Fighting the Tyranny of Thinness: Can Media Make Room for Larger Women?

Overweight people – or, more accurately, overweight women – are still discriminated against in fashion, television, movies and advertising. Israeli activists rate their chances of finally changing things as far better than slim.

Haley Morris-Cafiero

When the artist Haley Morris-Cafiero goes out to take videos of herself, she does not treat herself as the main subject. Although she is in the center of most of the clips, causing the drama that they document, her real subject is something different: the responses of passersby to her body, which is that of a fat woman. Equipped with a tripod and accompanied by an assistant, Morris-Cafiero goes out to crowded places, and her films almost always show a response of disgust – whether from a group of derisive adolescents, tourists who stare at her as she eats ice cream, or an on-duty police officer making fun of her as she stands on the sidewalk, talking on the telephone.

Eyal Yitzhar / Globes

If Israeli journalist and writer Ariana Melamed had a similar artistic interest, she could have made video clips that were just as damning. If she had pulled out her cellphone last summer, she could have shown the stranger who spat in her face as he angrily muttered, “Fat slob.” Instead, she documented the incident on her Facebook page, using the weapon she had developed to cope with such incidents: her sharp tongue. “Fat women are such a terrible threat that they cannot be seen in advertisements (except for ones about weight loss, right?), filmed for television or employed as spokespeople or in public relations, create a positive impression in any job interview or be seen in public with anyone,” she wrote then, taking the opportunity to start a discussion about the place – or, more precisely, lack of one – of fat women in the Israeli media.

There have been many changes in the way we see “the other.” But when it comes to fat people, nothing has changed. It seems that the tyranny of thinness is in no danger. The thinness revolution, which began in the mid-20th century in Western society, struck deep roots in popular culture, and the fat body became a symbol of countless negative aspects: lack of self-control, bad aesthetics, inferior morals, and so on.

Although positive change seems to be getting underway, albeit slowly – models of more than conventionally accepted weight are starting to appear on runways in fashion shows and advertisements, and magazines are more accepting of them as well – the responses to seeing the models have not changed much.

As the standard of living has risen, the average weight has also increased. But fat people – or, more accurately, fat women – are still discriminated against in fashion, television, movies and advertising. They are always in the background, if they are present at all.

Melamed says that in the Western world, the fat person is the parallel of plague carriers in the Middle Ages – only worse. “In the Middle Ages, people didn’t know who carried the plague and who didn’t, and treated everyone with equanimity. Today, we can see fat people because fat isn’t something that can be hidden, and of course it’s responsible for all the diseases of the Western world. It’s an international public campaign, mostly on television, that has turned fat people into the lepers of 21st-century Western society.”

Michaela Bercu in an ad for Onot. Photo by Dudi Hasson

When it comes to television, Melamed has examples from everywhere on the broadcast schedule – from participants in panel discussions, to hosts of food and morning shows, to news anchors. “Women aren’t supposed to express an opinion anyway, so if they’re going to be invited to the studio at all, they ought to conform to the television image,” she says, referring to the fact that, in televised panel discussions, women are a minority and fat women even more so. She believes that television is responsible not only for reflecting current perceptions, but also for entrenching them in an endless cycle. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she says, quoting the U.S. feminist Marie C. Wilson’s saying about women in television, referring to the same young women and girls who spend most of their time in front of the television, not only watching programs but getting their body image from it.

The advertising and fashion world has shown a recent tendency toward showing more varied body types. The U.S. fashion designer Calvin Klein cast a size 42 model to market his new line of lingerie for women of all sizes. Vogue ran a series of photo ads starring full-figured models, fashion shows featuring clothing for plus-size women take place in all the world’s capitals, and the Lammily Doll – billed as a “realistic fashion doll” with more realistic proportions – was recently launched.

But not everyone believes that these industries have honest intentions. Calvin Klein’s “big” model caused a commotion when many people claimed the definition of “large sizes” was not only a mockery of every fat woman, but also a confirmation of the distorted criteria of the fashion world.

The tent protest

The fashion world guards its “standard” carefully. Many brands avoid bringing plus-sizes into their lines, claiming that lines and plus-sizes are two different concepts. Other brands do contain plus-sizes, and some of them – such as H&M, Uniqlo and J.Crew – have a good selection on offer for plus-size women. But the larger sizes will not be shown in the display window.

Some brands, such as Marina Rinaldi of the Max Mara group and Eloquii of The Limited group, do not limit themselves to the “ideal” sizes, but they are not the majority. In Israel, where the Rinaldi line is available, there is not much variety or richness in the clothing available for women above size 42. The clothing chains Crazy Line, Onot, Isha Isha and Daphna Levinson have begun offering plus sizes in recent years, joining the likes of British brand Dorothy Perkins and the Pipa Fashion and Meedot websites. Melamed also mentions designers Kedem Sasson and Hagar Alembik-Hatzofa.

Karine Obadia-Rap. Where are the ads representing real women? Photo by David Bachar

Karine Obadia-Rap, a producer at Haaretz’s English edition, is launching a lifestyle magazine for plus-size women, together with Nili Maman and Mariette Cohen, the administrators of the Hebrew-language Facebook group Ofna Mele’ah (“Full Fashion”). Cohen, the former administrator of Israblog – a Hebrew-language blogging service – is not a fan of Sasson and Alembik-Hatzofa.

“I don’t understand how people wear all those clothes with triangles of fabric coming out all over the place. It’s a specific style that I don’t connect with. I want clothing that’s classic and flattering. I’m a size 46 to 48, and as far as fashion goes, I’m a cow who has been condemned to walk around in black tents, covered in layers of cloth,” she says. “Look at how large women are required to wear a vest in summertime as well, in 38-degree heat. It’s just inconceivable. The flip side of that is increased exposure of the chest – out of a feeling of inferiority and a kind of ‘compensation’ for not having a perfect body.”

Cohen says the new site, which is called Bamida (Hebrew for “In proportion”), will make an effort to “create a community of women who will talk about their lifestyles and about how fed up they with being underrepresented.” Obadia-Rap and Maman – who got their inspiration from international blogs that raise awareness of non-thin fashion – will also feature photographs of stylish, non-thin women and ask the “regular” clothing chains to add sizes 42 and higher.

But what Obadia-Rap and the community of plus-size women are angry about – on top of the shortage of sizes, imposed style and lack of visibility – is the issue of the models representing the dedicated Israeli brands. On the J.Crew website, for example, they do not represent the brand’s targeted audience most of the time. And Onot replaced Marina Maximilian Blumin only after an online protest (led by stylist Gala Rachmilevitch), which claimed that after the singer-actor shed some 30 kilograms, she was no longer representative of the company’s customer community.

Rachmilevitch is also behind Plus-Size Fashion Weekend, a fashion fair for women sized 40 to 58, which will be held in Tel Aviv from December 25 to 27. The event draws its inspiration from similar fashion weeks that are held in London, Paris and elsewhere. “There is no logical reason not to hold a large-scale event that celebrates femininity and fashion in those sizes as well,” she says. “After all, this is a pretty big market segment.”

The importance of the international blogs that inspired Obadia-Rap and Maman can’t be overstated. The women who run the blogs and appear there are not necessarily an expanded version of the thin image that is dominant in fashion. They are good-looking and well-dressed, with their own independent taste in fashion and a healthy dose of self-awareness and humor. But more than that, their power lies in the fact that they represent liberation from the limiting dictates of high fashion, which are not directed at them anyway. Through their charisma, readers become aware of a new aesthetic of body size, appearance and style.

Alma Dishi in an ad for Triumph. Photo by Dudi Hasson

Limiting women’s presence

The phrase “real woman” sounds particularly ironic when we consider the gender-based roots of the oppression of fat people and the image associated with them. Dr. Maya Maor, who studies the sociology of the body and society’s treatment of fat men and women, finds these roots in the late 19th century, in the feminist movement and its struggle for women’s rights. This happened, she says, “the moment that women obtained new rights and spread out, physically, into new territories where women had never set foot – workplaces, universities, and such. In its simplest sense, fat-shaming is a demand to shrink the body, anger that women have the gall to take up space. After all, a woman is supposed to be small and fragile.”

And the monster-like image – where does that come from?

“It seems to come from the fact that power wielded by women is still perceived as something twisted. It reminds me of the signs from the early 20th century, when women first got the right to vote. They showed, among other things, a large, threatening woman standing in her kitchen, brandishing a rolling pin. The caption read that women had too much power already, and there was no need to give them even more.”

Maor, who is also suspicious of the current wave of expanded representation of body types, sees a link between fear of women’s power and the reduced presence of women in television, but not just there.

“It’s interesting that even in a film such as ‘Zero Motivation,’ which is feminist by definition, the character of Rama, the IDF personnel officer [played by Shani Klein] is depicted as an object of ridicule, and that has to do with her physical dimensions,” Maor says.

The actress Alma Dishi had to deal with offensive comments last fall after appearing as Yehuda Levi’s girlfriend in the television series “Very Important Man.” She subsequently appeared in an ad campaign for the Triumph lingerie company in Israel, looking natural and lovely, and the social networks and newspapers went berserk. “I think that the public has lost patience, and is fed up with the polished images of women who look like dolls,” says Yifat Soklitzki, vice president of Shalmor Communications, who was responsible for casting Dishi. “It is looking for something real that it can identify with.”