“body harmony” or body policing? the sartorialist gets it wrong

street style photos by the Sartorialist
Photos by the Sartorialist

a lot of people have asked me what i think about this whole “curvy girl” debacle happening over at The Sartorialist. this should come as no surprise: as a critical online media/fashion consumer, i have a lot of opinions when it comes to “street style” blogs… but this is not the time for me to share them. rather, i’m going to try to quickly and concisely express my opinions on this specific topic. there’s already been a lot of ink spilled, so i’ll try not to repeat what others have already stated (suggested reads at the end of the post, as always!)

for those who aren’t big on fashion blogs, some context: if we compared fashion blogs to fashion magazines, The Sartorialist is kind of the equivalent of Vogue. it’s been around since 2005 and has been steadily gaining attention since then. in 2008, the Guardian rated The Sartorialist as the 20th most powerful blog. Blog, period – not fashion blog. so it’s up there. it gets thousands, millions of hits. each post gets hundreds of comments. it gets talked about online, and in print.

the formula is simple: Scott Schuman, aka “The Sartorialist,” wanders the streets of various cities. As the story goes, when inspiration strikes him, he takes photos of those stylish and inspirational individuals who just so happen to cross his path. for the most part, these photos are presented without commentary; often, he does not even note the name of the person in the photo. but every once in a while, he will say something what makes this outfit worthy of being featured on his blog; a colour combination, a posture, a hairstyle, etc. in this particular case in milan, he said the following:

I saw this young lady in Milan several times this past season. She is one of the crop of new bloggers. 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.

he goes on to talk about how she creates “body harmony” by complimenting her “strong curvy legs” with an equally strong shoe because “a daintier shoe would be overpowered.” yes. you can read it for yourself. so the post he made this monday instigated a complicated discussion, namely around the use of the word “curvy,” but i would argue moreso about the fact that schuman is admitting that there is quite a distorted “norm” that is prescribed by the fashion industry… and that that fashion industry now encompasses fashion bloggers, like angelika pictured here.

schuman updated his original post to add a link to the blogger in question’s blog, as well as to add a few thoughts in response to the bombardement of commentary. a statement i tend to make quite often is that i refuse to write someone off or decide that they have shitty politics until they are given the opportunity to respond to such questions and concerns. in schuman’s case, the proof is in the pudding. read his response for yourself:

…Remember, curvy is a body shape, not a weight. To be honest, you can’t really see in these photographs most of the curves – chest, stomach, hip – this woman has.

I get emails all the time from self-professed curvy girls who want to see representations of their size on the site. What sucks is that when I try to put a photograph up to talk about these issues, the post is hijacked over the political correctness of the words.

So help me understand; what is the modern way to speak about size? I’m not married to the word curvy. I’m just trying to describe her in the best way I know how.

to me, this doesn’t address the problem. schuman posits himself as this lover of fashion, as someone who wants to share images that inspires him with others, but refuses to acknowledge that he comes from a specific place of privilege, and that he does not represent the “every man.” with his comments stating that this person and their body is “bigger” than the norm, people who don’t live in the fashion world were shocked. not because the word “curvy” is offensive, or is a “body shape, not a weight” (sorry, what the fuck does that even mean?) and talking about how to “balance” it out, he is passing judgement. how is it much different than a fashion magazine that tries to sell you clothing from companies that only size things 0-12, that pairs fashion editorials with articles like “how to hide your problem areas, and look stylish to boot!” i don’t think schuman insulted the woman he was photographing and talking about. i think schuman was inadvertantly raising the veil on how fashion blogs are increasingly reproducing the exact same body policing norms that fashion magazines have been for decades. stephanie over at the science of sleep puts it best in this open letter:

…The problem is that you felt the need to point out the fact that this woman is “bigger” than your other subjects in the first place. You’re almost ghettoizing her because of her size — which isn’t really much size at all, if you think about it. If you had posted these shots without talking about her body shape, nobody would have noticed.

And if we did happen to notice she was a little “bigger” than most of the people you feature, maybe we — your readers — would have felt good about ourselves. Maybe we would have started to believe, even subconsciously, that it was acceptable to be different in an industry that constantly tells us we need to conform. Maybe.

this isn’t about political correctness, this isn’t about a fear of the word “curvy.” it is about how a lot of people are disappointed that (some) fashion blogs are reproducing the exact same norms (thin, white, tall, rich) fashion magazines have been for decades. we are disappointed about which bodies are shown, which bodies aren’t, what is said, and namely what isn’t. the reaction to this post, from what i have seen, has largely been about disappointment rather than anger. disappointed that, yet again, we are being told by a rich white man how we should dress and how to define our own bodies. i stopped reading fashion magazines because i was sick of people dictating how i should look, what being interested in fashion should entail (a mutual interest in makeup, diet culture, and how to get a man), that sort of shit. i came to the internet surprised to find lots of other young people pissed off about the same thing, and found a lot of people sharing the fashion they did love, without judgement, with passion, with appreciation and celebration rather than body policing and commentary. sadly in the six or seven years i’ve been participating in online fashion communities, i have seen it change dramatically. that radical potential often looks like its fizzling out.

uncredited image of a naked person holding a poster that reads "i'm not a stick in heels oh fucking well"

basically, i’m not pissed about this namely because it’s not surprising. in schuman’s world, yes, this person he snapped a photo of is “bigger, curvier” and according to him, that merits commenting on. when you ask him what his motivations might have been, you’re simply caught up in wordplay and Political Correctness. make no mistake: schuman is a good photographer, and good at what he does. but he is part of the Fashion Industry. this is not your average every day chum sitting on a park bench snapping photos of mere strangers for the hell of it, not making a penny; this is a man who has been working in the fashion industry as a professional photographer for 15 years, who snaps photos of fashion magazine editors, of runway supermodels “off-duty,” of the consumers of haute couture fashion teetering around in 4 inch heels while smoking or texting. for those who still considered themselves fans of The Sartorialist, i only hope that this situation might have finally shattered any illusions you might have that just because The Sartorialist is a blog and not a magazine, that it would/should offer something different than the status quo.

personally, i haven’t been visiting that website for a few years now, namely because of major race and class failings on his part, and this situation is yet another reminder/reinforcement of why i don’t bother. (also, i’m perplexed as to why this issue of calling a person “curvy” evoked more response and outcry than the highly problematic romanticization of poverty/homelessness and underlying racism in earlier posts… but that’s another can of worms) i’d rather support street style blogs that not only offer me more inspiration, but show a variety of ages, sizes, genders, without tokenizing them or reacting defensively when called out about missteps on their part.

the person in question who was photographed stated herself that she does not particularly give a shit, so i suppose we should move on. i guess i just wanted to put this out there.

television is not your friend, it is only pretending

"television is not your friend, it is only pretending" by holiday tart, found via queerfatfemme

sources:

The post in question at The Sartorialist
The Sartorialist- On the street, Angelika, Milan … me! at Angy’s tea room
So what do we think about this? at The Sartorialist
Scott Schuman’s Big Girl by StephanieSalt City Dry Goods‘ thoughts on the topic

recommended reading:

Threadbared’s commentary on the Sartorialist:

recommended viewing:

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10 Comments

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10 responses to ““body harmony” or body policing? the sartorialist gets it wrong

  1. Wait. Wait a minute. The lady in question is in the first two photos?! I assumed she was the girl on the bike (I wish I could find her blog, she looks awesome). Well, that is completely ridiculous.

  2. Really.

    um.. what?
    I’m going to disagree with a lot of this.
    a) the sartorialist isn’t a commentator on fashion in general. I think it’s quite obvious that his taste in fashion is very particular, perhaps the people he photographs who share his fashion sense just happen to be mainly of a particular demographic
    b) I’m a black woman, so I occasionally look for fashionistas like me. The sartorialist definitely posts pictures of POC. ALL the time.
    c) policing is not quite what it is. Is he not allowed to have an opinion?
    and d) it’s not intentionally classist. The staple brands are pricey. Everyone knows that. Who can afford them? people with money.
    and the sartorialist posts so many bohemian inspired looks even I sometimes wonder if the person photographed was either homeless or destitute.

    that’s like saying… it’s bad to say a color ‘doesn’t flatter someone’s complexion.” When it’s just fact.

    This is just a little overly sensitive. He’s not criticizing the way anyone looks. He’s merely saying what works aesthetically. that IS what fashion is about. Hello? shape? structure? anyone can say that.

    this has more to do with insecurities than someone being mean or not inclusive.

  3. It really interested me that so many people were offended not particularly by his commentary in general or the implications of it, but the fact that he used the word ‘curvy’. It interested me because SO many people very obviously felt that he was calling her ‘fat’, rather than saying that she was bigger than many other bloggers. It’s interesting to me how this word has become so loaded and how so many people can see it an ‘an insult’. And when I saw a lot of discussion about that whole debacle on Twitter, so much of it boiled down to people mulling over this woman’s size and shape. Is she or isn’t she ‘curvy’? Is she or isn’t she ‘big’? And that’s not the point.

    • that’s similar to how i felt about it too! even his response is in regards to the specific word “curvy.” i’m surprised that more people aren’t talking about the fact that he felt the need to even talk about her body in the first place.

      thanks for your feedback!

      • I think it says a lot about the way people have been influenced by the sort of discussion which generally happens on blogs and in the media these days!

    • Oh that’s a really interesting way of looking at it! To be frank, the only thing I (as a non-fashion person) got out of this post was the shock at the end that the girl talked about was actually featured at the beginning.. My thoughts immediately went ‘Whaahahahahaha curvy?! whahah what the fuck hahahaha you have got to be haha.’ And then I read your response, and it’s- wait a second. You’re entirely right. But then I do wonder; what is the point? Were you annoyed with this Sartorialist guy, or do you think he did nothing wrong? It’s hard to tell.

  4. Lem

    I just now found this post; thanks for writing it. I don’t have a problem with the word “curvy” necessarily – I call myself that and I can’t wait for the day where people can use “curvy” and “fat” without intending/having them perceived as insults. I didn’t connect the picture of the girl to the article at first though, because at first glance she looked so similar to the slim white girls I see in fashion magazines all the time. It was only on the second look that I noticed that she wasn’t a super-model-size-zero.

    What annoys me the most with his approach is that his “normal” is runway model skinny, and he isn’t really addressing that. It annoys me in the same way that fashion editorials featuring “Real Women!” or “Plus-Sized Women” annoy me, because in an ideal world, that wouldn’t have to be pointed out, and there wouldn’t be “women” and “plus-sized women”, just “women.”

  5. i can’t believe i just realized you have a blog! (i’m thecupboard on tumblr).

    anyway, glad to find you here.

    kate

  6. Sarah

    It’s not so much the stuff that fashion blogers say that alienates me from reading them, it’s the whole internet utopia that because it’s a blog it’s automatically alternative, different, outsider-y and all.
    As for the specifically “Street style” blogs, their stuff differs from a magazine content because the photos are more candid, which is not something that the print media was in the habit of doing, and which is all completely fine by me, but what bothers me is the misunderstanding conveyed in the word “street” when these famous blogs only portray a very specific 1% of the street …
    What also puzzles me is that some fashion bloggers claim to be outsiders when I see them more as a new type of insiders. That new position is interesting in itself, but it’s not really presented for what it is. Instead, there are talks opposing new media to print, when in fact we see a lot of the same narratives, values and symbols (containing the same problematic issues, as you point out), the same marketing strategies (buying off the bloggers just like you buy off print journalists) and even the exact same companies (eg. the ELLE-related fashion blogs group) …
    The tools, the formats, and the languages are not the same, but most of the blogs that are refered to as “powerful” (that word really says it all in terms of values anyway) feel more like as a new extention of a pre existing industry, rather than a new industry per se. There are a few of the famous blogs that I truly enjoy reading, but mostly I read smaller blogs simply because they are the best !

  7. I have a feeling I’m going to get a little bit lost in your blog today.. Just started venturing into the archives and I love your style of writing and your views.
    Is it ridiculous that when I actually saw the photos of the woman in question I was stunned that it would even be remarked upon that she is ‘bigger’? I just don’t see it, or why it should be mentioned.

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