The fashion industry has been criticized for promoting impossible body images by pressuring models, directly or indirectly, to remain as skinny as possible. Nevertheless, so-called plus-size models have become well-represented in the industry over the past 30 years. In the beginning, it was a necessary business move. The average consumer of women’s apparel isn’t as thin as the average supermodel, and so designers had to hire women with fuller figures to show off their wares. Eventually, even haute couture houses started hiring larger women, if only to seem different or to prove they weren’t prejudiced against anyone who wore a dress size bigger than a 4. Though these women were notably heavier, by any standard most wouldn’t be considered overweight. In a different age and profession they would have been deemed “healthy,” but as with any endeavor that relies on image, plus-size modeling eventually came under fire when it was learned that some women were using padding to fill out their figures, or indulging on salty food to retain water and thus a zaftig outline, or even undergoing plastic surgery. Apparently, it takes as much effort to remain big as it does to stay small.
Another complaint leveled against plus-size modeling is that it doesn’t include all women. Asians tend to be under-represented, a situation that may reflect different cultural trends. Japanese women, for instance, are considered the thinnest in the world when factors such as GDP and height are taken into consideration. In fact, they’re getting thinner, a development that could imply an increased susceptibility to eating disorders. The media has a lot to do with such trends, and the slimming of the Japanese female follows norms pushed by celebrities and popular fashion models, like Akemi Darenogare, who is currently sharing with 170,000 Twitter followers her secret to losing 7 kg in three months, which sounds unhealthy but is accepted as an accomplishment.
Consequently, the success of a new magazine that celebrates full-figured women could be seen as a sign that Japanese women aren’t going to fade away. La Farfa, an abbreviation of the Italian word for “butterfly,” was launched last year, and the first issue sold out its initial printing of 50,000 copies almost immediately. The publisher, Bunkasha, increased the print run for the next issue and sold 100,000 copies. Originally planned as a semi-annual publication, it has been boosted to a bi-monthly. The editor-in-chief recently told Tokyo Shimbun that the purpose of La Farfa is to make larger Japanese women feel normal by not hiding what’s natural. They’ve even run features of their plus-size models in bikinis. “In a conventional fashion magazine you’ll never see a roll of fat extending over the waistband,” she says. “Our readers appreciate that sort of thing.”
Moreover, the indirection characteristic of conventional fashion magazines is absent. Most clothing publications are essentially catalogs for fashion houses and apparel makers, with the models showing readers how a particular garment should be worn. When clothing for larger women is presented, certain code words are used, such as kiase, which suggests an illusion of thinness, or kakusu, which means to “hide” proportions, usually by means of loose fabric. The whole point of the magazine’s fashion spreads is to show that the clothing looks good on larger figures without trying to fool anyone into believing those figures aren’t, in fact, larger.
When describing how a garment looks on a particular body line, La Farfa uses a series of animal-related phrases: “pigeon-shaped” refers to women with ample breasts, while “penguin-shaped” describes someone with a prominent abdomen. These aren’t necessarily euphemisms. As one of the magazine’s regular models told Tokyo Shimbun at an event La Farfa was holding at Isetan department store in Tokyo, she believes that by just being herself she can change people’s perception of larger women. “We can even laugh about our bodies,” she said.
As with all matters having to do with the image of women in the Japanese media, part of the acceptance of larger models has to do with infantilization. Just as thinness is associated with preadolescence, larger women, or, at least, younger ones, are considered by definition cuter, and the word that La Farfa favors to describe this rounder shape is potchari, which sounds like a kid’s word. The international fashion industry follows politically correct conventions by using terms such as plus-size and full-figure, but Japanese fashion wants to add a layer of childish appeal. Just as a Western fashion magazine would never call a model fat or chubby, a Japanese one would never use the word debu.
Unless, of course, they were talking about a TV personality, and it should be noted that the cover of the latest issue of La Farfa features Naomi Watanabe, probably the most popular full-figured personality on TV right now. Watanabe got her start by lip-syncing and dancing to Beyonce’s hit “Crazy In Love,” and while her larger size was the initial novelty point, it was her skillful moves and comedic sense that made her a minor star. There have always been male “debu” talent, usually comedians, who play off their big bellies and soft chins for laughs. A few, such as Hidehiko Ishizuka, have made a lucrative living as regulars on food travel programs scarfing to their heart’s content, the idea being that larger people really know about food and don’t worry about how much they can eat.
Women debu talent are rarer. The most popular, opera singer Kimiko Mori, has not been seen on TV much after she lost a lot of weight (on a variety show, naturally), thus negating her ostensible selling point as a TV personality. Nevertheless, if you visit her blog you’ll see she still obsesses over food, which may be the real appeal that larger women hold in the public’s mind. They don’t deny their appetites. Many people find that not only liberating, but sexy.