Size zero is dead, long live size 14
It sounds good, but is the fashion industry's new mantra just as unwholesome, unhealthy and dangerous as the old? Liz Kearney reports
If Vogue magazine is the bible for thin, glamorous, fashion addicts, then French Vogue is the bible for even thinner, even more glamorous Parisienne fashion addicts.
So how come last month's edition of French Vogue -- guest-edited by actress Penelope Cruz -- featured a shoot with size-14 model Crystal Renn?
The shoot is being seen as just the latest episode in a movement that is gathering increasing momentum: the rise of the plus-size.
Just a few short years ago, we were in the middle of our Noughties size-zero obsession, mesmerised as we watched already slim celebrities transform themselves into walking ribcages. The protruding cheekbones, oversized pout and angular jaw of Victoria Beckham was the rather off-putting face of the age.
But 2010 is shaping up to be the year that fat fights back. Plus-sized models such as Renn and curvaceous actress Christina Hendricks (Mad Men's Joan) have already prepared the ground, but this has been the year we've seen game-changing moves in the fashion and media industries.
Back in February, designer Mark Fast sent size-14 models down the runway in his bodycon dresses at London Fashion Week, where they were met with widespread approval. At last, said the columnists, here were models who looked like real women instead of twiglets who'd snap in two if the wind picked up.
This has also been the year that Debenhams rolled out size-16 mannequins in their Dublin, Belfast and Cork branches, as well as at stores across the UK. It was a shrewd business move for a store where 42pc of all sales come from size-14 and size-16 clothes.
"Our campaign reflects the increase in normal-size models in the industry and also what our customers would like to see displayed in our windows," pointed out Karen Nason, senior marketing and PR coordinator with Debenhams Ireland.
The message is clear -- size zero is over. The shift feels comforting, healthy and wholesome, and anything that lessens the pressure on young women to be dangerously thin is obviously welcome. Only the unpalatable truth is this: for many women, being a size 14 -- not to mention the size 16 of the Debenhams models -- amounts to being overweight, and in some cases dangerously so.
But the more that shops, designers and marketing companies use the word 'normal', the easier it is for us to believe that it isn't a problem, and the less likely we are to do anything to address the issue.
"People's perception of what 'overweight' means has now changed to the point where they think that being a size 14 is okay, whereas they probably are overweight or even headed towards obesity," says the HSE's senior health promotions officer Ailis Brosnan.
Could we, in our desire to turn our backs on the dangerous size-zero trend, be about to embrace an ideal that will prove equally problematic?
"When I was fat, I took comfort from the fact that I was a size 14 and therefore normal," says a friend who has recently embarked on a fitness regime and slimmed down to an athletic size 10.
"It was easy not to lose weight if you think you're just like everyone else. But the fact was, I was unhealthily overweight."
A few years ago, I went overseas for 12 months and gained a stone, going up a dress size in the process. At five-foot five and weighing just under 11 stone, I fitted comfortably into a size 14. Yet when the GP weighed me, she warned me I was just a couple of pounds away from being "clinically overweight".
Of course, because dress sizes vary so much from retailer to retailer, and because they are not based on standardised measurements, they don't represent an accurate indicator of weight or health, so it certainly isn't true to say that anyone wearing a size 14 has a problem. That will depend on your frame and height.
Instead, nutritionists and doctors prefer to focus on more telling scientific measures such as Body Mass Index -- your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared -- or the waist/hip fat ratio. Waist fat is particularly dangerous -- it creates hormone imbalances and is strongly linked to diabetes.
But you simply don't get groups of women sitting around talking about complicated, scientific measurements such as BMI. Dress size, on the other hand, is easily understood -- and we are psychologically wedded to it. We have a number in our heads, be it a 16, an eight, or a 12, and when we drop a dress size we're pleased; when we go up one we're furious.
That's why marketing campaigns that talk about dress sizes are powerful, persuasive tools in the gradual 'normalisation' of what used to be considered 'outsize'.
Our acceptance of size 14, for instance, as 'normal' didn't just happen overnight. Back in 1990, a Marks & Spencer survey found that the average dress size of women in the UK had gone from a 12 to a 14 in just over a decade. Announcing the news, spokesman David Rowlinson said: "There's nothing wrong with being a size 14, it's just the way most women are."
Fast-forward 18 years, to the end of 2008 and the widely reported Kellogg's Special K survey. The cereal manufacturers polled 3,000 women and found that of all the dress sizes out there, size-14 women were the happiest with their life and looks.
Reporting the findings, a spokesman for Special K said: "It's great to discover that being a size zero wouldn't necessarily bring you happiness ... Size-14 woman are much more comfortable with their shape and have a happier outlook."
So size-14 women were no longer just 'normal', they were happy too. And it was all too easy to believe that the size-14 woman was happier than the size-zero woman. After all, who had ever seen Victoria Beckham smile?
As well as being 'normal' and 'happy', curvier women, when compared to the size zeros, were seen as having a more traditional, natural body shape. During the height of the size-zero craze, it was commonplace to hear people talking wistfully about the 1940s and 1950s, when women were supposedly meatier and a more feminine image was considered sexy.
An eating disorders specialist once told me that 'thin' only came in when Twiggy came down the catwalk in the early 1960s -- the implication being that pre-Twiggy, women were happier to be a little bigger.
Inevitably the voluptuous curves of Marilyn Monroe would be mentioned -- she is often said to have been a size 14. But it's a myth. A couple of years ago, the London Times journalist Sarah Buys was lucky enough to be able to try on an assortment of Marilyn's clothes. She found that the size-14 actress fixed in the popular imagination didn't exist.
In fact, Marilyn was a tiny size eight -- a 10 at her plumpest. She just had an incredibly large bust and fantastic rear end, assets that overshadowed the fact that her waist was a minuscule 23 inches.
Of course, it was all too easy to lose sight of just how tiny granny's generation was, aided and abetted as we were by dressmakers who conveniently made dress sizes larger as our frames got bigger. Today's size 12 is several sizes bigger than a size 12 from 50 years ago. Is it any wonder we're confused?
But why should any of this matter? Well, because we are getting fatter at an alarming rate. According to the SLAN 2007 study, 23pc of Irish adults are obese, while 38pc are overweight. Obesity rose by 5pc between 2001 and 2007, the study found, and was rising at a rate of 1pc per year.
All of this is placing our health services under increasing strain. Obesity, with its attendant health risks -- including heart disease and diabetes, to name just two -- costs the public purse €0.4bn a year, and again that figure is rising.
The HSE has embarked on a number of awareness strategies -- including the Little Steps campaign, which urges people to make small, sustainable changes to improve their health -- to combat the growing problem.
But before women can be persuaded to make lifestyle changes, they need first to recognise when they have a problem.
"If people feel they are a normal weight, it will decrease their motivation to lose weight and even more problematically, when they don't recognise it in themselves, then they don't recognise it in others," says Ailis Brosnan. "They might have children who are overweight, but they wouldn't recognise it and make the necessary changes for the whole family."
This is cause for further concern. Childhood obesity is also rising rapidly. One study of 450 teenagers in 2007 found that since 1990, the incidence of obesity in girls had risen from 15pc to 17pc and in boys from 6pc to a staggering 19pc.
"One of our biggest issues is that having overweight or obese children is almost normalised now," says Margot Brennan, spokeswoman for the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. "And if they are overweight as a child, then their risk of becoming an overweight adult becomes much higher. We are doing a bit of a head-in-the-sand job about it at the moment.
"Even health professionals are uncomfortable dealing with the whole issue. I see it with my own friends -- they don't even recognise it, or if they do see the problem they are ignoring it. When you see things like elastic being put into school waistbands and the sale of oversize communion dresses -- it's very worrying. And these kids can't make changes on their own."
The fact that we are getting larger may very well be an irreversible trend. So health campaigners such as Ailis Brosnan and Margot Brennan are focusing now on a different tack: exercise.
"When people are overweight and obese, by becoming fit they protect themselves from many of the health risks of obesity," says Ailis Brosnan. "An overweight fit person has a much improved health profile than a lean unfit person."
Brosnan wants to see us moving away from being hung up on numbers -- be it dress size or BMI -- and focus instead on becoming fitter, no matter what we weigh.
"I'd like to see the shift away from focusing on things like BMI and instead get the mind to enjoy the process of becoming fitter and the sense of wellbeing that comes from a more active and healthy lifestyle.
"Making that shift is very beneficial, so I tend to steer away from figures and focus on the process of enjoying the shift in lifestyle."