Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Girl, The Debate and The Sartorialist

It's all happening on The Sartorialist. 1415 comments and counting on Scott Schuman's use of the word 'curvy' to describe this young woman in his recent 'On the street: Angelika, Milan' post, which went up on Monday March 28.

In a post on her own blog, Angelika writes of her delight at being photographed by someone she so admires and addresses the gathering maelstrom by writing:

about the controversy on his blog because of words like "curvy"or"big" udes by him to definy my body,i just can say that i never felt hurt.i think i have a normal body neither fat nor thin,curvy is ok,of course my body was pretty different fro the other girls where around there,wheter they are models,editors,bloggers of whatever,I was taller and more...curvy! but I did not mind at all... i don't think that curvy and big are sinonimous of overweight or fat,i believe indeed that being called curvy has a positive meaning[...] curvy= femininity and not= fat, overweight. (sic)

Today I noticed an update on Schuman's original post in which he responds to the outcry surrounding his use of the word 'curvy' to describe a woman, and the difficulty of using the word 'normal' as an adjective. As he (correctly) argues, 'normal is relative.' He argues that curvy is a body shape not a weight* though perhaps this qualification is undercut by his original description of Angelika as a "bigger, curvier girl" which conflates her size ("bigger") into her shape. 

This debate indicates to me the power of words to incite and infuriate. Although Schuman derides this power in contrast to the message of his post (he reduces the debate over meaning to 'wordplay' which reads as highly dismissive) the impact of those words overtook the photographs themselves. Even the ambiguity of his commenters' suggested replacements ('normal'; 'real') underlines the subjective, interpretive quality of language. The difficulty of those adjectives, of course, is that they are as exclusionary as 'curvy' or 'big.' Such language puts anyone whose body implicitly doesn't fit on the periphery, if anywhere at all.

Schuman wanted his readers to see what he saw- the way the shape of her legs complemented the strength of her shoes- yet most got distracted by the (perceived) inconsistency of Angelika's legs and their alleged curviness. He presented a visual yet what burst forth was a debate about what constitutes 'curvy' and the subtext, intended or otherwise, operating beneath the use of such a loaded adjective.

It may all swell down to just a footnote in the history of Schuman's storied blog but I doubt that he will ever publicly use the word 'curvy' in relation to a woman's body again. What language will replace it is yet to be seen- has anyone come up with a viable way of acknowledging the uncomfortable fact that everyone's body is different but not all shapes are regarded as equally desirable?- but it's one hell of an interesting conversation to watch.

*this ties in to SNP's Twittered critique that "(The) Sartorialist is (not) the prob. It's that we've fucked over "curvy," making it snide euphemism for "fat""


  1. Hey Rose!
    I just had to comment because I just happened to be flicking through the Sartorialist yesterday and paused awhile on that picture and discussion. It's quite amazing the outcry over one word, the use of which probably shouldn't have accompanied this photo, as he later notes that you can't even see said 'curves' in this photo.
    Anyway just thought i'd add my two cents, as it's a rare occassion I can in the Fashademic world ;)

  2. I just hate the way her style is interpreted by the Sart in terms of the way she is supposedly using a shoe to create bodily "harmony". As if without the clunky shoe her body isn't "harmonious". He couches the whole things in terms of this supposedly objective aesthetic of "harmony", as though body politcs were irrelevant. Unlike a skinny model, whose body conforms to fashion norms, this "bigger" girl must deploy clothes to fool the eye, to redress her shortcomings of size and shape. On a blog like scott's, her body can't go unremarked- her syle is seen through the lens of the extent to which she succeeds in "correcting" her body.

  3. Belinda- that's such an interesting reading. I didn't read his comment on the harmony of the heel with her legs as correcting, rather just a visual that he found lovely!
    I don't think his reading of her was as harshly critical as what you ascribe to him but agree that the marriage of seeing her through the lens (placing her at the fore for consideration) and his choice of words was particularly unfortunate in light of body politics.

  4. But Schuman does say exactly who he thinks she's bigger than:

    "I loved that she's a bigger, curvier girl than most of the other bloggers who you see in the press and tend to represent the genre."

    I would find it difficult to disagree with his appraisal of the blogger scene in this respect.

  5. Ah true story. A misread on my part. Thanks Shaz.
    There are style bloggers of all shapes and sizes, ages and ethnicities but the ones who would probably be in the same social scene as him are probably not as varied in size, huh. Your Tavis, Susies, Bryans etc.

  6. NB: Post has been amended for accuracy.

  7. Completely agree that his 'update' was highly dismissive, coming across as a sort of non-apology ("I'm sorry if you were offended"). His last line especially ("I don't want to lose the potential power of the post by being caught up in wordplay.") was reductive and patronising, implying that anyone taking issue with what he wrote was just playing a game of semantics rather than having any valid point!

    I've always enjoyed The Sartorialist blog, but have always had a niggling concern in the back of my mind about its lack of diversity. I don't think it's an overreaction to say that I now question whether I should continue reading the blog.

  8. I had to laugh when I saw the outrage over this (updated with his comments) on my RSS feed. Being a 'bigger, curvier girl' than what he normally sees in the industry comparatively is hardly surprising. As he was making a comparison, I hardly see how this is offensive or incorrect or worthy of any of this fuss. I suspect much of the outrage directed at Scott is misplaced anger at the fashion industry for perpetuating a certain stereotype.

    I'm a bit surprised by Belinda's reading. Scott is talking about how her clothing was chosen to complement her body shape, which is exactly the way I chose my clothes and shoes. It is only once we get to Belinda's comment that her physical shape is called a 'shortcoming'.

  9. But what does "compliment" really mean? Is there really any objective way to "compliment" a body, or are there just ways to bring it closer to a culturally constructed ideal (here of thinness)? And re use of the word "shortcoming"- no, Scott doesn't openly state that her size and shape are a shortcoming, but I tend to agree with the commenters on the blog who felt that words like "sturdy", "curvy" and "bigger" are euphemistic derisions in fashion discourse.

  10. True; now I'm sitting here considering whether, when I pick my own clothes to 'complement' my shape, I'm attempting to conform to the fashion ideal of 'thinness'. I don't think I do, but it's hard to be objective about my own reasoning. I tend to try and pick clothes that emphasise an hourglass shape; of course, this is influenced by another set of ideals which just happen to conform more closely to my current body shape.

    ...Then again, there is nothing wrong with a person's choice to emulate a cultural ideal if that is what they want to do. Particularly since cultural ideals are somewhat majority-generated; they must have come into existence with a general consensus, somehow. The interesting thing about the fashion industry is that it is 'the' ideal, singular; every other view (different body shapes, etc.) does have the feel of being a (somewhat grudging) concession by the industry.

    I wonder if I don't read the words in that way because I'm not entirely versed/invested/understanding of the 'fashion' culture? As a nominal outsider (as much as anyone can be, when being bombarded with fashion images and advertising daily it is impossible to remain entirely ignorant) I'm reading the words in a different context; at face value, rather than as euphemisms.

    Hrm. Now I'd love to see a comparison of what an insider vs. outsider of the industry reads into an image. A purposeful one, I mean, rather than the above accidental example of blogger vs. commenters.