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Representation Should Never Be “Revolutionary”

When representation doesn’t actually represent the industry or area that it’s being used as a symbol for, it feels revolutionary. The only way for this to become the norm is for the industry itself to make real change. 

A writer that I admire and follow, Ann Helen Peterson, wrote a piece on Substack that has been sticking with me for a while. You can find the article here to read more about what she thinks, but for me, I became very fixated on why this Seventeen magazine cover from 1993 was such a big deal:

Seventeen magazine cover

What struck me about this cover was that my eyes glazed right over it, and I had to double back when I read in her commentary that the goal Seventeen was trying to achieve with this cover was to represent normal bodies. I’m sorry, WHAT?! 

I’ll let you read her piece to see the variety of commentary that Seventeen’s dear readers sent in to the editor in subsequent issues, but suffice it to say that they did not make me jump for joy. Apparently many readers were convinced that this was in fact a normal body, and were thrilled to see more representation on the cover of such a prominent magazine. Many others were upset, declaring that a magazine cover was no place for such imperfection (as if there’s anything imperfect about this woman…or any woman for that matter). 

But for me, what’s been lingering in the back of my mind ever since I read the article is how familiar this conversation feels to me. Sure, we’ve made great strides in putting a wider variety of bodies and women on the cover of major magazines (I will absolutely not use the term normal to describe any of them because what tf does that mean anyway). But it feels like our conversations have been on this never ending merry-go-round of sameness for the past 28 years: 

All hail ESPN for putting a non-00 in the swimsuit edition

But where can this woman actually buy her swimsuits?? 

A gorgeous larger body on the cover of Vogue, yes! 

A small caption indicating that the designer had to specially create her look because nothing in his or her standard line would actually fit…

Representation matters. You will never hear me say otherwise. But at what point is it being used as a tool to mask any real substantial progress within the industry itself? 

This cover was hailed as a big step forward, but the truth is we’re still having the same conversation nearly three decades later. What will it take for representation to be something that isn’t even worth letters to the editor, because it’s so commonplace that we’re no longer struck by it as an oddity? 

A big part of what it will take to get there goes far beyond the conversation of representation itself. Because representation, by definition, is supposed to represent the industry or area that it’s being used as a symbol for. And the only way for this to become the norm in the fashion world is for the industry itself to make some real change. 

Fashion is a behemoth, and taking it on is no small undertaking. And there have been some absolutely incredible small businesses pop up to start filling in these desperately needed gaps that traditional brands seem little interested in addressing (see: Lauren Chan’s Henning, 11 Honoré). But when going up against such a well-established, well-funded, and dominating Goliath, what are us Davids to do? 

Revelle may be a teeny tiny David by all accounts, but we’re trying to do what we can to enact some change from the inside. Within the existing ecosystem of fashion, how can we help women have more control? What can we do to expose the glaring exclusions of certain women and certain bodies in a way that actually forces transformation? 

At Revelle, we fundamentally believe that the straight, linear size chart is a pathetic proxy for the actual complexities of women’s bodies. And furthermore, it serves to perpetuate the feeling that women are supposed to squeeze themselves into someone else’s definition of what is acceptable. While I wish I could just take a blowtorch to the size chart and obliterate its existence altogether, the truth is that it exists for now and we have to deal with it. But at Revelle rather than allowing ourselves — and thus our customers — to get blinded by the arbitrary labels of the size chart, we focus first and foremost on shape. Women’s bodies have an infinite array of shapes, and each brand cuts their clothing to unique shapes as well. They just never talk about it. 

What we’ve done is spend hundreds of hours researching different brands and products to learn about those shapes, so that we can help our members find the clothing that fits their unique body shape in a way that makes them feel comfortable and at home in their bodies. Only after we’ve helped you navigate these options do we even mention the construct of size. Because the size number doesn’t matter, and should be nothing but an afterthought. So we’ll help you decide which size to buy in a particular pair of jeans, but only after making sure that we’ve helped you find a pair that we know is going to make you feel amazing when you get dressed in the morning. 

This is what we’re working to achieve at Revelle. And we can only do it with members like you to help us along the way. Let’s change this narrative from the inside, and do our part to ensure that a magazine cover like the one in 1993 is never seen as “revolutionary” again. 

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