The issue of weight on the runway is certainly not a new one but has felt the warmth of the spotlight in the last few years thanks to an international crack-down on too-thin models in fashion shows. There’s also been appearances by plus-sized models and celebrities, likeBeth Ditto's appearance in Jean Paul Gautlier's show during this year’s Paris Fashion Week.
Enter, Big Sexy, the obviously titled TLC show focusing on five not-so-small woman living and working in New York in various fashion-related careers. The show purports to show these women embracing their curves, fighting for a place in the industry, and even looking for love. And by the end of the densely packed first episode, almost all of these paths have been tread to some degree.
It’s a shame, then, that a show with such lofty goals has to make a few unnecessary pit stops into fat joke territory. For example, a scene early on where the dolled-up women are all seated at a Fashion Week runway show, admiring the looks coming down the runway and commenting on the thinness of the models. Before the opinions are even fully formed there's a conversational detour into talking talking about hunger, a desire for a juicy rotisserie chicken, and several close-up shots of Nikki popping M&Ms into her mouth. While it clearly happened in the scene, it certainly feels like an unnecessary poke at the idea of heavier women not being able to control their all-consuming appetites.
But aside from that, the show gives a nice look into the lives of these five women, focusing on the body struggles they've faced throughout their lives. The most compelling is Audrey, who stands at six-foot-three with long, jet-black hair and wild makeup. That’s to say nothing of her affection for huge, fuzzy hats and bedazzled tops, which has people’s heads turning and snapping pics no matter where she goes. Also, she comes from two, straight-laced, former model parents whom she now towers over and who don’t sound particularly enthusiastic about her size and career choice.
The women, including plus-sized model Nikki, stylist Heather, aspiring plus-sized model Tiffany, and stylist Leslie, are shown enduring the gamut of reactions when out together: first being honked at and followed by paparazzi when moving between the Fashion Week tents but then virtually refused at a party inside a club (if you count being asked to pay $30 while thinner girls are let inside for free as a passive refusal). While it’s hardly surprising that the people manning the velvet rope at a club would put a premium on attractiveness, it still hits the gussed-up women hard.
From there, the gals decide to create their own opportunities in the biz and put on an entirely full-figured fashion show, working as their own models and stylists. But before we can get to that runway, there’s dating!
First, the women attend a singles mixer for “BBW” or “big beautiful women.” The BBW night seems okay, at first, until the dreaded “Thunder Thighs” competition gets underway and fellow plus-sized attendees begin booty clapping and shaking their thighs for the audience to cheer. (Interestingly, the Big Sexy women also help articulate a lot of the reason the idea of “chubby chasers,” as they’ve affectionately been termed, can be more off-putting than validating: the attraction can veer into perverse or extreme and have less to do with loving curves) Then there are those who have a flagrantly offensive attitude towards larger women, like the guy at a speed dating night who openly tells Nikki he’s only had sexual encounters with women of her size when extremely drunk.
Though it's hard to tell if the five women are actually friends in real life — considering shows like this often involve a forced "clique" — there are some fun scenes of them hanging out together. When Amazonian Audrey and Tiffany check out the racks of outlandish clothes at Patricia Field’s namesake shop, they come across a tiny party top that barely looks like a whisper of fabric. Tiffany aptly notes with a smile, “One woman’s top is another woman’s scrunchie.”
The fashion show isn’t given tons of attention, outside of a bit of a scramble over whether Tiffany and Nikki will feel comfortable wearing swimsuits on the runway. But it is decorated beautifully as an indoor park and full of a large crowd of cheering people. The real tension comes from the fact that Audrey’s tiny mom has come to watch her daughter model for the first time and sits entirely stone-faced throughout the show. But when she races backstage to congratulate her daughter, we realize she’s all too proud of her accomplishments, even if it’s in “baby steps,” as Audrey suggests.
The prospect of watching these women bring together their confidence and love of fashion is an enticing one that TLC is right to shed some light on. There can only be so much discussion about the ever-shrinking waistline of plus-sized model Crystal Renn or the question of whether glossy fashion mags will ever move away from traditionally thin models. So long as the show's producers ditch the finger-licking cutaways and similarly backhanded, Shallow Hal-inspired cheap laughs, the show certainly has enough heart to keep interest piqued.