Perhaps you’ve seen it, the small photo on page 194 of the September issue of Glamour. The picture illustrates a story called “What Everyone But You Sees About Your Body” (sample advice: “When you focus on the body parts you love, your ‘flaws’ fade away.”), and in it, a gorgeous blonde sits smiling in her underwear. Sounds innocuous enough? The model has no abs of steel; in fact, she has a bit of fat on her stomach.
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And with this, the belly roll heard round the world, Glamour’s September issue has now become more blabbed about within the fashion world than even The September Issue.
The magazine was inundated with feedback from readers who say they love the "woman on p. 194," Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive reported in a blog post. She quotes a reader in Georgia who calls it "the most amazing photograph I've ever seen in any women's magazine." Another fan in Massachusetts writes, "This beautiful woman has a real stomach and did I even see a few stretch marks? This is how my belly looks after giving birth to my two amazing kids! This photo made me want to shout from the rooftops."
The woman is question is 20-year-old Lizzi Miller, plus-size model and belly-dance enthusiast who wears a size 12-14. At 5'11 and 180 pounds, her body mass index puts her just outside of what insurers deem “normal,” but well under the female average of 26.5 in the U.S. "In America, the ideal body for women is increasingly longer and leaner than seem humanly possible," Julia Savacool in the new book, The World Has Curves: The Global Quest for the Perfect Body. "Never before has the 'perfect' body been at such odds with our true size."
"When I was young, I really struggled with my body and how it looked because I didn't understand why my friends were so effortlessly skinny," Miller told Glamour. "I've been that girl, flipping through magazines trying to find just one person who looked a little bit like me. And when I didn't find it, I would start to think there's something wrong with the way that I looked.”
In one of nearly a thousand replies to Leive’s entry, commenter chrissyrox wrote, “I’ve read Glamour for 15 years and you’ve always shown us diversity—though not enough. There’s still this addiction to thin, thin, thin in the media, which has us all addicted. It’s time for a Revolution all y’all! Down with size 2, up with size YOU! “
Nearly every blog aimed at women commented on it, plus Newsweek and CNN. Even the popular street fashion site The Sartorialist weighed in, wondering whether the economic crisis has “forced the fashion community to open its eyes a little bit to what the customers want?”
The answer appears to be a tentative yes. When Leive and Miller appeared on the Today show on August 24, the editor, whose persona has always been something of the antithesis to the Devil Wears Prada archetype, said to Matt Lauer of the photo’s popularity, “Will it change our approach? I think it will.”
By September 1, Page Six broke the news that Glamour will feature a number of “large, nude models” in their November issue. Miller will be included, alongside fellow plus-size models Kate Dillon, Jennie Runk, Amy Lemons, Crystal Renn, Ashley Graham, and Anansa Sims.
Between the recent controversy over Kelly Clarkson’s heavily photoshopped Self magazine cover, a few new plus-size TV series popping up ( Drop Dead Diva, More to Love) and beauty campaigns like Dove’s that target real women, the overwhelming response to the girl on page 194 of Glamour seems to indicate that change is in the air.
But there’s always the issue of context. As Margaret Hartmann wrote on Jezebel, “Any shot of body confidence readers got from seeing a woman with an average-sized body presented as sexy is quickly neutralized by the magazine's other 295 pages of diet tips, workout recommendations, and images of women with all their natural bumps and rolls airbrushed away.”
“This is how my belly looks after giving birth to my two amazing kids! This photo made me want to shout from the rooftops.”
Even if Glamour amps up their “plus-size”—a plus-sized model can be as small as a size 8—thin still remains fashion’s universal currency. Every few years a model like Miller or Mia Tyler will become fashionable for a moment, but it’s rarely more than a token nod at other sizes. As we head into New York’s Fashion Week, it’s doubtful that the Miller affair will be at all visible on the overwhelmingly skinny, white, and young models chosen for the catwalk.
In the end, Miller is still a model whose image trades in aspiration. She is conventionally attractive, white, and in near-perfect proportion. Her body may resemble most of ours more than, say, Kate Moss’, but she’s hardly reflective of the Average American Woman. Writer Sweet Machine on the body issues blog Shapely Prose likens the reaction to Miller with many women’s (and men’s, and Media’s) obsession with Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks, who plays the hourglass-figured Joan. “Most of us don’t look anything like Hendricks—but we might look more like her than like Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston or the model in the billboard across the street.”
Whether this is real change or just lip service remains to be seen. Leive’s enthusiastic response has been encouraging; her magazine has gotten a huge reality check about what women want from their magazines. The presence of real-size women in fashion magazines might indicate that they really are listening to their readers. It’s an inhospitable climate for print media right now. Glamour’s example will hopefully show a direction in which magazines can renew their relevance.
Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book, Girl Power, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.