Lena Dunham’s new plus-size clothing collaboration with luxury plus-size clothing brand 11 Honoré is small. The collection comprises just five items: a handkerchief hem dress, a sleeveless white tank, a scalloped hem miniskirt, a blazer and a flowy yellow button-down blouse.
The backlash to it, in contrast, has been huge. The plus-size fashion community has been particularly frustrated, with an eruption of criticism following Dunham’s New York Times interview on Monday.
Across the fashion industry, the term “inclusive” itself has begun to feel more like a marketing ploy than a pledge.
Luxury fashion that is accessible to plus-size people is, unfortunately, hard to come by. So when a luxury brand comes out with a collection that promises to be inclusive, expectations are high. When that collection doesn’t go higher than a size 26, however, disappointment quickly replaces enthusiasm. Especially when you compare the Dunham collection with another recently released luxury brand collaboration — Erdem x Universal Standard — which goes up to a size 40 and is far more size inclusive.
Across the fashion industry, the term “inclusive” itself has begun to feel more like a marketing ploy than a pledge. Truly inclusive clothing brands look like Loud Bodies, a sustainable brand that offers U.S. sizes 0 to 42, or Universal Standard, which offers its complete line in sizes 00 to 40. The very definition of inclusive requires equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized — which is to say, a size 26 may be larger than the typical luxury brand, but it is hardly inclusive.
Then there’s the issue of price. Studies show that plus-size people consistently earn less money than their straight-size counterparts. Because of this, plus-size consumers are, generally speaking, more mindful about where they choose to spend their money. This collection’s prices range from $98 to $298, which may be affordable to some but will make the clothing largely inaccessible to many. (Obviously plenty of fashion is inaccessible, especially in the luxury market, but it’s still important to remember the way structural inequality impacts fashion consumers.)
To be honest, 11 Honoré should have known better than to have its very first celebrity collaboration be with Dunham.
In her New York Times interview, the controversial “Girls” star is described by the Times as a "body-neutral advocate." I have to strongly disagree with that label. Body neutrality is a philosophy that encourages you to focus on and appreciate what your body can do for you, rather than focusing on what it looks like. Yet, in that very same New York Times piece, Dunham speaks quite negatively about her own body. The actress claimed she is “trying to be chin positive. I can deal with anything, but a triple chin is a hard place to land.” That is definitively not a body-neutral viewpoint.
While having complicated feelings about our bodies is normal, and internalized fatphobia is unfortunately fairly common, there are countless other celebrity body neutrality and fat liberation advocates who would have made more sense for this collaboration.
That brings us to a second problem with choosing Dunham. Putting aside her own not-so-body-positive thoughts, the actress only represents one corner of the plus-size market. This is another common plus-size fashion trope 11 Honoré should have seen coming.
Dunham does live in a plus-size body, at least according to the majority of plus retailers' size charts, but she is considered to be a “small fat” in the plus-size community. And being a small fat has many advantages in the world of plus-size fashion, starting with their ability to shop in many mainstream stores and labels.
Dunham is also a wealthy white woman, and here it’s important to recognize the way privilege — and its lack thereof — is intersectional. Women of color, especially Black women, have worked tremendously hard to empower and publicize the body positive movement. Women like Gwendolyn DeVoe and Toccara Jones were pioneers in the plus-size fashion industry. Yet when it comes time to dole out mainstream recognition, The New York Times isn’t exactly knocking down their doors.
In fact, the entire concept and creation of fatphobia can be tied back to anti-Black racism. In her book “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” author and sociologist Sabrina Strings explains in detail how the desire to villainize Black women’s bodies resulted in thinness becoming the western ideal over the past 200 years. These stigmas arose as early on as the transatlantic slave trade. Before that time, having a more filled-out figure was actually considered normal and beautiful.
The plus-size community has had to fight every step of the way to be included, going so far as creating their own spaces (see: the body positive movement) to escape judgement and center celebration. Unfortunately many of those spaces have since been co-opted and watered down. When a person with Dunham’s influence and privilege gets an opportunity to bring luxury fashion to eager plus-size consumers and yet fails to remember the most marginalized members of those communities, it comes off as self-serving.
Fashion can seem inconsequential, but for the plus-size community, it's far from frivolous. Being able to live and work in clothing that fits and flatters is not the default for all Americans. Until it is, plus-size clothing lines and self-appointed “ambassadors” do not have the luxury of being this careless.