featurebanner_blackmilk_opedAMBER LOVE 17-MARCH-2014 Let’s get into the body shaming of nerd culture, shall we? Specifically, I am taking this time to address the retail portion of the pop culture industries. Plenty of our own people have felt the harassment and embarrassment of being overweight. I’m not even going to try sugarcoating this discussion. It’s honest and from my own perspective of a woman that went from obese to average to overweight again.

Today I tweeted: “We’ve advocated for gender inclusion into the geek worlds, but then designers make sure it’s only the skinny women that can enter.”

I may as well have said “white skinny women” but this post is more focused on size. I felt compelled to detail my thoughts here instead of the restrictions of 140 characters which would likely give the impression I was on a tirade. I’m too tired. I’m not on a tirade at all but I do wish to express how irritating life is as a larger-than-skeletal woman who happens to be a bit of a nerd.

When I began in cosplay, I wouldn’t do it until I felt comfortable with my body in spandex. Luckily in those early days I was dropping weight at a steady pace as I slowly gave up meat and fried foods then most dairy. And I’ve previously posted about how that didn’t help every area of my health since I still needed my gall bladder out and dropped the rest of the weight because of Vicodin finally achieving 120, the absolute last tick on that yellow shaded area of a chart that deemed me a healthy weight for the first time in my life. Do men even know about those charts? About those shaded areas that are yellow, orange and red? I strived and dreamed of getting into that fucking yellow shaded area of a chart.

ME WITH ALEX ROSS AND JOHN CASSADAY 2008
ME WITH ALEX ROSS AND JOHN CASSADAY 2008

I was finally able to wear “babydoll” and “women’s cut” nerd shirts like ones that said “Comic Book Lover” or had a favorite character like Firestar on it and I wouldn’t look like a dude or a pregnant woman in a giant shirt with shoulders in the completely wrong place. I had arrived.

Not for long.

I certainly enjoyed the couple of years I had when I was able to be geek chic. Not once did I feel like I was doing any harm in portraying the average comic loving woman. I didn’t betray my curves or other women that continued to wear the Men’s only variety beefy tees which they had to do because they weren’t given any options. I loved simple designs like a character logo or even the Alex Ross paintings and found the ultra-busy covered in flames and glitter variety not my taste but they sold well at the store so I voiced zero opinion.

There is always a ton of debate about the “shrink it and pink it” problem with women’s merchandise. On the one hand, we, as women want some gender neutrality in marketing; on the other hand, some of us have bodies that are not going to be comfortable in men’s clothes nor should anyone expect us to not have any options at all. So some corporation decides, “WE’LL MAKE IT TINY AND PINK AND WOMEN WILL BE HAPPY!”

Here’s where some people get lost in my spaghetti-like stream of consciousness. I adore little pink things covered in glitter. My phone cases are pink. My steering wheel cover is pink. I used to write with a pen that was topped with a fluffy pink feather (think Cher in CLUELESS). I have no problem with the option of a Superman or Batman logo in pink as long as it’s an OPTION and not the only thing available in a woman’s size. I’ve really only seen this “pinking” in the tiny/petite versions of geek chic. I haven’t noticed larger sizes with this; I’ve felt that there must be a correlation to dainty women and the desire to wear a pink Bat logo. Once again, I felt excluded. Why can’t I be 150 pounds and have cute pink things too that actually fit?

Arguing over the rail thin models of the runways has been going on for decades and will not change. I’ve been pleased to see that some designers of haute couture take diversity seriously enough that they have older more mature models or models in wheelchairs or models with breasts that aren’t the equivalent of a 9-year-old boy. It’s rare even in this day and age of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence telling people to fuck off if they criticize her body, but a small amount of designers do get the point. I’m not about to waste too much time thinking about the runways because I want to specifically address our small niche of the fashion world with nerdy clothes.

superherostuff-teeSuperheroStuff.com and Graffiti Designs (one of the manufacturers of geek clothes) don’t have more than a few photos showing real live models if any at all. SuperheroStuff uses an interesting method by showing the shirts on torso displays. The displays are pure white not Caucasian white, without heads, arms or anything except the plastic torso to show the shape of a cut.

ThinkGeek, one of my favorite places, has a few models and they don’t look skeletal; honestly these might be some of the most “normal/average” looking models I’ve ever seen and while they aren’t all Caucasian, most are because their women’s department is mostly from HerUniverse. HU CEO Ashley Eckstein is somewhat thin but not skeletal and she sports luxurious blonde locks. She happens to be the main model of her products. Anyone shopping for a nerd woman is spoonfed the idea that Eckstein is the representation of “nerd girl” and after a hundred images of her I can’t help but think every subscious has been embedded with the notion that she is what “we” are expected to look like. ThinkGeek only shows models in about 25% of the women’s shirt catalog; the rest feature only the shirt with the torso mannequin removed from the pictures so the eyes have nothing to focus on except the product.

Focal point is one of the constant defenses of why designers want those skeletal models. They espouse that a bony thin model forces the viewers to see the clothes not the body. Well, that’s kind of true. I mean the bodies are barely visible since the legs and arms are the size of toothpicks. But, as I said, at this point of the fashion timeline, it is a losing battle to expect the top selling brands to change their ways since it obviously makes them money and works for them.

When I think of an average nerdy woman, I don’t think of rail thin boney models.  The women I personally know are average to plus to obese size women. It’s doubtful rail thin is the market stores should be targeting with their website/catalog models.

BLACK MILK CLOTHING LISTINGS
BLACK MILK CLOTHING LISTINGS

This brings me to Black Milk Clothing, a retailer that specializes in the female nerd market with fashions and accessories. Before I get slammed — I KNOW the models they have are real people with real feelings; this isn’t about outlawing them. It’s about asking for more. More options. More ethics. Non-artists and non-photographers are beginning to spot bad Photoshopping of “thigh gap” in ads and product listings. This is a good thing. Call the editors out on that garbage! Even models THAT thin get Photoshopped. When plus size models have it happen, it’s just as insulting because it’s yet another indicator we aren’t attractive enough no matter what.

When I so much as glance at Black Milk promotions, their models turn me off completely as do their sizes and prices. Their idea of a “dress” is a tunic/shirt to me but alas, I may be getting old. Clearly this is a company that does not ever intend to reach women like me as their target which is totally fine if they want to pretend they are haute, though they are not. They are more like the Bloomingdale’s pocketbook than Milan. I can’t begrudge their success. There are plenty of makers that don’t see women like me as their target.

Black Milk bothers me because it’s geek chic and I am already a minority in a niche market merely by being a woman with far less options than my male counterparts who want to express their nerdy sides. Even though I only know two women who look like Black Milk models (except for their ethnicity), I know a few who have purchased their clothes; and the clothes don’t look like they do on the models. I wonder who is buying their stuff and how this company is staying in business. Everyone gets excited when a new product line is launched whether it’s STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS but I’ve only noticed their apparel in the wild on two or three occasions. If their clothes aren’t flattering, what is going on? I can only deduce, it must purely be the fun factor of showing off a particular fandom. And fun is great! And if what you’re wearing isn’t flattering and you don’t care, power to you. Sometimes I don’t a fuck either.

HOT TOPIC DRESS LISTING
HOT TOPIC DRESS LISTING

Hot Topic… They have adorable clothes but either they only employ two models, one of whom happens to be a skinny white chick or they have a laboratory in Los Angeles that clones them. Even this chick is not as skeletal as Black Milk’s displays but they’re pretty close. The one category Hot Topic has that shows a different model body type is under Dresses where you can see a plus size girl donning pretty things labeled 2XL – 4XL but it’s definitely less than 25% of the dresses. Don’t look under the swimwear category if you expect to see anything over a size 0 figure. And, for some weird reason, the product listings cut off the top half of everyone’s heads. I don’t know why you’d bother with a hair and makeup team if you’re going to do that.

Etsy is doing wonders for making the average woman feel able to express her nerd persona. People are making corsets, skirts, dresses and aprons. Some are modifying tees in creative punk rock ways. There’s definitely an appeal to having an item come from an ethical crafter instead of sweatshop too. Sometimes the prices are still prohibitive though because items are not mass produced and often made by a single person working out of her home. A setback is that when you order, the item might not actually be available because a lot of Etsy crafters make things to order not to have in stock. That means if you want something for next weekend’s convention, you might not have it.

When fans of comics/entertainment express that they want to see characters, actors, or any representation more like themselves, there’s no reason to exclude models of pop culture products from this desire. Ethnic minorities are starting to be heard. There’s less but still quite present chatter and buzz about LGBT representation. Other than the occasional rant by comic fans about the difference between sexualized, irresponsibly drawn female characters versus the power fantasies of the males, there’s not really any talk about body figures with weight. I understand this is absurd in the superhero genre; you can’t even address that since the superhero is a perfect specimen. Let’s talk about everything non-cape:

amber (20) subculture tshirt mike ninja– Is there a horror book where the female figures are fat?
– Is there a western one?
– Is there a sci-fi one?
– What about fantasy where typically the women are wearing less than any other genre even if you stitched all the outfits together and compared them to one superhero costume?

Really the only time you’ll see a body with any kind of realism is when it’s a realistic book, a slice of life comic and those characters aren’t going to have merchandise lines of tee shirts, trading cards, lunch boxes, or cosmetics. As I was drafting this, Comic Book Resources posted a combined interview with Riley Rossmo, Kurtis Wiebe and Hope Larson where RAT QUEENS is primarily focused upon as having body diversity. I’ve never read that book but the anthropomorphic characters seem cute.

Ok, so one comic has some body diversity. Now can we get the designers and retailers of the merchandise to use diverse bodies in their promotions?

4 comments on “Body Diversity in Pop Culture Retail Market – PLEASE!”

  1. About ThinkGeek: I once ordered an “XL” babydoll tee from them. It arrived and was way, WAY too small when I tried it on. I wear a size 14 and estimated that the shirt was about s size 6/8 — yet it was labeled and sold as “extra large.” It made me never want to buy “women’s cut” shirts from there again (incidentally, the “unisex”/men’s size shirts I’ve gotten from them are all true to size.) It also made me feel much as you’ve described feeling in your essay — that non-skinny women aren’t welcome in geekdom 😛

    • Yep, it’s been years since I ordered anything from ThinkGeek and I miss that. I want to wear my freak flag on my sleeves like everyone else.

  2. I have long been a fan of your site and your postings and I couldn’t agree more. I am a guy, but I’m on the larger size, I don’t understand the fascination with these skinny women in marketing and cloth manufacturing. I often wonder how some of these companies stay in business, since most of the people you see on the street and in stores don’t fit the XS sizes they sell anyway.

    • I’ve gotten a few private messages from men who confide that they have these feelings too. No one deserves to feel like crap just because you want the selections by corporate executives to be broadened.

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