Dear plus-sized women, you’re still not welcome in mainstream advertising

Advertising in India may be ‘woke’, but it's still not truly inclusive, writes a journalist with Campaign India.

Why do brands in India only gravitate towards influencers and models who are conventionally thin? (Shutterstock)
Why do brands in India only gravitate towards influencers and models who are conventionally thin? (Shutterstock)

As a fat woman in India, I’ve never really seen where the ‘therapy’ in ‘retail therapy’ was supposed to kick in (unless it’s the kind of session where you sob copiously, maybe?). A clothes shopping expedition was a constant reminder of how you needed to be a certain size to find apparel that made you feel good in your skin.

Online shopping made this experience a bit better; the sizes are more inclusive, at least. The biggest advantage here was cutting the endless wait for a turn in the trial room only to find that the growing pile of ill-fitting clothes was inversely proportional to your self-esteem.

The year is 2021. And while it may not be one of the best years of our lives (an understatement if there ever was one) but it is still a time where the privileged among us can’t complain of having access to information that can enlighten us. We’re having more conversations about injustices, lopsided power dynamics, mental health, and politics, to name a few, more than ever before and we have more mediums than ever to participate in these discussions. We’re evolving as much as we can, identifying and correcting problematic behaviours as we grow and hopefully get to a place where we’re kinder, more understanding, more inclusive and celebratory of our differences as people. That’s the hope, anyway.

Some brands (and I mean an alarming number), seem to have blissfully ignored the memo, though. Every so often, you see a key brand with an ad so tone-deaf, you can’t help but wonder about the size of the rock the entire brand team has been living under. They cover the entire spectrum; some are racist, some are misogynistic, some don’t take mental health into account while some simply marginalise the already marginalised.

And some make a statement by pure omission.

Take this just-released Zivame ad, for instance. Prima facie, there’s nothing wrong with it. It features women from all walks of life celebrating their ‘inner desires’. However, the key takeaway is how the brand has all sorts of innerwear, underwear, shapewear, and activewear for all-sized women.

Except, where are the ‘all-sized’ women? In a one-minute ad, we see skinny to extremely fit women doing everything that most women don’t do on a normal day where we set out to ‘bust stereotypes’—special mention: breaking dahi handis in jeans, doing cartwheels on the beach, dancing in baraats in their nightwear—for instance (and thank god there wasn’t a group of biker women riding bikes to rock music).

The fat women saw a token representation of about 7-8 seconds—the most conspicuous one was at the end when Zivame needed to point out they have a ‘True Curv’ range. The rest is mostly women who won’t have any trouble finding apparel their size in any case. In a film that speaks of embracing inner desires and using intimate apparel to go forth and express yourselves, don’t plus-sized women deserve to be represented better?

Another not-very-recent ad that created conversation was Levi’s ad starring brand ambassador Deepika Padukone. Of course, it featured a group of women bikers, the poster children of liberated women if advertising were to be believed. Here, too, a barely chubby person made it to the ad; the rest were all skinny, toned women.

As a brand, Levi’s has a range of sizes to fit all kinds of hip and buttock sizes, making it a brand inclusive than most when it comes to jeans in particular. But then, if it caters to women of most sizes, why aren’t they good enough to be seen in the advertising? “When you take a step, we all move.” Who is the ‘all’ referring to here?

Sure, not all brands need to champion and represent all kinds of people in every ad. However, the expectation that at least apparel brands should fairly represent all bodies isn’t far off the mark, is it? All bodies—of all shapes, sizes, colours and heights—deserve equal space on-screen; apparel brands would do well to focus on this, too. Women are moving out of their comfort zones every day to express who they are—middle-aged women are dressing how they want without conforming to norms of how they need to ‘dress for their age’. Dusky women are wearing the colours they like, not what they ‘ought to’. Short women, tall women, are learning to embrace the ‘flaws’ society has convinced them they have, and clothes play a huge role in this journey. Brands are moving the needle slowly on normalising the aforementioned women, thankfully.

Fat women, apparently, don’t deserve the same chance. It’s also funny because they struggle the most in finding appropriate sizes when it comes to apparel, making an otherwise joyful experience like shopping quite an unpleasant prospect. Apparel brands, more than any other category, would do well to remember this. More representation, please!

And let’s not leave other brands off the hook. Would it be extremely unreasonable to show more plus-sized people doing normal things on screen? Don’t we buy shampoos, watches, shoes, electronics, detergents, homes, furniture? What, then, is the problem in simply normalising bigger male and female bodies by the virtue of casting them more often in ads? There needn’t be an entire hullabaloo surrounding this; the ask is to just truly practise what is being preached. Just be normal, please.

No one deserves a pat on the back for making all kinds of people feeling seen. But when you write entire scripts expecting those pats, dear brands, make sure to at least do your bit without the lip service. Be inclusive, not ‘woke’.


Mukta Lad is a consultant journalist with Campaign India

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