The Profound Anti-Feminism of Corporate ‘Thinlash’ and Fat-Shaming
Last year, while I was walking in a large, East Coast city, I passed a new store called Brandy Melville. When I walked in to take a look around, a salesperson approached me to explain their ‘one-size’ sales philosophy. Apparently, at Brandy Melville, all the clothes are ‘one size,’ which I admittedly assumed meant ‘one size fits all,’ an approach consistent with our stated values of inclusivity. But upon further inquiry, I found out that ‘one size’ actually only fits one, and guess which ‘one’ it is? Yes. The thin one. Brandy Melville’s choice of ‘one size’ is the exact small size that represents a sort of ‘backlash’ of size-ism, an approach which rewards ‘small’ females with inclusivity and, as a corollary, excludes larger females.
This repetitive backlash behavior was noted by Susan Faludi in her best-selling book Backlash: The Undeclared War on American Women, published in 1988, where she writes that the fashion industry responded to advances in women’s rights by promoting the infantilization of both women’s bodies and the clothes. In the larger context, this approach represents a form of social control referred to as ‘discipline’ by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who understood that members of society could be used as objects in order to help maintain the current power structure. As a social construct, Brandy Melville’s exclusionary approach to sizing represents a form of this social control.
Brandy Melville’s Instagram feed features “the typical ‘Brandy girl’”, who is Californian, blonde, thin, and popular, spending most of her time on the beach and with friends. The brand actively searches for models from its own customer base.”
Brandy Melville (BM) is an Italian-based company which first opened in the US in 2009. Most of its clothing is designed to fit a UK size 4–6, or US/CA size 2–4. BM has defended this decision, stating that “many of the styles are baggy and loose-fitting, or made from stretchy fabrics to incorporate a wider range of sizes…there’s ‘something for everyone’ even if some customers can only fit into the over-sized t-shirts and sweatshirts.” This response displays a degree of considered ignorance: that is, the company feels it can speak on behalf of ‘everyone’ — which presumably includes the larger women who are, in actuality, excluded. As a form of gaslighting, this distracts from the fundamental reality: the point is that the approach is exclusionary.
Not surprisingly, BM’s Instagram feed features “the typical ‘Brandy girl’”, who is Californian, blonde, thin, and popular, spending most of her time on the beach and with friends. The brand actively searches for models from its own customer base.” ( https://ldnfashion.com/features/brandy-melville-facts/). Ultimately, BM admits its goal is to focus on dressing thin females, those already constructed as appropriately ‘pretty’ and ‘small.’ As part of the larger context of feminism and inclusion, BM represents a backlash in a society which attempts to move forward by including women who are larger and may pose a threat to the ‘petite ‘n sweet’ image which supports a patriarchal society.
Foucault defines discipline as “the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. It is not a triumphant power, which because of its own excess can pride itself on its omnipotence; it is a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy.”
In this sense, ‘backlash’ is a sort of discipline in the manner Michel Foucault explained in his book Discipline and Punish. Foucault defines discipline as “the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. It is not a triumphant power, which because of its own excess can pride itself on its omnipotence; it is a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy.” (170) In this sense, backlash behavior of any kind is a discipline in which society’s power base (corporate) uses the bodies of females as the instruments of dominance through an implied subordination by size. This objectification extends to the clothing, which in this case requires a small size to uphold the sensibility of subordination. BM is a kind of tool — a fashion tool — used not only to elevate the concept of the ‘small’ size but also to go a step further: it actively excludes those who don’t fit into this construct because they don’t appear to be adequately ‘little-girl’ to men who prefer to feel as if they are in control.
In Faludi’s Backlash, she notes that “These were clothes, the [designer] Lacroix said, ‘for women who like to dress up like little girls.’” (169)
In the 1980’s, Faludi wrote, in her book Backlash, that the fashion industry was “pushing ‘little-girl’ dresses and ‘slender silhouettes’ at a time when the average American woman was thirty-two years old, weighed 143 lbs, and wore a size 10 or 12 dress” and quoted the designer Lacroix, who stated outright that these were clothes for “‘women who like to dress up like little girls.’” (169–171). Faludi elaborated the way in which the fashion industry infantilizes women as backlash to feminist advances, creating profit while simultaneously making women seem less mature and capable through these images. As a result, the feminist advances in equality and independence are counteracted by a generally patriarchal society in which the fashion industry is only one ‘discipline’ which attempts to maintain/restore male dominance. The context of fashion is particularly appealing with regard to equal rights because it infantilizes women while creating profit for the same group which benefits from this infantilization.
Unfortunately, and despite the fact that more than three decades have passed since the publication of Faludi’s book, this form of patriarchal ‘double-dipping’ continues to do double duty for the patriarchy, pulling back against the significant progress women have made and continue to make with regard to financial success and independence. Like other forms of backlash, this ‘thinlash’ operates to restore the patriarchal equilibrium in the face of advances which are perceived by those men in power as a threat to their dominance. Why a system so toxic and long-standing (the entire course of the human race, at least as far as we know) persists clearly has nothing to do with quality or value; it is simply about the careful exercise of power, a discipline which, as Foucault indicates, allows the powerful to maintain power.
“They were pushing ‘little-girl’ dresses and ‘slender silhouettes’ at a time when the average American woman was thirty-two years old, weighed 143 lbs, and wore a size 10 or 12 dress.” (Faludi, Backlash, 171)
Controlling women by making them believe they must be thin not only to fit in but also to be merely included forces a variant of Stockholm Syndrome: the ‘captive’ of these continuous images as well as the presence of stores like BM tells women that being small is both attractive and the only means to inclusion. For women who are thin, this requirement forces constant attention to their weight. For larger women, this approach functions as a form of ostracism through its utter exclusion. Ultimately, it is a negotiation of power: how to keep women small, apparently passive, ‘little girl’-like, and ultimately, subordinate.
As I was walking around the store, I found myself wondering how larger teenagers and women react: do they wait outside the dressing room without any potential clothing options while their friends are inside? Do they take a few items and pretend to try them on even though it is obvious that they won’t fit into them, a situation which is intrinsically shaming? Do they wait outside near the city’s local bike rack? Do they amuse themselves at the card store across the street?
This one-size concept is not only exclusionary but also involves conveying ugly messages to young women at a very impressionable age. But maybe this is the point: just a reminder to society that women really shouldn’t be achievers at all: that they should take their proper subordinate positions as petite and sweet ‘little girls’ whose clothing reflects nothing more than a message to the patriarchy assuring them that they are simultaneously dominant and, as a bonus, profiting greatly from it as well.