Cosmopolitan Magazine’s ‘Size Hero’ Campaign Makes Zero Sense

The difficulty of trying to buy well-fitting clothes is real. So is our tendency to feel bad about our bodies. But this campaign is going to do precisely zero to help. Here’s why.

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Great news, guys: Cosmopolitan magazine has dedicated its August 2013 issue to helping ‘average’ women find clothes that fit. How? A body image campaign called ‘Size Hero’ that advocates “sexy at every size”.

Readers are being urged to sign an e-petition to designers and retailers, calling on them to make a broader size range available in their stores. The petition also asks clothing manufacturers to produce plus-size sample garments — that is, ones larger than a standard size eight or ten — so that magazines including Cosmo can dress plus-size models and regular readers in their fashion editorials.

“It’s not about a token nod to curvy girls…”, Cosmo‘s editor, Bronwyn McCahon, explains in her campaign launch letter. “Showcasing body diversity at both ends of the spectrum has become part of Cosmo’s DNA. But here’s our problem: every month when I meet with Cosmo’s fashion team, we hit the same roadblock when looking at clothes for our size-14+ fashion stories: very limited options… But in the spirit of not passing the buck, we want to do something about it.”

The difficulty of trying to buy well-fitting clothes is real. So is our tendency to feel bad about our bodies. But this campaign is going to do precisely zero to help. Here’s why.

Size Is An Industrial Issue, Not An Emotional One

The campaign’s first problem is that it’s trying to address a structural issue in an emotive way. As I discovered when researching my book Out of Shape, people are fundamentally confused between ‘fit’ — which is a subjective and culturally mediated response to the way clothes interact with our individual bodies — and ‘size’, which is the impersonal, industrial system by which clothes are mass-manufactured to fit a range of different bodies.

When we mix up size and fit, we expect mass-produced garments to fit our bodies perfectly, and get angry or upset when they don’t. We also cultivate a weirdly personal relationship with the arbitrary numbers on clothing tags, allowing the size we identify with to govern our emotional response to clothing.

The mainstream media only make the confusion worse. We regularly hear that skinny models promote eating disorders while plus-size models worsen an ‘obesity crisis’. We hear a lot about the deceptive practice of ‘vanity sizing’ and the need for standardised clothing sizes.

And, most infuriatingly, the media suggest that these structural issues can magically be resolved if women simply learn to ‘love’ their bodies — preferably with the help of celebrity role models and expert stylists.

Fashion Brands Aren’t In The Warm Fuzzies Business

There’s no such thing as ‘vanity sizing’. Instead, clothing brands arrange their sizing to minimise their costs and appeal to the majority of their customers. They make relatively few of the smallest and largest sizes in their ranges, because the medium size always sells best.

When a brand sells more outlier sizes, that’s a sign its customer base is evolving. In turn, the brand will revise its sizing so that the most popular size is again the medium size. If you’ve been buying a particular brand for a while, you might notice this happening. And you’ll have noticed the sizing differences between brands.

These companies are not trying to fool, flatter or exclude you. It’s not about you at all. It’s about streamlining production and protecting the brand’s bottom line. Even when brands change their sizing, it’s a strategic decision. A decade ago, Rip Curl revised its women’s sizing after measuring its female customers aged 12-24. Its sales leapt by 86 per cent the following year.

Cosmo’s campaign is asking clothing manufacturers to shoulder the financial risk of overhauling their sizing strategies, for what reward? Warm fuzzies. This is unreasonable. Fashion retail is already a precarious industry; brands can’t afford to waste money on goodwill gestures.

It’s also pretty lazy of Cosmo to say they can’t feature more plus-size models unless designers provide them with more generously sized sample garments. There are plenty of labels producing cute plus-size clothes, and if magazine fashion editors genuinely claim to serve ordinary women, they can track these clothes down just as consumers are expected to do.

Even straight-size sample garments can be used creatively. In 2011, Vogue Australia managed to dress plus-size model Robyn Lawley in beautiful designer clothes, while in 2010, American magazine V dressed straight-size model Jacquelyn Jablonski and plus-size model Crystal Renn in the same outfits.

Plus-size model Robyn Lawley in Vogue Australia, September 2011.

Plus-size model Robyn Lawley in Vogue Australia, September 2011.

Body Image Tokenism Is Business As Usual

Cosmopolitan’s campaign is nothing new. Glossy women’s magazines are constantly making ridiculous pledges to champion ‘positive body image’. US magazine Glamour declared a “body image revolution” in 2009. Closer to home, Mamamia editor Mia Freedman helped oversee a voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image, and since that didn’t work, she’s helped spearhead the Australian Positive Body Image Awards.

In the spurious world of ‘body image’, it’s apparently important to wear as little as possible. Bikini-clad radio presenter Kate Langbroek leapt from a cake in 2011 to encourage women to be “body-confident”, while alleged comedian Julia Morris and commentator Catherine Deveny have also donned swimwear in the media to demonstrate their pride and self-determination.

In 2009, Madison got a bunch of Australian celebs to pose nude and spout drivel about being “comfortable in their skin”. And Cleo magazine ran a nude photo shoot of plus-size model Teer Wayde in its December 2012 issue.

It is comically naive to think we can counteract a lifetime’s worth of immersive, pervasive cultural messages about body size and shape just by bunging a few scantily clad celebs and plus-size models in magazines. But weird magical thinking aside, we should reject all these campaigns for the same reason: they teach us that our bodies are other people’s property, to be gazed at and judged. You shouldn’t need Cosmo’s permission — or anyone else’s — to feel good about yourself.

Sexiness Is Not A Human Right

Cosmo is agitating for women’s right to look “sexy at every size”. Inside the magazine, celebrities including Charlotte Best, Cheyenne Tozzi, Zoe Marshall, Jesinta Campbell, Melissa Bergland, Virginia Gay and Melanie Vallejo don ‘Size Hero’ singlet tops for what the magazine calls “a phenomenal cause!”

Whoa. Sexiness is not a ‘cause’. Let’s put this in perspective. People in Turkey are marching against their repressive government. Texas state politician Wendy Davis filibustered for 10 hours to prevent her parliament from legislating to sharply restrict women’s access to abortion. These are causes worth championing. Whereas sexiness isn’t a goddamn human right. It’s a demeaning social expectation shouldered disproportionately by women.

It’s great if you feel sexy, but the pressure women face to look sexy is nothing to celebrate or agitate for. Put plainly: it’s not our job to decorate other people’s world and manage other people’s desire. We’ve got better things to do with our bodies and our time. Yet Cosmo is insisting that how we look is still the most important thing about us — not our inner lives, or what we can accomplish.

The most alarming and damaging thing about Cosmopolitan’s campaign is the way it reduces women’s concern with well-fitting clothes to this moronic goal of sexiness. How about comfort? Looking professional at work? Feeling confident and capable as you go about your everyday life? These are all important reasons to want clothes that fit.

As things stand, Cosmopolitan itself is the only party that benefits from the Size Hero campaign. It’s an attempt — and not even a particularly original one — to position Cosmo as the ‘good guys’ in a perennially challenging debate. It’s insulting and utterly ineffective, but at least it’ll shift copies of the mag.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop-culture magazine The Enthusiast and the national film editor of the Thousands network of city guides. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now through Affirm Press.