You’ve probably heard someone describe another woman like this: “She has a really pretty face!”
While the woman in question may indeed have a pretty face, it’s often a polite euphemism for “she could stand to lose a few pounds.” Taking a glance at the way mainstream fashion magazines feature plus-size starlets, it’s clear that many ascribe to the idea of focusing on their faces to distract from their bodies.
The latest example: Actress Rebel Wilson will grace the cover of Marie Claire UK’s July issue, and the magazine published a preview of her cover shot. It’s a perfectly beautiful image of Wilson, but there’s just one problem. It cuts off at her bust, and she’s barely visible beneath long sleeves and a swoop of voluminous hair.
Other plus-size stars continually receive this treatment, so the question becomes: Why do these magazines feel the need to hide these women’s bodies?
Wilson stars in Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 as Fat Amy, an a cappella singing oddball. In the first movie, she explains that she calls herself Fat Amy so skinny girls “don’t do it behind my back.” In real life, the Australian actress seems to have a similar comfort with her body.
In a November 2015 New York Times story about Wilson and her new plus-size fashion line, Rebelution, she talked about ditching tracksuits for more stylish fare on the runway. “You don’t really want to cover up just because you’re bigger,” she said. “You still want to show off what you’ve got, but in a classy way.” But after being on the cover of multiple publications, it’s obvious they’re leaning more towards covering her up.
The Marie Claire UK cover is just the most recent of a string of closeups. Wilson’s July 2013 Glamour UK cover shows her body obscured by a bubble bath; her September 2013 New York cover shows her from the bust up; and two different Elle covers give her the headshot treatment.
And there are other mega-stars who don’t fit the sample size mold and have been relegated to a pretty face—and not much more.
Take Adele, the multi-Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer and songwriter. She’s been a cover girl many times over, but a glance at her impressive roundup of covers shows that a vast majority shied away from her body and focused on her face.
"I do have body image problems,” Adele said late last year at a Sirius XM event, “but I don't let them rule my life, at all. And there’s bigger issues going on in the world than how I might feel about myself and stuff like that."
In October 2015, Elle celebrated its 25th anniversary with four different versions of the cover, featuring Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Gabourey Sidibe, and Lauren Conrad. While Fox, Seyfried and Conrad had their full bodies shown, Sidibe’s cover was conspicuously different: it showed just her face. And to make matters worse, Elle was accused of lightening her skin color.
We’ve also seen writer and actress Lena Dunham—who is famously comfortable with her body—pictured in extreme closeups on the covers of Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar (in which she posed topless for the same issue.) And body positive activists were up in arms when actress Melissa McCarthy was on the cover of Elle draped in an oversized coat, while other actresses in other versions of the 2013 “Women in Hollywood” issue cover were shown in much more body-baring shots.
Whitney Thore, star of TLC's My Big Fat Fabulous Life and cover girl for brand new size-neutral health and fitness magazine FabUPlus, is frankly tired of the way fellow plus-size women are shown on newsstands. “I do definitely think there is a tendency to minimize plus size women so that we are flattered, and slimming,” Thore told me in a phone conversation.
Reflecting on Wilson and other plus-size stars who’ve been cut down to just a face, she sees why magazines do it, but says it doesn’t make it right. “It makes them more digestible and easier to handle so that people still want to buy the magazine. But what’s the point of putting her on your cover if you don’t want to celebrate her body?”
Thore regrets that these covers send a tired old message. “It piggybacks on what we’ve always heard: ‘You’re beautiful, but you ought to cover your stomach’…it’s not necessarily blatant, but as soon as you point it out, it really does send a message.”
No wonder a 2015 study conducted by Common Sense Media, a child advocacy group, found that children as young as 5-years-old express dissatisfaction with their bodies.
Ana Homayoun, author of "The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life,” spoke to CNN about the study and advised parents to question assumptions about the messages sent by media. "So any time there's an example in media or just in real life, you build the muscles, if you will, in your kid … so that they can resist the messages that are coming at them."
But how can we point to bodies that challenge these assumptions when there are so few visible by the supermarket checkout?
Wilson tweeted at Marie Claire UK for making her the July cover girl, not mentioning anything about the zoomed-in shot. What we need right now is to zoom out and look at how we can truly give plus-size stars their due.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.