This week, Cosmo released an article intended to capture the growing criticism of in-store plus-size mannequins. The article gathered photos of supposedly plus-size mannequins that in reality were far smaller than the average American woman — they had narrow frames and thigh gaps indicative of someone shopping in the 2 to 4 size range, not the plus-size department. In the most basic sense, the fact that these mannequins (and the clothes that adorn them) are manufactured for the plus-size community suggests a serious case of false advertising. On a deeper level, however, it's troubling to see companies marginalize the communities to which they claim to appeal.
For plus-size women, it can be difficult enough to find trendy, fashion-forward clothing options. Encouragingly, though, a few companies have begun to introduce plus-size mannequins recently. Years ago it would have been impossible to find these mannequins standing alongside their size 0 to 2 counterparts in straight-size stores like H&M or Debenhams, Britain's third-largest department store, whereas now they're prominently displayed. Last year, Debenhams was hailed for its progressive approach to fashion retail and celebration of the female body. But even its mannequins miscalculate what it means to be plus size.
The pictures Cosmo published were from a store that counts plus size as between a size 12 and a size 20, but the actual mannequins more closely resemble somewhere around a size 8. Some of the mannequins even go so far as to display the aforementioned thigh gap, a characteristic that, while inherently unnatural, has been frequently associated with the modern ideal of feminine beauty. Clearly the retailer has not only misunderstood what it means to accurately represent the body of the plus size woman, it's also adding to the confusion over what constitutes plus size. In their coverage of the issue, Cosmo featured the photos below along with accompanying reactions from Twitter users. The article also includes images of plus-size mannequins from stores in Sweden and the U.K.
Clearly, then, misdefining plus size is a global issue. In her blog for WedMd called "Everyday Fitness," Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H, F.A.C.P., reports that the average woman is a size 12 to 14, although many make a case for size 16 as well. Even if these mannequins were an appropriate reflection of a size 12, therefore, they would still barely make the mark in terms of accurately representing the average woman. But this issue extends far beyond the mannequin. Sizing of clothes in general presents yet another warped understanding of the female body. The plus-size line from Spanish fashion brand Mango, for instance, starts off at a size 8. If this sizing were accepted as standard, then adult women would be pigeonholed into a range of a mere four sizes (0, 2, 4, and 6) in order to qualify as non-plus size.
But at this point, is any plus-size clothing line or mannequin display an indication of progress, however flawed? In a society where top designers refuse to even make clothing to fit the average woman, the only way to shatter unhealthy stereotypes of beauty is to tackle the issue one movement at a time. Although the distribution of inaccurate plus size mannequins in department stores is troublesome, it's still momentous in many ways. And I would wager to say that the more we are exposed to full-figured women in fashion, whether through (accurate) plus-size mannequins or plus-size lines from popular brands, the more we can gradually progress toward an understanding of real, unmanufactured beauty. Although I long for the day when bigger sizes can grace the hallowed halls of Saks Fifth Avenue instead of being relegated to their website alone, I know that day will come.