In 1998, Oprah Winfrey lost twenty pounds to be on the October cover of Vogue. When the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, proposed she lose weight, Oprah “welcomed” the suggestion. Now, more than twenty years later, the October cover features Lizzo, a woman who refuses to be defined by her weight. As she exudes confidence and beauty in her crimson Valentino dress, Lizzo sends a powerful message: there is nothing wrong with her body.
The “ideal” body in the 90s and early 2000s was a body that was slim, toned — and predominantly white. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that Oprah found it difficult to imagine herself ever making the cover of Vogue, or why she took up Wintour’s advice. In the cover story of her 1998 shoot, Oprah, when asked if she had ever dreamed of being photographed in the magazine, said “I’m a black woman from Mississippi. Why would I be thinking I was gonna be in Vogue? I would never have even thought of it as a possibility”. Oprah went on to state that she had been “fighting weight all [her] life”, that she never even considered herself an “attractive girl”, so again she pondered the question — why would she dream about being in Vogue?
Lizzo understands that there is still a long way to go to normalise bodies like her own: “I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again, so that we can continue to change. Change is always uncomfortable, right?”
Lizzo, on the other hand, does not ask this question, but rather, poses another. Talking to Claudia Rankine, she makes it clear that body positivity is not just some “cool” movement, that it is not enough to be body-positive, because positive is not normative, even though “being fat is normal”. Lizzo understands that there is still a long way to go to normalise bodies like her own: “I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again, so that we can continue to change. Change is always uncomfortable, right?”
Change is not just uncomfortable — it is also difficult. Especially when a movement created to uplift women becomes a way to commercialise their bodies. Lizzo makes a point of mentioning that many body-positivity campaigns feature “smaller-framed girls” instead of the “girls who are in the 18-plus club”, and who, ultimately, become estranged from the movement. As with “everything that goes mainstream”, Lizzo says, the body-positivity movement “gets changed” to fit society’s notions of what is “acceptable”. Lack of diversity, likewise, defines what is perceived as beautiful within the fashion and beauty industries. Although Lizzo is “glad that this conversation is being included in the mainstream narrative”, it does not change the fact that the majority of plus-sized models are white, or belong to the category of “smaller-framed girls” who obscure other plus-sized women from the movement.
Lizzo’s cover shoot is not just a turning point for Vogue, but a call for other magazines to follow suit, and for the media to normalise the bodies that have been marginalised for so long
Yet despite the lack of representation of plus-sized black women, and plus-sized women as a whole, Lizzo is full of hope. Women whose bodies look like hers — women like Oprah, all those years ago — may not have been well-represented in the past, but Lizzo proudly sets the foundation for a better future. Her cover shoot is not just a turning point for Vogue, but a call for other magazines to follow suit, and for the media to normalise the bodies that have been marginalised for so long. Change is uncomfortable, because it challenges what is acceptable, and what is acceptable is often difficult to challenge. But with a leader like Lizzo, we can begin to rewrite the narrative.
All images courtesy of Instagram
Last modified: 19th October 2020