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Debenhams cautiously challenging plus size status quo

Size 16 is not plus-sized. Apparently this is news to a lot of people. With the news that Debenhams are now displaying size 16 mannequins in store windows, the initial response was to congratulate the company for representing plus-sized bodies. Debenhams has not marketed this campaign as such, but has focused instead on the opportunity to support body acceptance amongst its shoppers.

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Size 16 is the British average, contrary to representations of body shapes and sizes in high street stores and of course in the fashion industry as a whole. It wasn’t long before Debenhams was faced with criticism, as the new mannequins are not as radical as they sound. They may be larger, but the body shapes have not changed. The new mannequins still have flat stomachs, slim waists, and disproportionately large, perky breasts. Debenhams is challenging the status quo, but being cautious about it.

The necessity of a campaign like this one is obvious. Go into any high street store, and you’ll find women squeezing into uncomfortable clothes just so they can say they wear a particular size. The lower the number, the better. As Jo Swinson, an Equalities Minister put it, “it’s as if there’s only one way of being beautiful”. The message currently given by high street stores is that thin is best, and if you don’t fit into the category of ‘thin’ you should be trying your hardest to do so. The high street’s standard size eight mannequins are a reminder of what women should be aiming for, rather than a true illustration of how most women really look. With this in mind, Debenhams’ campaign is exciting progress, as it could be the beginning of more realistic representation of all types of bodies beyond the restrictive norm. The campaign is not perfect, but it is an improvement. The introduction of the size 16 mannequins also follows an ‘inclusivity campaign’ in April of this year, where Debenhams clothes were modelled by a Paralympian athlete, an amputee, a size 18 model, and several models aged 40-70. These are the kind of changes people need from the fashion industry.

Aside from the obvious moral sense, including more diverse bodies in fashion also makes financial sense. A study conducted by Dr Ben Barry found that women were three times more likely to buy clothing when the models were their size. This is unsurprising, as surely people will want to spend money on something that makes them feel good, rather than something that makes them feel shamed and excluded? As soon as high street stores realise the potential of utilising body acceptance rather than making women fearful of their bodies, Debenhams will not be alone. So far, no other high street store has come forward in support of Debenhams. Marks & Spencer told the Guardian that their use of size 10 mannequins instead of the typical size eight is a “responsible approach” to the issue. Most other retailers have remained neutral. Nonetheless, there is hope for average-sized shoppers in Britain. There is nothing wrong with size eight or 10 mannequins – obviously these do represent some bodies – but including more varied body types is only sensible. The time for forcing people to conform to “one way of being beautiful” should end, and Debenhams is helping to bring that into action.

19/11/2013

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