All a woman has to do to be called “curvy” these days is possess a human body. In the last six months, a dozen actresses have been pegged with the nebulous term (or some variation of it, like, “shows off her curves”), everywhere from People to Vogue, and that's probably lowballing the figure. In under an hour of archival spelunking, I managed to find twelve examples: Eva Mendes, size 4; Lady Gaga, size 6; Christina Hendricks, size 14; Taylor Swift, size 2; Christina Aguilera, size 6; Melissa McCarthy, size 16+; Jennifer Lawrence, size 6; Gabourey Sidibe, size 18+; Miranda Lambert, size 8; Lindsay Lohan, size 2; and Heidi Klum, size 4, who described herself as curvy in a recent issue of Allure.
Of course, a woman of any size can be curvy — it’s a matter of ratios, not overall breadth. Salma Hayek is as curvy as curvy comes and also around a size 2. But like an American Apparel spandex bodysuit worn by 1,000 different bodies, the term has been stretched so far in recent years, it’s become a shapeless sack containing all of womanity. Back in March, Us Weekly posted pics of a bikini-clad Taylor Swift “showing off her curves” on the beach. Never mind that the 22-year-old country star’s straight and willowy body is about as curvy as a carrot stick. At the other end of the spectrum, in Italian Vogue recently, Gabourey Sidibe was described as a “curvy actress.” And the New York Daily News characterized Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy as a “curvy comedian.” We all know the magazines are just being polite in these cases.
The indiscriminate use of the term is not just confined to celebrity subjects, either. I specifically remember being struck dumb by this woman’s self-description in the pages of New York. And in the ever-positive world of women’s magazines speaking to actual women, the term has been officially co-opted as a synonym for plus-size. Marie Claire’s monthly column “Big Girl in a Skinny World,” penned by a size 18 writer, regularly treats curvy and plus-size as interchangeable terms. A recent “Big Girl” column titled “Best Jeans for Curvy Women” went on to recommend jeans based on their availability in sizes over 14. This particular misuse of the word — as a euphemism — is one that’s stuck. I learned this firsthand after selecting “curvy” (which I think applies to my figure) as my “Body Type” on OKCupid, when a gentleman suitor messaged me the following unsolicited advice: “P.S. Dont say ur ‘curvy’ cuz guys will think ur fat ;).” It’s like the Boy Who Cried Linguistic Wolf: Curvy has been bandied about so much that the term isn’t even believable anymore.
Even Victoria Beckham (size 0), she of the pin-thin frame and strict gluten-free diet, wants to align herself with the average woman’s body (size 14). In the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Beckham scoffed at the notion of hiring a six-foot-tall gazelle of a fit model to try on her clothes, proclaiming that she tests out her own line because she thinks she’s an apt stand-in for “the general public.”
And whenever magazines do feature more regular-size models and actresses, it always comes with a note of self-congratulation. A recent interview with the actually curvy Christina Hendricks in Health magazine was almost obsessively preoccupied with her “shattering expectations” body and taking notes of her “health regrets” and “health rule-breaking.” (She’s so naughty, that curvy one!) Unsurprisingly, Hendricks herself is annoyed with all the body talk. And about once a year, Glamour employs ultracurvy (and size 10) model Crystal Renn and waxes on about her “beautiful curves,” before going back to using traditionally straight-bodied size 2 models again. In a 2010 issue of Teen Vogue, Michael Kors gushed about actress Nicki Reed (whose curviness, I guess, amounts to having breasts): “I'm so excited to be dressing you because if there's one thing I love, it's a girl who has a real body — I love curves — and one with a healthy glow.” (Even though, three months later, he defended his use of traditional runway models saying, “Models, by nature, are not supposed to look like you and me. They are exemplary.”)
By democratizing and then celebrating “curvy,” it makes us feel good about ourselves. It means we’re open-minded. Forward-thinking. Because we're so brave to praise a body that defies Hollywood standards. It’s a prop that shows off our values, in the same way liberal white people plaster their love for Homeland all over their Facebook and online dating profiles. It also gives us a new vocabulary with which to talk about our own bodies. But it’s unwarranted self-congratulation. If curvy can mean anything we want it to — on a scale of size 2 to size 22 — then our reductive thinking on the subject of bodies and beauty standards hasn’t actually changed. The ubiquity of "curvy" is just a gloss of body acceptance, not actual body acceptance. Once you start looking for it, for every positive article about celebrating bodies of all shapes and sizes, there’s an equally negative one; though we’re celebrating new shapes and sizes, it all adds up to zero. Two months before Glamour ran a feel-good article detailing all the reasons men love your body just the way it is — imperfections, extra fat, and all — they published a body-shaming article on weight stereotyping ("It's based on your body type, and it's rampant!"). And in between 1,001 articles about learning to love the body you have, the magazine ran a feature called “Did Loving My Body Almost Kill Me?” that began with these questions: “Was her body acceptance making her sick? Could yours be?” (Coming up on news at 11!)
The irony here is, if any of those dutiful cover lines about self-acceptance and every-body-is-the-best-body were believable, we could just describe people as they are. Taylor Swift would be “thin”; Melissa McCarthy, “Rubenesque.” And both of these descriptions would be okay.
But instead we keep employing a crutch word to discuss our bodies, instead of, you know, actually discussing them with words that mean something. We're jogging in place, instead of going somewhere. And that’s a big curvy shame.