By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Stacy London can be awfully snide and snarky. But only when it comes to matters of style.
In more than 260 episodes over seven years on the popular cable program "What Not to Wear," London and her co-host, Clinton Kelly, have issued countless criticisms of people's wardrobes: They describe one woman's attire, for instance, as "slovenly, shapeless and sophistication-free."
But never once have Stacy and Clinton told a makeover subject that she's chubby, fat or roly-poly -- and never have they suggested that anyone come back after they've lost a few pounds. In fact, the pair is meticulous in avoiding any negative commentary about a person's weight. Instead, they accentuate the positive, labeling women curvy where others might simply see blubber.
While the national pursuit of stick-thin status continues, recent years have seen increased encouragement for women to accept their bodies for the size and shape they are. The body-acceptance movement holds that so long as people are generally healthy, the number on the scale or the size of their jeans is immaterial.
A small group of nutritionists, among them Linda Bacon, author of "Health at Every Size" (BenBella Books, 2008), challenges the notion that obesity is the root of much illness.
The overweight/illness connection, Bacon notes, has scant support in the scientific literature. The overwhelming conviction in the medical community and among public-health policymakers is that overweight contributes mightily to the nation's ill health, particularly as excess weight is strongly associated with such conditions as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Bacon observes that while "certainly there are a lot of diseases associated with high weight," that doesn't mean overweight actually causes those illnesses. (I'll be talking further with Bacon for an upcoming column.)
Though London (who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar with degrees in 20th-century philosophy and German literature) is adamant that "What Not to Wear" is not about health, those of us who have struggled with our own weight and body image see a connection between what happens on the show and what we imagine might happen to made-over women and men once London and Kelly have left the building. Might that smartly coiffed and haute-coutured woman draw inspiration from her newfound confidence in her appearance to perhaps eat more healthfully and get some exercise?
Maybe. But that's beyond the show's mission.
"Whether you're as healthy as you should be or not, that doesn't disallow you to look your best," London says. "Style is only possible from a place of self-acceptance."
The point of the show, she says, is to help people "find perfection in their imperfection." That means helping them really see the image they're projecting to the world -- which can be painful. "You have to see it clearly," London argues, "so you know what you're working with, what to emphasize, what to camouflage." Helping makeover subjects see themselves that clearly sometimes requires tough talk. "People think we're being mean," she says. "But we're helping take down barriers."
London is acutely aware of the challenges and disappointments facing a woman who's literally too big for her britches. At 5-foot-7, she says her weight's been all over the board, from "not-very-healthy 90 pounds" to an uncomfortable 180.
When she tried last year to quit smoking, she says, she gained 15 pounds in three months, which strained the show's resources. "I have to fit in my clothes," she says; the program's budget didn't allow for a new wardrobe. "It was difficult for my stylist," London says, and frustrating for London herself. "It affected me. I was very moody, embarrassed and disappointed in myself."
(A former "gym rat" who worked out five or six days a week for two hours at time, London, who is now at what she calls a stable weight, says she "couldn't keep it up." Luckily, she's recently discovered yoga. "It's much more energizing than running on a treadmill," she tells me. "I'm feeling much better and stronger in my body. It's been very enlightening for me, making facing 40 a bit easier.")
Her lifelong issues with her weight, she says, make her "uniquely qualified" to deal with the women on her show who don't feel good enough about their bodies to bother dressing in style.
So, while she unleashes her assertive, sometimes mocking style in commenting on people's clothing, hairdos, makeup and accessories, London empathizes with the women whose distaste for their bodies leads them to dress frumpily, attempting to hide beneath tarplike tops and baggy bottoms.
"The sweat-shirt phenomenon is a slippery slope," she says, "and a symptom of something deeper. Style is the instrument you can pick back up when you want to regain some of the confidence you've lost. Style offers concrete rules you can follow. You can use it as a resource rather than a barrier to feeling good about yourself."
"You have to look in the mirror and see that what you're wearing looks good on the body you have now," she says. "Wearing a larger size is just . . . wearing a larger size." That's especially important for those of us who cling to old clothes that are too small in hopes that we'll someday fit in them again.
"That's psychological torture," London says. "I learned this from Oprah. She says you're only allowed to keep smaller-size jeans if you are actively engaged in being that size again. They can be used as a goal, but only if you're exercising and changing your diet habits. Otherwise, you have to buy clothing for the body you have. No amount of fantasizing in the world will make you a different size."
Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer discusses the pros and cons of keeping too-small jeans in the closet. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.comand searching for" newsletters." Go to Wednesday's Food section to find Nourish, a weekly feature with a recipe for healthful eating. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.