It’s all over the web: Fox and ABC have resisted airing Lane Bryant’s new lingerie ad featuring plus-sized women (e.g., Adweek). But I don’t think it’s, straightforwardly, because of a bias against fat women. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think it’s because the ads are scandalous… that they seem more overtly sexual than they would if they featured very thin models.
Think about it. In the media, the thin, young, beautiful, able-bodied white woman is the idealized woman. And the idealized woman is sexy, indeed, but not sexual. Sexy women attract attention; they inspire desire, but they don’t have desires of their own. A sexy woman hopes that a man will like the look of her and take action. But she’s not sexual. She doesn’t take the action herself. Doing so immediately marks her as suspiciously unfeminine.
Sexual women — women who have desires and express and act on them — are almost always presented as deviant in some other way. They’re working class, they’re Black or Latina, they’re mentally ill, or… they’re fat. Fat women are often characterized as sexual threats. How many comedies have relied on the scary fat woman (of color) trying to get some? It’s so funny, right? Because she’s gross and aggressive! She wants you and she doesn’t care what you want and so the fact that she’s fat doesn’t stop her. Scary!
So, there is something innocent and asexual about very thin women. As the feminine ideal, they are sexy, not sexual. They incite desire, but they do not have it.
In contrast, fat marks a woman as overtly sexual. She is a woman with appetites and, you better watch out, she might just eat you up.
This, I contend, is what is so scandalous about plus-sized women in lingerie. They are just too damn hot for TV.
Here’s the commercial:
What do you think?
UPDATE: Maura Kelly, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut, let us know that Fox did air the commercial on April 28th. Thanks for the update!Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.