Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And back in the '80's, when supermodels were several sizes larger than top models today, the clothes worked on bigger bodies. They were bright, bold, curve-enhancing. Jackets had serious shoulder pads. Hair was sky-high. Earrings were chunky. It was an era when women were gaining power, going to work in their suits and running shoes, and I think the style of clothing was a reflection of a time when women didn't have to be invisible. I wonder whether today's mania for super-thin, wide-eyed, less powerful-looking girls is tied to fear of female strength. Today's girls take up less space, literally and metaphorically.
From Hungry, by Crystal Renn with Marjorie Ingall

Lately, I have been reading library books like they're going to be shortly declared illegal. I've been occasionally bookmarking and even remembering to type up passages that stand out to me, before returning the books to the library. On average, I walk to the library - about a mile each way - three times a week. I always have to have a book at night or I can't fall asleep. Sometimes, I'm so exhausted I don't even read anything. I just crack open the book and am somehow soothed by the familiar black-and-white of the page, and then promptly fall asleep with the book on my face. I used to freak out (or amuse) college roommates, because sometimes they would find me frozen in reading position, like a statue, and until they could see my closed eyes, or realized I wasn't responding to anything they said, they didn't know I was asleep.

This is why last night, after coming home from a night out with my roommate, I started reading Hungry, the autobiography of plus-size model Crystal Renn. When I woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and couldn't fall back asleep right away, I picked up the book again. I'm not finished yet, but I wanted to write a few things. This book addresses some of the things I've been thinking and talking about lately--and thought about and talked about a lot more back in January when I was sewing more, reading sewing blogs, and re-stocking my wardrobe with clothes that fit. To sum it up quickly, Crystal Renn is a successful size 12 model now, but at the beginning of her career, she was a regular model, going to all kinds of unhealthy lengths to be a size 0. This morning, I found myself plowing through the book, anxious to get to "the happy ending" (as it was in my head) where she stopped being unhealthy and became a size 12 again. Oh, and then became really successful.

The fact that this story even exists--that it's a true story--is refreshing to me. A few years ago, I was very upset about my size. I don't think anyone knew this; I didn't voice it very often. It wasn't that I thought I was fat, just big. I knew that with the bone structure I had, no matter how thin I got, I couldn't become less than a size 8. In my head, feminine beauty was small-boned, petite, fragile. When I went to France and met my second-cousins, I felt like a giant. I towered over them, height-wise, and felt like I took up twice as much space. No one looked at me or treated me like the Fat American Cousin or even the Giant American Cousin. It was entirely in my head.

Of course it wasn't entirely in my head. Measurements for women's clothing sizes tend to put a 30" as the absolute maximum of waist measurements. If you're not short or small-boned and you are an adult, your waist is probably larger than 30" around. What I'm trying to say is, I'm not fat. I think you could go a long way from me and still not be fat. And I frequently fit into the largest sizes available at the store. So where do most people fit in!? That's just one example. To go on would be to list material sufficient for not one, but several lengthy blog posts.

The point is, it's not in my head anymore. I've chosen to opt out--as much as possible--of whatever it is that makes women unhappy about their size. If I were truly overweight and unhealthy as a result, then I'd would worry. I write "as much as possible" because of course it still gets to me. When I take my measurements for sewing patterns, I always fudge my waist measurement to 30". (Hint: It's not 30".) It usually doesn't result in ill-fitting garments, because I end up cutting the size based on my hip measurement, which assumes I have a waist that is something like 5" smaller than my hips. (It's more like 12".) And then I have to alter it.

I bought a sewing machine shortly after moving to Portland--spending, between the cost of the machine and the cost of other supplies, something like a month's rent--to opt out of all of this. I had gone shopping for dresses and left the store in a huff. NOTHING FIT. If it was large enough in the bust, it was too large in the waist. Forget about the hips; in the clothing world, I apparently have gigantic hips. I knew I could alter whatever I got, but why pay $50 for a dress I have to alter? If I'm going to pay $50 for a dress, it had either better fit, or be made of $50 worth of really nice fabric, handmade, custom-made, to my measurements. Reclaiming my wardrobe agency was empowering. While sewing can feed the size obsession, since it forces you to confront things like your actual measurements (see above: pretending I have a 30" waist), it makes it so much easier to tune out the noise, to just opt out of size obsession and "society*"'s idea of acceptable appearance. Especially when you look in the mirror and see how great you look in clothing that actually fits.

Phew! This got long. What I really wanted to do was just mention that I was reading Hungry, quote that passage above, and link to some stuff I read a little while ago about fashion and size. She opines tentatively--"I think the style of clothing was a reflection of a time when women didn't have to be invisible. I wonder whether today's mania for super-thin, wide-eyed, less powerful-looking girls is tied to fear of female strength.", but I think she might be on to something! Don't you?

Finally, this article has been in my "To Blog About" folder for months. It's a bit of a non sequitur, but it feels appropriate to post it now. I found it from this blog, which is one of my favorite blogs, so I'm using this as an excuse to link to it. If you're in a rush, the thesis of this article is that, despite the growing popularity of "healthy" or "real woman" figures (like Joan whatever from Mad Men), the fashionable ideal is currently moving away from the "hourglass" figure to the "tubular" figure. Looking at some pictures--things like baggy, drop-waist tops paired with leggings or skinny jeans--I can see what they mean. I'd like to draw your attention to the following from that article

In 1954, the women on average aspired to lose just under 3lbs, while today’s woman wanted to shed more than 10lbs. 1950s women aspired to ideal hips measuring just over 35 inches, while modern women wanted hips of less than 31 inches but larger waists than the 1950s women.

When I read, "35 inches" as a hip measurement, I think, "Huh?" But when I read, "31 inches," I think, "That is a waist measurement." (Really, it's all about proportion. Actually, really it's about NOTHING, because the hourglass, the tube, the "pear," the "inverted triangle"--they are all acceptable, attractive body types!)

My point? Well, here's at least one point. A few years ago, had I read that line, I would have been miserable about the difference between 31" (or even 35") and my actual hip measurements. But if I'd known about Crystal Renn (whose hip measurement, in Hungry, is listed as 42"), that wouldn't be the case. I would have known I wasn't alone.

* Whatever THAT means.


Anonymous said...

Somewhat related, far more disturbing: The New Dating Game. Eeek.

Sarah said...

I couldn't even get through that! I thought, WHAT is this? At first I thought you meant the GUY was disturbing. Then the creepiness of Madonna/whore woman-inflicted sexism (or whatever it's appropriately called) started to seep into the writer's discourse more and more...
Blech. What do I need that crap for?
Also, I had a feeling this post would get your attention-mostly the quote at the top.