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AHEAD OF THE CURVE

The Baltimore Sun

Jennifer Hudson's Oscar win for her performance in Dreamgirls wasn't just a boon for the once-spurned American Idol contestant.

It was a win for full-figured women all over.

"People usually think fat and ugly," says Kellie Brown, a spokeswoman for the plus-sized retail chain Avenue. "Fat doesn't have to be ugly. Curviness doesn't have to be ugly. Who would look at Jennifer Hudson and say that she was unattractive?"

Evidently, not too many people - including the hip and thin decision-makers at Vogue, one of the nation's foremost go-to magazines for beauty trends.

Hudson appears on the March cover of the fashion magazine, the same month that R&B; star Beyonce - hips, thighs, cleavage and all - graces the front of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue.

And on the back cover of the Feb. 16 issue of Life magazine (that just happens to have Hudson's pouty-lipped visage on the front cover), a very round, very nude woman - 54-year-old Mirinete Morrison - sits on the floor in a Dove advertisement, hugging her knees.

Could this be the end of the rail-thin woman in advertisements and fashion shoots?

Probably not. But beauty experts say the images of Hudson, Beyonce and other curvy women in ads for such companies as Dove and Slim-Fast, signal that change is in the air.

"I believe there's a real movement nationally to celebrate plus-sized women," says BJ Towe, executive editor of Figure, a fashion and lifestyle magazine for plus-sized women. "I do think the American media is starting to realize this is who their audience is. That they're not all waif-thin."

In fact, an increasing number of the nation's women are shaped more like Hudson than they are like Lindsay Lohan, experts say.

About 62 percent of American women are size 14 or bigger, Towe says.

And, according to the NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer spending, the "large-size" clothing market has seen steady increases in sales since 2003. Last year, sales of plus-sized clothing reached a record $18.2 billion.

Clearly, this demographic is growing. But until recently, observers say, it would have been hard to tell that by looking at movies, television programs and magazine ads, which tended to be heavy on teensy-weensy and light on va-va-voom.

In 2005, the beauty product brand Dove introduced a "Real Women" campaign, which featured everyday beautiful women - not actresses or models - who had curves, shapes and imperfections.

"The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is committed to widening the current definition of beauty and inspiring more women to believe in and enjoy their own beauty," says Dove's marketing director Kathy O'Brien, "to show that real beauty is more than thin, blond and young."

Actress Sara Ramirez introduced the winner of a contest to create the newest Dove ad in a commercial during Sunday's Oscar telecast. On the TV hit Grey's Anatomy, Ramirez portrays Dr. Calliope "Callie" Torres, a full-figured doctor among waifish female interns.

The Dove campaign appears to have started a bit of a trend. Other companies have caught on; even Slim-Fast, a weight-loss company, began this year advertising its Optima shakes using curvaceous women with "hips," as the commercial says, "not hipbones."

"I love that commercial," says Brown of Avenue. "They have really real, realistic bodies, but they are also aspirational bodies. They look solid and toned. They look fabulous in a dress. When Dove first did this, it was this whole innovative thing. It was shocking. 'Oh, my gosh - a real person!' But now it's one of those things where it's what people expect. They expect to be represented."

Linda Arroz, former editor of Big Beautiful Woman magazine, says perceptions of beauty decades ago were vastly different than they are today. Women like Marilyn Monroe were beauty symbols, she says, and words such as "buxom" and "voluptuous" were "fabulous adjectives."

"It's taken 40 years, but we're now at a place where we can even show real women and shows like Ugly Betty," says Arroz, who now is a principal of Makeover Media, a public relations and brand-building consulting firm. "The desire to meet the demands of a diverse demographic is what's fueling the popularity of seeing more real women in the media."

Diversity may indeed play a role in the full-figured fad. Many of today's pop culture stars - such as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Ugly Betty's Salma Hayek and America Ferrera - are women of color.

Former Victoria's Secret model Tyra Banks took hits in tabloid magazines for gaining weight after she stopped modeling. But Banks, a black woman, proudly defended her heavier, hippier self on her daytime talk show and in a January People magazine.

And Fort Meade resident Lakisha Jones, a full-figured black woman with a big voice, won over American Idol judge Simon Cowell when she belted out "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" - Hudson's career-making song - on the hit show last week.

Experts say black and Hispanic women tend to be more content with curvier, rounder bodies.

"Our readers are kind of broken into three categories in terms of self-esteem," says Towe of Figure magazine. "The first group - those who totally embrace themselves, and are not just accepting but love the curves - that group is African-American rich. It also has a large Hispanic population."

April Masini, who pens an advice column, AskApril.com, says the full-figured trend has more to do with cycles of beauty than diversity. In her opinion, the fashion pendulum swung too far toward super skinny and was bound to swing back.

"While there are plenty of skinny models and actresses, the [ones] who are full-figured are now gaining an opportunity to be the poster girls and the 'It' girls for this new trend," says Masini, who calls the recent images of plus-sized and "healthy" women a "backlash to too-skinny models and actresses."

Indeed, in the past year, the fashion industry has come under increased scrutiny for fostering unrealistic images of beauty and possibly contributing to unhealthy eating behaviors by models - most of whom have to be a size 4 or 2 to be considered for high-fashion shoots.

Countries such as Italy and Spain issued mandates in the past year prohibiting excessively thin models from the catwalk, and American fashion officials encouraged designers, casting agents and others to pay more attention to models' health.

Even ultra-thin Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour lauded Hudson for her healthy outlook on weight inside the March issue of the magazine.

Wintour says Hudson's "happiness in her own skin is something we can draw strength from. The question of body image is a current one, and I can't think of a more compelling and beautiful argument for the proposition that great fashion looks great on women of all sizes than the sight of Hudson in a Vera Wang dress on the red carpet."

But some experts believe even Wintour's favor can't change the perception in our society that thin is better.

"Jennifer Hudson is a star and an Oscar [winner], which is why she's on the cover of Vogue," says Deb Vance, a communications professor and pop culture expert at McDaniel College in Westminster. "But if you open Vogue, you're not going to see anyone else who is curvy like her."

Unfortunately, even Beyonce on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and all the Dove and Slim-Fast ads, won't help, Vance says.

"There is still an overabundance of ads featuring women who are thin and perfectly featured," she says. "This is a drop in the bucket."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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