Let’s talk about the Durham University Charity Fashion Show (DUCFS). Throughout my three years here I have watched the events of these shows unfold and the same question has popped into my head: where are the plus-size students? Whether this is the event organisers or the models, I am yet to see a plus-size body in any of DUCFS’ promos. This is more than a mere coincidence. As a big girl myself, seeing the models of DUCFS having the same slim, toned physiques serves as an annual reminder that society doesn’t deem my body as beautiful. I am not alone in this feeling.
What I find most frustrating about this lack of representation is how little those outside of the plus-size community notice. I have heard countless times that this show is “diverse”. But how in the world can it claim to be diverse when it lacks body diversity? Is the fat community simply invisible to the slimmer students of Durham? I have had conversations with friends who have all said that this lack of representation never occurred to them; its impact on plus-size students is never addressed.
Not seeing my body type on a stage where people are praised for their beauty hurts. It is alarmingly clear why bigger bodies are lacking in DUCFS shows too. Apart from the charity aspect, its main selling point is undoubtedly watching attractive men and women parade around. Unfortunately, the organisers of DUCFS seem to have attributed specific criteria to what is deemed attractive: skinny women and muscular men. Therefore, DUCFS is a slap in the face to the plus-size community. Through what seems like the deliberate exclusion of bigger bodies, DUCFS has projected one loud message: fat equals ugly.
I cannot solely blame the organisers of DUCFS for this treatment as it is, in part, derived from the inherent fatphobia rife in Durham University. This fatphobia produces two outcomes: we are either ignored or judged. Neither of these are a good outcome for a fashion show reliant on making money for charity. I am not necessarily outing those who run the Charity Fashion Show as fatphobic people, but there is a reason why we are yet to see a big model on the catwalk.
I have had many situations where my body has been told it isn’t good enough, whether that be from a stranger in a club or people I live with. Other students have also commented on this issue, one stating “I have never been made to feel more ugly than when I am here”. By DUCFS not including plus-size models, it perpetuates this harmful implication that fat bodies are undesirable.
This is evidenced by a model from another fashion show discussing how there is “a lot of diet talk behind the scenes”. They state that Durham fashion shows present a “narrative of thinness as desirable” which is pushed “so far towards ostracising plus-sized people”. This toxic narrative is damaging to not only bigger bodies, but existing models trying to maintain their physiques or their “desirability”.
Now I am sure that DUCFS and other fashion shows at Durham will excuse the absence of plus-size models through a lack of people auditioning. Models for DUCFS are allegedly scouted. If this is the case, I think we would all be interested to learn the criteria for such. Furthermore, why should it be the responsibility of plus-size students to instigate this representation? One model for another fashion show states, “being a bigger model in a show is in theory empowering, but when the culture is so focused on thinness it can make you feel at times like you don’t fit in…like there’s an inherent judgement”. The mental health of our students should not be put on the line in order to achieve something which should already be in place. Organisers of these events should be making a direct effort to recruit models of all sizes and provide a welcoming space for plus-size students.
The fashion shows are also naturally inaccessible for bigger bodies due to the clothes provided. A member of the audience of DUCFS commented on this saying that the show only had “a fraction of the spectrum of design that exists in fashion”. They furthered this critique by arguing that the lingerie walk had no “design merit… it was just an excuse to objectify thin people”.
This reinforces my original point: that DUCFS is not about the fashion or the clothes, it is about parading thin and muscular bodies to be adored by the audience. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say to DUCFS: do better.
Illustration: Samantha Fulton.