The Hollywood effect
I once saw a TV documentary about a 13th century convent, where the nuns had to make themselves very thin. Can you guess why? It was to make them less attractive to men. In the days before mass media, one's natural preferences in the female form, were (I presume) largely free from interference. In the late 19th century, being too thin was still considered unattractive (judging by some of the advertising of the day), although art and literature no doubt generated passing trends by this time. The film industry got established just in time for a shift towards a fashion for thinness, and films have helped to perpetuate this obsession ever since. At least, that's my theory! The curvaceous Lillian Russell rose to film fame just before that change in fashion.
Many say that appearing on-screen adds to one's apparent size. Size is relative, and if our screens are awash with very slim women, then the appearance of an average size woman will distort our perception of her. The opportunities for advertsing through cinema (and later TV), allowed the lucrative beauty industry to become more influential than ever. Do you remember the days when every scene in a drama showed the players lighting cigarettes, and battling to see each other through the smog-like conditions? Once tobacco advertising was curtailed, the weight-loss industry seemed to step in. By the 1980s or so, even classic literature had weightloss health warnings sneaked into the dialogue!
Admittedly there were subtle trends as curves came into and then went out of fashion. Curves wiggled in during the late 1930s and endured through the '50s. Alice Faye, Virginia Mayo and Linda Darnell were among Hollywood's curvaceous beauties of the day. But as I said, these trends were subtle, and inevitably later replaced by very thin images from the 1960s. The trends don't just concern one's figure, but they all help to maintain the beauty industry by making women unhappy with their appearance. Telling women that they need to change, is what sells.
Media trends in beauty also involve facial details, such as one's chin or nose. Try comparing leading female characters in TV series of the 1960s, '70s, '80s etc., at least for American and British productions.
None of these trends would have any influence if everyone knew what they found attractive and stuck to that view. Sadly, most modify their choice, whichever way the "wind blows", and that allows various industries to exploit so many. The classic scenario of exploitation is to provide larger women with short-term weight-loss, but long term failure - or even weight-gain, thus keeping the industry thriving indefinitely.
No matter how obvious it is, that beauty is subjective, experts try to pin down some simple rules. A popular "rule" is symmetry in a face. As a portrait artist, I know that the character in a face, that identifies an individual, is largely about the lack of symmetry. And character in a face, ties in with overall beauty. A symmetrical face looks bland and artificial. Another expert view is that under-developed, child-like qualities in a face is what men find attractive. There might be some truth in that, but there are also plenty of women with a mature elegance in their faces that is equally attractive, maybe because it adds a dimension of intelligence. My sketch of actress Lee Richards (right), is a lovely example of what I mean.
Brain-washed discussions (be this size to be healthy)
The main fallacies that certain industries want you to believe, is that "thinness = healthy" and "thinness = beautiful". The reality (regarding health) is that everyone is different. Some (like myself) are permanently thin (irrespective of health), some are naturally plump/cuddly (regardless of health). Some have a wider skeleton, which tends to mean larger organs and more muscle. Some have that last characteristic plus some extra padding - again, regardless of good or bad health. Some larger people are athletes - often strength athletes, but sometimes in more energetic sports too. The causes of someone becoming larger, are complex and varied, and each person usually has a combination of causes. Genetics affects everyone (obviously, yet it needs to be stated!), and while I'm unable to put on any kind of weight, other folk are predisposed to gain easily. Some gain muscle mass more easily. The important issue, for each of us, is to look after our health and fitness. What certain industries want us to do is fret over our weights, and use that single measurement as an indicator of our well-being.
One of the problems of the "thinness = better" nonesense, is that journalists' debates around the topics of health and beauty, usually begin with that false premise. It's like starting a journey from the wrong location and never quite finding the correct route.
It can even become more frustrating when more curvy models, TV presenters, etc. become noticed and admired. As mentioned earlier, they are usually not full-figured, but rather, less thin than most women seen on-screen. The frustration comes when some of them try to distance themselves from any association with the "obese" (awful word!), and claim that their physique is a healthier size than either "too thin" or "too large". That is quite hypocritical. They are simply replacing one fallacy - "be thin to be healthy" - with another fallacy - "be slightly plump to be healthy". Not everyone is healthy at the same size, and one should not judge someone's health by their build.
The backlash (and this gallery takes a hit!)
With so many people convinced that "larger = unhealthy", it is hardly surprising that there will be a vocal backlash against anything promoting a counter viewpoint. There is a common tendency for folk (including excitable journalists!) to assume that size-acceptance is promoting being large, which is far from true. Part of the answer is subtlety in any very public campaigns. To explain what I mean, I'll give an actual example of something that happened:
In the early 2000s, there was an online group promoting the image of larger ladies in the media and fashion industries. When the Australian Vogue magazine decided to test readers' reactions to introducing plus size models, the afforementioned group was consulted. And when they said "plus size", they actually had a tall size 18 lady on the front cover. The reaction of the magazine's readership was divided, with some quite hostile to even that relatively slender-looking model on the cover. The response of the online group was to say that size 18 was no where near large enough and they should be considering up to size 28.
Despite my admiration for cuddly ladies, I disagreed with the online group's tactic. If you attempt a big change all in one go, you risk a harsh backlash wiping out the entire concept. What I suggested was the need for a very gradual, progressive change. That would curtail the negative responses, and also, smaller plus size models will identify with a large number of readers. That at least gives one a fighting chance of rallying support, and even then, there is no guarantee.
Thankfully, I only rarely had any negative feedback about this art gallery. Art communicates in subtle ways, or else fails to communicate, depending on the individual viewer. The gallery section for lingerie portraits, is where prejudice in some viewers can be stimulated, and this was sometimes evident when dealing with internet businesses (who are notorious for employing philistines!). My lingerie portraits follow some strict rules to be sure that they are tasteful and suitable for general viewing. Thus, any negative response suggests a shortcoming of the viewer, most probably prejudice against larger ladies as images of beauty. Anyway, the most memorable hit this gallery took was from Google Adsense, who supplied the automated adverts that this site used to feature. In 2012, I received an email from them, refering to my lingerie portraits as "sexual gratification"! The words of a philistine! Quite an insult to my customers, as well as my art. I was given an ultimatum to take down those pages, or remove the Google adverts, within 3 days. Well, that was a no-brainer, and I removed the advertising. Subsequently, I received another email claiming I had not complied and thus was banned for life from their advertising. Oh.. the shame! Don't tell my neighbours :) Their message stated that I was not permitted to contact them about it and there would be no discussion.
Communicating through art
Some of the wonderful feedback I've received about this gallery, came from ladies who were brilliant at reading the messages of my art. Not only did they read the characters of each lady portrayed, but they also correctly read the character of the artist. Others love the fact that the portrait subjects look happy, confident and stylish. And it is not just plus size ladies who enjoy the size-positive message. I know it saved the life of an anorexia sufferer, after which I promised myself I would keep this gallery going as long as possible. You never know who it might be helping?
The above means that the art is communicating with some of the plus size female community, but it does also sometimes reach out to other interests, from fashion to general art and artists. From 2002 onwards, I've had a clothing directory included with this site, and many merchants were happy to be associated with my art. Surprisingly, a few either declined being linked, or later asked to be removed. Maybe they don't like selling too many clothes?!
'Adult' modelling and BBWs
I seem to recall that the term "BBW" originated with one of the size-acceptance organisations back in the 1970s, even though a different story is given from internet sources currently (2018). I can't find my old reference, though. While many (myself included) tend to dislike labels for people, the positive usage of "BBW" within size-acceptance has been popular with those interested in the topic.
Unfortunately (once again!), those internet businesses rather messed things up by associating the BBW term with pornography. At one time, Yahoo Groups, placed all BBW related topics under the "adult" heading with an 18+ year age restriction. Search engines also brought up 'adult' sites if you searched for "BBW". It wasn't entirely their fault though. It was difficult to find BBW models in clothing/fashion, but the internet was awash with BBW 'adult' modelling. I'm not keen on all that naked stuff myself, but it did demonstrate that there were men all over the world with a preference for larger ladies.
Meanwhile, the size-acceptance communities built up rapidly. For many, it was a revelation to find larger women leading happy lives and acting as role-models for those with poor self-esteems. Also, exciting to find lots of men who admire those ladies. But, as is so often the case, things are never as simple and straight-forward. The internet allowed those with the most specialised of interests, to congregate, and they sometimes appeared to be larger in numbers than they really were. I had hoped to find like-minded men, but more usually found those into more specialised interests (usually dubbed "fetishes"). Unfortunately, there was always the risk that these special interests could discredit the SA movement. If TV producers took any interest, it was more likely to show the unusual, and parade it on TV as something whacky.
"Feederism" was one of the more controversial special interests, although SA organisations tried to distance themselves from this. Some of the online forums were dominated by men whose criteria for women was the bigger and heavier, the better. And then unusual fetishes became better known through online groups, such as "squashing" and similar activities, usually as paid services for those very enterprising women! Some confusion persists with these services, since some variations (e.g play wrestling - more often with tall BBWs) are strictly non-sexual. In fact, just childish fun.
Fashion modelling and beauty contests
I always hoped that my clothing directory here would become redundant, meaning attractive plus size clothing becoming more widely available. At first (from year 2002 when my clothes directory started), it was rare to find even plus size clothing merchants using larger models. But as competition has increased, and younger generations of customers have appeared, so the demand for full-figured catalogue models has boomed. This ties in with the rise of private fashion blogs allowing younger ladies to indulge in a spot of fashion modelling, with the merchants taking a keen interest. Since I'm not a lady (let alone a BBW!), I could not adapt my promotion of fashion to the ever changing online scene.
Plus size beauty contests have long been a feature of promoting big is beautiful. Back in around 1980, the UK news/magazine programme, "Nationwide", ran a "Big is Beautiful" contest for its female viewers. Apart from being limited to size 16 plus, it also broke with Miss World type contests by including married women, and omitting the traditional bathing suit parade. The contestants appeared in their own smart-casual outfits. In the internet age, plus size beauty contests have thrived, although it is a controversial topic. Size-acceptance has close ties with feminism, and beauty contests are not too popular with modern day women. But the plus size competitions are a bit different. There is a camaraderie between contestants, supporting each other, rather than all out competitiveness. Whether or not these contests help size-acceptance, I'm not sure. Some contests try to make almost everyone a winner, which raises the question, why have a competition? Perhaps they have helped in spreading more awareness, and the TV documentries I've seen have taken the topic seriously.
If ever there was a double standard about women's physique, then this is it! I enjoy the 1960s TV series "The Avengers", well known for featuring a leading lady with intelligence plus the ability to get stuck into fights when necessary (not violence for violence sake). When Canadian Linda Thorson played Tara King, the programme makers tried to get her to lose weight (even though she was slender), because they believed she wasn't thin enough to be a fighter. Yet if a male action hero was skinny, he would be ridiculed as inadequate for such physical tasks as taking on the baddies in combat. Fast-forward to 1984 and the feature film "Supergirl" appeared starring Helen Slater, who I recall expressing surprise at being chosen because she was very slight of build (although built up some muscles prior to filming). Casting very slim women as action heroines and super-heroines, has continued as the norm, even though it defies common sense. I can (sort of) understand the producers sticking to this practice, rather than stick their necks out and test the audience reaction to a female star who is large framed and muscular. There are enough viewers wanting to see a woman who they find attractive (rather than fitting their roles), to make a backlash of opinion likely. There might also be enough viewers wanting a logical choice of herione, to back such a change, but I suspect film makers don't want (or need) to make the change. Personally, I would love to see 6ft 6 actress (and former wrestler) "Skytriss" star in such roles"!
Evolution of Size-Acceptance
This is too large a topic to cover completely, but I'll give a brief introduction leading into when I popped into the scene. 1969 was when NAAFA was founded in the USA, to campaign for respect and equality for larger people. "Fat Acceptance" was the general term for this movement. This allowed plus sized folk to support each other, socialise and publicise their plight in a size-ist society. This attracted admirers of larger ladies, which made things rather less straight forward. Many of these men were great allies (and even founders/pioneers), while others had their own interests at heart. The internet then opened the floodgates to all interested parties, including myself in year 2000. Online forums were a wonderful resource, to learn all about the reality of women leading larger lives. Inevitably, as with any movements, a variety of different interests and agendas complicated matters.
Some of the male admirers had an obsessive interest that left out any consideration of the women's needs or feelings! I prefer to learn what the ladies want and need, before putting forward my own interests. I used to get emails via this gallery, demanding contact details of certain of my portrait subjects, who these men wanted to hook up with (I didn't provide any such information!). Then there were angry women at the forums - angry at the way people treat them - only they took out their anger on some of their allies. Thus, they were treating others badly. It was often male newbies who got 'roasted', but sometimes women were victims of this too. The angry ones argue that the male admirers don't experience abuse and self-esteem issues. Well, any men and women can experience those difficulties in life, not just plus size women. Never assume your life is worse than some other stranger's. The result of that hostility, was that potentially valuable allies of the cause were lost, and the movement didn't have the strength of numbers to be a force to be reckoned with. But one should not dismiss the BBW forums completely, as they did allow a huge learning experience for admirers like myself, and a sharing of experiences for the ladies. In those early days of the internet, it was all so exciting to connect with like-minded folk around the world. I developed a pain in my cute little tushy from sitting at the desktop all day! I really admired the dedication of the moderators at some of those forums... I would have given up very quickly! I did briefly help to set up a UK forum with a friend, but it was hard to get enough British folk interested.
The term "size acceptance" took over, showing that all sizes should be treated equally. It was an appropriate term, in my opinion, because there were factions who were hostile and insulting to thin people! Double-standards get into everything. I saw some TV documentaries here in the UK, which can be the kiss-of-death to any cause. Some of those programme makers lured participants with promises of a supportive programme, but published them as something designed to grab high viewer ratings. One such programme turned its theme to feederism and mis-represented at least one man as a feeder (according to his wife reporting at a forum). A few programmes depicted admirers as creepy guys, when they were in fact perfectly nice gents who happened to have a preference for cuddly ladies. I was invited to appear on one of those shows, and when I politely declined, the producer seemed annoyed: "Are you one of those in-the-closet admirers I've heard about?" I replied: "If I was in the closet, you would not have found me"! These appalling documentaries created some bad feedback on the forums from viewers who believe what the TV tells them. The occasional good programme appeared, produced by those with a real interest in the topic. Others - such as those covering fashion - were a bit muddled in what message(s) they were sending. Some unusual ones covered sports that suit larger women, and these were quite uplifting and positive in their messages. Such as strength competitions and even sumo wrestling. One of the sumo participants, the lovely Sharran, appeared more recently on one of the better dating shows, "First Dates". She was paired up with a gent who revealed his preference for a cuddly lady, and that same preference has been apparent with a few other male participants. It makes a pleasant change to see that preference treated as something "normal", with no judging of those men.
In the second decade of the 21st century, size-acceptance has faded and "body positive" has emerged. With all the politics, forum hostility, and conflicting agendas, it is not surprising that SA has not built up anything significant or influential. It was always up against some powerful industries that influence the mass media through advertising revenue. Meanwhile, the body positive movement has evolved, with a younger generation of ladies. This is evident through the many plus size fashion blogs run by individuals, rather than the collective forces of the former SA movement. Veterans of SA are less than impressed by this new approach, because it is diluted by mixing in feminism and other issues - although one could argue that these other issues were already in the mix with SA? I think body-positive has achieved some headway in the fashion and modelling industries, by following the subtle, progressive approach I mentioned earlier. It is slow enough to avoid being hit by out-spoken opposition - okay, maybe there is still opposition (and the odd journalistic windbag!), but it is not the solid wall of opposition that SA had to battle with. Some of the fashion progress would have happened anyway, because the clothing industry had been ignoring a lucrative market, but finally caught on. My own website here played its small part in promoting those forward-thinking merchants who were trying to reach out to their intended market. Soon afterwards, more mainstream merchants jumped onto the bandwagon.
Another aspect of the whole SA rise and fall, is the divide between BBW and SSBBW needs and issues. Becoming very large, presents problems not usually faced by moderately large, but fit ladies. And the SA argument about being healthy at any size, tends to be less true at the larger end of the spectrum (even though one can rarely judge for certain by someone's size alone, and different proportions carry different risks/benefits). The SSBBW's needs are difficult to present to a sceptical public, and then developments in weight-loss surgery created a short-cut to resolving those problems. This also thinned (terrible pun!) the ranks of SA.
Despite all the turmoil, I hope that SA/FA/BBW etc. communities can continue to thrive online, simply as a safe haven, and source of inspiration. Pooling knowledge, and cheering each other up, is what drew me into this movement to start with. That, and enjoying producing the art on this website and hearing how it makes ladies feel good about themselves.
"ianardo" (Ian Strange) - December 2018