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Fashion Industry Discovering a Whole New Market: Plus Size Women!

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The headline read: "New York Fashion Week Announces Plus-Size Show!"

Woo hoo!

FINALLY – after some 40 years of weight tyranny, rampant eating disorders and mounting criticism of fashion houses for photo-shopping pictures of already emaciated models down to cartoon-like figures – the fashion industry is awakening to the reality that normal women just don’t look like the 17 year-old models who struggle to survive on a diet of lettuce, cigarettes and coffee.

But the fashion industry considers "Plus-Size" 14 or 16 and up. Really?

Statistically, the AVERAGE American woman is 5’4", weighs anywhere between 140 – 160 lbs. and wears a size 14. If this is the norm – and sizes 0 – 4 are the favored minority (because, let’s face it – even the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" revealed that size 6 is sneered at in the fashion industry as being too plump for the runway) doesn’t that make the smaller size range the anomaly? Shouldn’t they be labeled "Under-Size" instead of stigmatizing the majority of the female population as "Plus-Size"?

Thanks to campaigns launched by Dove and Fruit of the Loom encouraging healthy self-image in women and girls of all sizes and shapes – shapely, full-figured women have finally emerged from the shadows to demand their place in the sun – and the clothing stores.

The fashion industry can turn on a dime when it comes to dismissing a color or a handbag as "so last year," but when it comes to acknowledging – let alone catering to – the average woman, they seem to have a learning disability. Further, the conventional "wisdom" of the fashion industry is that women who are size 12 and up are not fashion conscious. Apparently they believe that we prefer being relegated to ugly, voluminous garments in drab colors, the fashion equivalent of trash bags.

If – as statistics indicate – 62% of all American women are over-weight, does it make good business sense to virtually ignore the needs and desires of such a large population – not to mention their spending dollars?

And therein lies the real trigger for the growing – albeit tepid – trend to cater to "real" women.

Like every other sector of American business, the fashion industry is suffering from the down economy. Slowly, they are starting to view the "plus-size" woman (i.e. most of us) as an untapped market. Designer Marc Jacobs has announced plans to expand his line to include larger sizes; Saks 5th Avenue and Forever 21 now have plus-size sections in their stores. Fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour have featured plus-size models in some fashion layouts.

Whatever the incentive, hopefully this heralds a new era – not only of acceptance of fuller- figured women, but admiration as well. And of models of all sizes regularly appearing in fashion layouts – not just special features designed to appease.

How did we become so twisted in our concept of beauty? How did our society come to pressure shapely women into risking their health and safety by starving themselves to fit such an unrealistic, disturbing image?

Throughout history, the full-figured woman was the feminine ideal. Ample bosoms, round hips and thighs were admired and aspired to. Renaissance artists painted voluptuous women and cherubs; sculptors depicted the female figure as round and ripe. Upper class women proudly displayed their girth, as it showed that they could afford plenty to eat.

Starting with the 17th century, bodices and corsets began to alter the figure, pushing breasts up and out and narrowing the waist, while panniers made the hips look larger. In the 19th century, panniers phased out, making the hips narrower – and bustles added volume to the rear end. All of these were designed to enhance – if not exaggerate – the soft, curvy female form.

The concept of sex symbols as we know it today caught fire in the 40’s and 50’s with beauties such as Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. These women were icons of feminine sex appeal. Their voluptuous figures had men drooling and women rushing to emulate them, copying not only what they wore – but how they wore it: the décolletage and hip-enhancing skirts and slacks. If you were not blessed with a natural hour glass figure, push-up bras and girdles gave you one.

Then something changed.

It may not be fair to blame the entire skinny-as-life-goal mania on Twiggy, the British model whose stick-thin, boyish style became the fashion icon of the British Mod generation.

More likely, it all began with Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor – an utterly non-voluptuous woman – whose famous quote "You can never be too rich or too thin" resonated with a society among whom many already had Anglophilic aspirations and held her words as gospel.

As thin began to be associated with rich, upper class and desirable – the full-figure began to likewise be associated with lower class, lower IQ – and even cheap.

Today, Walls Simpson’s adage still has a stranglehold on women’s self-image, the fashion industry and the movie and television industries. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Calista Flockhart are suspected of suffering from eating disorders, while others – such as Kate Winslet, Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Love Hewitt – beautiful women all – have endured insults and criticism, not for getting fat – but just adding a few extra pounds. In other words, looking like the average woman.

Hosted by Emme – the plus-sized fashion model who has been instrumental in getting full-figured women onto the fashion industry’s radar – the New York Fashion Week Plus-Size show on September 16 at Lincoln Center was not officially a part of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. This may make it seem almost conciliatory, like a toe in the water to see what the reaction will be.

I haven’t heard, but my guess is that the show was well received, acknowledgment at long last that those of us who are over size 10 are not only fashion conscious and starved for acceptance – but an economic force to be reckoned with.

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