"fashion is aspirational," Vogue editor Anna Wintour likes to say. But then again, she's thin. For the plus-sized, it's another story.
If you're a size 12 or over, fashion isn't aspirational at all. It's just the opposite. The runways, magazines and ads are a constant parade of clothes you could never wear, women you could never be. Shopping is no luxury, no ritual of expensive pampering; it's more like a ritual of retribution. You had cake after dinner last night? Welcome to Lane Bryant, sweetie. Go ahead, just try to find something to wear besides a tunic top. Just try to find a dress that isn't muumuu-shaped or designed for your grandmother.
At its very best, larger-sized shopping is a time-consuming, unsatisfying necessity. You can't expect to find clothes that express your style, because your fat is never in style. The best you can hope for is an outfit that disguises your lumps and bulges without resembling a chador.
And so, when I heard about Mode, the new fashion magazine for larger women, I was nonplused. A fashion magazine for sizes 12 and up? The very idea seemed to be a paradox. I figured the magazine would take the "let's-make-the best-of-it" approach. Maybe an article on the new, updated tent dress. A photo spread of skirted swimsuits. A piece on playing up your face ("Your BEST feature!") and a couple of recipes: reduced-fat lasagna ("Tastes just like the real thing!") and some of that inedible peach cobbler you find in every single fat-free cookbook in the world.
In other words, I figured that Mode would fit right into the space our culture has allocated for fat women. It would have to, right? I mean, this is a mainstream magazine we're talking about. The spring debut issue has a print run of a half million copies, and the publicist brags that it's "one of the biggest magazine debuts in recent years." Money this big never backs real change, does it?
Actually, this time it does. Mode, whose inaugural issue has just hit the newsstands, is a radical departure from the ways of the mainstream fashion world. Right off the bat, Mode's publication directors, Nancy Nadler LeWinter and Julie Lewit-Nirenberg, claim the mainstream for themselves, pointing out that in the real world there are far more large women than waifs: some 62 percent of American women are size 12 and up. And the publishers haven't got any interest in reducing that percentage -- far from it.
To start with, Mode contains no diet articles. Stop for a minute and give that some thought, girls: No. Diet. Articles. Instead, the first issue asks us to indulge -- indulge! -- with a recipe for "Pan-Charred Salmon on Silky Potato Sauce." It's made with butter, olive oil and crhme franche, and there's nary a nutritional chart in sight. Or, if fish isn't your style, you can go with chef Lydia Shire's version of ctte de boeuf. It begins: Take "a whole rib of beef ... made into double-thick rib steaks ... Mash together some Roquefort and butter ..." After a meal like that, who has room for dessert?
Mode does. Flip back a few pages and you'll find "Hair Color -- Rich & Delicious," in which various shades of brunette are photographed next to -- brace yourself -- luscious-looking chunks of dark and milk chocolate.
Of course, it only makes sense, albeit subversive sense, that a magazine for large women would take a positive view of food. That's what makes such women sexy, after all. They indulge. They luxuriate in those desires that thin women thwart. They munch with abandon on fragrant cheese, suck sensually on fingerfuls of icing. Their kisses taste of raspberry sauce.
Typically, of course, they're asked to pay -- and pay, and pay -- for their pleasures. "I never dreamed of dressing to be noticed, much less to leave strangers in my wake wondering where on earth I found that adorable little jacket," journalist and diet-industry muckraker Laura Fraser writes in her contribution to Mode's first issue. "No, I dressed to be invisible." Fleeing from one boutique's rude, stick-thin saleswoman, Fraser "kept hearing, over and over, the words of Stephen Gullo, the Manhattan diet shrink: 'You can't eat Italian and wear Italian!'"
But Fraser eventually triumphed over her forced dowdiness, finding the perfect suit -- and a much nicer saleswoman -- in, you guessed it, Italy. Such a happy ending is yet another fashion-mag taboo-breaker: It embraces the idea of living large. The very thought of accepting your plus-sized self is verboten in the world of style. If we had the slightest inkling that it's possible to actually enjoy our rounded breasts and hips, to live without counting calories, to revel in our curves, we might forget to aspire.
Or maybe we wouldn't. This is Mode's real secret: For all its liberties, it doesn't really break Wintour's rule. Its vision of fashion is most definitely aspirational; it simply offers richer, more powerful images to aspire to.
Most real-life women over a size 12 (and quite a few under it) are just a tad reticent about drawing attention to that zone between their necks and their feet. But Mode isn't afraid to show us large bodies. A profile of "Rent" star Fredi Walker features eight pages of adoring photos -- six go by before the text even kicks in. And what photos! Walker, a decidedly curvy black woman, sashays and postures in a flowing skirt, a sharp suit, a dress that's mostly fringe. In one shot, she playfully flips up her skirt to reveal a bare, round bottom and powerful thighs.
And Walker is by no means the only goddess in this pantheon. Take the sleepy-eyed girl leaning against a car on page 94. She's clad in a curve-caressing little black dress; from one wrist dangles a tiny, sparkly little bag. She's gazing coolly at nothing, a little distracted perhaps, as she bends over -- in traffic -- to adjust her sandal! With her butt poking out for all to see! This is a size 14 whose insouciance rivals that of Kate Moss. With that kind of confidence, she's the woman that every one of us would like to be.
Beholding her and her zaftig sister goddesses, I was reminded of one of contemporary literature's most offbeat sex symbols: Nora, the big-bottomed, lower-class waitress in Glenn Savan's novel "White Palace." Nora was dangerously sensual and dangerously out of control. She was "mad about peanut brittle ... heavenly hash, and chocolate-covered cherries most of all, and went at them not with the guilty furtiveness of a grown woman, but with the straightforward greed of a child."
If Mode stays around for a while, maybe we'll all learn to reach for goddessdom and peanut brittle at the same time. Maybe we'll see a new breed of women -- women whose fleshy curves dominate boardrooms; women who recline lazily in gorgeously tailored velvets and silks. Women who reach for one more piece of candy, not with an anxious inner clang of "guilty furtiveness," but with sweet, childlike smiles of innocent delight.