Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: The use of "curvy" models is hardly progress

This does not make it one jot easier for troubled young women to live in our own skin.

This fall, the fashion press is celebrating 'the return of curves'. With London Fashion Week in full swing, designers and photographers are congratulating themselves on what has been dubbed a 'catwalk revolution', amounting to a handful of models weighing up to 170 pounds featuring on a handful of runways, the feting of designers like Erdem Moralioglu who occasionally make dresses in a size 16, and the paparazzi mobbing poor, expansively-bosomed Christina Hendricks every time she gets out of a taxi.

'Curves', it appears, are back in style. This means that women whose skeletons are less than entirely visible through their skin will now be permitted to doff our sackloths of shame and go to parties with fashion people. Well, roll up the banners, ladies, and put away the placards: it's the greatest achievement for feminism since equal pay.

It is rather a sad indictment of the scope and ambition of the modern women's movement that the limited return of 'curves' to the fashion zeitgeist is being treated as serious progress. In case anyone hadn't noticed, meaningful social revolutions do not tend to happen on the catwalk. The last style 'revolution' was the re-introduction of jodhpurs to the fashion-forward female's aspirational wardrobe in the terrible autumn of 2008, and we all know how that ended. Feminism has come so far, it seems, that we're now supposed to be grateful that fashion editors have graciously allowed a few models to appear in public with one or even two obscene spare inches of subcutaneous fat.

This particular runway revolution has an element of the freak show about it. Roll up, the press seems to be hollering, roll up and see the amazing meal-eating women! Besides previewing the socks, skirts and unlikely headdresses that are going to be in style in 2011, the circus of Fashion Week also showcases what type of woman will be in vogue next season, and oddly enough, this year's on-trend female looks surprisingly similar to the identikit models who crowded the runways at Fashion Week last year: she is young, white, slender, pretty, fragile, obedient and silent.

Used by fashion editors and PRs, the word 'curves' smacks offensively of euphemistic posturing. In today's post-watershed world, where you can stream five channels of hardcore coprophilia over your cornflakes at breakfast, why is female flesh still so horrifying that we still have to have a polite euphemism for it? 'Curves', in fact, have always existed - as, for that matter, have love handles, cellulite, scars, dimples, fat thighs, chunky calves, bad hair, broad shoulders, big boobs, round arses and turkey necks. Shocking though it might sound, women with these ghastly personal attributes have just as much right to self-esteem and social status as young, beautiful catwalk models.

In this context, getting excited about the 'return' of curves is just one more way of obsessively scrutinising women's bodies, fetishising female flesh and particularly female fat as somehow shocking, abnormal, edgy. Female fat is not edgy. It's not an unusual fashion trend. It's everyday reality for over three billion human beings on this planet. I'm sitting in nine and a half stone of it right now, and let me tell you, it's gloriously mundane.

It wasn't always like this. Not so long ago I was easily as scrawny as a catwalk model, because I happened to be in the grip of a life-threatening eating disorder that stole five years of my youth and caused my family and friends no small amount of unnecessary heartbreak. As a recovered anorexic, I'm supposed to be particularly pleased that 'curves' are back in style, given that everyone knows little girls only get eating disorders because their brains overheat from looking at too many fashion magazines, and not because of any sort of unrelenting social pressure on women of all ages to work harder, look prettier and take up as little space as possible.

Take it from me: noticing a few extra inches of fat on the relentless images of silent, costly feminine perfection that bombard us every day does not make it one jot easier for troubled young women to live in our own skin. The things that make a difference are things that cannot be sold, or advertised, or crammed into a gushing press release. They are simple things, like time and patience, love and security, tolerance and respect; vital things, like understanding that adult sexuality isn't just about submission and servility, like believing that what we do and who we are might be more important than what we look like. That type of personal and political revolution is something that the fashion industry, with its inability to imagine women who are not silent commodities or faceless consumers, will never be able to deliver.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Getty
Show Hide image

Fears over Notting Hill Carnival reveal more about racism than reality

Statistically, the event is about as safe as Glastonbury.

Notting Hill carnival is terrifying. As soon as the sun sets, gangs emerge ready to prey on unsuspecting attendees with Red Stripe cans fashioned into knives. Children barter for drugs. Dancing is punctuated by ceremonial burials for those killed in between every dancehall tune. And that's just on the kids’ day.

Except, it's not true. Statistically, the event is about as safe as Glastonbury - if not safer, judging by the number of arrests. In 2015, Glasto was praised for its low arrest rate (75 arrests for a crowd of 135,000), but in the same year carnival had ten times the capacity and fewer than ten times the offences.

Despite these statistics, the police, MPs and newspapers seem desperate to paint carnival as a gang-run danger zone. The Met Police recently tweeted about a kilo of heroin seized in the run up to carnival, despite not even knowing whether the perpetrators were going to the event. MPs, such as former Kensington MP Victoria Borwick, are happy to fuel this fire, claiming to be concerned about the supposed “year on year increase in violence and physical harm to our police officers and members of the public”. Newspapers revel in publishing large spreads about the raids in the run up to the two days, despite lacking evidence they’re even connected. Break this down and it’s clear: this dislike towards carnival roots itself in racism - the presumption that a festival celebrating black, West Indian culture, frequented by a higher proportion of black British punters, must inevitably, be violent.

I have been attending carnival since the age of six, when my parents moved to the area (90s gentrification alert). I used to sell Ribena for a markup on my street, took part in the float my primary school ran and every year witnessed the incredible recontextualisation of the area. Gone is the whitewashing for a moment: the streets and houses become splattered in neon paint, jerk chicken boxes and Red Stripe cans. It is one of the best things to happen to the area, and its vast cultural value exceeds the bougie cafes and boutique clothing stalls that span the area.

And yet, every year, I have to dodge questions from relatives and friends about how dangerous it supposedly is. “Ooh, Notting Hill carnival. Bit scary, isn't it? Lots of angry youth who can get quite violent I hear. Didn't someone get stabbed last year?” Perhaps a viable question to ask anyone going to a crowded event. Except, why weren’t they asking me this when I flew to Amsterdam this year to go to a music festival?

There's another side of critiquing carnival that is equally infuriating, and that's that the fact that the event in some ways stands as a consolation prize to the original tenants of the area. In the middle of the 20th Century, Notting Hill was far from the Russian oligarch haven it is today. It was the Windrush Era, when black immigrants began arriving from the Caribbean. They came not out of some overwhelming desire to be freezing for 11 months, but because Britain was struggling after the Second World War, and desperately needed a labour force. Despite the demand, the West Indians were met with hostility and racism, forced to live in the worst areas of London. One of those places was Notting Hill.

Imagine, then, the audacity of shaming carnival. Imagine being forced by racism into a rundown neighbourhood, turning it into something fashionable, and then being priced out by middle-class white people. Imagine on top of that, having your legacy celebration degraded under the guise of safety concerns.

This year will feel different. It will be the first year ever under a Labour MP. It will also come two months and a half months after the Grenfell fire, where many of its residents and victims will have taken part in the event. Whilst there’s something defiant in these parades, it will be hard for the collective joy not to be marred by a knowledge that somewhere in this borough, bodies are being buried because of our council.

We need to see carnival for what it is: a celebration of a culture struggling to stay afloat in the area. Kensington continues to edge out those who may not be living in £2.5m homes - whether it’s with rising house prices, creating anxiety around an event or even putting lives at risk due to sheer disregard and greed. If you’re worried about going, I would avoid all large, crowded events in general, because there’s no use believing the vacuous and racist hype. Beyond getting splattered with paint and dancing too enthusiastically to Bashment, there’s nothing to fear.