Do these plus-size shop mannequins send a dangerous message to women? ISABEL OAKESHOTT and SARAH VINE debate merits of ‘body positive’ shop display
By Isabel Oakeshott
Forgive me, for I have sinned. In a tweet last week, I was blunt about the dangers of being fat.
In return, I received a tirade of abuse and death threats. Well sorry: not sorry. As the NHS battles with the effects of a national obesity crisis, it’s time for a few home truths.
It all started when I came across a gigantic mannequin in a London fitness store. Sporting a lurid, lime-green puffer jacket over a matching velour sports bra and leggings, she looked like a sumo wrestler.
Not only was she morbidly obese; she was about 9 ft tall, which meant her belly and thighs were right in my face.
Isabel Oakeshott and Sarah Vine debate the impact of the Fabletics store on London’s Regent Street using plus-size mannequins (pictured)
I tweeted that such attempts to appease the body positivity movement — which preaches the unquestioned championing of all shapes and sizes — are not inclusive, but dangerous. And all hell broke loose.
Perhaps if she’d had a head, she might have looked like a modern-day Titian, proudly displaying her curves as she towered over mere mortals. As it was, the faceless and strangely out-of-proportion wonder was more freaky than fabulous.
Don’t get me wrong: big can be beautiful. Plus-size models such as Ashley Graham are stunning, as are millions of ordinary girls and women who are not a size 8 or 10. Moreover, fit certainly does not have to mean thin. As any doctor will attest, it’s more about being strong and lean than a particular dress size.
But morbid obesity is not a state to be celebrated: it is dangerous. As the UK grapples with a huge weight problem, my worry is that brands are promoting very large body shapes as if there is nothing wrong or unhealthy with that physique.
A growing number of clothing companies are using larger figures. Nike introduced plus-size mannequins into its flagship London store in June 2019, and Debenhams used size 16 models in stores from 2013.
This strategy reflects typical body shapes among their customer bases, but will do little to reduce the UK’s gross national tonnage.
However, as I discovered when I waded into this toxic issue, the body-positive movement has no time for dissenters. Anyone who challenges the philosophy that all physiques are equal can expect vicious abuse.
I admire anyone who is determined to get fitter. For most people, being in good shape requires a huge amount of effort, vigilance and restraint, especially in January.
Isabel (pictured) tweeted attempts to appease the body positivity movement — which preaches the unquestioned championing of all shapes and sizes — are not inclusive, but dangerous
So if the lime-green giantess in the window of the Fabletics store on London’s Regent Street was designed to send the message that women should not let a few extra kilos stand in the way of their picking up a kettlebell, then I salute her — along with anyone she might inspire to delete the Deliveroo app and start converting flab to muscle.
The problem is the aggressive drive to promote social acceptance of obesity. It started in America, championed by stars such as singer-songwriter Lizzo, an icon for what she calls the ‘18+ club’, here a size 22. She lauds ‘girls with back fat, girls with bellies that hang, girls with thighs that overlap’ and has declared it’s time to normalise obesity.
A growing number of UK retailers are jumping on board and it’s no wonder, when the plus-size market is expected to be worth £9 billion this year. Just look at Doc Martens’ Tough As You campaign, starring a scantily clad plus-size model in a bra and cycling shorts boasting that she can do what she wants. Surrounded by a crew waving ‘Be Yourself’ placards, this young woman holds aloft her own banner which reads: ‘You are not alive to lose weight and pay bills’.
She isn’t just overweight — she is morbidly obese. In a quest to ‘be kind’, the body positivity movement insists that’s fine when, in truth — as Covid has tragically shown — it can be a death sentence.
Almost two-thirds of UK adults are classed as overweight or obese and so are many children. According to one report, weight gain during the pandemic has left a quarter of ten and 11-year-olds in England overweight, prompting experts to warn of ‘devastating’ health consequences.
A million hospital admissions a year are linked to obesity. This is expected to cost the NHS £10 billion a year by 2050. For women, being grossly overweight can cause fertility problems, as well as raise the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. We have to stop pretending this is OK.
Isabel asks why should it be more acceptable to promote figures that are dangerously fat, than glamorising sickly-thin figures. Pictured: Nike mannequin
In the 1990s, the fashion industry was rightly condemned for parading emaciated models. So-called ‘heroin chic’, characterised by young girls who looked like they were on the brink of starvation (and sometimes literally were, as in the tragic case of anorexic French model Isabelle Caro, who died aged 28) was blamed for projecting an impossible and dangerous physical ideal and fuelling eating disorders.
Amid public outcry, fashion houses were banned from using these waifs. Companies such as Dove led the way in celebrating normal body shapes.
There was widespread agreement that glamorising sickly-thin figures was irresponsible. So why should it be any more acceptable to promote figures that are dangerously fat?
Of course, Fabletics is a business, not a campaign group. In choosing to display its plus-size wares on a larger mannequin, its primary aim is to sell more clothes. Since the average British woman is a size 16 to 18, the company clearly figures that making mannequins relatable will shift more kit.
And, oh, how the tills will ring: the lime jacket costs £89, while the matching bra and leggings set is a whopping £124. My tweet argued that this brand of body positivity is encouraging ill health. Some of the most abusive replies attracted tens of thousands of likes — giving me plenty of pause for thought.
Isabel said retailers have a vital role to play in getting the message right, that being fat should not be a source of shame or pride
Everyone from U.S. TikTok stars to lawyers, authors and academics weighed in, some disturbingly eager to point out my physical flaws. Telling me I must be ‘broken’ not to want obese women to ‘feel good about themselves’, others sarcastically urged me to ‘seek help’. A few even took the trouble to email me saying they wanted me to die.
Those who made the most poisonous comments were oblivious to their own double standards, apparently eager to attack the way I look, while being outraged that I might have a principled problem with the promotion of obesity.
Some, who pointed out that being fat should not be a source of shame, are quite right. But nor should it be a source of pride. Retailers have a vital role to play in getting that message right.
I’m left wondering why anyone would choose to work up a sweat in lime-green velvet, a fabric that works much better on a sofa.
Perhaps I should try it. Though after all the fuss I caused, the outfit has probably sold out.
By Sarah Vine
Okay, I completely take Isabel’s point about the lime velour: it is pretty hideous. And I understand what she’s trying to say about the dangers of ‘normalising’ obesity, given all the inherent disadvantages of being overweight — not least the huge cost to the NHS and, of late, the risks in relation to Covid-19.
That said, I don’t think the mannequin in question is dangerously obese. It’s just representative of a certain body type, one that is still all too rarely reflected in the fashion industry.
A strong, muscular woman who doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter slim aesthetic more commonly idolised in the West, who doesn’t have tiny bird-like wrists and whippet-thin legs, but who has a sturdy build and a decent set of curves.
Sarah Vine (pictured) said society tends to assume that overweight people are that way through conscious choice
Women like tennis player Serena Williams, for example. Being big is not always about being fat, and it’s helpful to remind ourselves of this.
Even when I was at my thinnest — a UK size 10, in my teens and 20s — I still had wide shoulders, solid calves, big feet, strong hands, a short neck. How I hated my big, strong body. How I longed to be an etiolated waif like the girls in the magazines. The result was that I went on increasingly extreme diets, confusing my metabolism to the point that it eventually broke.
Now my thyroid doesn’t work, my hair’s all fallen out and I only have to look at a slice of toast to put on half a kilo. Oh, the irony.
The world is very unkind to people who aren’t the perfect shape. There is a general perception that, if you are plus-sized, you are somehow lacking in moral fibre or stupid, or just generally subnormal.
Fat is an insult: fat cow, fathead, and so on. Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t know how hurtful and how soul-sapping it is. Especially if you’ve fighting a daily battle to keep the weight at bay.
Society tends to assume that overweight people are that way through conscious choice. But the vast majority are not.
Sarah said seeing something approximating their body shape in the window of a fitness shop might motivate some people to embark on a healthier lifestyle
Obesity is not a moral failing, it’s a mental and physical condition that develops over time for a variety of reasons. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, pregnancy, hormone imbalances, genetics — these can all be contributing factors. It’s a complex, emotive subject and it’s different for everyone.
So while some see in that mannequin a form of fat surrender, a ‘dangerous’ incitement to obesity, I see honesty and pragmatism. Of course that body swathed in lime-green velour isn’t perfect. But whose is? Doesn’t mean that a woman that size and shape shouldn’t aspire to be fit and healthy and take exercise. On the contrary: isn’t that what we’re always told we should do?
You have to start somewhere. As someone who has always exercised, regardless of my weight, I’ve long bemoaned the fact that 99.9 per cent of leisurewear is designed for people who already have the ‘perfect’ body.
Leggings that make your thighs look like sausages, tops that enhance your bingo wings, fabrics that cling and cleave to every extraneous lump and bump.
It’s demoralising enough walking into a gym when you hate your body. Even harder when everything is two sizes too small.
It takes a lot of effort to embark on a healthier lifestyle and for many, seeing something approximating their body shape in the window of a fitness shop in London’s Regent Street might just prove the motivation they need.
And finding clothes that are a decent fit so you don’t feel ashamed and embarrassed as you tentatively step on that treadmill for the first time could make all the difference between persevering — or just giving in and disappearing for ever down the back of the sofa.