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Plus-size women take TV; fans see mixed blessing

Ask model and fashion designer Emme whether television and other media are more accepting of plus-size people, and she quickly corrects you.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ask model and fashion designer Emme whether television and other media are more accepting of plus-size people, and she quickly corrects you.

"Average women," she says.

The host of the new Fox reality dating show, "More to Love," has been on this campaign since the mid-1990s, when she began telling full-size women to be more accepting of themselves. In her latest venture, she guides a 6-foot-3, 330-pound man as he chooses among 20 women who wear sizes ranging from 14 to 22.

Television is suddenly filled with images of full-figured people — real and fictional — although not as everyday people just living their lives. The shows focus on their size — on "More to Love," the contestants' height and weight, and that of the bachelor, were flashed on the screen as they were introduced in the first episode.

Oxygen's "Dance Your Ass Off" features 12 contestants, weighing a total of 3,000 pounds, who lose weight through dancing, and Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva" is about a model-wannabe who dies and comes back as plus-size attorney.

The Style Network's reality show "Ruby" is in its second season, telling the story of Ruby Gettinger of Savannah, Ga., who's down to 350 pounds from her highest weight of 716.

"I think these welcomed shows are opening the aperture," on full-size women, said Emme, whose size ranges from a 12/14 to a 14/16. "These are fun shows to watch, and they are really taking the perspective of the full-sized woman and bringing it into the type of package people can relate to."

Some fashion magazines are ahead of the curve — so to speak — on featuring plus-size models. Glamour became serious about it in past five years, featuring Queen Latifah on the cover in May 2004, said Cindi Leive, the magazine's executive editor. In the past six to 12 months, "there is just more and more of a hunger among women to see images of women that look and feel real.

"There's a sense that being a sort of cookie cutter, homogenous standard of what's beautiful has started to feel a little bit dated," Leive said.

But the reaction to the 3-inch-by-3-inch photograph on page 194 of the September issue surprised even Leive. "I am gasping with delight," one reader wrote. "I love the woman on p 194," someone else wrote.

Model Lizzi Miller, a 20-year-old who wears a size 12/14, is shown in sideways pose, her arms covering her breasts, only the string of a string bikini visible at the waist. The shocker: Her belly hangs over the string and rests just a bit on her thighs. Not only that, but she's laughing AS IF SHE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW.

"There's a roll in her belly that looks like every woman over the age of 16," Leive said. "And there she is, looking happy and confident and like she loves life and like she's the sexiest thing in the world."

If people do relate to the shows — and Fox hasn't decided whether to renew "More to Love" — it may be because they reflect the image that Americans see in the mirror. The average U.S. woman wears a size 14, and an estimated 56 percent of American women wear plus sizes, which start at size 14 or 16, depending on the brand.

But not everyone is getting on the curves-are-better wagon train. Who can forget the uproar about Jessica Simpson, whose true crime was one of fashion — wearing unattractive, high-waisted jeans? Or Jennifer Love Hewitt defending her bikini look with words that never should have to be uttered — "A size 2 is not fat!"

Women who are the presumed demographic for the shows aren't always with the program either.

Lesley Kinzel, a 32-year-old from Boston who runs a Web site called fatshionista, said while she's pleased that television is more willing to show women her size (24/26), she's not happy with the portrayal of women on "More to Love," which she says features "a ridiculous amount of crying." And don't even ask about "Dance Your Ass Off" with its focus on weight loss.

"More to Love" is "reinforcing the stereotype of miserable, crying fat woman who hates herself," Kinzel says. "That's not my life and that's not the life of my friends."

Forty-one-year-old Cynthia Deis of Raleigh, N.C., who wears a size 16 to 18, says she's just not interested in a show about losing weight or focused on a character's weight: "Why can't it just be a story about a woman who's big and happens to have three girlfriends who she goes out to drink with ...?"

SallyAnn Salsano, executive producer of both "More to Love" and "Dance Your Ass Off" believes the shows present positive images of full-figured people, although from different perspectives. "More to Love" focuses on people who are more comfortable with their weight, while "Dance Your Ass Off" is about people ready to make a change, she says. (Although some of the women on "More to Love" sure seemed unsteady as they cried and said they had never been on a date.)

Salsano, who says she struggles with her own weight, worked previously on "The Bachelor," where both the man and the contestants are pretty much physically perfect.

"When we were casting girls, someone would say, 'that girl's a little too thick,'" Salsano said. "And I would think, I would kill to look like her."

So when Mike Fleiss, creator of "The Bachelor" and "More to Love," came calling again, she was more than ready. "We're finally getting a show for people like us," she recalled him saying.

Still, even host Emme acknowledges that in the best of all possible worlds, the contestants would represent all sizes. And many hope for a future where size isn't such a big deal.

When Glamour recently did a swimsuit fashion shoot with full-figured model Crystal Renn and the copy didn't mention her size, readers loved it, Leive said.

"That is something that is new," she said of the lack of editorial comment. "And women are ready to see that happen."


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