A couple weeks ago, plus-size clothing brand Lane Bryant revealed its latest social media campaign, #PlusIsEqual. With a stunning advertorial spread that appeared everywhere from our own site to Vogue's September issue (the only two pages in the entire magazine that featured plus-size women), a slogan that tugged at our hearts, and a press strategy that stressed openness, dialogue, and feedback, it felt like Lane Bryant had truly heard all the criticism of #ImNoAngel, its last campaign. But, something was lost in translation at its very well-attended, very public event in Times Square, leaving many attendees to question whether one of our biggest corporate allies truly understands the realities of being a plus-size woman. Only five months ago, Lane Bryant gave us its #ImNoAngel campaign, which quickly went viral on social media. Some praised the unapologetic use of plus-size models in lingerie, leaving scars and stretch marks un-retouched, and a sassy hashtag that seemed to strike back at its thinner competitors. Others felt that the campaign was othering, creating yet another separation between full- and slim-figured women, and worse still, that it only features what has been considered an “acceptable” plus-size form — the hourglass. The statement of #ImNoAngel seemed like a deliberate dig at Victoria's Secret, obviously jabbing at its iconic “Angels,” but also leaving plus fans of both brands to wonder: If we're no angels, then what are we?
When #PlusIsEqual first appeared, many, including myself, initially felt pleased with this new approach; it felt politically charged, a motto that would demand equality for marginalized bodies. But the lineup of beauties silhouetted in the ads still reflected only one size and shape of fuller-figured women, leaving many within the plus community feeling that their concerns had fallen on deaf ears (and that body-positive messaging, no matter how earnest, becomes compromised when marketed by a corporation). But Lane Bryant CEO Linda Heasley encouraged us all to speak up if we had concerns; in an interview with us about the new campaign, she asked, “I would love your readers to send us their thoughts. Just tweet it to get online and let us know.” And with the brand promising a “Times Square takeover” for #PlusIsEqual, we were curious to see what would happen next. What happened was a smorgasbord of mixed messaging. For every empowering moment — like when Heasley, stylist Susan Moses, and Glamour magazine writer Lauren Chan spoke, or when the beautiful campaign models appeared on stage, or Candice Huffine and Ashley Graham delivered heartfelt speeches — there was a truly offensive snafu. The street team quickly ran out of #PlusIsEqual-branded T-shirts in sizes above an XL (and according to one blogger, they never had any larger shirts to begin with). Then, there was a female comedian who opened with a joke about how she had lost weight, and made a crack about how her loft bed could only hold 250 pounds, so any guy she dated could only weigh 110. There were plenty of people at the event who on their own weighed 250 pounds or more, so a 140-pound woman insinuating she was fat to the full-figured crowd wasn't exactly hilarious. (Said Sarah Chiwaya of Curvily, "[The] self-deprecating, cringe-worthy fat jokes were 1) not funny and 2) SO inappropriate for what was supposed to be an event celebrating body diversity.") Lane Bryant CMO Brian Beitler responded via email, "Part of the reason [the comedian] was there was because she was our size customer for a large portion of her life. We are excited for her personal journey, but at the same time the event was not about weight loss. We should not be condemning her or anyone else for achieving their personal goals.” There was also some confusion surrounding the event's two celebrity guests, Brad Goreski and Wendy Williams — the latter having come out in support of embattled Youtube fat-shamer Nicole Arbour. (At the event, she made some off-color remarks to a Huffington Post reporter that likened plus-size women to refrigerators.) Afterwards, Heasley said the following of the pair: "We like Wendy and Brad because of what they do for women. They're very skilled at bringing the best out of women, and they feel the same way we do: It's time to change, and it's time for the fashion industry to take notice of that."
My own feelings upon leaving the event were like I had just attended a political rally — but a rally for what, exactly? Every positive message Lane Bryant put forth was met with a contrarian and hurtful one, if you look at Sarah Sapora, Corissa from Fat Girl Flow, and Laura Dickman's coverage of it. Blogger Virgie Tovar told me, “While [hired] people were chanting 'plus is equal!' wearing Lane Bryant T-shirts in the middle of Times Square, women in attendance who wear actual plus-size clothing were effectively being shut out of the experience. Plus-size customers have already experienced considerable feelings of alienation culturally, particularly in the fashion industry. So for Lane Bryant to use equality focused language, plan a rally, and invite press while putting no thought into making their clientele feel like they actually belonged there has the potential to re-traumatize a population that already experiences enough stigma. This tendency to trot out the skin of a gutted politic is not new, but if Lane Bryant is going to claim that #PlusIsEqual, they’re going to have to be accountable to a group of women who deserve better.” When we asked Beitler about the negative feedback, he told us, "We did not anticipate how many people would show up for the event. We learned a valuable lesson and will be much better prepared for future events." Some may say to critique the event is looking too closely, taking too personally what is essentially a clothing advertisement. But when a company claims to be here for more than just our money, it is fair game to hold it to that. If Lane Bryant wants to claim that #PlusIsEqual, then why were the models reflective of only one shape and size? Customers are crying out for a truer portrayal of their bodies and they aren't getting it. For women who are already marginalized in a body-focused society, this complete lack of representation — from a plus-size brand, no less — continues to confirm to fuller-figured women that their bodies are considered unacceptable.
This is not to take down Lane Bryant — the brand has done more to empower and clothe the plus community than any other. Lane Bryant has shown that it is reading our suggestions and complaints, and it has been tailoring its advertisements to hit some of those notes. Hopefully the powers that be are still listening: Lane Bryant, to stand before a banner proclaiming #PlusIsEqual you need to show that all plus bodies are equal to each other. Your next campaign would be even more powerful and boundary-breaking if you showcased an actual variety of bodies, and that may mean looking beyond professional models. Show bodies with bigger bellies, thicker thighs, fleshier arms; show women who wear sizes 18, 20, 26 — like so many of your paying customers do. Show a more realistic vision of your actual customers, and then don't belittle their experiences in the same space that you use to celebrate them. All things being equal? We'd like that a whole lot.