Katie Byrne: 'Dangerous curves ahead – why do we sexualise voluptuous women?'

The idea of a reluctant sex symbol might seem like a contradiction in terms, but that’s exactly how actress-turned-entrepreneur Jessica Alba described herself when she spoke as part of a panel at Gwyneth Paltrow’s annual GOOP Wellness Summit last weekend.

Alba regularly appeared on the front of men’s magazines during the Noughties, but it turns out she was never entirely comfortable playing the role of purring sex kitten.

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“I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men,” she said, referring to her Catholic upbringing. “Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn’t get as much attention.”

Her other concern, she told the panel, was that she might inadvertently play into the ‘Spicy Latina’ stereotype.

In case you haven’t noticed, women of Latin American descent are invariably portrayed as sex sirens and femme fatales when they appear on screen. Costume departments squeeze them into muy caliente mini skirts and towering stilettos, and directors encourage them to act fiery and passionate (shorthand for great in bed). The audience is left with the lasting impression that Latina women have one thing on their minds. Sure they saw it in a movie!

It’s a pervasive trope and it’s based on our perception of voluptuous physiques. We see an hourglass figure and we project on to it our own ideas about sexual desire and seduction. Or at least that was curvaceous TV cook Nigella Lawson’s take on the matter when an Australian talk-show host asked her about the apparent use of sexual innuendo in her cookery shows.

“You have this way of saying things,” said Hamish Macdonald of news programme, The Project. “I have this way of people projecting things on me,” replied an increasingly frustrated Lawson.

Actress Scarlett Johansson can relate. She says curvy women like herself are “super-sexualised” when they wear anything that might highlight or enhance their physique. “Throw on an evening frock and it’s like all of a sudden you have boobs and everyone is like, ‘Bombshell’,” she told a journalist, referring to the reputation that she garnered when she first started to appear on the red carpet.

And it’s a reputation that can get in the way of career opportunities, as Christina Hendricks learned when her hourglass figure received more attention than her acting chops in Mad Men. The actress eventually forbid questions about her physique during interviews.

There has been much talk lately about body positivity and the rise of curve models like Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley, but it’s important to consider the way they are represented. Why do magazine editors – both male and female – prefer to feature them wearing next to nothing? Why are they often styled in low-cut swimsuits and boned corsets? Why do they often appear in shoots that have been inspired by Rubanesque paintings?

Sure, you could look at the off-duty clothes these women choose to wear – clingy vests, tight jeans and body-con dresses – and argue they are happy to ‘flaunt’ their physiques, as many a red-top has put it. But that is to forget that most clothes simply look more suggestive on curvier women. Loose-fitting clothes, on the other hand, make them look like they are wearing a small tent.

Take Emily Maitlis for instance. The Newsnight presenter always looks sophisticated in her go-to wardrobe of form-fitting, cinched-waist Roland Mouret-style dresses. But imagine if the presenter had the same figure as Christina Hendricks. Would her hard-nosed interview style get overshadowed by her embonpoint? Would station bosses advise her to cover up or, more to the point, would she have even got the gig in the first place?

And that, right there, is the challenge that faces curvier women in the public eye. The moment they wear feminine, form-fitting clothes, they succumb to the stereotype of the voluptuous vixen. Their bodies become public property as we ogle over their rollercoaster curves. Their cleavages become a talking point as we herald the return of ‘real women’.

We like to think that this is progress, but dig a little deeper and it starts to look more like regression. Perhaps it’s time we accepted that we’re not celebrating curvy women: we’re fetishising them.

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