Courtney PIn a world where ‘bigger is better’ only applies to bank accounts and property ownership, a majority of us often view and consider larger bodies as less beautiful, unattractive and also unhealthy.  However, many people, especially plus size Black and Latina models, are working hard to prove all of the naysayers wrong. Wrapped up in rhetoric belonging to the “obesity epidemic,” and regulated by European beauty ideals, mainstream society often portrays negative images and ideas about bigger bodies, especially bigger brown bodies, and renders them seemingly invisible in magazines and in the boardroom. This is particularly true in the fashion industry. Known for setting trends for the world to see (and follow), the fashion industry has been regulating women’s’ bodies for over half a century. While advertisements and runway shows once featured rubenesque women to appeal to consumers, the 1960’s brought upon an admiration for “stick thin” models with the rise of Jean Shrimpton and Lesley “Twiggy” Lawson. During this time, Black models also made notable gains: Donyale Luna became the first Black woman to cover British Vogue and Naomi Sims appeared on the covers of Ladies’ Home Journal and Life, setting a spark for her career as the first African American supermodel. In the 1990’s, plus size supermodel Emme Aronson became one of America’s most notable faces, breaking the straight size barrier to fame. However, bigger and brown bodies continue to struggle for the spotlight and the attention of influential fashion designers.

Because of this, many of them have taken their destiny into their own hands. In “Plus Size Black and Latino Women: The Implications of Body Shape and Size for Apparel Design,” in Marie-Eve Faust and Serge Carrier’s Designing Apparel for Consumers: The Impact of Body Shape and Size (Woodhead Publishing, 2014), I discuss how this history has affected their visibility, but not their aspirations. I found that many of these plus size models, mainly Black and Latina, are members of the plus size blogosphere, a network of stakeholders ranging from photographers, entrepreneurs, designers, and bloggers who all believe that plus size fashion has something to offer the world. As opposed to being seen as unhealthy, unattractive and non-fashionable, plus size blogosphere members share their fashion savvy, beauty secrets, health tips and life-long lessons through conversations, castings and wardrobe pieces. Through this digital space, these women stake their claim in fashion while educating the world about plus size women’s physical, mental and social health.

Drawing from a lineage of Black and Latino women entrepreneurs (think millionaire hair product inventor Madame CJ Walker, international businesswoman Eunice Johnson of Johnson & Johnson Publishing, Lilian de la Torre-Jiménez, publisher of Bodas USA La Revista, or local beauticians and seamstresses that have been serving their communities for decades), Black and Latina models carve out a space in fashion for plus size models and plus size women. In “high” fashion, plus size modeling begins at a size six, while the average American woman’s size teeters between twelve and sixteen. Plus size models and women alike call for a diversity of sizes and skin tones to be present in plus size modeling, stressing that plus size communities are charged with making body diversity (i.e., not only the “hourglass” silhouette), as well as skin tone diversity (not only white or racially ambiguous models) included within its ranks.

The work of these plus size women disrupt what we target as socially, physically and economically healthy by providing alternative ways to view bigger bodies. They work out, work on runways, and work their networks to define, reject and rebuild what they believe is fashionable, beautiful and worth paying attention to: themselves.

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Courtney J. Patterson is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. She holds a Bachelors degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters degree in African American Studies from Northwestern. Her dissertation, Fat Chance, Slim Chance: Identity, Culture, and A Politic of Fatness, studies fat black women and the political construction of body size through lenses of [popular] culture, fashion, and sexuality to understand how their socio-cultural experiences may frame, define, and regulate their identity. Her research interests include: Black Women’s socio-political histories and realities; Fat Studies; Race, Class and Gender; Sexuality; Cultural Sociology, Medical Sociology; and HIV/AIDS. She is author of “Plus Size Black and Latino Women: The Implications of Body Shape and Size for Apparel Design,” in Designing Apparel for Consumers: The Impact of Body Shape and Size (2014), and second author of “Precious: Black Women, Neighborhood HIV/AIDS Risk, and Institutional Buffers” in the Spring 2011 edition of the Du Bois Review.

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2 Responses to “Plus Size Women Continue to Do It For Themselves”

  1. Favorites from this week Says:

    [...] Plus Size Women Continue to Do It For Themselves – Courtney J. Patterson at Disruptive Women in Healthcare [...]

  2. Akit Says:

    Reading posts like this make surfing such a plarsuee

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