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The Woman on Page 194: Why Everyone is Talking About Glamour's "Plus"-Sized Model

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jessica Bennett
(Walter Chin for Glamour (left); September Issue of Glamour)

by Jessica Bennett 

It’s a three-by-three inch image that shows an stunning model, blond and smiling, photographed for a story about feeling comfortable in your skin. The girl is naked save for a thong bikini, juxtaposed against tips like "focus on the parts you love" and "your body doesn't deserve to be bashed!" The spread is typical of the women's magazines I normally roll my eyes at: "self esteem" squeezed between pages of emaciated cheekbones, jutting shoulder blades and gangly arms.

Except that this time, I do a double-take. The girl on page 194 of the September issue of Glamour is Lizzi Miller, a 20-year-old model with—get ready—a roll in her stomach. Yes, I really wrote that: she has a roll of fat, as well as some faint stretch marks and sturdy looking thighs. And the moment her photo hit newsstands, Glamour readers noticed. "Finally! A picture of a REAL woman!" proclaimed one online commenter. "This photo made me want to shout from the rooftops," wrote another. "I really hope this starts a revolution," someone chimed in. As Glamour Editor Cindi Leive told NEWSWEEK, “I knew readers would like this, but I have to admit I was floored by the intensity of the reaction." (You can read more about what Leive had to say about “The Woman on P. 194” on her blog.)

Lizzi Miller is a pretty girl with a pretty ordinary body—the kind most of us see daily when we look in the mirror. At 5'11 and 180 pounds, she has a body mass index (a weight-for-height formula used to measure obesity) of 25.1, which is two-tenths of a point above what the National Institute of Health deems "normal." The average American female, meanwhile, has a BMI of 26.5, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Miller is more like most of us than the emaciated models we're used to seeing. So why has her image hit such a nerve?

Because, well, the fatter we get, the more obsessed we are with being thin. And as the bloggers over at Jezebel point out, seeing a regular-sized woman in a magazine like Glamour is, today, a radical departure from the norm. We are a culture where the Karl Lagerfelds of the world proclaim Kate Moss too fat; where the latest fashions and weight-loss products are circulated by the media with a speed and fury unique to this millennium. We are spoon-fed hundreds of advertisements each day—the majority of them nipped, tucked and airbrushed to perfection. And what we're left with is a culture of women who are socialized to unrealistic images—and "hungry," says Glamour's Leive, "for reality."

Acknowledging that point is certainly a step in the right direction--except that I can't help but feel like we've been here before. More than a decade ago, Seventeen used a "fat" girl in a bikini on its cover and people threatened to cancel their subscriptions [Editor's note: right? Or was it YM? I remember the model, standing knee deep in the ocean, the bikini (a green floral thing with a skirt/wrap at the bottom), but can't recall the magazine. Internet, help!—KD]; Dove stirred controversy more recently when the company began using "regular" sized women to sell beauty products in 2005. And while the specter of regular-sized models is less of a stretch than it was back then, studies show that Americans continue to grow wider while the average model gets thinner.

Every so often, it feels as if an oversized girl gets naked so we can rave about how beautiful she is, only to go back to worshiping the uber-thin. (And we should note that even Miller's photo looks as if it was airbrushed—at least according to my photo editor here at Newsweek, herself a former model.) So the question is: is this really change? Or just a blip on the so-called weight scale?

"This definitely underlines our commitment to showing women of different sizes," says Leive. Miller, who works for the Wilhelmina Agency in New York, hopes that's true—and that it's a trend that extends beyond the pages of just Glamour. This is her second appearance in that magazine, and she says that showing young women that there's variety to our bodies is "why I got into this industry." "I've been that girl looking through the magazines and not seeing anyone that looked remotely like me, and being completely depressed about it," she says. "So it's great if I can make others feel a little bit better about themselves."

She's succeeding so far. Though it would be nice, every so often, to see a "normal"-sized model in something other than a story about how it's OK to be fat—er, comfortable in your own skin.