m not the person who should be writing this ad copy, but you get what I mean.
I’ve heard it said that advertising doesn’t set trends, it follows them and in these cases I think that rings true. As a culture we haven’t figured out a way to engage with fatness that isn’t mostly about dripping condescension, judgment or fetishism, and I think it might be a while before we do. It’d be nice though, if advertisers managed to get out ahead of the trend for once.