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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 25 October, 2014

Column: Positive body image or normalising excess weight? The line for plus-size fashion

We need to find a healthy balance regarding body image – and that means not celebrating extreme sizes, writes Lorraine Courtney.

Lorraine Courtney

WE HAVE THE 5:2 diet and Protein Thursdays, yet we’re growing bigger day by day – 61 per cent of Irish adults are now overweight, overfeeding themselves into chronic illness and early death. So it was only a matter of time until the fashion industry saw commercial sense in this market.

This week the UK’s second Plus Size Fashion event is being pitched as an alternative to London Fashion Week. The event includes catwalk shows, stands and talks from plus-size retailers. Carolyn de la Drapiere, Curvissa and Pauline et Julie will showcase their new collections. The Hoff’s daughter, Hayley Hasselhoff, walked the runway. Most of the clothes featured are available up to a size 32. But is this something positive for the body image of plus-size women, or a step too far in the normalisation of excess weight?

Fashion has created a massive gulf between itself and “real” women. From skinny to curvy, the population is made of very different body types – and the contrast between models and the rest of us means that many women end up feeling bad about themselves. We know that we shouldn’t imagine the airbrushed models in makeup ads reflect reality and that if you peek backstage most catwalk shows reek of vomit and discontent, but it’s all too easy to forget these things when we’re consistently bombarded with images of perfection.

Our understanding of weight is warped

With the average woman wearing a size 14 or upwards, the need for bigger sized clothing is unavoidable, yet the issue of weight has become warped in our minds. We’re bigger than ever but imagine that we’re thinner. Delusion about body size is second nature. Consider the photos that we post on social networks – which ones do we select? Not those taken at an unfortunate angle, those are sent straight to trash. We post the ones that show us at our best, and ‘our best’ usually means at our thinnest. But it isn’t the camera that lies, it’s ourselves, and the slim-fast settings on PhotoShop only encourage us even more. We might laugh about it but all the evidence shows that delusions about body size is only propelling us towards a future of chronic illness.

There is heaps of research that shows how overweight people are not accurately gauging their size, protesting that they are the right weight. Because we’ve all become so much bigger, overweight is the new normal and nobody really notices anymore because almost everyone has gotten bigger. This dramatic change means that, without even noticing it, we have become paradoxically rather less concerned about weight than we used to be.

Retailers are trying to make a buck, don’t forget

A survey last year by Safe Food found that while 61 per cent of Irish people are overweight, only 40 per cent see themselves as overweight. The research also found that, while almost all Irish people recognised that obesity is a health problem, many did not know that simply being overweight is also bad for one’s health. According to the National Adult Nutrition Survey, 37 per cent of adults are overweight and a further 24 per cent are obese. The prevalence of obesity in 18- to 64-year-old adults has increased from 13 per cent to 21 per cent in women, and from 8 per cent to 26 per cent in men since 1990.

Retailers are just conspirators in all of this. In America, they do it very openly with something called “vanity sizing” where a man’s trousers that is marked at size 36 waist can be anywhere between 37 and 41 inches. And so consumers are flattered into thinking that they are climbing into a garment that says it is smaller than it actually is. Food companies do it too. Have you ever seen an advertisement for chocolates where the actress is more than a size eight? Unlikely. Chocolates are usually advertised by people who clearly don’t eat them very often. It’s all part of the illusion.

What we see in London this week is a smart marketing campaign with a veneer of concern. Just like the usual fashion world fodder, they have something to sell us, products to shift. What we really need to do is to find a healthy balance and ensure that neither extreme of body size is celebrated.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath

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