Glamour's risky gamble on full-sized female models

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In September, Glamour magazine received a deluge of letters, e-mails and phone calls. The magazine, which has been known for its support of the high fashion industry, shocked readers and clothing professionals with a small photo that ran on page 194. On first glance, the picture seemed normal, with a smiling, nude model posed comfortably on a bench. However, on a closer look, it quickly became apparent why this image was so revolutionary: at 5'9" and 180 pounds, the model -- Lizzie Miller -- had a body mass index that was slightly above normal.

While many fashion professionals criticized the decision to feature the plus-sized Miller, the magazine's readers were quick to embrace it. In the following issue, Glamour promised to focus more attention on "plus models," committing to show "a wide range of body types" in its pages. To demonstrate its support, the magazine led with a "beautiful bodies" pictorial of average-sized models.

The move toward "normal" models has been growing for a while. In 2005, the "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" began highlighting the attractiveness of average-sized, average-featured women by using non-models, often scantily clad, to endorse its products. Although Dove parent company Unilever (UL) has been criticized for endorsing western standards of beauty to the exclusion of other ethnicities, the the Real Beauty campaign has inspired a great deal of conversation about the disconnect between fashion models and average women.

Last month, the release of model Crystal Renn's memoir Hungryonce again drew attention to the unrealistic beauty standard set by the fashion industry. After years of trying to keep her weight down to 95 pounds and her waistline at 34 inches, the 5'9", anorexic Renn realized that she was slowly killing herself. Analyzing her eating and exercise habits, she embarked on a healthier lifestyle. Today, she wears a size 12 and has a flourishing career as a plus-size model.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American woman aged 20 and up is 5'3" tall, weighs 164.7 pounds, and has a 37.6 inch waist. By comparison, the average model is 5'11" tall and weighs 117 pounds, which places this body type above the 95th percentile for height, but below the 10th percentile for weight, a freakish combination that bears little or no relationship to a healthy human body.

In the fashion business, however, freakish sells. The standard model size ranges between 0 and 4, while the average woman wears a size 14. Most designer fashion houses, however, don't make anything larger than a size 12 and, as Glamour writer Genevieve Field notes, their samples -- the clothes that are used in pictorials -- are rarely larger than a size 4. This makes it almost impossible for fashion mags to feature full-sized women.

This is not a minor inconvenience. While there is a vast market for fashionable clothing in size 14 and up, the fact that fashion houses refuse to make it, advertise it, or promote it means that even Glamour, a leading chronicle of the rag trade, has a hard time altering the face of American fashion. With this in mind, the magazine closed its plus-size manifesto with a promise to support any designer who "manufactures chic clothes we can photograph on full-bodied models."

The irony of the past few years is that, even as Americans have gotten larger, models have gotten smaller, to the point that the average model is now 23 percent skinnier than the average woman. Beyond the dangers of extreme dieting and eating disorders, women's magazines and fashion houses now seem to be working off a business model that is life-threatening. It will be interesting to see if Glamour's decision to gamble on normal body types pays off.
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