Due to its artificial nature, generally involving an extensive process of planning, selection, filming and post-production, including severe editing and formatting to be technically suitable for screening, television is never going to be a 100% accurate representation of real life. That fact does not exclude so-called reality television and documentaries. Directors, producers and a crew consisting of up to hundreds of people will always set a default filter on every project in order to fit an specific agenda or storyboard. Even — and specially — if they aim to present their results as a source of information; approved by science, history and anthropology.
These days, the world of fat acceptance and plus size fashion has been a frequent subject for educational television. Under the general weather and matching the zeitgeist, the concept of people inhabiting larger bodies and taking advantages of opportunities and overall human guarantees like everybody else has rarely been portrayed under a positive light. At best they have been met with freak show curiosity, at worst they have been treated as monster-like experiments. But always as things and not humans, as riddles to be deciphered and, a general conclusion, errors to be exterminated.
That’s why I was sceptical when Channel 4, house of finger-pointing jewels such as My Big Fat Fetish and Embarrassing Fat Bodies, released the rather hip and perky Plus Sized Wars. What is it about? It’s not about cringing while staring at Gilbert Grape mothers stuck in their couches eating themselves to oblivion. It’s not about laughing at creepy weasels who display their objectifying tendencies by grabbing large bellies instead of small waists. It’s about celebrating fashion and its wider possibilities today. Rather than judging bodies, the show judges business plans. Instead of headless fatties, we have full faces, bodies and personalities having fun at the dressing room. Multi-dimensional humans with friends, lovers and a scorching sense of style.
The “Wars” in the title are not between women and their scales, but between different fashion companies. In the pink heart-shaped corner, we have Yours Clothing, an idea that came from a necessity like successful companies do: Andrew Killingsworth, an entrepreneur by nature, noticed that his plus size uniforms sold more frequently than his straight sized stock. He saw a gap in the market that needed to be satisfied; and he focused on larger clothes for office and leisure. Five years after his initial idea, Yours Clothing has over 70 stores all over the United Kingdom with about 30 more in the pipeline.
In the old and dusty corner, we have Evans. For decades, considered the sole source of plus sized clothes in the entire country and still seen as the franchise boutique where old ladies go to die. With the boom of plus/fatshion/fat acceptance blogging, Evans is now trying to reach a different target audience: young femmes with a spark in their eyes and who just have started to live.
And in the trading docks, we have Taking Shape, the latest ship to hail from Australia. With 30 years of success down under, Alla Buinowicz has now opened a few shops this side of the pond. They may have a few staples on offer, including anti-chafing shorts, but their matronly catalogue is not catching many eyes.
Squeezed in between, MiLK Model Management prides itself of being one of the best plus size model agencies in the island. Founder and former model Anna Shillinglaw may say all she wants about breaking rules and offering a catwalk and editorial alternative, but her selection standards are still ridiculously rigid: being hourglass, tall, with perfect eyebrows and not larger than a UK size 16.
Unless, of course, you are Tess Holliday, aka Tess Munster, today’s hottest plus size model. Hailing from Los Angeles, Tess is an imperfect UK size 24, wide limbs wrapped up in tattoos, not exactly statuesque in height, but overwhelmingly beautiful with her pursed lips, impeccable hair and Tex Avery pinup aesthetics. When she was brought to England by Yours Clothing for a lingerie campaign, she caused a sensation in both traditional and digital media. Her presence has saved the lives of bullied teenagers and adults, now glad to see that weight is not obstacle to achieve their dreams. People like to see themselves, and Shillinglaw saw the financial and popularity “potench” in signing Ms Munster.
Plus Sized Wars still had its bias: the interviewer tried to play Devil’s Advocate several times, attempting to shoehorn concern trolling whenever she could. “Are we at a point where it’s OK to be fat?”, she would ask. “But are you normalising obesity? Do you think you’ll get a lot of questions about the obesity? Do you sort of think that’s… OK?” Fortunately, the business owners knew how to reply with professionalism and diplomacy: “I’m not a doctor”. The matter is fashion, not health. The matter is being treated with dignity as a human being regardless of your size and whether you’re ill or not — and people of all sizes get ill. What do they expect us to do? Be naked?
Plus size fashion is not a glorification of fatness, but a glorification of humanity. Full-frontal democracy, where everyone has the same rights and we have the same choices in matters of presentation and representation. Plus size fashion is an essential tool to navigate the world and achieve social, individual and collective goals. Freedom to feel excellent without bringing others down.
Something Taking Shape and its infamous Skinny Bird Watching fail to consider. “All publicity is good publicity”, flaunts Buinowicz; but the solution to low sales in the circus tent department is not to treat other humans like animals or objects but to stop selling circus tents and start selling edgier and more appropriate garments for today’s civilisation.
Even Evans gets the message with its latest collaborations with graduate students and fashion houses such as Scarlett and Jo, Lovedrobe, Ronen Chen and Clements Ribeiro; while paying extra attention to their audience by featuring fatshion bloggers as models. Through the power of blogging, the consumer joins the producing line by becoming the perfect model and the best publicity. Looking at someone like you instead of laughing at someone who is not like you.
People like Callie Thorpe, Bethany Rutter, Danielle Vanier, Hannah Boal and Georgina Horne seen as figures of authority and good reference points to estimate how something would fit your shape. Even if it’s ever-changing and if bloggers like Horne take personal decisions. Remember: they are people like you, and like you, they are multidimensional, something that documentaries and pseudorealities often fail to portray.