Full Figured Fashion Week (FFFWeek) is a week-long event envisioned to be a countervailing force that challenges traditional body standards in the US fashion industry, showcasing plus-sized models and offering a safe space for fat bodies to commune and patronize plus size vendors. However, two years of participant observations with a critical lens has revealed how FFFWeek employed organizational decisions that demonstrate the complicated context of fashion and fatness, along with the ongoing struggle between body positive and fat accepting discourses, and the inner workings of capitalism and hegemony as an attempt to create social change.
The event was held at a venue in the Garment District. As I made my way upstairs I saw that the room had chic white décor with pink lighting. There were roughly 20 people in attendance and some of the panelists were already sitting up front ready to get started. As I perused the venue, lots of pictures were being taken for FFFWeek's Instagram account (a volume that apparently alerted Instagram, as picture posting was interrupted for a brief time). Eventually, everyone settled down and the event got started. After the panelists introduced themselves, the floor was opened for discussion. The first question asked was, “Should plus-sized women wear Spanx?” The immediate response from one of the panelists was a resounding, “Yes please!” All four panelists agreed. Their reasoning? Plus and straight sized women should wear shapewear (e.g., Spanx) because they are meant to “smooth” curves, not make you smaller. This led to a brief introduction of fat activism and the ways in which it differs from body positivity. Many audience members seemed not to know what fat activism was. There also seemed to be some confusion as to what was considered fashionable and who such garments were made for. For example, one audience member made a comment about being a “regular” person who preferred to dress without all the undergarment “gear” required to maintain the look. Gwen Devoe, founder of FFFWeek, commented in response to this saying she was also regular, but had a taste to look “nice” like everybody else.1
This discussion was one of many that occurred during an event for Full Figured Fashion Week (FFFWeek) in 2016. As a volunteer at the week-long event in 2015, this would be my (Joy Cox) second year both attending and volunteering for FFFWeek, a soiree attended by plus-sized moguls, influencers, and legends. Being a full-figured woman, I very much looked forward to the event, understanding that this would not only be an opportunity for research but also a rare opportunity for me to be in an environment with like-minded and -shaped people who understood “the struggle” of living in a larger body without having to explain the details. While I was awaiting year two of this annual gathering, memorable moments had run through my mind of the year prior when I experienced feelings of liberation seeing fat women embody what seemed like freedom. I thought about all the impromptu catwalks that inspired size 28 person to walk the runway as hard as the size 14 person who went before her. Last year's event was filled with photographers who flooded events, not shying away from photographing attendees’ full bodies. I looked forward to being involved in all of these experiences again. Year one had exposed me to a new reality of access to fashion wear, a sisterhood of fat women (particularly fat Black women active in entrepreneurship), and the possibility of what society would look like if fat Black women were valued according to their own standards, not those imposed by the mainstream. Fat access had crossed boundaries into fashion in such a way that a week-long event with more than one session per day could be hosted and thrive. I will admit, my first experience with FFFWeek was one without an application of a critical lens to understand the ways that consumerism, power, and anti-fat discourse persisted in a space deemed “safe” for larger bodies.
However, when I found myself amid a spirited discussion of Spanx and whether it was necessary for plus-sized women to wear undergarments to “shape” and “control” their bodies, I felt somewhat betrayed. As I sat in the room listening to the discussion, I began to analyze the conversations as both a researcher and a fat woman. As a researcher, I wondered what organizational tensions were at play that situate FFFWeek as a brand that utilizes both pro-fat and anti-fat discourse to promote its agenda. Also, as a fat woman, what is it about wearing Spanx that makes one's body acceptable in this community, or, by deciding not to wear Spanx, renders one an outsider and evokes another to holler, “Yes please!” in reaction to seeing a fat body unfiltered? I wondered how a conversation like this could be taking place at an event designed to liberate larger bodies. All these thoughts circulated my mind as I sat in the three-hour panel discussion. Thoughts compounded and became more complicated as I revisited my field notes, preparing to write a synopsis of what I had explored and found. I realized that much of what I experienced in the field upon my first and second visits to FFFWeek was inextricably tied to my lived experience as a fat woman and a researcher of body positivity and fat acceptance. The excitement I possessed in year one had been tempered by the critical consciousness I brought with me in year two. Identifying shortcomings in year two was also balanced by the things that had been done “right” in year one. I am aware that I cannot be separated from this body of findings as I was there and carried a wealth of knowledge and experience along with me in my perspectives. Rather, the goal of this essay is to speak as both a researcher and an attendee understanding the culture and community I willingly immersed myself in for a week (in both 2015 and 2016) but have lived alongside for a lifetime.
This essay is a critical analysis of how organizers of FFFWeek navigated competing discourses that influence the perceived identity of their organization, while participating in behaviors that cross societal boundaries by promoting body (and fat) acceptance through the very presence of the event. This ethnographic project examines how FFFWeek employed organizational decisions about which bodies were acceptable and which bodies could be exploited for economic gain. Upon examination, results demonstrate how the complicated context of fashion and fatness created organizational tensions that manifested in the organizing processes of FFFWeek. Findings attend to an ongoing struggle between pro-fat and anti-fat discourses at both the organizational and individual levels, as well as the pervasiveness of capitalism and consumerism during the event as it attempts to market a new reality to fat people where their fashion needs are accessible and their bodies celebrated.
HISTORY OF (FULL FIGURED) FASHION WEEKS
Premiere fashion weeks, typically occurring each fall and spring, exist as an extension of traditional haute couture (live mannequin) shows held in Paris fashion salons during the early 20th century. Over the course of history, as the fashion industry expanded and technological advances facilitated the mass consumption of fashion, these runway shows have allowed designers to display their most avant-garde looks and demonstrate (or often create) new fashion trends.2
It is no secret that most models who currently walk the runways during these fashion weeks wear a US size 0 to 4. This small size is part of the conventional “look” for the editorial model.3 According to Ashley Mears's critical ethnography of the fashion industries in New York and London, while all models are expected to conform to Western beauty norms of height, weight, symmetry, and healthy skin, “in contrast to the commercial look, the edgy [editorial] look is younger, whiter, and appears as radically skinny.”4 Although many producers in the field (i.e., designers, agents, bookers) do not necessarily support these conventions because of their notably impossible standards and potentially harmful effects,5 the “look” continues to endure because the thin ideal has become a practice within the fashion industry that is perpetuated due to factors of inertia and technological constraint.6
Created in 2009, Full Figured Fashion Week (FFFWeek) is an active attempt to move fashion beyond the boundaries of these conventional aesthetic ideals. Founder Gwendolyn DeVoe developed the event after she attended New York Fashion Week and observed no clothing items available for sale for individuals of larger sizes.7 In an interview with Forbes magazine, DeVoe mentioned, “I went to a fashion show, sat there for 15 minutes and saw nothing that I could buy because I was too fat and they didn't have it in my size. … So I said, ‘I need one of these for my peoples.’ It wasn't rocket science. I'm all about supply and demand.”8 After this experience, DeVoe, a former plus size model, began organizing FFFWeek as an event for plus-sized women to be empowered by seeing and participating in a fashion week that was designed specifically for them.
FFFWeek was envisioned to be a countervailing force that challenged traditional body standards in the American fashion industry. In this capacity, the week-long event attempts to be inclusive of all its participants and an ambassador for transformation of the fashion industry (and ultimately society) by showcasing larger bodies that are typically excluded from mainstream fashion runways in the United States. For instance, the week's events, such as business workshops, networking receptions, parties, and four runway shows, were managed by volunteers who were full-figured women and sponsored by notable corporations that market to a plus-sized audience including Ashley Stewart and Lane Bryant. Additionally, celebrating plus-sized women and creating an atmosphere that allows attendees to feel unabashed about their body size are some of the organizational decisions that create an inclusive space for larger bodies.
However, FFFWeek also adopts many of the same features as mainstream fashion weeks. For example, FFFWeek hosts tented shows featuring clothing designed by up-and-coming artists and donned by beautiful women who strut down the runway. People also have to purchase tickets to attend all of the events, including the runway shows. Moreover, the week takes place in New York City—one of the most expensive cities in the United States.9 FFFWeek also hosts modeling calls nationally and internationally, restricts model qualifications based on height and size, and showcases famous designers to assist in selling its brand. Although FFFWeek is different from mainstream fashion weeks in many ways and many of the organizational choices seem countercultural on the surface, having firsthand experience with the event for two consecutive years led to the research question that guides this essay: How do the organizing practices of FFFWeek work to counter hegemonic discourses about fat in the fashion industry?
PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION FIELD RESEARCH
Participant observation data were collected by Joy when she attended FFFWeek events in 2015 and 2016. Over the two years, FFFWeek hosted 15 official events and Joy attended seven events as a volunteer or participant (four in year one and three in year two), which totaled 29 hours of field observations. Volunteer events during year one included the Luau Welcoming Party and Magazine Launch, and during year two were the Celebrate My Size Expo and Fashion Showcase. Volunteer assignments were given with an option to simply accept or decline. Complimentary events were provided as compensation for volunteering, which the author had freedom to choose from as long as she was not scheduled to work during that time (year one: “All White” Yacht Party and Business Panel; year two: “Styling Curvy”—A Panel Discussion for the Fashion Forward Curvanista!). Each event lasted three hours except for two (the All-White cruise in year one was five hours, and the Fashion Showcase in year two totaled nine hours).
Duties were assigned at the beginning of each event. Although Joy was not allowed to take notes during these times, there were some events for which volunteers were paired, providing opportunities for her to have detailed conversations with other volunteers about the event. When Joy was attending events as a participant, there were no clothing restrictions but she was required to identify herself and her role as volunteer at the entrance (for complimentary entry). In these spaces, Joy was treated as a guest and received refreshments and the same information as all other attendees. She was also able to interact with other guests, ask questions during discussion sessions, and take notes freely. For each event attended, Joy took photographs and recorded field notes.
Field notes captured the overall environment and logistical functioning of each event, but primarily focused on Joy's personal experiences with the participants and patrons of FFFWeek to understand how women communicate about their bodies with the audience and one another. After attending FFFWeek for both years, Joy had compiled 22 photographs and 27 pages of field notes.
The tensions in organizing emerged as a salient issue as the coauthors discussed Joy's experiences attending FFFWeek for two years. As a participant, she was keenly aware of the ways the organizational choices about the event contradicted some of the ideals of the organization and the body positive movement. Through the use of grounded analysis,10 other tensions in discourse and social change became clear. The analysis process followed the structure of Juliet Corbin and Anselm Strauss.11 The second and third authors (Bernadette M. Gailliard, and Shardé M. Davis) began with open coding, whereby they read and reread the field notes to identify examples of organizational tensions as the boundaries of fashion and fat intersected.
Together, all three coauthors engaged in axial and selective coding, whereby the instances were categorized and grouped into larger themes, primarily contradictions. Then the contradictions were related to each other and expanded upon theoretically. The most notable contradiction was around inclusivity and exclusivity. We saw this tension negotiated at the organizational and interpersonal levels around the norms of aesthetics and body appearance. These tensions are discussed in the sections to follow.
TENSIONS IN CREATING SOCIAL CHANGE THROUGH MAINSTREAM STRUCTURES
As an organization, FFFWeek leaders are actively using this event to merge fat and fashion, attempting to resist societal and industry ideologies that have controlled the collective idea of what “normal” bodies should look like, who should be models, and for whom fashion should exist. Observing the event for two consecutive years reveals that FFFWeek mostly tries to ignore the controlling discourses about size by openly showcasing larger bodies and promoting businesses and outlets. However, by ignoring these discourses, organizers also ignore the ways that their decisions further perpetuate them, resulting in practices that seem to foster more assimilation into conventional ideals rather than resistance or transformation.
THE BODY IS ALWAYS WELCOME … OR IS IT? BODY ACCEPTANCE VS. INDUSTRY CONFORMITY
The primary concern of the fashion industry is aesthetics and body appearance. This ideology has led to conventional norms around models’ height, weight, skin tone, body measurements, and other appearance requirements.12 Not only are these ideals what FFFWeek actively resists, but the entire fat acceptance movement exists to reject these unrealistic expectations given to women about their body appearance.
One of the ways FFFWeek actively resists these aesthetic ideals for all participants is through its open celebration of women of all sizes, both at the events and in its use of media. At the behest of organizers, attendees and models alike were often photographed in full-body shots. Photographers would stop attendees and request to take photos, creating an atmosphere of acceptance and bolstering the confidence of the women.
During the Luau Party in year 1 of field research, a videographer was observed as he positioned attendees in front of his camera to record attendee experiences. He used a flash at the top of his camera that easily highlighted each willing participant that was in shot. Slowly he panned each woman from the soles of her feet to her face. As he did so, the women stood erect, struck poses, and performed their best selves. No one shied away from the camera. No one tugged on their clothes to hide their bodies. The stereotypical depiction of fat women relative to photographs (i.e., baggy clothes, most pronounced body parts being displayed, cropped portraits with no face showing, etc.13) was not present during these sessions. Overall, when cameras were in use, the attendees were free and open to being included in photographs and videos. Many took photographs with props provided by FFFWeek. Others took pictures of themselves with other guests and requested that others take pictures of them too.14
At FFFWeek, professional photographs and video were not seen as an exclusive tool just for models and celebrities. In these spaces, organizers demonstrated their commitment to inclusivity and helped attendees feel fully accepted and that all body types and sizes were being valued.
FFFWeek organizers also attempted to demonstrate this acceptance of full-figured body types through the use of plus size models for the week's fashion shows. In order to make an event of this caliber a success, there were model calls listed throughout the United States and in Canada to locate women representative of what it means to be plus size, confident, and fashionable. However, the organizational decisions made about final model castings did not fully demonstrate a resistance to the aesthetic ideologies of the overarching fashion industry but, instead, reified these conventions within the plus size model context.
First, FFFWeek organizers initiated castings using typical model call sheets that listed requirements for those interested in participating by limiting participants to a certain height, dress size, and the ability to walk in high heel shoes. Within these requirements, models were also chosen based on body figure. As a result, FFFWeek fashion shows only showcased women who were shaped a particular way, wore a particular size, and were all able-bodied, which is not representative of the plus size community. Furthermore, during the second year of observation, there was a lingerie segment in the fashion show and the most revealing pieces were worn by smaller-sized models. Of particular note, the final lingerie model to walk in the show was shaped such that she was voluptuous in her thighs and buttocks, but not her stomach. She walked with confidence, ending the segment as the epitome of plus size embodiment. The crowd cheered in celebration, reinforcing the notion of what an “acceptable” fat body should look like, leaving those who did not possess that particular shape and size out of the segment (and, subsequently, the celebration).
The models in the FFFWeek fashion shows did not represent fat women who had visible bellies. They also did not represent women larger than a size 24 (despite those attendees being a large part of the audience and the market for the retailers whose items were worn). The organizers of FFFWeek could have chosen to showcase full-figured women of any body size and shape, but instead they limited their model choices to those more in line with typical (plus size) fashion industry norms, featuring women with smaller but curvier body types and excluding those who did not fit this ideal. This organizational decision-making is consistent not only with fashion and modeling industry norms at large, but also with norms within the plus size segment. According to Amanda Czerniawski's ethnography on her experience as a plus size model, high-profile producers within the plus size modeling world primarily hire plus models who are sizes 8 to 16. Then, to achieve the desired curves for photo shoots and runway shows, these models often use padding or pinning to complete the “curvy look.” These practices discriminate against and devalue larger-sized models while further perpetuating the thin ideal within the industry.15
Another example of industry conformity comes from the FFFWeek business panel held during the first year of observation.
Panelists were guests from different areas of business (marketing, social media, and fashion), there to help educate attendees on the plus size industry. While the topic was related to the plus size industry and the audience members were primarily plus size entrepreneurs and bloggers, none of the panelists belonged to the plus size community. Many store owners in the audience were just as (if not more) knowledgeable than the panelists on plus size fashion. They shared information with the panelists regarding social media algorithms and online visibility, which further demonstrated their level of knowledge on the subject. Yet, not one full-figured representative was presented as an expert.16
By excluding plus size representatives from the business panel, FFFWeek organizers again illustrated how their desire for resistance (through increased representation and celebration of plus size individuals) was contradicted by their capitulation to controlling norms in the industry (here, about who are the experts on fashion), reinforcing the idea that it is the smaller-sized majority who really have control over what is deemed acceptable when it comes to larger bodies.
In summary, although FFFWeek sought to redefine the rules of fashion by utilizing larger bodies, its practices assimilated toward those of mainstream fashion weeks. Organizers’ behaviors perpetuated exclusivity, ultimately discriminating against the same bodies they sought to celebrate. Furthermore, organizers devalued the expertise and lived experiences of their audience as they chose “outsiders” to speak and teach about the plus size industry rather than rely on the fat Black business owners who exist within the community. These decisions reinforce the discourses that surround larger bodies and communicate that they do not know what is best for themselves.
THERE'S NO PLACE FOR THAT HERE! PRO-FAT VS. ANTI-FAT DISCOURSE
The attention to aesthetic ideologies and the acceptability of body appearance was not just present at the level of organizational decision-making, it was also prominent in the observations of “fat talk” used in interpersonal settings among attendees at FFFWeek. Fat talk is defined as “a ritualistic conversation about one's own and others’ bodies”17 (e.g., “I'm so fat!” “No you're not. I'm the one who's fat!”). Analysis of observations from various events revealed how attendees, volunteers, and panelists moved between pro-fat and anti-fat discourse and how it impacted the identity performance of others. Often, attendees seemed to reframe the connotation of fat talk, such that fat talk normally considered disapproving was considered approving in this context. However, this was not always the case.
During the first year of observation (2015), many guests gathered at the Luau Party to mingle and network with other attendees. The following instance describes an example of an interaction where fat talk was used by an attendee to question the acceptability of another person's body shape or size.
The crowd was diverse, though most attendees were observed to be Black, female, or female-presenting. There was also diversity in sizes present, representing the spectrum of bodies housed within the plus size community. Overall, guests were complimentary of one another, commenting on how much they liked others’ attire, makeup, and hair. However, during an impromptu costume contest where many attendees wore themed attire, one woman told another contestant (who had a smaller waist with a visibly larger butt) that her body shape was not welcomed in the event. Looking somewhat startled and taken aback by the comment, the contestant appeared to gather herself and move past the other attendee, but it was obvious the comment was considered unwarranted. This seemed completely out of place given the context of what FFFWeek stands for.18
This example of fat talk was used in an attempt to shun someone with a more socially acceptable frame. Although this situation could be seen to align with the desire to resist conventional aesthetic ideals, it negates the communicated purpose of FFFWeek and the ideals of the fat acceptance movement which believe that all body shapes are acceptable and should be celebrated.
Similarly, at the Celebrate My Size Expo in the second year (2016), issues of size and fit became a problem for volunteers handing out promotional T-shirts provided by Lane Bryant. When one volunteer asked for a T-shirt in her preferred size, the responding volunteer took a step back, looked over the volunteer's body, and suggested she get a larger size. This incident of fat talk was not taken well by the volunteer asking for the shirt even after the other woman retracted her critique and brought her fellow volunteer the shirt size she requested.19
While many guests actively promoted the acceptance and inclusivity of diverse body shapes and sizes of those who attended FFFWeek, these examples illustrate that not all talk within the plus size community was supportive, and that even in “safe” spaces, there are perceptions and ideologies that individuals struggle with regarding who should be present at events or even who qualifies to wear certain sizes of clothing. It is important to note that during FFFWeek many instances of such talk were not observed, so when they did occur, when and how they happened became noteworthy.
Reframing Anti-fat Discourse
In contrast to the few instances of anti-fat discourse demonstrated throughout events, FFFWeek served as a time when plus-sized women used their interpersonal conversations to support each other. During the week-long event, pro-fat discourse was illustrated in part through reframing anti-fat discourse to show approval for body size and shape, illustrating inclusivity and acceptance among attendees.
A prime example of reframing anti-fat discourse was demonstrated during the “All-White” yacht party in the first year of observations. In this space, attendees were encouraged to come dressed in their best all-white attire. Everything from pant suits to crop tops and miniskirts could be seen. Women did not wear shapewear or girdles, and many partygoers complimented one another and took pictures together.
During one performer's set, she asked “Where all my juicy ladies at?!” This was followed by the crowd identifying with the call and affirming the idea that it was ok to be called “juicy.” Later on, a DJ played “Da Butt” during one of his sets. [To give context, during this song, the singer makes remarks about women's body parts and calls out names of women who qualify (e.g., “Renee got a big ol’ butt!”).] During this segment, the DJ instructed the crowd to point to someone also attending who they knew had a “big ol’ butt.” The DJ then followed his instruction by stating that if everyone on the yacht were to do what he instructed, “We would be here all night!”20
This remark garnered laughter and acceptance by the crowd, again reframing what would typically be considered insulting outside of the event's context. In this setting, partygoers had no problem identifying themselves or others who qualified as having a “big ol’ butt.” No one took offense to fat talk in this space like the women at the Luau Party and Expo did. Moreover, no one was seen sitting out of the party because they were not “juicy” enough or did not have a sizable butt. Hence, in this space, it was clear that fat talk using euphemisms to describe the body as “juicy” and “big” became a communicative tool to connect attendees with one another and illustrate acceptance of their body types and parts of their bodies that are often scrutinized.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS, BAD FOR COMMUNITY: CAPITALISM VS. TRANSFORMATION
Underlying the discussion of aesthetics and body politics, particularly at the organizational level, is the influence of economic motives and the capitalist context in which the fashion industry and FFFWeek exist. DeVoe's comment “I'm about supply and demand”21 aptly demonstrates this, perhaps signaling that material gain might be more of a driving factor for the event, rather than a desire to subvert dominant discourses of beauty and thinness and create a transformative space for marginalized fat bodies to be celebrated.
One clear example of how capitalist norms limit the transformative possibilities of FFFWeek is in the choice of corporate sponsors for the event. In spaces like the Celebrate My Size Expo, many corporations and small businesses market products to attendees in hopes they will purchase items immediately or sometime in the future. Some of FFFWeek's most notable corporate sponsors include Fruit of the Loom, Bandelettes, Ashley Stewart, and Lane Bryant, all of which market to a plus size audience. However, during observations at the event, it was clear that these organizations only offered items of limited sizes for purchase. For example, Fruit of the Loom only offered underwear samples for attendees up to a size 24 although its website says it offers sizes up to a size 32.22 Other vendors, such as Bandelettes, Ashley Stewart, and Lane Bryant, also did not have products that accommodated attendees beyond a size 24 (or 3x), despite offering larger sizes online. For attendees above these sizes, finding suitable attire at the Celebrate My Size Expo was not a celebration. It was quite the opposite, as these women had experiences reminiscent of shopping in the average department store, and not having access to extended sizes.
Conversely, women sizes 12–16 also had problems finding samples. Although they are considered plus-sized in the conventional fashion industry, these women are not always considered plus-sized in the plus size fashion industry and are thus often left out of both groups.23 Here, FFFWeek had an opportunity to capitalize on the market of their plus size attendees by ensuring that sponsors offered products in extended sizes (and demonstrating the economic potential of this consumer group), but instead they focused on the “acceptable plus sizes,” sizes 16–24, and allowed the market to be dictated by mainstream conventions. Once again, FFFWeek organizers sought to demonstrate inclusivity to the public, but exclusivity was performed in the actual space.
Similarly, decisions around event locations demonstrated how the potential for economic success, profitability, and visibility outweighed considerations about accessibility for event attendees. For example, the Luau Party in year one was hosted by FFFWeek as a kickoff event. The party took place on the second floor of a local pub, but the venue did not have an elevator. Thus only attendees who were able-bodied enough to climb stairs could access the event. At other events, though they were in prime locations in Midtown Manhattan, the venues experienced ventilation and seating restrictions. Attendees encountered no air conditioning at some places and chairs with arms that limited who could fit in them at others. Furthermore, during both years, FFFWeek failed to accommodate differently-abled body types as guests were required to stand for long periods of time, endure heat with little ventilation, climb stairs, and walk extensively. In these spaces, it was obvious that although FFFWeek marketed itself to be an event for all women of all sizes (but particularly those who are full-figured), there were shortcomings in its accommodations to assist those who may have been full-figured but not able-bodied or larger in size than what is regularly accommodated for.
Here, FFFWeek demonstrates inclusivity by giving access to a group who is often stigmatized as “other,” but also demonstrates areas of exclusivity among that same group in the ways that other needs of attendees are overlooked. Ironically, this portrays FFFWeek as exclusive to only a certain type of fat body: one that is able. While these events may have been good for the FFFWeek organization, they were not fully supportive and considerate of the needs of the full-figured community.
RECONSIDERING THE QUALITIES OF A FAT COUNTERMOVEMENT
The organizational decisions of FFFWeek raise serious questions about boundary crossing in the sense that FFFWeek has been transformational in creating space for all larger bodies while promoting fashion. Can this countermovement be transformational if it relies on organizational strategies that are rooted in the same ideals and capitalistic structures of a mainstream fashion week? The concepts of ideology, hegemony, and counterhegemony might be viable starting points to answer this question. Ideology refers to the ways in which society as a whole adopts the ideas and interests of the dominant economic class. The US fashion industry perpetuates and institutionalizes body inequality by placing an inordinate emphasis on the personal appearance of women, (re)producing largely unattainable aesthetic standards,24 and perpetuating misogynist and harmful cultural practices (e.g., liposuction, tummy tucks, and breast augmentation).25 Though FFFWeek touts itself as a progressive force for women of all sizes and aligns itself with certain feminist movements like fat liberation and body positivity, its replicative practices perpetuate aesthetic ideologies that constrain full-figured women.
The Gramscian model of hegemony adds a great deal of complexity to the link between ideology and body politics in the US fashion industry. Hegemony is considered a social power that convinces women to subscribe to the social values and norms of an inherently exploitative system.26 One reason hegemonic power is considered exploitative is that it is integrally linked to capital accumulation and treated as an “often-implicit commonsense” idea. What is particularly relevant here is how an aesthetic ideology is tied to the capitalist ideology of consumerism. If FFFWeek is rooted in hegemonic body ideologies that exploit an already vulnerable population of fat women, then how can it market itself as a counterentity to the mainstream? Courtenay W. Daum wrote that countermovements must be transformative, not replicative. Organizers must actively work to reject dominant discourses of beauty and thinness because “dominant discourses work to maintain the status quo and extant hegemonic power structures while simultaneously foreclosing opportunities for transformative change by limiting the viable options and mechanisms for … advancing the interests of marginalized … populations.”27 While one cannot argue with the inclusion of larger bodies in FFFWeek, even this seems to have a limit—certain body types and sizes are excluded due to economic or some other societal or cultural underpinning. Although FFFWeek organizers attempt to resist the ideals and limitations of mainstream fashion weeks, ultimately they wind up reproducing these ideals in the plus size context.
This critique furthers a similar argument offered by Czerniawski in her work on the plus size fashion industry. In her discussion of the aesthetic labor process of plus size models, she describes the affective, emotional, and physical labor that models endure in an attempt to resist normative pressures and create a new “fat aesthetic.” However, she writes, “while plus-size models invest in their bodies, they alienate the self and transform their bodies into manipulated and consumed objects, thereby reproducing prevailing gender ideologies and inequalities. There is no subversion. Preexisting aesthetic ideals direct this process of self-cultivation. Plus-size models try to claim their space in fashion without presenting a counteraesthetic.”28 Other themes throughout the research demonstrate both individual and collective identity negotiation processes around what it takes to be seen as an “acceptable fatty,” one who is welcomed in society due to a shapely figure (i.e., large hips and bust without a visible midsection).29 Discussions among FFFWeek representatives (i.e., panelists) as well as attendees often reinforced negative societal norms and perceptions of fatness despite being among those who proclaim to be body positive and, in many ways, fat accepting.
As part of a marginalized community, fat women desire to celebrate this identity but they are inhibited by mainstream values and ideals. It is not just that society is telling them they are not worthy. Even in a space that is created by and for them, they police themselves and are policed by others who share their identity in ways that are counter to their own goals.30 Michel Foucault acknowledges similar issues in his discussion of discipline and self-management, noting that members of an organization or a society monitor themselves by discourse and behavior as a way to meet organizational or societal standards.31 Historically, women have always encountered dominant discourses regarding how they should dress and carry themselves.32 In this space, the women were policing themselves about their bodies, and it was considered normal. The oscillation between identity acceptance and identity rejection could demonstrate politics of respectability.
Within the realm of fat acceptance, critiques of respectability politics are prominent against organizations and entities that only showcase shapely (i.e., curvy, voluptuous) fat women and hide those who are larger in size (e.g., super and infinity fats with body shapes that have greater emphasis on their stomachs) in the shadows. This ideology of the “acceptable fatty” was not explicitly discussed among those at FFFWeek, but it exists in the very assumption that fat in particular areas of the body is considered a flaw and that Spanx are required to be acceptable.33 This contributes to the inundation of fatphobia and fat bias in society that has permeated into fat and body positive spaces, allowing women to internalize these standards without being conscious they are present and without some type of agitation. As Stewart Clegg notes, only when crises arise do people question the validity of deep structures of power.34
As a premiere event of the body acceptance movement, there should be pause and further discussion around the ways that capitalism and anti-fat practices utilized throughout FFFWeek perpetuate harm to the fat community via discourse, access, and respectability. On the surface, FFFWeek has been structured to be a tool of liberation for fat bodies, which is hard to be disputed through its use of larger-bodied models and vendors. However, it also is an active participant in upholding weight stigma and bias, utilizing organizational practices that reinforce ideologies of fat rejection. Although plus size fashion is used as a vehicle to promote body acceptance through FFFWeek, it is hard to overlook the other negative components of capitalism and consumerism that come along with it. These contextual nuances exacerbate tensions within this space for fat bodies and call on organizers to consciously consider how they want to represent (and construct) the plus size fashion industry and community. For, as Audre Lorde said, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”