The F Word

I wonder if French Cosmopolitan has ever seen a plus-size woman.  Legend has it that French women don’t get fat, and neither, it appears, do the ‘plus-size models’ they choose to adorn their magazines. Laura Catterall is a stunning, radiant 22-year-old model who has already walked for Mark Fast and been shot for Marie Claire and Sunday Times Style: her qualifications as a model are indisputable. Her plus-size status, however, is another matter. If there was no written indication on Cosmo’s front cover that Laura was in any way bigger than ‘average’, it is debatable how many people would notice at all. She looks like your average toned, hourglass model, except with bigger breasts. No abundant flesh, no hint of excess fat, just a beautiful woman without the conspicuous thigh-gap we are used to seeing in women’s magazines.

We weren’t even allowed to see Adele’s body when she was Vogue UK’s covergirl last October. US Vogue was barely any better with their March cover featuring the British sensation: cut off mid-bust, and airbrushed to oblivion. Although she was was shot in all her resplendent glory for Ebony, who deigned to show her whole body, Oscar nominee Gabby Sidibe got the same treatment on US Elle’s October 2010 cover (with the addition of something even more insidious: skin-lightening).

The issue of featuring a model like Laura Catterall for their ‘Bien dans mon poids!’ (‘Feeling good in my weight!’) cover and the issue of not permitting fat stars to be fully visible on other covers are separate but interlinked. It is a question of media tokenism when it comes to body image. It extends beyond size and shape and into areas such as race: if Vogue Italia produce one single, solitary ‘black issue’, then we can forget not only that their website would go on to advocate ‘slave earrings’ as a trend, but also that there is simply a woeful lack of non-white models and cover stars. If we are invoked to ‘feel good in our weight!’ in one feature, or even in one whole issue once a year, then we can forget that 99% of the time, the women’s fashion press are in the pursuit of us feeling bad in our weight and in our shape. Putting a fat female celebrity like Adele or Gabby Sidibe on a cover is a way of including both a famous woman and the women who normally feel excluded from the fashion press simultaneously, but ultimately both groups are being manipulated.

The problem of diversity being invisible in the women’s press is universal. Low self-esteem, poor body image and an inordinate interest in men’s opinions on sexual technique or your wardrobe are all fed by women’s magazines and their attitude to our wholly unacceptable bodies. So rather than tricking us into thinking they’re on our side through using faux-plus-size models and judiciously sanitized views of fat celebrities, women’s magazines could do us all a favour and stop erasing and demonizing our existence in every other page of every other issue. Believing that slim, toned Laura Catterall stands in for plus-size women and that Adele can and should be reduced to just her ‘pretty face’ is a true indictment of the state of fat in our media.

Bethany Rutter

Bethany is about to graduate from a French degree at UCL where she spent a year editing the student magazine. She also writes a popular plus-size fashion blog, but her main experience is in film journalism which has appeared in various national publications.