Beth Ditto is not exactly a household name in India – well, at least, not in my household. But over the last couple of years the plus-sized singer has become the new poster child for the charms of Big Girls.
You see, Ditto is a large woman, as in very, very large. And yet, in a society dominated by images of stick-thin women, she isn’t the slightest bit abashed about posing for magazine covers in all her naked glory, her abundance of flesh proudly on display.
Of course, in an age in which we look for meaning in every mannequin, Ditto cannot be taken at face value: as a Big Girl who likes her shape and has no problem with sharing it with the rest of the world. She can’t just be another overweight if somewhat exhibitionistic singer; she has to be a symbol of something. She has to stand for something larger than herself (and do forgive the terrible pun).
So, the media has obligingly turned her into a Pin-up Girl with a Plan – the plan being to make larger figures acceptable, even desirable and sexy, in a world obsessed with the size zero shape. Ditto is celebrated as the precursor of a new shape in fashion. She is being hailed as the embodiment of a new era, in which we embrace larger women in all their wobbly wonder taking delight in their delicious fleshiness.
But of course, it is never as simple as that when it comes to women and their weight. And when you factor fashion into the mix, it gets even more complicated.
I got thinking about this on a recent trip to the shops to look for a birthday present for a friend. She is turning 40 this year and I wanted to splash out on a designer outfit as a birthday present, money no object. At a UK size 14, she is not large by any standards – the average size for a UK woman is 16 – and I didn’t think I would have a problem finding something that would fit her.
Boy, was I in for a surprise! No international designer store seemed to stock anything above a size 12. And Indian designers seemed to live on a different planet altogether, where a size 6 was labeled as large (and even extra large in one particular store). As I fell back on the tried-and-tested formula of designer handbag as birthday present, I began to think about what had happened to that much-touted fashion embrace of the full-figured woman.
Did it, in fact, ever exist? Or was it just a figment of the overheated imagination of the media? Looking around at the images that dominate our print and electronic media, I’m coming around to the view that reports about fat having becoming fashionable have been vastly exaggerated. We may fetishise such celebrities as Beth Ditto and Queen Latifah, but in the real world where thin is always in even a size 8 Kate Winslet is regarded as being excessively curvy. And when it comes to high fashion, Big Girls are still not welcome within the fold.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the story of Sophie Dahl. The plus-sized grand-daughter of Roald Dahl was famously discovered by the late fashion maverick Isabella Blow and put on the ramp. But after the ritualistic parade of her size 22 splendour on the catwalk a couple of times – Shock! Horror! Freak Show! – the world of fashion soon lost interest in Dahl.
It was only after she had starved herself down to a size 2 and then a size zero that she began to find work again. Soon, the new, slim-line Sophie was starring in prestigious ad campaigns, such as the one for Opium perfume, where her alabaster body was further whittled down with some artful air-brushing.
The sad truth is that designers continue to believe that their clothes look best on stick-thin, tall, angular women with no curves. So, they only design for women who fit this shape, women who are more clothes hanger than customer. Anyone who has a bum or – God forbid! – breasts doesn’t feature in their design brief. And certainly there’s no place for Big Girls in their rarefied boutiques. Honestly, you would think these women would know their place and go off and shop on the high street.
But why just blame fashion alone? Society itself is rather unforgiving of fatness. We still equate slim with attractive and fat with frumpy. We still use weight as a measure to judge people. And we still remain as size-ist as ever.
What’s worse is that we are becoming more shape-ist as well. We may pretend to be big on Big Girls but it is only a certain kind of Big Girl that we love. You know the kind I’m talking about, the one with big breasts and a big bum, both set off with a tiny waist.
We can only tolerate fat when it is deposited in aesthetically appealing zones. So, Nigella Lawson, with her classic hourglass shape, is universally celebrated as the archetypal Big Girl whose voluptuousness all of us can safely lust after.
But ordinary women with spare tyres around the waist, clunky legs and chubby arms, just don’t meet our standard of sexiness. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon, Beth Ditto or no Beth Ditto.