– Voluptuous Women Wanted: Kristin Herout’s Graduate School Project

Starting in February 2008, posters across the Northern Illinois University campus called for voluptuous women to participate in an unusual photography session. Kristin Herout, a 23 year old graduate student and professional photographer, needed some models to complete the photography portion of her graduate project which included a scholarly paper examining ads in Cosmopolitan magazine over time.

According to the poster, Herout needed women with “real booty, boobs, and hips.” A voluptuous woman herself, Herout was looking for models to recreate designer ads found in popular fashion magazines with a particular focus of portraying plus-size models in the same way thinner models were shown.

I was really pleased to hear about Herout’s project. In college, my entire class was shown a video on the media’s portrayal of women and women’s bodies. The video was filled with very thin women who were considered the standard for beauty, an oft-discussed topic. I think most people have heard or participated in a conversation on standards of beauty, whether they are realistic or not, and the way in which these standards affect society, specifically women. This is the conversation our film viewing facilitated.

I agree that the ubiquity of wafer thin models and actresses creates an unrealistic standard of beauty. I think it is obvious that women do not come in one shape or in a range of three sizes. It is ludicrous that the media only presents such a minority of women’s bodies as beautiful. A breath of fresh air, not only was Herout using shapely models in her photographs, her goal was to recreate ads in the exact same way.

Herout argued that when plus-size models are photographed for advertisements, they encounter different treatment than thinner models. She specifically discussed models used in bridal ads, stating that the plus-size bride “is given a simpler dress, simpler background and loses the sexy mysteriousness that is common in haute-couture models.”

She also described that “the plus-size girl wears a huge toothy smile, therefore there are different expectations for a woman of larger stature compared to a thinner model.” She gave examples of thinner models being given more exotic make-up and location shots than their plus-size counterparts, reinforcing the idea that thinner models received preferential treatment.

Herout’s goal was to mimic couture ads and feature curvy models and by following the link above you can see examples of recreations compared to the originals. Assuming that Herout had neither the budget nor the team of make-up artists, dressers and assistants that cover girls have, I think she did a fair job recreating the selected ads.

Unfortunately, she seems to have included some characteristics in her recreations that she was originally arguing against. In some of the images shown the models sport what she called the “toothy grin”, though the original models did not. Also, she did not use any ads with the more exaggerated make-up that she listed as one of the preferences given to thinner models.

I appreciate and agree with her project and arguments, but I wish she had done a little more with her execution. I would have loved to see recreations of some edgier ads with over-the-top make up, hair and bold backdrops. At first reading, I was very pleased with her project, until I started to really study her recreations. I still support and agree with her arguments, but it was even more disappointing that she did not live up to her own standards.

It is a challenge to find sexy and mysterious full-figured models in the media. Clothing designed for larger women tends to be shapeless and unflattering. Designers for the average woman (meaning what the average woman can afford) are beginning to design flattering clothing that show off curves while being stylish and contemporary. Unfortunately, the models used for these clothes tend to be sizes 12 or 14 but taller than average, which again is only showing up to a certain size body type. Though sexy plus-sized clothes are easier to find, it’s still difficult to find the truly plus-sized models.

Herout is one of many people fighting to change the tides for plus-sized women, but even her approach had its faults.