Two TV networks this month reportedly rejected a commercial featuring larger women for violating “decency” standards
They’re serving body – big, bodacious, black girl body in its full, round thickness. The four women stand tall and fearless in figures that are rarely seen and celebrated in media, bodies that are large, black and female.
Singers Chrisette Michele and Jazmine Sullivan along with Orange Is the New Black actress Danielle Brooks and plus-size fashion blogger Gabi Fresh all parade their full bodies, curvy hips and thick thighs with pride on the cover of the March issue of Ebony magazine.
Wearing bustiers, military-themed accessories and a whole lot of confidence, the image of the women is revolutionary, a portrayal that celebrates black women of size as sexy, sensual and desirable.
The cover isn’t a close-up shot of their pretty faces beat to the Gods or a headshot of this plus-sized crew. This is a historic celebration of the large black woman’s body by a major publication.
The movement for body acceptance in the United States is resulting in prominent images of larger women in media including the Ebony magazine cover and plus-sized model Ashley Graham’s historic appearance on this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover. But the visibility of plus-sized women in popular culture also comes with backlash including the criticism Gabourey Sidibe experienced after appearing in this month’s V magazine’s 100th anniversary issue in lingerie and two major networks’ refusal to air plus-sized retailer Lane Bryant’s new commercial.
Recent high-profile images of larger women in media are a sign of evolving attitudes about size and attractiveness but many of the images promote dominant beauty ideals that include the hourglass shape, sizable breasts, shapely hips and a flat stomach, says Harriet Brown, author of Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight and What We Can Do about It.
“It’s progress in the sense that they don’t have to look like Kate Moss anymore but we’re still talking about the shape that appeals to men and therefore the shape that appeals to advertisers because women might want to emulate that,” said Brown, associate professor at Syracuse University in the magazine department.
These recent magazine covers featuring plus-sized women’s bodies are groundbreaking and they deviate from the typical magazine cover representations of larger women, which is often celebrities’ extreme weight loss, said J. Maria Merrills, a fat activist who also writes films and books about women of size. “Usually it’s a diet ad or a before and after picture.”
The inclusion of plus-sized bodies, especially black women’s plus size bodies, hasn’t been happening enough in mainstream media especially considering the fact that more women in the country are larger, and representations such as Ebony’s “Curvy Confessionals” cover story take an important step toward including larger women’s bodies in media says Tomika Anderson, the freelance writer who wrote Ebony’s cover story and who considers herself plus-sized.
“We have so much happening as a community that challenges our love for ourselves. We’re at war, like the image on the cover, to really love ourselves and to look into the fringes [for] those who have not been brought to the table or been included by the media because we matter too,” Anderson said. “Just as much we are having conversations around hair and darkness of skin and all of these other things that don’t promote feelings of inclusion. This is something to add to the conversation, to be inclusive of bodies that haven’t been included before.”
The body positive movement and mainstream media images of larger women often don’t include black women making Ebony’s cover story even more important, said SheRea DelSol, the plus-sized creator of My Thrifted Closet, a brand dedicated to being fabulous on a budget.
“It’s awesome to see black women this way,” DelSol said. “It’s usually represented by white women. To me it is awesome that we have this type of representation of black women. It’s also a spectrum of blackness, lighter-skinned Chrisette Michele to deeper brown Danielle Brooks.The fact that this is created and produced by a black magazine is a step in the right direction because black people can perpetuate types of ‘isms’ including colorism in our own community.”
The Ebony cover is significant because it represents plus-sized black women as sexy, said Merrills, also an assistant professor of liberal studies at Winston-Salem State University.
“This is very different in that it suggests that large is beautiful,” said Merrills, author of Seeing Faith: When Life Throws You Curves. “This is the first time we’ve seen something like this in a mainstream magazine.”
The Sports Illustrated and Ebony covers have received positive coverage from other mainstream magazines including Cosmopolitan, applauding them for these celebratory images of larger women, but those magazines aren’t showcasing plus-sized bodies the same way, Brown says.
“I cannot imagine Cosmo having a cover like [Ebony’s],” Brown said. “I do think there is enough of the idea (body positivity) in theory being appealing because it has gained enough traction. They give a nod to body positivity without having to actually go there themselves. Just imagine a Cosmo cover like that. It is built around cultural body norms … They can praise it from a distance.”
But these images of plus-sized women aren’t praised by all. The commercial for plus-sized clothing chain Lane Bryant’s new #ThisBody advertising campaign features partially naked zaftig bodies including a woman who is breastfeeding. The commercial which boasts that “this body was meant to be seen” won’t be seen on ABC or NBC. Both networks rejected it saying it didn’t meet their decency standards.
The national networks’ refusal to air the commercial illustrates how deeply rooted beauty ideals are in our culture, Brown says. “No one would turn down a Victoria’s Secret ad and they’re almost naked in those ads.”
But, Brown notes, the strides made in body diversity representation in media in recent years is significant. “It’s better than where we were like 10 years ago but we still have a hell of a long away to go.”
Sherri Williams, who holds a doctorate in mass communications, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Race, Gender and Politics in the South at Wake Forest University where she also teaches in the Communication Department. Williams was a newspaper reporter for 10 years before she transitioned into academia. You can also find her work at Backbonewomenonline.com.