Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Plus-Size" Models and Fashions Represent Real Women at NY Fashion Week

The headline reads: "New York Fashion Week Announces Plus-Size Show!"

Woo hoo!

FINALLY - after some 40 years of weight tyranny, rampant eating disorders and mounting criticism of fashion houses for photoshopping pictures of already emaciated models down to cartoon-like figures - the fashion industry is awakening to the reality that normal women just don't look like the 17 year-old models who struggle to survive on a diet of lettuce, cigarettes and coffee.

But the fashion industry considers "Plus-Size" 12 and up. Really?

Statistically, the AVERAGE American woman is 5'4", weighs anywhere between 140 - 160 lbs. and wears a size 14. If this is the norm - and sizes 0 - 4 the favored minority (because, let's face it - even the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" revealed that size 6 is sneered at in the fashion industry as being too plump for the runway) doesn't that make the smaller size range the anomaly? Shouldn't they be labeled "Under-Size" instead of stigmatizing the majority of the female population as "Plus-Size"?

Thanks to campaigns launched by Dove and Fruit of the Loom encouraging healthy self-image in women and girls of all sizes and shapes - shapely, full-figured women have finally emerged from the shadows to demand their place in the sun - and the clothing stores.

The fashion industry can turn on a dime when it comes to dismissing a color or a handbag as "so last year," but when it comes to acknowledging - let alone catering to - the average woman, they seem to have a learning disability. Further, the conventional "wisdom" of the fashion industry is that women who are size 12 and up are not fashion conscious. Apparently they believe that we prefer being relegated to ugly, voluminous garments in drab colors, the fashion equivalent of trash bags.

If - as statistics indicate - 62% of all American women are over-weight, does it make good business sense to virtually ignore the needs and desires of such a large population - not to mention their spending dollars?

And therein lies the real trigger for the growing - albeit tepid - trend to cater to "real" women.

Like every other sector of American business, the fashion industry is suffering from the down economy. Slowly, they are starting to view the "plus-size" woman (i.e. most of us) as an untapped market. Designer Marc Jacobs has announced plans to expand his line to include larger sizes; Saks 5th Avenue and Forever 21 now have plus-size sections in their stores. Fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Glamour have featured plus-size models in some fashion layouts.

Whatever the incentive, hopefully this heralds a new era - not only of acceptance of fuller- figured women, but admiration as well. And of models of all sizes appearing regularly in fashion layouts - not just special features to appease.

How did we become so twisted in our concept of beauty? How did our society come to pressure shapely women into risking their health and safety by starving themselves to fit such an unrealistic, disturbed image?

Throughout history, the full-figured woman was the feminine ideal. Ample bosoms, round hips and thighs were admired and aspired to. Renaissance artists painted voluptuous women and cherubs; sculptors depicted the female figure as round and ripe. Upper class women proudly displayed their girth, as it showed that they could afford plenty to eat.

Starting with the 17th century, bodices and corsets began to alter the figure, pushing breasts up and out and narrowing the waist, while panniers made the hips look larger. In the 19th century, panniers phased out, making the hips narrower - and bustles added volume to the rear end. All of these were designed to enhance - if not exaggerate - the soft, curvy female form.

The concept of sex symbols as we know it today caught fire in the 40's and 50's with beauties such as Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. These women were icons of feminine sex appeal. Their voluptuous figures had men drooling and women rushing to emulate them, copying not only what they wore - but how they wore it: the décolletage and hip-enhancing skirts and slacks.

It may not be fair to blame the entire skinny-as-life-goal mania on Twiggy, the British model whose stick-thin, boyish style became the fashion icon of the British Mod generation.

More likely, it all began with Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor - an utterly non-voluptuous woman - whose famous quote "You can never be too rich or too thin" resonated with a society among whom many already had Anglophilic aspirations and held her words as gospel.

As thin began to be associated with rich, upper class, desirable - the full-figure began to likewise be associated with lower class, lower IQ - and even cheap.

Today, Walls Simpson's adage still has a stranglehold on women's self-image, the fashion industry and the movie and television industries. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Calista Flockhart are suspected of suffering from eating disorders, while others - such as Kate Winslet, Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Love Hewitt - beautiful women all - have endured insults and criticism, not for getting fat - but just adding a few extra pounds. In other words, looking like the average woman.

Hosted by Emme - the plus-sized fashion model who has been instrumental in getting full-figured women onto the fashion industry's radar - the New York Fashion Week Plus-Size show on September 16 at Lincoln Center is not officially a part of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. This makes it seem almost conciliatory, like a toe in the water to see what the reaction will be.

My guess is that the show will be well received, acknowledgment at long last that those of us who are over size 8 are not only fashion conscious and starved for acceptance - but an economic force to be reckoned with.

(Reprint from Divine Caroline, 2010)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Storyteller of Catalina Island

Want to know where the El Encanto was? (The Landing) or the skinny on what it was like to grow up in Avalon in the days when visitors arriving on the Steamer threw coins into the sea and Avalon kids dove for them, and the Casino ballroom was alive with dance music that was broadcast across the country?

Ask local historian Chuck Liddell. Born and raised in Avalon, Liddell isn’t hard to find: he is a familiar figure as he conducts tours of the Casino and walking tours of Avalon, answering the myriad questions visitors ask. He also writes the Time Capsule column in the Catalina Islander newspaper, offering historical anecdotes and fascinating tidbits of local lore.

“I’m not the only one who grew up here and knows the history,” Liddell says, “There are still some of us here who share the same memories.” But Liddell is the only one who daily makes it a point to be accessible to the public and share his knowledge and memories.

Liddell, whose grandfather moved to the island in 1920 to build homes on Descanso Avenue and whose father worked for PK (Philip Knight) Wrigley, son of the chewing gum magnate, says that he was unaware that his life was any different from anyone else’s. “I thought my life was typical,” he says, “Even though I had my first job at age four, walking along the beach handing out flyers advertising the movies that were playing that night. In those days, there was a different movie every night, and my pay was free admission.”

Many of the movie stars and notables of the day who visited the island were taken with the toddler, whose mother, a modeling scout for Catalina Swimwear, slathered his body with baby oil and sent him out to play nude. “They called me ‘Nature Boy,’” Liddell says. “There are lots of photos of me sitting on various celebrities’ laps.” Liddell recalls being hoisted onto the laps and shoulders of the likes of Leo Carrillo and Johnny Weissmuller, famous for playing Tarzan. “They had an ulterior motive,” says Liddell, “They got a lot of attention from women walking around with a cute little kid on their shoulders.”

Because of his job with Wrigley, Liddell’s father had one of the very few cars on the island, a 1937 Woody. “He was always taking us into the interior,” he says, “So we got to see all parts of the island.”

The year-round population of Avalon was much smaller than it is today, but Liddell recalls that there were a lot of things for young people to do.

“Life on the island was free for us kids,” he says. “There was a 9 pm curfew that was strictly enforced, but it was just understood. We didn’t question it. There were dances, ping pong games, square dances, slide shows at Wrigley Plaza and lots of organized activities. We kids were financially independent. We dove for the coins the Steamer passengers threw. The seaplanes came in at the Green Pier and the luggage hold was where Yoshi’s is now. We had jobs taking the visitors’ luggage to their hotels. Cheeseburgers were 35 cents and French fries were 15 cents at Mother Gray’s, where Sally’s Waffle Shop is now.”

Liddell’s parents divorced and he and his mother and brother Bill moved to Fullerton, where he attended high school, graduating in 1965. The brothers returned to the island to spend every summer with their father. Liddell went on to Oregon State, where “I flunked out,” he says. He fared better at Cal State Fullerton, earning a degree in political science, Illinois State College and earned his Masters degree in communications from Illinois University.

In January of 1974, tragedy struck twice when Liddell’s brother died and his father suffered a massive stroke and heart attack, leaving him unable to care for himself. Liddell returned to Avalon to care for his father and gradually became involved with the history of the island. “I would interview the oldest citizens of Avalon and I got their stories on tape for the museum.”

The greatest historian of the island, according to Liddell, was Johnny Windle, son of Judge Wendell, founder of the Catalina Islander newspaper.

“When Johnny Windle died,” recalls Liddell, “I thought the bottom fell out of everything. Johnny was the link between the past, present and the future here on the island, like the baboon in the movie The Lion King. Storytelling is a way of keeping history alive, preserving it for future generations. Johnny was our storyteller. He would hold court at Pete’s CafĂ©, and everyone would come by and sit and listen. He was here when the Casino was built, when the bison were brought over, and he would tell the stories. Every society needs that baboon.”

But Liddell never thought of himself as heir apparent to the mantle. Windle died before he could conduct an open forum called Ask Johnny Windle that was planned for the museum, but his family wanted to move forward with the event in his honor. Liddell says, “There was a gathering at the museum for the project. I walked in and someone said, “There’s Chuck. Ask him, he’ll know the answer.’” And the gauntlet was passed.

After 10 years, Liddell is still surprised by his role as local historian. “I have no delusions of grandeur,” he says. “I have done my homework, spent a lot of time and effort gathering information. I’m qualified for the job, but I’ll never be a Johnny Windle.”

Liddell created the Avalon Walking Tour in December 2006. “I wanted something that was mine,” he says, “Not many other places had walking tours, except Los Angeles and London. It was a natural for Avalon.” Liddell also conducts the Casino tour and he accepts invitations from all over the country to give lectures and show the movie Hollywood’s Magical Isle – Catalina. Last year alone, he visited 17 states.

One has only to talk to Liddell for a few minutes to discover that he has a great love for Catalina Island, both past and present. The future – well, that worries him a little.

“We used to have a 4 month on, 8 month off economy,” he says. “We were like Brigadoon. From Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, we were on. Then we slipped back into the mist in the off season. We had fewer people working, but more visitors – and more money. Now we have to be on all 12 months, and everyone is fighting for the tourist dollar. We all used to work together.

“In the 1960’s, they tore down the St. Catherine Hotel, the Island Villas and the Steamer pier. They began allowing more cars and started building condos. People from suburbia used to come here on our terms. They wanted to see what it was like to live on an island. But they brought suburbia with them. And somewhere along the way, we sold our soul.”

Reprinted from The Catalina Islander, 2008

Photos from left: Charlie Chaplin & Paulette Goddard; Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe

Monday, December 12, 2011

The River That Inspired Earth Day

For the last 40 years, on April 22, we have celebrated Earth Day, both as a global celebration of the progress that we have made in our efforts to clean up the environment – and as a means to increase awareness of environmental issues. Cities and neighborhoods around the U.S. and the world observe Earth Day in their own fashion, some with large events, some with small. The current trend to “go green” has given Earth Day greater significance in recent years, but often lost in the effort is the event that triggered the whole movement.

On a Sunday afternoon in June, 1969, a fire erupted on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Thought to be ignited by molten steel or a spark from a passing train, the incident was not regarded as particularly alarming at the time. Indeed, rivers that flowed through many US urban centers were used as convenient sewers for industrial and human wastes - and river fires caused by the accumulating oil and debris were common between the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The Cuyahoga empties into Lake Erie, and the pollution from the river, along with effluence from heavy industry in cities along the lake shore, caused severe water quality deterioration, fouled shoreline and loss of fish population.

By 1969, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire at least a dozen times before the 1950’s, causing substantial damage to ships, dockside properties and posing a hazard for local shipping. So when the Cuyahoga ignited again in June of that year, local officials took it in stride. No one even called the Chief of Police. The fire was handled by the regular firefighting tugboat crew and the blaze was under control within a half hour.

William E. Barry, then chief of the Cleveland Fire Department, was quoted as saying, “It was strictly a run of the mill fire.” The story barely made the local news.

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But this “run of the mill fire” was different. It caught the attention of Time magazine, who commented in August of 1969, “Some river! Chocolate brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases. It oozes rather than flows. Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. He decays.”

Other national media gradually picked up the story, along with a famous photo of news reporter Richard Ellers withdrawing his blackened, gooey hand from the waters of the Cuyahoga.

Perhaps the greatest widespread cultural awareness came from songs inspired by the event such as Randy Newman’s “Burn On, Big River,” REM’s “Cuyahoga,” and Adam Again’s “River on Fire.” The Great Lakes Brewing Company commemorated the event by launching their “Burning River Pale Ale.”

As national media began taking a closer look, it became obvious that the inches-thick black goo and floating debris causing a fire hazard on the river was also causing severe ecological damage.

A year before the ’69 fire, a Kent State University symposium had already determined that the Cuyahoga was in trouble. Their study found that accumulating sludge increased the water temperature and slowed the river’s velocity, causing anaerobic action, a reduction in oxygen levels in the water, killing off plant and animal life.

With all the negative media attention, unlike previous fires along the river over the preceding 100 years, the fire of 1969 became a source of shame and ridicule to the city of Cleveland as well as local and federal government.

Sorely embarrassed, Congress acted quickly to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972, followed by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada to significantly reduce dumping and phosphorous runoff into the Lake Erie Basin. The Cuyahoga incident also inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).

In a speech to a fledgling conservation group in Seattle in September of 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D. Wisconsin) announced his idea for a “teach-in” on the deterioration of the environment, to spotlight issues such as oil spills, raw sewage, toxic dumps and pesticides and to spur enough of a grassroots outcry to be heard in Washington, D.C.

And Earth Day was born.

Despite attempts to organize the movement into one cohesive effort, Earth Day took on a life of its own, becoming an umbrella cause for once-disparate groups struggling for recognition of their particular environmental concerns. April 22, 1970 marks the inception of this modern environmental movement.

Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level,” Sen. Nelson says. “We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

Today, the water quality of the Cuyahoga River has improved enough to support the return of 44 species in river reaches once devoid of life, and Lake Erie has seen the return of economically important fish species such as the walleye.

In 1998, the Cuyahoga River was designated as one of the 14 American Heritage Rivers.

In the movies, this is the part where the triumphant music swells, the camera sweeps over cheering crowds and a closing shot of a once murky, sludge-filled, debris-strewn river - now sun-sparkling and flowing freely, abundant with fish and plant life once more.

But the story isn’t over. Earth Day is not just a celebration of a job well done. It is a reminder that the job is ongoing – and there is so much more to do.

Today, the threat to our rivers is not only industrial effluence, farm run-off, dumping, etc. – but legislation that would undermine the safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act that protects public health, wildlife and fish as well as the general health of our rivers.

Introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep John Mica (R-FL) and Rep Nick Rahall (D-WV), HR 2018 removes the EPA’s authority to ensure effective implementation of state standards for water quality as well as mandated improvement for those that fail to meet the standard

Pollution remains a serious problem for America’s rivers, including the Cuyahoga, where improved water quality is still challenged by urban runoff, combined sewer overflow and stagnation caused by dams. For this reason, the EPA includes certain areas of the Cuyahoga River Watershed as among the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The Environments Working Group (www.ewg.org) lists 50 rivers and waterways as endangered, among them: the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Savannah, the Missouri, the Susquehanna, the Delaware – and the Cuyahoga.

In 1990, before the advent of the Internet as we know it, Earth day went global. By 2000, it had spread to 184 countries and now encompasses over 22,000 partners and 5,000 environmental groups in 192 countries. Activities range from local neighborhood recycling events, seashore clean ups, a traveling talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa to the 100,000 people who gather at Earth Day events at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Earth Day is a celebration of the efforts of a small group gone global – and a reminder that the future depends on our vigilance.