Are Size 16 models a welcome dose of reality or an invitation to be overweight?

Opinion: Perhaps women shouldn’t be pushed and pulled over dress size but just need something that will fit

One size fits all: But will larger size mannequins have the effect of shoring up our porky complacency?

One size fits all: But will larger size mannequins have the effect of shoring up our porky complacency?


What does the averagely proportioned woman feel, when out clothes shopping, she has to sort through racks of tiny garments until she finds (if she’s lucky) the solitary size 16, usually lurking at the back of the stand? Frustration; annoyance; almost certainly – whether she admits or not – an uncomfortable pang of shame on behalf of her implicitly maligned body.

For many, the irritation is compounded when the item in question is marked with the dreaded label XL. Yet 16 isn’t “extra large”, which implies you’re elephantine, just as fat as you can be. It’s not “plus size”. It’s normal, the most common size for a woman in this part of the world.

Now it seems that at least one man has noticed this disparity. Last week, Dennis Robertson, a member of the Scottish parliament, called for a ban on size 10 mannequins because they represented an unattainable body image for many women. On a similar logic, department store Debenhams has started using size 16 mannequins in its branches across Britain and Ireland.

Debenhams evidently prides itself on its progressive approach, leading the retail pack away from its questionable obsession with unfeasibly slender bodies. Earlier this year, it promised to stop using airbrushed models in its adverts – no artificially whitened teeth, no digitally whittled waists – in an attempt to boost the confidence of its customers, loftily informing its rivals that they had a “moral obligation” to do the same.

Should we be grateful, then, that at least one major retailer is prepared to reflect the reality of the average female form? Is this a welcome strike against the tyranny of skinniness and all its associated maladies, from anxiety disorders to anorexia?

The larger mannequins have been received with widespread public enthusiasm, with much talk of valuing difference and celebrating womanhood in all its many shapes and sizes.

Opponents though argue that initiatives like these, in encouraging overweight women to believe that being big can be beautiful, have a dangerously distorting effect.

They say that if we have size 16 mannequins in shops this year, in five years time they’ll be size 20, in 10 years, size 26, and so on, endlessly shoring up our porky complacency, egging us ever onwards to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Writer Cristina Odone laments that “we rightly castigate the fad for anorexic models; this is the other side of the coin. This trend has dread- ful health consequences for women – so why are we clutch ing it to our wobbly bosom?”

In trying to make its female customers feel more comfortable in their own skins, Debenhams stands accused of ultima- tely imperilling their wellbeing. Short-term gain, long-term loss – the message is to enjoy that frisson of self-esteem while you can, ladies, because you’ll certainly pay for it later.

So which way is better – plumping up the models to make women feel good about themselves, or keeping them strictly svelte in the hope that shame will encourage chubbier shoppers to lose weight?

The answer is neither. Both approaches are essentially patronising. I mean, is any person of average size (and intelligence) really going to feel affirmed or validated by the presence of a slightly enlarged mannequin in a clothes shop?

Will they feel deliciously liberated from the pressure to conform to the skeletal ideal? I very much doubt it.

Similarly, I can’t imagine that the deployment of size 16 models will encourage women to go out and stuff themselves silly with burgers – as the anti-obesity police fear – on the dubious assumption that fatness is kind of sexy now.

A woman’s waistline is her own business and it should not be subject to well-intentioned flattery or bullying. It doesn’t belong to moralising retailers, who seek to reflect an authentically “curvy” yet profitably desirable image back at her. Nor is it the property of over- zealous health campaigners, who would happily march everyone over a size 12 off to military boot-camp to be forcibly purged of their flab.

It’s simple really. All women need are shops that sell clothes that actually fit us. Beyond that, I’m sure we’ll be able to manage quite well on our own.

Fionola Meredith is a freelance journalist

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