Notes from the Field: (Ad-)dressing the 67%
Review of the "Every Beautiful Body" Symposium (October 26, 2016, New York, NY)
This was the crowd’s refrain as Orange is the New Black star Danielle Brooks delivered her truly heart-wrenching (and tear-jerking) keynote address for the “Every Beautiful Body” symposium to a giddy, woke audience comprised largely of the so-called “67%,” or, the percentage of American women who are plus-size, but who remain enduringly underrepresented in the media and woefully underserved by the fashion industry.  They call themselves the “invisible majority,” and this one-day symposium — sponsored by Refinery29, Lane Bryant, and Aerie — convened to address, as well as to begin to erode, many of the industry conventions that have for so long rendered fat women fashion’s Other.
Rather than the invisible majority, however, it is perhaps more accurate to describe these women as a majority that vacillates between the poles of invisibility and hyper-visibility.  By this, I mean that their bodies are too conspicuous and too large to be considered truly feminine. Visible in all the wrong ways, the fat, female body has become a highly stigmatized vector of disease — an outward symbol of the West’s “obesity epidemic.” Because of this they have been marginalized by the fashion industry — relegated to its periphery in the century-long history of ready-made dress. Their bodies are omnipresent yet absent within the rarified image world of a consumer culture, which continues to propagate an enduringly narrow definition of beauty.
One of the principal goals of the 67% movement therefore lies in affirming the visibility of this population by creating positive or stable images of fat embodiment — to create spaces in which women whose bodies err on the larger side of normal (because, let's be honest, many of the images promoted by the movement uphold normative ideals of feminine beauty) can feel empowered to “take up space,” so to speak. Getty Images was in attendance to promote their collaboration with Refinery29 (titled "The 67% Project") to create a curated collection of body positive stock photography, while a pop-up exhibition featuring photographer Anastasia Garcia challenged the aesthetic canons of fashion imagery by replacing standard-size models with their plus-size counterparts in edgy, editorial-style photoshoots.
It was all too easy to get swept away by the undeniable, feel-good, body positive energy espoused by the impressive lineup of bloggers, activists, and industry insiders. (The mini crudité platters and organic granola bars, guided meditation, gratis slogan tees reading “YAS QUEEN,” and free custom nail art didn’t hurt either.) Fashion, it seemed, was finally turning its attention to the plight of the fat woman in a major way. Having spent the better part of the last decade immersing myself in the history of large-size dress and engaging in the enduring struggle for size parity within the fashion industry, however, I remained cautiously guarded throughout the day — skeptical of how the industry might be co-opting activist discourses in what, to me, was an obvious (if well executed) manifestation of commodity feminism.  Indeed, the importance of visibility is nothing new for fat activists, who have long argued that “being visible is the single most important thing…fat individuals can do to fight fat oppression.” 
In particular, comments from Lane Bryant Chief Marketing Officer Brian Beitler struck a nerve for several reasons (not least of which was the fact that a white, cisgender, normatively-sized man was speaking on behalf of an intersectional audience of feminist body positive activists). Elevating the power of social media, Beitler encouraged those in attendance to make demands of the industry and incited activists to shift the discourse of plus-size fashion through their personal social media platforms. Lane Bryant, he said, is listening, and without the active participation and guidance of its core consumer base, the plus-size megabrand — known less for its on-trend options than its penchant for shilling moralizing and shapeless fat sacks and muumuus designed to cover up and hide the body — couldn’t adapt and evolve. Much has been written about the power of consumers in an increasingly democratic media landscape; however, for Beitler to place the onus of affecting change on the shoulders of a consumer group that has been excluded from fashion for so long seemed like something of a cop-out to me. 
Indeed, the theme of the day seemed to be that fat women, in spite of the tremendous burden of fat stigma, need to speak louder, be ever more radical, and take up increasingly more space in order to shift public opinion as well as awaken retailers to the vast earning potential of plus-size fashion. Through sheer willpower, some of the speakers seemed to suggest, fat women could reverse centuries of Western beauty ideals in singlehandedly inciting a so-called “revolution on the racks.” 
As a counter to the very industry-centric first half of the symposium, model Tess Holliday and fashion blogger Nicolette Mason sat down with Refinery29 contributor Kelsey Miller for what was supposed to be a conversation about new media careers, but which ended up turning into a much more vital conversation about online bullying and free speech. Through this conversation, it became abundantly clear how, in spite of the body positivity movement’s growing momentum, fat women remain one of the last groups that is socially acceptable to mock and ridicule. Both public faces of fat activism, Mason and Holliday spoke candidly about the mundane criticism they endure on a daily basis, and, in Holliday’s case, the death threats she has received from male internet trolls. In this hostile, misogynistic climate, they wondered aloud, what is the value of big brands co-opting the discourses of fat activism and body positivity when there is still so much more work to be done?
While I have argued elsewhere that dress is a critical tool in shaping — as well as in redefining — fat identity, fat activist and scholar Kathleen LeBesco has cautioned against the commodification of the fat, female body in fashion, pointing out that efforts to create equality in the dressing room are likely to result in the capitalist exploitation of aesthetic fatness, or the proliferation images of “domesticated” and “tamed” fat, female bodies.  Lane Bryant, perhaps more than any other brand, is guilty of such cooptation, borrowing the discourses of hashtag activism (and perhaps most notably the drop #DropThePlus campaign started by the Australian plus-size model Stefania Ferrario) in their recent #ThisBody and #ImNoAngel campaigns, which feature the world’s top plus-size models stomping down minimalist runways in various states of undress. Although their edgy campaigns have served as flashpoints for the body positivity movement, this ideology has not translated to their clothing, however. (Indeed, the sexualized bodies in their campaigns oftentimes eschew clothing altogether.)
This ultimately leads me to ask, why do consumers rather than the industry bear the responsibility of setting the agenda? And why aren’t designers and retailers creatively exploring the potentialities of plus-size dress? In short, Lane Bryant, why don’t you put damn some clothes (good clothes!) on your models in your advertisements!? In the final panel discussion of the morning session, plus-size supermodel Emme proposed that the problem does indeed lie at the feet of fashion designers who lack the competencies and imagination to design for non-normative bodies. Arguing that fashion education — which is itself ripe with fat stigma — has failed many students, the model has begun an initiative called “Fashion Without Limits,” which will bring large-size dress forms into universities and open up a dialogue with design teachers about fashion pedagogy.
Certainly, the project of inundating visual culture with positive representations of fat embodiment is crucial to eroding fat stigma and creating true parity within the fashion industry — this is why the 67% symposium, which presented to a wider audience issues that fat activists have long discussed, was so essential. However, it should not be only initiative undertaken. The makers of plus-size fashion must hold themselves accountable as arbiters of fashion change. Full stop. Said differently, it is the industry’s responsibility to materialize discourse, not just refract it. Although the increasingly democratic nature of fashion is posing a real challenge to the top-down model of fashion change, consumers alone cannot be expected to lead the charge.
 The average woman in the United States is now a US size 16 according to a new study out of the University of Washington. Plus-sizes begin at a US size 14.
 See Adrienne C. Hill, “Spatial Awarishness: Queer Women and the Politics of Fat Embodiment.” PhD diss., University of Bowling Green (2009).
 For a discussion and examples of commodity feminism, see Robert Goldman, Deborah Heath and Sharon L. Smith, “Commodity Feminism,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8.3 (1991): 333-351.
 Marianne Kirby cited in Lonie McMichael, “Resistance,” The Big Fat Blog, February 1, 2011 (accessed February 15, 2012), http://bigfatblog.com/lonie-mcmichael-resistance.
 For a discussion of the impact of fashion blogging, see Agnès Rocamora, “Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Self-portraits,” Fashion Theory 15.4 (2011): 407-424.
 This term is borrowed from Kathleen LeBesco. See Kathleen LeBesco, “Revolution on a Rack: Fatness, Fashion and Commodification” in Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004): 65-73.