Can a Brand Truly Be Body Positive If It Doesn't Carry Plus Sizes?

It's not as easy as laying off the Photoshop.
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Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke for Lonely Lingerie. Photo: Lonely Lingerie

Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke for Lonely Lingerie. Photo: Lonely Lingerie

Late last month, a New Zealand-based lingerie brand called Lonely released an unretouched campaign featuring "Girls" stars Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke. Within 24 hours, the campaign — which showed both women’s stomach rolls and Kirke's nipple — had been written about on Vogue.com, WWD, Refinery29 and People, and trended on Facebook and Twitter. Lonely founder Helene Morris tells Fashionista that the response to the campaign was "absolutely incredible." She adds: "Our site, online store and social media has had a huge amount of traffic and feedback."

But although Lonely's "About" page describes it as "fostering a sense of positive body image and freedom of expression," I noticed something: they don't carry plus sizes. And Lonely isn't alone. Lingerie brands including Aerie, & Other Stories and Neon Moon have all run unretouched advertisements and proclaimed themselves "body positive" — without offering plus sizes.

Morris says that although the company offers A-F cups and XS-XL briefs (with plans to add a 36 size band next season), "it's been really important to us to add sizes as we are able to," adding: "This is a challenge for a small company as we often don't reach manufacturing minimums and this requires a lot of negotiation and takes time." It's true that for small brands, offering more sizes can be an expensive and difficult undertaking — but some say that if you're taking on the label "body positive," you have a responsibility to put your money where your mouth is.

The Kickstarter-founded lingerie brand Neon Moon became a subject of both ridicule and praise this March for doing away with numbered sizing and using the words "Lovely," "Gorgeous" and "Beautiful," instead. But although the brand calls itself "a body-positive feminist lingerie brand," and its unretouched campaigns feature women with visible stomach rolls and body hair, the biggest size offered at that time — "Beautiful" — was equal to a size 10/12. After facing criticism from customers, the brand added two more sizes: "Fabulous" (14/16) and "Stunning" (18/20). Neon Moon's size guide indicates that they plan to add more sizes in the future: "Being a start-up brand, we can't provide every sizing option at the moment, but with growth we plan to! Help us provide the sizes you want by filling out our more sizing options survey today! When you speak, we listen!"

Another small lingerie brand, Australia's Just Babes Club, found an innovative way to offer plus sizes without the manufacturing minimums problem. They carry a similar size range to Lonely — A-G cup bras and XS-XL bottoms — but custom-make pieces for larger sizes at no extra charge. Just Babes Club has also received some unexpected press for its unretouched ad campaigns.

"We hoped our pictures would help people imagine themselves in our products, relate to the images and see how the garments would work on their unique figure," says Just Babes Club founder and designer Jarrah Benwell Clarke. "We didn’t necessarily expect the international press that came with this choice in campaign strategy, but since it's been picked up by media outlets it has become something our brand is known for." As for the size range, she adds: "We couldn't preach positive body image, then have babes going to buy products but can't find their size; it would be hypocritical of us and go against what we believe in as a brand."

However, Just Babes Club brand manager Bianca Cornale sees it slightly differently, saying that even straight size brands that eschew Photoshop are advancing body positivity. "I don't find body positivity for the few, rather than the many, particularly inclusive; that being said, brands that don't retouch while carrying limited sizes are still working to normalize more realistic and relatable images of bodies," she says. "Pushing the norm for lingerie advertising away from prevalent problematic representations is still a good thing — but it would be awesome to see more labels integrating 'plus sizes' into their sizing options in the future."

Jeanne Prisyazhayana — a publicist, independent plus-size model and contributing editor to Harper's Bazaar Russia and Elle Russia — agrees, saying that simply seeing a range of bodies in advertising can make a huge difference, even if those women aren't plus size. "Body positive means not only plus size, but also women who are super thin, have wide waists, have beautiful breasts that aren't the average size, and all different types of bodies that we can't see in Victoria's Secret. It always makes me happy to see body positive girls in advertising," she says.

Perhaps the largest lingerie brand to run unretouched ad campaigns is Aerie. Launched in January 2014, the retailer's Aerie Real campaign was one of the first major lingerie campaigns to go without Photoshop — and the brand found there was a major market for its "body-positive" message. A financial report from the brand shows that Aerie sales rose 20 percent after it introduced its unretouched campaigns, compared to a seven percent increase in sales from its parent company American Eagle over the same time period.

"We want to help empower young women to be confident in themselves and their bodies," Jen Foyle, Aerie Global Brand President, tells Fashionista. "It's not just a campaign anymore – it's become a mindset and the message behind all we do. It's about embracing all of the wonderful things that make us unique and most importantly it's about loving yourself inside and out."

Aerie’s size range? 30A to 40DD bra sizes, and XXS to XXL briefs. Aerie has made Iskra Lawrence into a plus-size supermodel, but a woman closer to Tess Holliday's size, for example, can't wear the brand. Foyle indicates that that may eventually change, at least slightly: "We work to offer as many sizes as possible and are working to expand bra sizes in the future," she says. 

But would an Aerie that offered F or G cups be enough? "I think the reality is simply that the term 'body positive' has become so mainstream and buzzword-y that many brands — particularly bigger names — are picking it up without understanding that this isn't simply a catchphrase," says Marie Southard Ospina, a fat positive writer at Bustle and blogger at Migg Mag.

"'Body positivity' stemmed directly from the fat acceptance movement. Its focus is meant to be on representing and catering to the most marginalized among us, including those marginalized for weight, race, ability and gender identity," she explains. "To exclude plus sizes from your 'body positive' brand is to be tone deaf to the individuals who've been fighting for years so that the size 28 woman who isn't an hourglass shape and doesn't have a chiseled jawline doesn't feel like she is sub-human, along with many more identities that fashion and society at large have excluded for decades."

So-called body positive campaigns aren't great about showing bodies that aren't white, cis or abled, either. British lingerie brand Curvy Kate, which offers D-K cup bras and S-XL briefs, features a trans woman and a woman who is an amputee in a recent campaign — but I can't think of any other lingerie brands that have. Writing about Lonely's campaign at Greatist, writer Jagger Bleac asked, "Where are all the dark-skinned black girls? Are we not allowed to be unapologetic about our bodies?"

Writer Southard Ospina says: "Personally, I'm not interested in a 'body positive' brand that thinks it's making a revolutionary statement because its size S to L range has included one size 12 model in some campaign pics. While body positivity acknowledges that women (and individuals) of all sizes likely face body insecurities — and we can largely thank sexism for that one — it also acknowledges that not all body types are treated the same on a sociocultural level. And those bodies are the ones that arguably deserve the most representation in these 'body positive' brands."

To put it bluntly, advertising with a "body positive" label can be misleading and even insulting to plus-size women who see an ad and consider buying the lingerie — only to find, upon going to the website, that they won't fit into anything the brand carries. "I do think body positivity is for everyone, and I understand wanting to see someone who looks more 'like you' in media and advertising. I think we do need to see a broader spectrum of representation in size, shade, ability, gender, etc.," says Jodie Layne, plus size fashion writer and fat acceptance advocate. 

"However, to take the language of fat acceptance movements and capitalize on them without actually, you know, making your clothes for fat people is so exploitative."

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