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Women Come in All Shapes and Sizes

How Myla DalBesio’s essay on weight made one writer rethink her own mindset — and body.

12.03.15
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Model Myla DalBesio published an essay for the October issue of Suited Magazine where she catalogued the history of her body as well as the criticisms she’s received throughout her career. Many of the criticisms circulate around DalBesio’s weight; she falls into the fashion no-go zone between plus size and size zero. “You would be more beautiful if there were more fat on your stomach,” she writes. “…Or less. Or less in your thick, thick thighs, and more in your lips. They tell you all of that, that’s what being beautiful is.”

Her piece highlights the strange world of extremes operating in fashion advertising. The average American woman is a size 12, but most models are size zeros. Professional plus size models are typically a size 8, yet plus size clothing begins at size 16. Massive retail chains don’t stock plus-sized clothing. We know there’s an industry-wide lack of racial diversity, too. Rather than embracing the reality that women are all different shapes, sizes and colors, the industry remains operating within a world of constraints where only a few types of women’s bodies are represented.

Here’s the thing: we have power as consumers to change the way brands market their products to us and the models they choose. We buy these clothes! Our demand could change the supply.

But is our demand really there? Do we really want to see all types of bodies — our bodies — on billboards and runways?

This is a squishy, uncomfortable question, because the gut answer is of course, yes. Yes! But the reality is more complicated. We know that beauty isn’t defined by one weight or one look. We remind our friends and younger siblings that we don’t have to look like models, that beauty comes from within. Mothers have been saying it for years.

Yet, at least for me, all those good intentions somehow don’t stop me from being critical of myself for not looking like a Victoria’s Secret Model. It doesn’t stop me from shopping at stores that don’t carry anything above a size 10 in protest, and worst of all, it doesn’t stop me from privately picking apart other women for being too thin or too fat — or too in-between.

I’m going to choose to believe this behavior is a product of our environment. It’s hard to change your way of thinking and start calling yourself and others beautiful when there’s a whole industry selling you a different, limited ideal. But I think it’s important to try. If we create enough demand, brands will have to create accessible clothing for all sizes of women, advertised and worn by all sizes of women.

S0, great! Now…how do you change a thought process? To be honest, I’m not totally sure. But I have been trying to tell myself to shut up a lot when I start thinking negatively about my body or begin judging some girl in a too-tight dress. No more talking about how thin some celebrity is just to make conversation, or stalking models out of jealousy on Instagram. I’m trying to pay attention to how different clothing lines market their product— like Lane Bryant’s #I’mNoAngel Campaign — and support those I respect with my meager spending money.

These may seem like baby steps, but they’re baby steps in the right direction. Maybe they’ll lead us to a day where this is the norm: We open a magazine. There’s a denim ad inside, and it features jeans we want to buy not because we aspire to someday look like the models wearing them, but because these women already look like us. And our butts look damn good in those jeans.

Collage by Krista Anna Lewis; artworks by Picasso, Mickalene Thomas, Boticceli, and Davinci.

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  • EP

    Admittedly it makes me feel good when I see a celebrity or model who resembles my height/weight. I’m not super thin or plus size, but fall somewhere in the middle. When I see someone like Elizabeth Olsen, for example, who more or less has my build I feel better about myself and accepted. It’s messed up but true. It shouldn’t matter but it does.

    • kduck

      Feel ya! I watched a movie with Elizabeth Olsen the other day and actually NOTICED how “normal” and like me she is. And it made really happy that I found her beautiful, because it meant that I was one step closer to finding myself beautiful. It’s totally okay that it matters — because it matters that our environment made us feel so crappy about ourselves in the first place.

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  • The problem lies in information processing: let us agree most people are interesting in many, many ways (some good, some bad). At least it is safe to say the part about being very interesting is true for everyone around here 🙂
    Now someone told us, ages ago, weight is one of the most important personal features: it is so easy to discern and compare and if we are in the mood, we may attach an analysis to it (“she’s fat cause she eats too much”). So we go and believe this is actually an important feature that carries informational weight and helps us in our social life and everything.
    It is not.
    If we want to find out about the ways people are interesting, we need to learn to ignore the superficial information markers we love to care about because “it’s in the air” and go for the really interesting bits. There are so many!
    As soon as we stop: a) comparing ourselves with the others, b) taking superficial features seriously (instead of going deeper), we may learn to really see people.

    I see no reason why a bunch of intelligent ladies shouldn’t be able to achieve that. That’s why we are here, after all. To get to know our world.

    • I am always SUPER hopeful about society progressing and aesthetics not being the most important thing. However, I can’t help but think that I am being idealistic and that in fact we have always been concerned with appearances. Even animals (like birds) go for the “prettiest” one or whatever.

      I’m definitely not saying it is impossible for us to learn to care about “what’s inside”. But no matter how many body conscious campaigns I see, or adverts and articles go out, nothing really seems to change. I feel like we’ve had this conversation even when I was in middle school (more than 10 years ago!). What are we to do?

      • Yes, you are of course right, but then … whenever we meet someone (new or friends), we more or less process visual information first. By learning to carry out this necessary component fast we can then go on thinking and talking about other stuff. And it should begin with us: of course I notice I am thinner or fatter than other people, there’s no such thing as weight blindness, I guess. It is just I will need a second to see that and can go on doing other things then. Another thing is, if we simply and swiftly anayze every situation (‘so everyone will notice I am fatter than X but thinner than Y’), then we can spend the rest of our valuable time for important things.

        • I guess my question is, with perhaps to instant answer, that that is something we have always been advocating, right? Spending the rest of our time on more important an less superficial things.

          Yet, it seems to me that people coveted as “style icons”, “heroes/heroines”, and “beauties” are still very much in that specific and narrow ideal. Magazines advocate for happy bodies but then photoshop the hell out of people. Maybe it’s a problem that won’t be completely eradicated for several more years? I don’t know. I’m starting to think I sound really pessimistic lol.

          • Aaaa … You mean, similar to my urgent question ‘why is it that I will not live when men and women are finally equal?’ Depressing, but at least I don’t do comparative weight conversations and so try make the world an easier place for a second or two.

        • Lua Jane

          I agree with both of you with the exception of the fact that our attraction factor and perception of our own attractiveness can’t and shouldn’t be based on weight alone. There are pretty and even beautiful people that fall into plus size cathegory. They are beautiful through their facial features, hair, character, sexiness even, and they aren’t and probably never will be thin. To me that is perfectly clear. Yes, we will always judge people through how they appeal to us, but it doesn’t always have to be based on weight.

          • My new neighbor, for example: when I saw her for the first time, something in me decided it simply liked her and I smiled at her within seconds of seeing each other – until now, she’s done nothing to tarnish that intuitive act. I also discovered she was good-looking and later on, that she is visually (and otherwise) interesting – she tries out new hairstyles, jewellery .. all the time – of course I love to have a good look at her. Yes, she is visibly heavier than me, but my other new neighbor I also sort of adore and find terribly interesting, isn’t.

            To be honest, I cannot claim any of my features make me an attractive plus size: my figure is not symmetrical and well-built, my eyes have poaches attached to them, I don’t dye my hair (silver) and while trying hard to grow it as long as Leandra’s I have been through many unattractive stages. But: I see no problem in knowing these things about myself and still being generally happy. Seriously. (because at nearly 43 one feels the end might be nigh 🙂 and it would be foolish to spend much time on oneself when life has so many other things to offer – it’s not even wisdom, it’s pure selfishness)

    • Sir Matthew

      Does your husband know you’re on his internet again? Make sure you get his permission first woman.

  • I am conflicted on this as well. On the one hand, I completely advocate for acceptance and no body shaming (e.g. too fat, too skinny, too tall, etc.). Of course, it also doesn’t stop me from criticizing myself. Even if I am considered at normal/healthy weight. I think it’s also important that we don’t advocate for bodies that are internally unhealthy. I’m all for accepting yourself, but there are health risks with being obese or underweight. Everyone talks about how people look, but no one ever discusses internal health as being key.

    • Jackie

      I think you hit the nail on the head here. That’s what I really struggle with when you see all these no body shaming campaigns around. I’m all for acknowledging beauty is not limited to one subjective, transitory societal ideal, but it’s another thing to deny that there is anything wrong with someone who is severely underweight or obese, and therefore, rather unhealthy. As with so many things, trying to find the middle ground with optimal physical and emotional health should be the goal.

      • I think the real problem is with the value judgments placed on weight–whether underweight or obese. Are only the (apparently) physically healthy or those who fall within what is deemed a normal range worthy of respect and human decency? Of course not. Fat, skinny, somewhere in between–we all deserve to be treated with respect and not as if our bodies or are our health status (whether the fault of genetics, accident, or our own unhealthy habits) determine our value in society.

        • Completely agree. I think even those with “unhealthy” habits should not be considered less. I see this a lot with people that judge smokers. Smokers get a lot of crap for smoking (btw, I don’t smoke) but those same people can have other bad habits.

          I think it’d be important to promote internal (including mental) health as opposed to a set of physical standards. And not to judge those who are not healthy, and instead aid them in the process. Switzerland does this (from what I last heard) with heroine addicts.

  • Crazy Loop

    True story <3
    Ladycrazyloop.blogspot.com

  • Jessica H

    I highly recommend the spoken word poem by Katie Makkai titled ‘Pretty’. She shares her own experiences with insecurity and proceeds to say this isn’t just about her, or her mom, but our society as a whole and everyone buying into it. We’re taught at a young age not who we are but how we are seen. We blindly follow this idea that there is a tiny template of beauty that not everyone can fit in. When did this ‘ideal body type’ come about?

  • Yes, this whole body image thing has been such a well-known issue for so long it’s odd that we’re still in roughly the same predicament we’ve been in for the most part of it. While there is the increasing demand for plus-sized models (perhaps ones that actually ARE plus sized and not just a size up from a class VS model) it’s not really being taken too seriously by those who should take it seriously. In a magazine one page will be an article about body image positivity praising models and brands thinking outside the box and then on the next page is an advertisement with a non-average model advertising clothes.
    As a very naturally thin person myself, I also see that there needs to be a change in shaming thin women to make bigger women feel better. It just seems to go around and around and I am definitely keen for real change.

  • Anyway, not being too concerned about one’s looks or weight has its serious drawbacks, too: the world has grown so accustumed to women (visibly) worrying about it all, people often automatically assume I am too arrogant and much too self-confident if I don’t spend much/any time denigrating myself. And since neither my looks nor my weight are ideal, consternation is bound to ensue any time I keep quiet about them. So I have learned to perform this self-denigration duties automatically (pro forma), to be left in peace as soon as possible – it does hinder the flow of conversation if your conversation partner thinks you are way too arrogant too worry about your appearance, especially after they find out about my talent for self-irony.
    This must be one of those “animal kingdom” things: a male peacock invests most of his energy to develop this great, colorful trail. It would have been better to develop self-defense mechanisms to survive (don’t know, sharp teeth), but by displaying this beautiful feather fan, our guy is telling his mating candidates ‘I am so great I can afford this splendid waste of energy. Lo and behold. Do come closer’. So in out modern times, a woman might be perceived as communicating the message ‘I am so great I can afford not to worry about my appearances and to indulge in self-irony’ while she is simply more interested in other things and does not consider herself an alpha at all. Often not even beta.

    So yes, as terrible as this may sound, from my experience, visibly worrying about weight and appearances can be quite useful, too.

  • Lua Jane

    Yes, women (and men) come in all shapes and sizes. Yet we’re often forced to perceive just one prototype of beautiful female body ( Victoria Secret angel) as beautiful. Not many people look like that. hell even they don’t look like that. Does that mean that we’re all ugly? Probably not, but media wants us to feel that way, and for far too long we bought into it, criticizing our own bodies, and those of our peers, or even people from the public life through this one narrow and degrading filter. And all of it has to do with just one thing: weight. Yes, we as society, and us millenials especially are obsessed with weith. It’s that one magic thing that changes everything. It took me to live 30 years, to understand that it’s not end all be all, because, I was bombed with it from the young age. At dinner I’d be asked by mom and grandma, sam I sure I want that extra piece of bread. To explain further, I was born and raised in a balkan family where food is everything, yet even at the age of six I was warned that to a woman’s look excess bread is enemy. As a teenager I came very, very close to developing eating disorder, thanks to the fact I was aged 15 and size 6. I was healthy, happy, pretty, and smartass teen, yet I was constantly reminded, that was I size zero or two, I’d be perfect. For quite some time in my life I was that size 0 person. Only benefit of that was the fact that clothes looked better on me, which doesnt really matter, since I’m not a model. My face looked worse. I wasn’t healthy, and I was quite unhappy. It took me while to realize that societal perception of what I should look like isn’t end all be all, but in the end I learned to love my self and my curvy, womany body. I’m size 4 now, and much happier (and prettier) than I was at size 0. I enjoy food, and I enjoy life.
    Also I do believe that, slowly but gradually, media is shifting it’s perception of female body. We have both Lena Dunham, and Kim Kardashian (as different as they may be) who are nothing like the usual, blonde, emacieted, anglosaxon archetype, and they are wildly successful.
    Large retailers, such as Zara, help sizeism too. Many a time clothing item sized L in their stores is only a bit larger than the one sized S, and it’s usually the length, not the width that is larger. I can put both these items on, and wear them without it looking like I’m wearing someone elses clothes.

    • O boy, can I relate to your experience about being told you should watch your food 🙂 (and I am a much older Balkanian :-)) – it is just that I grew angry at people telling me that and assumed they are not quite normal 🙂 (you know, lacking normal empathy or simply too narcissistic) – because it was all too obvious even for a child that some people have a right constitution to be really thin and others don’t … Anyway, I think parents who claim their children are too fat when they are just normal deserve to be treated in a Danteesque way 🙂 (just my 2 cent, noone needs agree)

      • Lua Jane

        I agree absolutelly. I learned to understand their motivations later, when I understood that similar things probably happened to them, and such patronizing is a learned behavior and some sort of chain reaction. Also The shift happened when I started losing weight and picking food appart avoiding certain food groups and putting my health to risk. It helped my mom realize the effect of some of her comments.

        • Phew, that’s good 🙂 Obviously, being a parent means transferring own experiences to the next generation, it happens all the time, event with people who claim and think they are different from their parents. But seeing things for what they are and reacting is love. I think.

  • This is def a result of our culture and media, and what we are used to seeing. In the media everything is polished, its skinny models etc. Before I learned about photoshop, I honestly did not understand how ALL models has ZERO bags under their eyes and so forth.

    If you spend a few minutes each day looking at your own body naked, focus on the beauties and accepting the rest, by finding the beauty in your body as it is, it will change how you feel little by little. Especially up to a bikini season, it will do what the workouts can’t – build that confidence!