There's been a lot of talk about body positivity in the fashion world over the last few years, especially around plus sizes: who markets to them, who creates for them, and - most importantly - how the customers themselves are perceived and treated.
I'm so glad that Holly Jackson, lingerie industry consultant and blogger at The Full Figured Chest, sat down with me to talk about some of the issues the industry is working through, and some of the sociocultural connections contributing to discrimination that we often miss. I've interviewed Holly on topics related to plus size lingerie before, but this is a gchat you don't want to miss.
Jeanna: Holly! I'm so excited to chat today.
Holly: Me too! I am so glad you asked me.
Jeanna: Our convo yesterday on twitter was so -- I'm not sure the word for it. Inspiring isn't right, because the topics at hand are serious and depressing if we think the implications through, I feel.
But it's great to be having these conversations in public spaces.
Holly: It is depressing.
Jeanna: So, to start, I want to ask about industry standards about what plus size looks like. Lots of body positive campaigns in the last year, like Lane Bryant's, have faced backlash from plus size bloggers and body positive activists for only showing one type of plus: the curvy hourglass. Does a campaign have to feature hourglass plus size figures, and do bloggers have to be that figure themselves, to be successful?
Lane Bryant "Plus is Equal" campaign
Holly: Plus definitely comes in all sizes and shapes - I'd actually argue that very few plus women are natural hourglasses, although I obviously don't have statistics to back that up.
If you look at the successful bloggers on the plus scene (particularly as represented by Georgina Horne and Sweet Nothings, both of whom I love) they are very much bigger versions of the standard size model proportions.
I'd also argue that part of this is a US issue versus the rest of the world. If you look at campaigns in the UK that use plus models, they're much more diverse in terms of shape. As are their plus size bloggers. Here, we pretty much have Ashley Graham.
Jeanna: Indeed. What you noted about successful plus size-spectrum bloggers as essentially mirroring misses-size model proportions is interesting. This seems to be the same case when it comes to modeling, and it seems like there's a story every week about a larger-misses scale (like, US size 10 or so) person being cast as "plus." And we hear about plus size models routinely losing campaigns out to "smaller" sizes.
Holly: Part of it has to do, on a practical level, with height. As everyone knows, a 200 pound woman who is 5'3" looks really different than a 200 pound woman who is 5'10". Larger misses models might be plus if they were short, but instead they're incredibly tall.
Jeanna: That's a great point. The modeling industry's ideals come into play here.
Holly: Right. The average plus lingerie customer just isn't built like that.
To me, plus size models come across as "amazonian" or whatever term you want to use, rather than plus. They're tall, they have slightly broader shoulders, but other than that they replicate the proportions of smaller models.
But yes, the average size woman in the US is treated as an outlier rather than the actual statistical average consumer. Which makes no sense.
Jeanna: No. I know that it's a vicious cycle of capitalism to keep women in a constant state of discontent with their bodies (which the right product will fix, natch), but why not make a product that makes them happy -- and keeps making them happy?
To get back to the model proportion/size convo, you raised an interesting point on twitter yesterday that we NEVER talk about when we talk about body positivity: Prettiness.
Holly: Right. It's much easier to fit in as an outlier if you fit into the conventional "prettiness" scale. On a basic level, you can see it in how celebrities like Adele versus Melissa McCarthy are treated.
Jeanna: Great example.
Holly: But it also comes into play when you're talking about integrating plus bloggers and reviewers into the general lingerie landscape.
Jeanna: Yes. Plus size bloggers are a rarity to begin with; adding body shots in, or the face, complicates it enormously.
Holly: And it especially comes into play when you're talking about how companies interact with that same group of people.
Jeanna: Are you alluding to who gets samples and such?
Holly: So it's about more than readers. Right. It's about sample access, access to PR reps, etc. Which makes sense, right? Companies want to show their product on someone who is closer to a plus size model since it's better advertising.
Jeanna: It's a small community; we all know who gets samples. Or at least, who is honest and tells us they get samples!
Holly: Right. And I work the other side of it too, since I help my clients figure out who gets samples.
Jeanna: You've really been on both sides of the coin.
Holly: So we obviously look at numbers and stats, but certainly some of the final decisions my clients make do come down to the look of a blogger or how attractive they are.
Jeanna: Which comes into conventional beauty standards.
Jeanna: The model absolutely impacts people's impression of the product.
When I was doing market research for Bluestockings, one of my central questions was if models were necessary. (Hey, I was a newb!) Personally when buying products, I find pictures on models entirely unnecessary -- how it looks on me is NEVER how it looks on the model. And I find so much of lingerie brand photography distasteful. But my survey respondents responded in droves that they wanted models. They wanted to see it on people, even if those people were rail thin.
Which I thought was so interesting, from this alternative group that I was deliberately surveying, who were incredibly dissatisfied with VS and all the others.
Holly: I agree! Models almost never look like me. That's why I was so excited about the latest Tutti Rouge campaign that used an average size model - it was truly the first time I had ever seen lingerie on someone with a body even close to mine.
Jeanna: YES! I love the Tutti campaign.
An image from Tutti Rouge SS16's lookbook
Holly: And you know what? Almost no one covered it.
Jeanna: I also want to throw a shoutout to Neon Moon's latest video -- that was really excellent.
Holly: Ooh, I saw that too. But almost no one covered that either.
Jeanna: Do you think it's because they are showing non-acceptable "average" women? Tattoos okay, stretch marks no?
Holly: These are two companies that put serious money into producing a non-standard view of lingerie, and they got almost no public credit for it.
I read an article ages ago, - I think it was on Fashionista. It goes back to you point about what your customers wanted to see in terms of models. It talked about how plus size women are taught to see being plus size as a temporary condition. So in some ways, they don't want to see themselves in lingerie, at least that was the theory. They want to think about being more like the thin model than continuing to look like the models that might look like them.
Jeanna: That's a great point. It feels like plus size campaigns are sometimes... toeing that line? Of both body acceptance, but also usually showing plus size models with misses models in the same clothing.
You've also talked about how to embrace fat bodies is to reject our cultural narratives that embrace fat shaming for "health" reasons. Could you say more about that?
Holly: I'll be honest: I was not always plus size and I had no idea I came from a family of fat shamers until I became plus size.
Jeanna: Is this a cultural bias you think most folks you interact with aren't aware they have?
Holly: I think embracing plus size bodies is hard because even the people closest to you want to tell you not to. But I also think it's necessary to make progress. Until we make "fat" into something that carries the cultural weight of "short", we'll have problems. And if we never say "fat" we can't ever get there.
Jeanna: Mmm. That is such a -- it's so weird. The word I want to say is "radical" comparison, and why is it that my comparison of fat and short is radical? Because of the cultural baggage you're talking about.
Holly: I do think it's culturally ingrained, much like racism is for lots of people. And I think that's part of the issue with terms like "extended", which I hate with a flaming passion.
It just makes it worse. And really, who the hell wants to be thought of as "extended"? It makes people sound like malformed elephants.
Jeanna: Words that beat around the issue -- agreed. They make it worse.
Holly: I mean, how is that better than just being "fat"? If we take the negative bias out of it, it's a good and accurate term.
Jeanna: "Extended" has no grounding. It could as easily mean tall or short sizes for pants.
Holly: But even when I call myself fat that way, people tell me I shouldn't and that it's wrong.
Jeanna: Not realizing that they're making it about them and their own shit, and not about valuing and respecting you.
Holly: Did you read that Time article about the testing they did for the new Barbies recently?
Jeanna: I haven't.
"Curvy" Barbies: middle and far right
Holly: They tested the new "curvy" dolls with young girls, both alone and with adults. When the girls were given the barbies, the one with the curvy barbie would almost universally call her barbie fat.
When the researcher came in to interview the girl with the curvy barbie, she would say things like, "Oh, my barbie is a little different, but she's still just great!".
It wasn't that the girls had learned that fat was okay, just that it wasn't okay to call the barbie fat.
And that's the unconscious bias that lots of people have.
Jeanna: Do you think is the kind of unconscious bias informing some of the body positivity currently on the market? "Our bodies are just great" -- because we've learned we can't say anything else?
Holly: Yes -- in fact, I'd say that informs most of it. It's just not polite to openly call people things like fat, so we pretend we're okay with it when we're not.
I would argue that diversity issues encounter similar dualities.
Jeanna: I would 100% agree with you re: diversity and inclusivity initiatives.
That study with Barbie blows open so much. So model representation is one thing -- small plus sizes being more valued, one type of body being shown. Prettiness being relevant for plus sizes in particular.
Holly: Yes! Being plus can be "overcome" if you're pretty enough - again, Adele is a great example here. Have you ever seen her referred to as a "plus size singer"? And the answer is you haven't, because she's "pretty" enough to have transcended that label.
Jeanna: And yet, her album covers are of her face.
Holly: Yep, exactly.
Jeanna: Her label is very careful.
Holly: Her label is very smart. But she's just an easy example of something we see a lot, especially in lingerie and fashion.
Jeanna: Prettiness, by which I mean a certain feminine prettiness -- delicate features, long hair -- is important for success in visual mediums, but it seems arguably more important for plus size models and professionals.
Like you're saying: prettiness is the sink or swim factor here.
Holly: Agreed. And I think if you're pretty enough, you can overcome some of the bias that comes with being plus. Or plus-ish, like some of the smaller "plus" models are.
Jeanna: And even thinking of the lingerie blogosphere -- and these are women and people who I love dearly -- these are a lot of pretty people. Who may not believe they are, but who absolutely are, in society's eyes.
Holly: Right! I'm not blaming bloggers for being pretty. I'm a fan of lots of the bloggers working now, who also happen to be pretty. But you can love someone for their work and acknowledge that their looks are a factor. I would argue that successful bloggers in general are better looking than the average population.
When I talk to plus size friends, they all say when they go places they feel pressure to be more put together and to dress well, just to overcome some of the natural bias of store clerks or social situations. I do it too.
Jeanna: Noted. That's something my androgynous- and masculine-presenting friends do, too. And sometimes, they dress more femme for a situation -- just to avoid the conflict.
And I've said this before, but I've been told to my face by folks in this industry, and by some people who I am friends with, that Bluestockings works because I'm femme and pretty-enough. That Bluestockings would not work, would have been MUCH harder to get grounded in this industry, if it was someone else.
Holly: Honestly, I think that probably does help from an industry perspective.
Jeanna: I do, too. The thing is, it sucks, but they are not wrong. It's hard enough for me to get face time with brands as is. I can't imagine being butch on top of it. There’s so much prejudice.
Holly: This is what I find personally conflicting about working in this industry, which I love to death. So often the right business decision is the wrong one ethically.
And sometimes when clients ask me what to do, I have a responsibility to be honest with them. I have to give them the answer I hate.
Jeanna: Do you tell them you're giving them the answer you hate?
Holly: Yes. But I also tell them I'm a consultant and not an activist.
Jeanna: Yes. It's your job.
This is somewhere where I have a hard time -- as a business owner with activist principles.
Holly: People hire me to make their businesses more profitable. If I lie to them, I'm not doing my job and it isn't fair to them.
Jeanna: Somewhere, something has to give. And in order for me to stay in business, sometimes it's the activist part.
Holly: I am a plugged in activist and I'm pretty political in my off hours, but I can't let that inform my job all of the time. This is why I get so excited to work with indies - usually we are coming to the table with the same types of thoughts and feelings about the industry.
Right. Do you make the ethical decision or the one that will keep your business going for three more years? It's hard.
Jeanna: Agreed. Most of the time, other indies are my favorite people to work with. Designers have become friends.
Plus is an interesting case study here: customer demand far outstrips sales. So, I struggle.
Holly: I also think that customers are demanding different types of pieces than the industry is serving up, which doesn't help either. I think there's more of a mismatch between customers and brands than their used to be, before plus customers realized that they could have all the stuff non-plus customers had.
Jeanna: My customers are some of the most fucking inventive people. They want things that don't yet exist. I need to just feed these ideas to Rachel at Origami Customs and Jennifer at Under the Root and have them do custom work on this.
Holly: All of the custom designers I know have a regular stable of plus size customers, for that reason.
Jeanna: My next round of plus stuff is actually comign from those designers who don't usually produce plus as part of their standard line, but who I'm asking to do custom stuff for Bluestockings, because I can't find what my customers want anywhere.
Holly: I'm honestly amazed you've found so many ethically made/good plus size suppliers. They're few and far between.
I do think that being a plus sizes person and putting up half naked pictures of yourself online counts as a form of activism.
Jeanna: What you say makes sense: it's the, if I don't do it, no one will, and where will people go?
Holly: I also feel like, due to my job, I have to stick up for brands a bit here. Brands actually test and develop expanded sizes on a fairly regular basis, but usually they don't go anywhere because retailers boycott them.
Jeanna: When you say boycott, what do you mean precisely?
Holly: I think brands are doing more behind the scenes than people realize and that retailers have way more power than people realize.
Holly: So for instance, there was a big brand working on a major size expansion a few years ago. I knew the designer so I knew about it unofficially. Anyway, they developed prototypes and tested, and then put out the word to retailers. No retailer was willing to sign on to pick up stock, so the expansion died and wasn't ever made public.
Jeanna: I am often frustrated as a very small retailer with not much purchasing power; even in my short time, a number of my artsy, edgy favorites from some brands have failed to go to production due to a lack of orders.
Holly: And that isn't unique story - I've heard it from lots of brands. We see it every season with stuff that shows up at Curve [the biggest lingerie trade show in North America, held on both coasts twice a year] and never makes it to stores. I think people just don't think about size expansions and progressive movements within companies suffering the same fate.
Example: Claudette's Dessous bra in this gorgeous "Absinthe" colorway (available 30-38 A-G, 28 D-G), which I ordered at Curve last fall, is not going into production this spring due to a lack of orders
Jeanna: Yes. It's all about the sizes that the buyer puts on the order.
I've written about how customers need to be proactive when they hear Curve is coming. It matters for them! It matters SO MUCH.
They need to request and follow up. Some retailers (like me) will take risks, regardless. But so many will not. And products, and sizes, die right there on the floor. I know I'm putting a big burden on customers there.
Holly: It does! It's part of the reason I write so much about buying things at full price too. It is the only way to vote with your money. And I know there's an economic part of that which is problematic, but it's true. Full price sales are the only thing that really counts for a retailer or a brand. So there has to be that compromise between inclusivity and actual profit.
Jeanna: No one will ever have every bra size. Except Amazon! And if someone wants to use them as the hallmark of inclusivity and body positivity, be my guest.
Holly: Ha! I can't imagine anyone making that argument. But they do have tons of money.
I do think that when we see conversations on social media though, they sometimes miss the idea that a company has to be profitable enough to stick around and serve the people they include.
Jeanna: ^^^ THIS.
Holly: For example, I know you've said that some people think that your boutique too conventional. If they don't support you and you go under (god forbid) who will be more inclusive than you? No one.
You have to support the companies that are even trying. I don't think people understand how difficult, unpopular and expensive it is to try to be inclusive in this industry.
Jeanna: Right. Popular support from bloggers does not translate into industry support, and most especially does not necessarily translate into actual sales that will keep the lights on.
And I appreciate you saying that.
Holly: I have heard from/worked with a ton of brands who gets tons of images shared and not one sale from any of it.
Jeanna: I remember, when Bluestockings launched and sales weren't what I wanted them to be right away (though there were sales, huzzah!), I talked with some industry friends. One indie designer I spoke with took me aside and said honey, I didn't have a sale for eight months. And that just completely shook me.
Holly: That is a fairly common reason people hire me for consulting, actually.
Jeanna: Lack of sales?
Holly: Yep. Or just how to turn tons of media into any sales at all.
Jeanna: Lots of press doesn't mean sales.
Holly: And yet, no one ever talks about this stuff so customers don't understand that boutiques and small brands aren't rolling in startup capital.
Jeanna: I've had a story on the front page of HuffPo and not had one sale that day. It's good for long term branding but not when your bills are due.
Right. You don't want to seem weak, or failing.
Holly: Yep. Attention doesn't convert to sales and you can't tell people that you're not making any.
I feel like lots of this conversation has come back to transparency, from bloggers to boutiques to customer relations.
Jeanna: Mmm. That's a great point. And yes. Transparency -- or a systemic lack of it?
Holly: I wish we all talked more about how money and expectations work in the industry, as well as what realistic branding extensions looked like.
Jeanna: To piggyback off of that, what plays well with one audience -- or with bloggers and customers -- re: transparency absolutely will not play well with another. For me, to be transparent with my people means to piss off brands and, most especially, other retailers. Most of whom are upset anyway because who do I think I am anyway, running an online boutique?
Holly: And I wish bloggers would be honest about the whole body positive thing. But I think it's also important to be honest about why this stuff is hard and what a risk it represents for the companies who do try to do the right things. Right, and in my case, transparency is bound by a whole lot of NDA agreements.
But I think as an industry, we can do better about being honest even if we can't talk about all of it.
Which I try to do, honestly, as much as I can. I feel like I talk about money (or lack thereof) on my blog a reasonable amount.
Jeanna: Same. There are professional boundaries, and areas where you just don't want to name names. And areas where you want to call out folks but maybe can't.
And I agree: some transparency is better than none!
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