On Why We Can’t Let Fat People Be Happy
I’ve lived fat. As a child and teenager I was fat. A faded childhood photo shows off creamy plump cheeks secreting away my jawline, and dimpled knuckles clutch my stolen copy of The Secret Garden. I spent my entire childhood wearing caftan-style clothes that billowed and draped around my active body as I got lost in the woods behind my house. I was happy.
With the exception of a pregnancy, I have spent all of my adult life in a body that people classify as thin. Many of my adult years I was too thin, so thin that I was laid out in a suburban hospital bed like a sheet of legal pad paper and force-fed emulsified pablum smoothies. My body has expanded and contracted with age, excessive exercise, natural hormone fluctuations and dangerous eating disorders. I hope that this duality of experience affords me the integrity to write about some of the media response we’ve seen to Lane Bryant‘s new social media campaign, #ImNoAngel.
Lane Bryant is a plus-size retailer committed to producing clothing for bodies that aren’t represented in the average mall clothing store; the company promises clothes that are more than a simple upsizing of existing fashions. Instead they design their lines with the intention of fitting the bodies they market to, a truly rare concept in the “plus-size” industry.
As an extension of their clothing line, the Lane Bryant franchise includes Cacique, intimate apparel catering to the belief that a woman’s size should not define her relationship with lingerie or her sexual body.
La Senza, Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein don’t bother making much effort to design thongs, intricately nuanced lace bras or garter belts for women over size 14. Instead, mall and boxstore consumers are offered the choice of fitting into the regiment of arbitrary size charts or purchasing the sexless, shapeless and antiquated beige underclothes that are relegated to back corners of department store basements. Sure, the options exist for properly designed and beautiful plus-size lingerie and have done in large quantities since the advent of web-based shopping, but it remains difficult to access, unseen and exorbitant in cost.
People, specifically women, are only granted permission to be sexy, sensual and attractive if they are extending themselves to look as much like the faces and bodies that represent companies like Victoria’s Secret, with their models being evocatively named “Angels”, because only thin women can be inherently good. The notion that lingerie is strictly for young, thin, cis, straight women is regurgitated in most magazines, social media accounts, television commercials and practically every movie that Hollywood produces. The narrative, which body/fat positive activists fight against, is a deeply embedded part of the North American beauty myth.
The message is clear:
If you’re fat, don’t bother wearing intimate apparel, nobody wants to see your body.
And that’s the point of Lane Bryant’s media campaign. Ultimately, their goal is to increase their financial earnings from the sale of the Cacique lingerie line, but in doing so, they appeal to the women who inhabit bodies that extend beyond a size 14. The company’s new media campaign includes a black and white 30-second video montage featuring bra and panty clad, confidently fat women. These women don’t just allow, but invite, the gaze of the camera to fall on their bodies. The models use signifiers like “sexy” and “wow” to boldly represent their bodies.
Media response to the #ImNoAngel campaign has bordered on the absurd. Accused of thin-shaming Victoria’s Secret’s “Angels”, bullying the company, and, according to The Washington Post, “judging” the Angel’s “worth”, this campaign reveals a deep truth:
We simply can’t let fat people be happy being fat.
The #ImNoAngel campaign dares to suggest that there can be a version of salacious that doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. The message is only as ostentatious and conspicuous as the advertising we consume daily, the differences are the people who are wearing the panties and the impact it stands to have on those who ingest the message.
The voices who accuse Lane Bryant of “skinny-shaming” fail to grasp the lived reality of fat-shaming, and how, in making space for fat women to be seen as sexy, is not a “stratification of the same issue”. Fat women are rarely represented in media, and even less often are they represented as beautiful, sexual and desired. Equating fat-shaming with “thin-shaming” is problematic at best, and silencing and erasure at its worst. Fat-shaming is supported by entire cultural and economic systems where people who qualify on the ever shifting bullseye of “fat” often report experiencing a lower quality of life. When people are labeled obese they suffer lower rates of employment, instances of health care, and are victims of socially accepted bullying.
“Thin-shaming” can be uncomfortable. I’ve been asked by strangers why I am so small, and sales clerks have clucked that I’ll have to shop in the kids’ section if I “lose any more weight”, but this treatment is not a stratification of the body-shaming experienced by people we collectively label as fat. I am granted agency and permission simply because of my pant size. In the same way we can’t invert misogyny with cries of “reverse-sexism”, The Washington Post does not get to suggest that Lane Bryant’s campaign is “thin-shaming” Victoria’s Secret by having the nerve to exhibit, promote and flaunt the sexuality and beauty of fat women.. There is nothing exclusionary or “targeting” about #ImNoAngel, because, even as a size 0, I too am “no Angel”.
The optics of this conversation become inherently toxic when popular media depicts Victoria’s Secret as the victim of bullying. The multi-national company has failed in practically every way, despite their recent “EVERY BODY” campaign, to represent figures and sizes that most women can relate to. The VS Twitterfeed, product catalogues, and websites represents one very specific body type; women deemed worthy of being called an “Angel” are usually white, thin, tall and lithe, hair long and her makeuped complexion flawless. By propagating this, and only this, narrow niche body as their “Angel”, a term which in itself is loaded with commentary about what exactly constitutes a good body, Victoria’s Secret brazenly limits who is permitted to feel good wearing their product. This marketing ethos and practice begs the question: who, really, is the bully?
The only crime Lane Bryant commits with #ImNoAngel is to suggest that fat women might want to wear lingerie; the idea that fat women are sexual and desired flips a long standing narrative on its head and forces us to look beyond a prescribed gaze. The campaign stands as a part of the Fat-Positive movement that is working to redefine cultural messages that have, for too long, been narrated by companies like Victoria’s Secret.
Lyndsay is a college educator, writer and feminist activist. Her words can be found around the world in print and digital publications including: RoleReboot, Rabble, Women Write About Comics and Kiss Machine. She collects cats and tattoos; she is the co-editor of Gender Focus and causes trouble on Twitter
cover collage credits: PlayBuzz and The Curvy Fashionista