Original interview link
April 28, 2008
“Voluptuous women needed… for student photography project (no worries, no nudity). If you’re in your 20’s, got real booty, boobs or hips, please help me out!”
So read an advertisement posted by communication graduate student Kristin ‘Lou’ Herout last fall throughout buildings on her Northern Illinois University campus.
The 23-year-old graduate student and professional photographer replicated advertisements from Cosmopolitan, Elle and other women’s fashion magazines using not industry standard size-zero models, but rather “curvy” and “realistic” women to accompany a scholarly paper on the subject. “Basically, I just want people to see what it would be like if plus-size models were represented similarly to slim models,” said Herout.
The Dekalb, Ill. native boasts her own photography company startup, K Lou Photography, and teaches courses as a teacher’s assistance at NIU on audio and production. She’s also a photographer for one of Chicago’s premiere wedding photography companies, Essence Photography and Video. I caught up with Herout as she prepares to move to San Francisco this summer to complete her master’s degree in photography at the Academy of Art University to talk about her provocative project.
Describe the scope of your photography project.
I am hoping to replicate advertisements found in common women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Elle, and others, as closely as possible using actual plus-size women as my models. I plan on juxtaposing the original ad with my version of the ad when the project is displayed. I am hoping that this will show that I am interested in having plus-size women being represented just as thin women are represented, which, is incredibly unusual.
Did you have trouble finding women to participate? Did any of the women have an altered perception of themselves after seeing their photograph?
I did have trouble finding women to participate at first. Luckily my “voluptuous women wanted” posters caused quite a stir around campus and the school newspaper wrote a story about my project. From then on I received many calls. I think some girls were a little nervous about my motives and weren’t entirely comfortable with the ideal of modeling until they learned a little bit about my project.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to show any of the women their finished pictures in person because I am spending so much time on the project and trying to graduate, so I haven’t really gotten a chance to see their reactions. I have had a lot of people, including my photography professor commend my work, but I am really hoping that I will be able to have a gallery showing soon so that I can actually see people’s reactions. Also, being in the communication department, I have a friend who is an instructor here and is interested in working with me over the summer to do a study on people’s reactions to the pictures.
Your photography project is a supplement to a scholarly paper. What will the paper address?
My scholarly paper is a content analysis of the advertisements featured in Cosmopolitan magazine over time. Cosmo is one of the oldest women’s magazines – it has been in print since the 1880s, and started running ads in 1912. I studied the ads to see how the image of the ideal woman has changed through time. It was extremely interesting to see that the women progressively changed from large boned, round-faced, beautiful women to bone-protruding, thin women.
What are the differences in how a thin model is photographed and in how an average-size or plus-size model is portrayed in popular media?
Plus-size women on TV (which are more likely than not, actually average-size women) are treated very poorly. People are mean to them, men ignore them, and these women are oftentimes the recipients of “polite” suggestions to lose weight. It is extremely rare for any plus-size woman to be seen as a sexual being unless it is being portrayed as a joke. As stated in my paper, there is a “Wingman Training Manual” that is published by Maxim magazine that tells men how to keep their buddies from hooking up with a big woman when he gets drunk.
In my scholarly paper, I discuss the phenomenon of the plus-size bride; the bridal industry must represent plus-size women in some ads because the plus-size woman accounts for a large chunk of the market, but in an ad, the plus-size woman is treated very differently than her thinner counterpart. She is given a simpler dress, simpler background and loses the sexy mysteriousness that is common in haute-couture models. The plus-size girl wears a huge toothy smile, therefore there are different expectations for a woman of larger stature compared to a thinner model.
I think that campaigns such as the “Dove True Beauty Campaign” are commonly more hurtful than helpful. If this campaign, women are shown as being proud of who they are, great! But these women are average-size women; plus-size women are left out in the cold in this campaign. Also, these women still aren’t given the same attention as thin women: they aren’t shown as really sexy, they’re shown as being confident, despite their curves. They should be presented as being beautiful, sexy and proud, just as thin models are. Otherwise we are still making an exception for average-size women, instead of making them the norm.
Why do you think the current fashion trends are to portray images of ultra-thin women and girls?
Current fashion trends portray images of the ultra-thin because models like Twiggy in the 60s brought about a revolution that made extreme thinness a thing of beauty for the first time. Until then, extreme thinness was a symptom of being poor or sick, not a symbol of the high class. Now, in America, poor people are oftentimes overweight more often than those who have a lot of money. The cheapest foods available are commonly macaroni or grilled cheese, the poor can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables, so there is a status symbol involved.
Also, in some ways it is just easier for designers to fit thin women than those who weigh more. Designers don’t want to have any hips, booty or other curves getting in the way of their work of art. When doing a runway show, designers don’t have to worry about any model fitting into any outfit because they are all the same size. Finally, we are currently living in a culture that sees fat as an ugly part of women’s bodies, and designers would prefer to make their product for beautiful women.
I would like to add here that men are not portrayed in the same way as women. Men’s bodies are valued less, so it is not uncommon to see an old, overweight, balding man as a character who is sexually attractive to a plethora of young thin women. When a woman gains weight, grows old, or has any imperfection, it doesn’t take long for her to be taken off the air.
How do you think current images of women in the media affect girls and women?
The lack of plus-size women in these ads leaves women feeling bad about themselves because they are unrepresented. In other words, the thin woman gets the guy, money, success, happiness and all the things that we are supposed to value as Americans, and any woman who does not fit the ideal is left out in the cold.
The current media images of super-thin girls lead everyone to be unhappy with their bodies. The fact is that all photos are manipulated, even the thinnest women have pictures that are altered. So not even the most beautiful and ideal women are good enough on their own to fit the current western standards of beauty. Everyone is left self-conscious. This is why eating disorders are becoming so prolific. I heard about a reporter that decided to go on a crash diet to see what it would be like, by the end of the study she was anorexic, and the community was applauding her weight loss (NPR). How backwards can we be?
Even those who don’t suffer from eating disorders are unhappy. When I was growing up, I had friends who were skinny and had no excess fat, but would stand around talking about how fat they are. I know of a professional dancer who is unhappy with her weight, and the list goes on.
It is long past time when we can all be happy with who we are physically, because, let’s face it, we live in a visual culture and no matter how beautiful we are on the inside, we’ll always be concerned about the first impression made by our physical self. Self-confidence can light up a room like physical beauty never can on its own.
What motivated you to begin this work?
This topic has been of interest to me for a long time, as a plus-size woman from a plus-size family, I’ve always been pushed to diet and lose weight, but the reality is that in order for some people to lose weight, the cost outweighs the benefits.
I’m tired of the media telling me that I should be ashamed of myself for how I am. I hate that the media makes it seem like only skinny people are beautiful and find love and happiness. It’s all a joke to me considering I have men who lust over me (and they’re not a very limited selection of men either). I hate that men are told that they should date only thin women and women are told that they can’t find love unless they are skinny.
I’m not going to lie and say that I wouldn’t want to be skinny, or that I haven’t let the media make me feel embarrassed about who I am, but if you let yourself get beyond the feeling that people look down on you for how you look, you can gain great amounts of confidence and be sexier than any woman in the room, even if you’re the biggest one in the room.
What are your thoughts now on dieting, weight and health?
I really feel that it’s ok to be overweight. I don’t think it’s ok to sacrifice your health or happiness for your weight. I would never let my weight keep me from being able to hike, ride my bike or walk my dog, but I’m ok with being a size-20 woman who can do all the things that she sets her mind to. I think that there are costs and benefits to dieting and sometimes we need to consider those before setting a very strict goal. Every time I try to lose, I end up gaining considerably when it’s all over. I lose weight best by creating inconveniences in my life that I have to deal with. For example, a couple years ago I lived about 4 blocks off campus, so I couldn’t get a parking pass, and I happened to live on the side of campus that was farthest away from all of my classes. Each week I ended up walking about 12 miles just to and from class. I plan on a similar situation when I move to San Francisco next year. I’d prefer to walk over public transportation, so I’ll probably just happen to lose weight rather that force it off.
I found that when I put my mind to it I can lose a lot of weight, but I become a mean and angry person. After all, I’m not unhappy with myself, I’m not extremely proud of my body but my body is not what defines me as a person. I am more concerned about my work and my studies than I am about my body. I feel that as long as my body doesn’t hold me back from doing the things that I want to do, I’m ok with it.
I have had a great idea for many years about how to lose weight. I haven’t come up with a name for the company, but the slogan would be “exercise in disguise.” People and families could participate in an array of fun activities that happen to put your body to work; like high ropes courses, kayaking, trapeze, gymnastics elements, trampolines, rock walls, all sorts of fun activities that promote wellness and problem solving but that wouldn’t seem like work. Feel free to steal this idea, anyone, I have too many things on plate to ever make it happen, but I think whoever would create this space would be doing a great service to Americans.
What do you hope to accomplish with your photography project?
As unrealistic as it sounds, I hope that my project would motivate designers and stores to represent plus-size women in their ads, being just as beautiful, just as sexy, just as flawless as skinny women are. Given how unrealistic that goal is, on the personal level, I would love for women to look at my images and feel inspired. They should feel that they can be like that beautiful woman in the picture and that beauty is not unattainable for them.
What advice would you give to the fashion industry on how to portray images of women in the media?
I think fair representation would be a great thing for the fashion industry. How much money are they losing on women who feel self-conscious and choose not to go shopping because of these issues? If women of average- and plus-sizes could feel comfortable being who they are, we would all be better off. I would hope, also, that the media would be willing to represent women and show them as sexy, beautiful and all the things that we consider to be feminine. Weight should not be the determining factor on whether or not a woman can be beautiful.
For more on Herout’s project, read here.