The narrative of “plus-size” (translation: “normal-size”) models in the fashion industry has built to a fever-pitch in the past few years. Weight has been a powerful force for fashion magazines in particular, showing the ability to boost — or harm — major titles. There was the overwhelming reaction to Glamour‘s inclusion of model Lizzie Miller, shown happily nude at 5’11″ and 180 pounds, in the September 2009 issue. Then 2010 brought a tempest for Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly, after she openly criticized overweight people on her blog. The retribution was harsh and swift.
At first, the presence of plus-sized models in magazines was dismissed as a gimmicky one-off. But now, curvier models are making serious inroads in fashion publications — and their presence is bringing in dollars. The British weekly magazine Look began regularly featuring heavier models five months ago, and watched their circulation drop a mere .5% in the second of half of 2010 (a period during which magazine sales in general fell precipitously). The Guardian notes that Look, as well as two other women’s magazines that have chosen to permanently include non-models, all show successful numbers:
- Brigitte (Germany) – up 4% in overall sales after discontinuing use of models altogether
- Look (Britain) – down .5% in circulation
- Essentials (Britain) – up 12.7% in circulation after instating only non-model covers (first non-model cover up 25% in sales)
The editors of these magazines stand behind their choice to use models who look like their readership: the readers love it, as do advertisers and retailers of mainstream fashion, says Ali Hall, the editor of Look.
Still, persuading high-end designers to change their ways remains the hard part — Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, once complained that the sample clothes she was given were so small that the magazine was forced to find rail-thin models just to fit into them. And there was that nasty blind rumor making the internet rounds about a modeling agency that refused to let its so-called “good” girls be photographed with their plus-sized counterparts.
Money has a way of changing attitudes, and magazines — which are already feeling the pain of the recession and the transition to online media — are looking for ways to keep their product fresh. French Elle, V magazine, and Glamour have all done much-lauded special issues using size 12 to 16 models. And the designers Mark Fast and Jean-Paul Gaultier have had plus-size girls on their runways.
Most tellingly, The Guardian looks to Cambridge Ph.D. candidate Ben Barry’s study of 3,000 women, which showed that “the vast majority of women significantly increase purchase intentions when they see a model that reflects their age, size and race.” We’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.