Confident, truly huge beauties

Barbara Amiel: “We are probably in the middle of an aesthetic change”

Barbara Amiel
Confident, truly huge beauties
Photograph by Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Who will make her Oscar dress, I asked myself, as I suspect countless plus-sized people must have been asking. (I’m not a plus-sized person myself but have wish-fantasies of being one—in the right places, that is.) All you saw for the first pre-Oscar hour were skinny white person after skinny white person, like me only decades younger, and all just so incredibly thrilled to be here on the red carpet mantra-ing, “I never dreamt of this when I was growing up…,” not before the age of four anyway. The men wore Tom Ford and Burberry, the women Chanel, Versace, and Valentino with their wrists like Masai tribeswomen all tunnelled up with bangles courtesy of Chopard—which is funny when you remember that the Kenya Masai live with their bangles in huts made of dried merde. But which designer was going to get the starring dress of the night, the super-plus of all pluses?

Meanwhile, you couldn’t but wonder how it is possible for stomachs to be so absolutely flat. God, I know how difficult it is even when you starve for 36 hours to get into the special dress (and then at dinner reach for a piece of bread, which, as one New York stick-person reprimanded me, “is not the staff of life, Barbara.” So no bread that evening). Sandra Bullock, looking as whippet-narrow as a human can be, told the interviewer that after the ceremonies she was going to go out “and have a cheeseburger, deep-fried fries and a milkshake.” Oh yes, and visit the emergency room with a volvulus if she did half of that—there can’t be room in her intestines for a sorbet.

I digress. Along came the much-anticipated dress: the outsized Marchesa dress wearing Gabourey Sidibe. Draped chiffon, sapphire blue like the name of the author of the novel Precious, with sparkly bits around the neckline and hips. A size beyond 26, the same designer that Sandra Bullock, size zero, was wearing. “You look good, girl,” said the interviewer, using the lingua franca of African-Americans.

How did she look? Dimpled arms, lots of extra flesh at the top of them, plump hands, a face radiant with happiness and fat. She looked good, girl, I thought. Back in the fifties, pin-up girls were almost normal weight, even had cellulite, but the hourglass figure was required: that had been an ideal for about 150 years. Then came the post-Twiggy thin thing. Now flesh is creeping back onto bones. But this is something different, these big ladies, from Anna Nicole Smith to Queen Latifah and Oscar winner Mo’Nique (odd to put an apostrophe in your name—rather U’Nique I suppose). They may not be sumo wrestler size, though some are near it, but they are truly huge beauties. They inhabit an alternate universe.

This is definitely not the universe of Mad Men’s gorgeous Christina Hendricks, who was on last week’s New York magazine cover in this season’s bare-your-underwear look. She’s very Anna Nicole Smith voluptuous, but we know she can’t be more than a size 12 absolute maximum and is definitely not a candidate for the Beth Ditto outsize clothing line with its bold domino print dress that sold out at the British chain Evans when it debuted last summer. Still, Hendricks’s very popularity shows where the ideal is moving. She’s at least five sizes larger than a catwalk model or American socialite. But she doesn’t have to scan a room before entering to see if the chairs will be wide enough or hunt for armless seats. She needn’t work out how to avoid obstacles that could be embarrassing.

There is, naturally, a National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance that takes on anti-fat discrimination cases. The majority of NAAFA members are middle-class whites and not the fat African-Americans that we see on screens or in the streets or that I see sometimes when I visit my husband in prison. I don’t know if there are more fat black people than white—there is certainly a higher rate of diabetes in the black community—but they have a different approach to fatness, a more accepting approach, and so the women wear their fat well and don’t bother so much about hiding it. They look better not only because many of them are young but because they have the elixir of confidence.

This is what the Oscar ceremony brought home. We are probably in the middle of an aesthetic change, but of course you can’t feel it. If you were an obese member of the popular Fat Men’s Club of Connecticut, founded in 1866, you were part of a very distinguished group. By the early 1900s, the club was gone. Americans started dieting, and by 1925, there were newspaper complaints that “reducing has become a national pastime…a frenzy.” Those portly men never knew what hit them.

We live on earth in a sort of spacecraft, thinking we are standing still, unaware that we are spinning around at over 1,000 miles an hour. Being in the middle of changing times is rather like that: you only see the change in relationship to something standing still. There’s a whole parallel universe outside mainstream culture, swapping ways to survive in the regular-sized world. Members aren’t much interested in the American way of dissing fat as a moral issue—you’re lazy, undisciplined, self-indulgent or just eat too much. They’re done with yo-yo dieting. They are most unlikely to be the ideal soon of any Eurocentric culture and they’re even losing ground in the Arab and African outposts that prize fat women. But they are having their subtle effect on our beauty standards: I for one will never pass up that bread again.