Fat activism vs. Rick Owens

Through recent years, there have been great engagements in the fat acceptance movement. Due to the strict image-driven rule of fashion, it leaves no room for the overweight female bodies to let them express and celebrate themselves. They are instead being over-shadowed by the over-towering, anorexic looking models, which nowadays define this as “beauty”. Despite, this type of discrimination is not limited to just the fashion industry, the issue of race is still a discussion to be wary of. Through social media, such fat activists, for example Marilyn Wann, have helped support the discrimination against fat people, and to instead encourage them to embrace themselves for who they are. Other designers have also contributed to the issue of diversity the public seeks in conventional beauty, which includes Rick Owens in his Womenswear Spring/Summer collection of 2014. His presentation was showcased in Paris, during Paris fashion week in September 2013. Six-foot tall, black, fat step-dancers came strutting down the runway performing a synchronized dance. This was the show everyone was talking about at the season. It was something out of the norm one would expect during a runway show. After this

performance, Rick Owens has brought the standard of beauty in fashion up to a whole new level.

The fat acceptance movement started during the process of Fat Studies in the twenty-first century. Looking at the National Center for Health Statistics, results show that there has been an estimate of over thirty four percent of American who are considered obese, with an additional of sixty eight percent who are considered to be overweight1. Additionally, the standard idea of beauty has altered since the 1920s. Back then one would define a beautiful female as possessing the hour-glass body shape. Whereas in today’s world, beauty has been defined as being thin, tall, uncurvy, boy-like stick figures and flat chested, which has unfortunately ruled out and conquered the popular’s imagery. Until today it appears that majority of fat women are still struggling to find themselves neither in the mainstream of fashion nor in the margins of aesthetic acceptability. They have limited access into the fashion industry in order to engage and reshape of where the standard beauty lies. Plus-size fashion examines how the fashion industry tends to neglect and excludes fat consumers. They commonly face with difficulties in finding options in clothing that would fit them. The majority of the time the “curvy” labeled garments are found

under a special section, on online shopping websites for example, whilst in store, they are instead left in a discrete corner, which excludes them from the norm. The physicality of being there as a consumer who needs to shop in the plus-sized corner of the shop feels like being an outcast within that community, where one would find a group of fat people wondering on one side of the store while the skinnier ones on the other side. By just observing the displacement of the store, it already screams the notion of discrimination, where you could almost draw the divided line between two different consumers, which is not motivating nor considered thoroughly enough.
As a result, the fat communities have turned to social media as a tool of participating to the industry since many people use Internet nowadays to attain their information from. Therefore, a new fat fashion culture has been created to help support and bring awareness of the conservative, shapeless and plus sized women, and to find a unique way of contributing with today’s fashion. It is also a way of challenging the commonly known standards of beauty, and fashionability. Bloggers have created websites for these women to post images, discuss shopping and styling advice, and to exchange their personal stories and journeys they have been through which lead them up to this point. One would typically think that these websites are used to help encourage one another to shed their extra poundage. They are instead serving the

purpose to celebrate and to be proud with what they were born with. “The Manfattan Project”2 is a great website example which demonstrates this idea. It is a street style blog created by Melissa Campbell, a 20-year-old New York City college student who decided to do this as an assignment to her thesis where she wanted “to subvert anti-fat mediascapes through the use of simple images.”3 The website had ultimately become a great success as it had personal meaning to her, as she considers herself to be aligned with the plus-sized models. Through Melissa’s contribution, it has brought the mainstream media to pay attention to fat people in a rather more positive attitude. It also appears that a new community has been formed through the use of Melissa’s website. A small numbered group of people where they feel safe and are willing to express their unique identity knowing they would not be frowned upon nor discriminated from. A place where they can be themselves in order to build up their self-confidence that when they are faced with reality they are able to stand up knowing they have a group of supporters to fall back on to.
An additional example of a fat activist who has contributed and made an immense impact to the fat community is Marilyn Wann. Born in 1966, Marilyn identifies

herself as well a member of the “fat pride” society. It appears that the cause for her participation to fat activism was when she was denied for her health insurance due to her over weight. Marilyn has written a book called “Fat! So? Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size”, which was published in 1998. She basically brings up the issues of discrimination against fat people in health care, and attempts to challenge the “anti-fat” mentality. She also has created a website about her book where she states the purpose of the book, and whom is it written for. For example, she mentions “Fat! So? is for people of all sizes, colors, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, ages, classes, religions, health levels, abilities/disabilities, and descriptions.” “Fat! So? is about celebrating weight diversity and enjoying HAES (Health At Every Size)”4 She also mentions who are not “welcome here”. “fat = bad / thin = good beliefs”, “weight-based definitions of health”, “weight-loss goals and weight-loss methods”, and “intentional weight-gain goads and feeder/gainer interests”5. We can still see how fat activists do not want to encourage weight loss nor wanting to find ways of solving weight issues. Moreover, she has also created a product for her fellow followers as a way of bonding and mending and relationship to make them convinced that her believers are on the right path. Marilyn has

created a weight scale, the “Yay! Scale” where their weights are defined by compliments instead of numbers. It is an alternative way of measuring one’s weight of existence rather than calculating the force of gravity pushing them down to earth. The scale is sold for $45 online. Some of the measures of compliments include “hot”, “perfect”, “fine”, “adorable”, “lovely”, “cute”, “ravishing”, “sexy”6, etc. Through this use of Marilyn’s participation in fat activism taught her followers how to make “Yay Scales” a method of celebrating their weight diversity.

A new and up coming activist from within the fashion industry, who also demonstrates the concept of this awareness, was a topic everyone was talking about last year in September 2013. During the Spring/Summer 2014 fashion week in Paris, an American born designer, Rick Owens has brought the attention of diversity in fashion up to a whole new level. It was something one would not typically see during a runway show in comparison to his previous collections. Here we would find members of step dancer teams who performed his show in order to help him express his personal aesthetic. It was a different way for the designer to demonstrate the origins in nontraditional beauty, power, and confidence. None of

the performers attained a typical runway models height with stick-like figures strutting down the runway. What we see instead are more athletic body types with bulky thighs and bulging chests concealed under leather vests and toga-looking dresses. The performers would bang their fists into their chest at a synchronized rhythm. They would step, dance, move their limbs at fast and angular positions, and stomp into deep forward lunges while expressing vocal shout-outs together with frowning-like expressions. One may reference this to a military-like experience where everything is precise with strict coordination and seriousness.
Rick Owens happened to already been familiar with the background of step shows and he himself had already participated in performances. He was aware and had deeply studied the history of African American cultures and conditions of diversity within today’s society. Through this technique, Rick Owens wanted to challenge the norm of conventional beauty, and wanted to bring up the notion that “we’re beautiful in our own way.”7 In a typical runway, the designers attempt to make each and every model almost identical to keep the concept of consistency. However, instead of doing so Rick Owens wanted to make each of the performers unique, and to stand out for each of their individuality. “It’s important to take a minute to talk

about working with a lot of different body types”8 Owens added. This again brings up the awareness that the models the designer have used are closer to women’s general dimensions of the body in reality, and that everyone comes in with different shapes, size and height which should not be ignored, and rather embraced. It also appears that it was important for Rick Owens to ensure that the audience understood the bad can be good, and that the way capable way of observing and recognizing the current conditions is that one would have to stand on the outside of society looking into it. Moreover, after the performance has ended, it seems that the majority of social media kept on referencing on how “angry” the models’ expressions appeared to be, which highlighted the mainstream media’s misinterpretation and obsession with black and oversized black models as being “angry” rather than representing the positive expression of power.

We can now see the efforts by various activists coming from different backgrounds, whether they are a enthusiasts who have faced personal challenges, or a student trying to experiment with the public’s reaction, or a fashion designer who would like to offer clothing to a wider range of consumers. Through their efforts, fat activists are increasingly becoming more and more visible to the public, raising the

awareness that they are not looking to lose weight, nor find a solution to their body image, but rather to celebrate it together to the very end. It also emphasizes the important role that garments can play in further extending a feminist political agenda by making the over-weight female body more visible and to increase the notion of HAES (Healthy At Every Size). Just as Rick Owens has successfully exemplified this attentiveness to body image, and to ensure that fashion is easily accessible to all types of consumer. Moreover, rather than defining “fat” as “bad”, it should be categorized as just someone being short, tall, black or white. These are facts of identity that cannot and should not be changed. Something a person is born with and should publicly be accepted. There is yet still further research and questions as to what is fat fashion, how should fat women dress, and where will the “curvy” or “plus-size” fashion will be directed to in the future.

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2 responses to “Fat activism vs. Rick Owens

  1. I like your take on Rick Owens’ SS’14 show, I too appreciated the diverse array of models that he chose to showcase! However, it also garnered a lot of negative press. It can be argued that Owens’ portrayal of colored women was racist in nature because of the hegemonic white standards of beauty that currently permeate throughout the fashion system. What do you think about these criticisms? Minh-ha Pham also wrote about his show on her blog, “Threadbared,” and I cited it as an example in my own blog post. In her words, “Owens’ show represents a continuation of the same hierarchies of race and power that make it possible for a famous white designer to request that predominantly young Black women serve up ‘a routine that embodie[s] viciousness’ for a mostly white audience.'” Do you agree? Upon seeing the video from the show, I have to say that the step presentation seemed agitated and angry. Are these the qualities that the future of fashion is seeking to embody? It could be argued that Owens did this in an effort to make the audience uncomfortable, or to gain attention from the press (which he certainly did). In which case, it might be said that the exploitation of racial stereotypes is one of the best publicity stunts EVER (think of Miley Cyrus and the amount of press she got after her appropriation of ratchet culture in 2013). I would love to know your thoughts!

  2. “Working out is modern couture. No outfit is going to make you look or feel as good as having a fit body. Buy less clothing and go to the gym instead.”
    -Rick Owens

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