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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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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