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Fashion media tries to embrace diversity, and fails

Amy Schumer (left) and Kerry Washington.John Salangsang/Invision/AP, File; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Invision/AP, File; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Fashion magazines came under fire Tuesday for imposing restrictive labels and beauty standards on some of Hollywood’s most in-demand celebrities, including “Trainweck” star Amy Schumer and “Scandal” actress Kerry Washington.

For Schumer, the controversy ignited after Glamour magazine highlighted the comedian in its first “plus size” bonus issue as one of the “women who inspire us.” But the mag’s failure to get Schumer’s permission, coupled with its apparent classification of her as “plus size,” didn’t sit well with the actress.

Schumer, who noted that she’s a size 6-8, took to social media — first on Instagram, then on Twitter, where she posted a video of herself in a bikini with the caption: “Bottom line seems to be that these labels are unnecessary and reserved for women.”

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Kerry Washington, meanwhile, spoke out against Adweek for its use of Photoshop on her cover image. “I just felt weary,” the actress wrote on Instagram of seeing the magazine cover. “It felt strange to look at a picture of myself that is so different from what I look like when I look in the mirror.”

The women are just the latest in a string of celebrities, in recent weeks alone, to take issue with the media’s representation of women’s bodies and the language used to describe them.

Harvard professor Michael Bronski, of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, has followed the controversy and sees the term “plus size” as a marketing label that reveals insidious issues in the fashion industry.

“This is all marketing, and these women are also marketed – they’re turned into commodities,” he said.

Though Bronski understands the need to size clothing, he also believes the fixation on models of specific body types “is maintaining and prolonging a discussion of what’s acceptable in terms of women’s bodies,” he said.

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“In the lack of specific and useful medical discussion of what’s healthy in terms of body image and body mass index, these discussions are repathologizing women’s bodies in such a way as to make them the subject of anxiety and worry.”

Ashley Graham, the curvy size-16 supermodel recently featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and “Ghostbusters” actress Melissa McCarthy, both of whom were mentioned in the same Glamour issue as Schumer, have specifically spoken out against the term “plus size” in the past.

Graham commented at South by Southwest in Austin last month that “the word ‘plus-sized’ is totally outdated.” She added: “It shouldn’t be about labels. I don’t want to be called a label, I want to be called a model.”

McCarthy also opposes the term and, during an E! News interview, criticized a cultural “obsession with categorizing” women based on their body types. The actress’s fashion line, Melissa McCarthy Seven7, which offers sizes from 4 to 28, does not use the term “plus size” in any of its marketing materials, she noted.

But not everyone feels the same way. British chanteuse Adele referred to herself as “plus size” last November while talking to Australia’s “60 Minutes,” though she, too, faulted reporters for fixating on a woman’s physical appearance.

“It seemed to astound people that I was plus size and being successful,” Adele said. “That was how I felt.”

The media, meanwhile, tries to navigate the shifting cultural landscape — not always successfully.

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Glamour’s editor-in-chief Cindi Leive apologized to Schumer, tweeting that the magazine hadn’t intended to “offend” her.

Leive wrote: “To be clear, @glamourmag special edition never called her plus-size . . . Her 2015 cover story was included in the edition, aimed at sizes 12 and up, with the coverline “Women who Inspire Us” . . . her longtime message of body positivity — & talking back to body haters — IS inspiring. (To me, too!).”

Adweek’s editorial director Jim Cooper was less contrite about Washington’s concerns. “To clarify, we made minimal adjustments, solely for the cover’s design needs,” he said in a statement. “We meant no disrespect, quite the opposite.”

While the fashion industry is increasingly fixated on diversity, Bronski said, the industry’s norms remain intact. And it’s all too common to see Photoshop employed to make real people conform to those norms.

On the whole, cultural discussions around body types are more inclusive and sensitive than they were 20 years ago, Bronski added, but they’re still far from ideal.

“People believe that, because you have a larger woman in Sports Illustrated or a plus-size model in Glamour, that things are getting much better, when they’re actually not,” he said.

“These thought patterns around beauty are so deep that they aren’t being fixed by cosmetic changes. It’s such a hegemonic, larger-scale, cultural issue, and I’m not sure what changes will make a difference.”


Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com