How do we talk about obesity when it is simultaneously a rocketing health crisis and the subject of documentaries about how fat women (it’s always women) can be fabulous too? As an average woman, I see the standard imagery of the fashion industry with its thin limbs and smooth skin as a silent daily reminder that I have not attained the arbitrary target. I don’t fit it, and it doesn’t fit me. So the current boom in plus-sized fashion should be cause for celebration. But there’s celebration and then there’s donning blinkers to all the downsides. The producers of Plus Sized Wars (Channel 4) focus on the UK’s biggest plus-sized brands, Evans and Yours and Australian newcomer Taking Shape, which was slammed last year for setting up a “skinny bird-watching” hide at London fashion week as a publicity stunt.
This documentary was originally called the rather more patronising Fat Fabulous but someone in an upstairs office at Channel 4 clearly decided that the addition of conflict (no war was evident here at all) might spice up the ratings.
To the sound of All About That Bass by Megan Trainor (more thought could have gone into that decision), some plus-sized fashion bloggers try on dresses at an Evans event to launch their new, younger-skewed collection.
The “original fat shop” as the voiceover delightfully describes it, is desperate to plug into the social media word-of-mouth buzz created by these self-made heroines with a collective following of over half a million fans on Instagram.
“They’re tearing up the plump and lovely rule book,” smarms the voiceover, as it becomes obvious their posed selfies in cute outfits have far more influence than any billboard or bus advert ever could. No wonder they’re being courted and fought over by marketing mavens who suddenly see money where before they wouldn’t have seen them at all. The reaction of the producers here feels similar. Now these women are seen as legitimate documentary fodder, television seems almost desperate not to offend them. To the point where they use words like “plump and lovely”. Yeesh.
Next we meet the embodiment of the fashion industry in one woman, Anna Shillinglaw, the owner of Milk model agency which has a plus-sized list. And when she says plus-sized, she means 14 to 16, in proportion, no bulges with a flat stomach. Ground broken, box ticked. She teams up with the Sun newspaper to find Britain’s next top plus-sized model. We listen to her and the panel dismiss one girl’s picture after another for their perceived flaws. This one is “too short”. This one could have “po-tench?” queries her fellow judge over another. “Po-tench,” Shillinglaw agrees, putting the picture to one side.
And of the next, “I think her nose is a little bit wide for photography”. This with a straight face before dumping it on the failure pile. Even in a plus size world, your nose can be literally too fat for fashion.
Over at rival brand Yours, owner Andrew Killingsworth is thinking even bigger and plans to book US phenomenon Tess Holliday (AKA Tess Munster) for his company’s latest lingerie campaign. She is a size-24 bombshell with an astonishing face: one of those people your eyes involuntarily strain for like a cartoon coyote’s. It’s only weeks after Tess’s arrival in the UK, surrounded by media fuss, that Shillinglaw suddenly remembers she too has “always” been looking for a really big model to sign to her books and jumps on the bandwagon faster than you can say: “I want a piece of that.” Holliday naturally has more than half a million Instagram followers which, Shillinglaw admits, doubles any model’s price without further discussion.
In this slightly confused hour, the autonomy of the young bloggers at least emerges as a positive. They use their powers for good, even if those who would exploit that are quickly hoving into view.
The theme of obesity continued on the other side as the thoroughly enjoyable Back in Time for Dinner concluded on BBC Two. The Robshaw family ended their summer cooking and eating the food of every 20th- century decade, from post-war bread and dripping up to the microwave meals of the millennium, with a final visit from Giles Coren. He offered them a potential vision of the future as the human race searches for new and sustainable ways to feed itself. His conclusion? Insects. Even the agreeably game Robshaws balked at worm tartlets which food historian Polly Russell admitted had “a squeak to them”.
No wonder talks are on for a second series. It was a brilliant combination of nostalgia for the brown and orange decades of so many of our childhoods and bang-on casting. Whoever found this telegenic, likeable and articulate clan did half the work before shooting even began.