Redefining “Ideal”

Using fashion as a medium, Maine businesses promote positive body image and embrace a look that transcends one size fits all.

Her smile almost as big as her pregnant belly, Samantha Gregory walks confidently across the art gallery, sporting a pink and black demi- bra by Fantasie, pink-trimmed pajamas by BedHead, and a sign that reads, “40 percent of ten-year-old girls have already been on a diet.” Gregory is one of eight women who, clad primarily in their own self-confidence, braved the Maine winter and preconceived notions of the perfect form to model lingerie for an appreciative 80-person Portland Art Gallery crowd this past February. From fashion shows to print ads and live presentations, celebrating the human form—whatever shape that form may take—is gaining momentum in Maine.

“Every Body is a Work of Art: a Fashion Show,” a co-creation of Aristelle Lingerie stores and Maine Media Collective, was billed as “a fashion show that celebrates the human form.” Aristelle provided pretty underthings specific to each model’s body type, from petite to statuesque, featuring brands such as Triumph, Mimi Holliday, and Le Mystere. In addition to wearing flattering undergarments, each model carried a small placard bearing a statistic about body image or a relevant quote. Gregory’s sign referenced a study from the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University. “Being super-pregnant with my fourth child, and the mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 14, I felt it was almost my duty to help them understand that all bodies are beautiful,” says 35-year- old Gregory, an L.L.Bean customer service representative who also has a three-year- old son.

Meghan Quinn cheerfully took to the runway wearing a maroon bra and panties by Fantasie, her oversized gold earrings glinting under the gallery lights. “Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful,” read the sign Quinn carried, paraphrasing actress Sophia Loren. Quinn, who recently completed a master’s degree in sustainable food systems, says she was surprised by how normal and empowering it felt to mingle in her underwear in a room of fully clothed people. “Everyone was so supportive of each other,” says 31-year-old Quinn. “The diversity in age, body type, and background of the group made it really interesting and fun.”

The models each volunteered for the show after seeing an announcement from Aristelle on Facebook. Their reasons for taking part in the show varied. “My body has gone through the gauntlet of human experience,” says 25-year-old Sofia Payson, who describes herself as a customer service superstar at a bakery and writer for an online hard cider column. “It has known joy and heartbreak, pain and laughter, and it all shows. Yet I am whole.” Wearing a lacy black and gray Empreinte ensemble, Payson strode past a bronze sculpture, Schifra by Valerie Deveraux, and paintings by Maine artist Jane Dahmen while holding a sign that read, “Sexy lingerie doesn’t have  to be seen by a man to serve its purpose.” Payson explains, “Deciding to model was a movement of affirmation towards myself and those who feel broken.”

Andrea King, owner of Aristelle stores in Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, has been featuring a broad range of women in her stores’ print ad campaigns since 2013. “Most retail stores just use their very attractive 20-year-old models,” says King. “I do that sometimes, but I really want to break out of that whole stereotype and use different women—older women, career women, pregnant women. I want people to be aware of the unrealistic standards that we judge ourselves against,” says King. “How can we be happy when we are constantly told with pictures instead of words that we are not good enough?”

Prior to launching her Burlington store in 2012, King worked with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. Last year, King was featured as a speaker at the Maine Live conference held in Portland. “I don’t want my daughters to hate their bodies,” King explains. King has two daughters, ages two and five, and two grown stepdaughters. “I don’t want them to feel inadequate, develop eating disorders, or agonize for hours over how to lose weight,” says King.

Emma Wilson, managing director of Art Collector Maine and the Portland Art Gallery, heard King talk about body image at Maine Live and wanted to do something to continue that conversation. “It was very personal for me,” says Wilson. “Growing up it was very much, ‘You could be beautiful if…’ That ‘if’ was always around body image or presentation.” Wilson, who is the mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 18, and a 14-year-old son, says that the issue crosses gender lines, too. “It’s not just about girls worrying about themselves; it’s also boys who are drinking protein powders and trying to bulk themselves up and become more masculine.”

Wilson trained as a social worker at Boston University and worked at both Portland Museum of Art and Wayfinder Schools in New Gloucester before joining Art Collector Maine. “Art, to me, is an important platform that we have available to us to have conversations about anything that’s relevant in our lives,” says Wilson. For the fashion show, the gallery team displayed works of art representing the human form in all shapes, sizes, and ages. “That set the stage,” says Wilson. “We didn’t need to be in the foreground at that point.”

Chris Kast, the fashion show’s emcee, says his favorite thing about taking part was seeing the pure joy on the faces of the models. Kast is the brand strategist at the Brand Company, a division of the Maine Media Collective, which also publishes Maine, Old Port, and Maine Home+Design magazines. He has been working in the media field for three decades. “Why don’t we, as marketers and media professionals, do a better job at looking at what real life is and portraying it?” asks Kast, who is the father of two daughters and two stepdaughters. “Why are we so afraid to recognize that humanity is all about difference, not perfection?”

Kast agrees that body shaming is not solely the domain of women. “As someone who grew up being called ‘Crisco Fat in a Can’ by my aunt, and ‘fat Chris’ by my brother, these wounds run deep,” says Kast. “We need to be healed so that we, as a society, can feel free to just love ourselves as we are.” He was pleased to see that men were well represented in the fashion show audience. “Being part of this fashion show helped me become part of a solution,” says Kast.

Mackenzie Morris is also working toward a solution. Originally from the Blue Hill peninsula, Morris opened Étaín Boutique on Congress Street in Portland two years ago. Étaín offers lingerie meant to appeal to a variety of tastes. “With Étaín, my goal was to create a space that was not just safer for but dominated by those who often find themselves alienated within mainstream venues,” says Morris, who previously studied film theory and gender issues at Vassar College in New York. “This mission extends through our product offerings, our advertising, and through the physical environment of the shop.”

Étaín features nonprofessional models in its lingerie advertisements, shot by local photographers, including Sarah Morrill and Gabriella Sturchio. “Body positivity is becoming a trend and many companies are capitalizing on that,” says Morris. “We see more ads that feature models referred to as ‘real women,’ but the title in and of itself presents a whole new set of problems. By declaring their own progressiveness while still using models who fall within a very small range of body and beauty types, advertisers get credit for empowering women without taking any actual aesthetic risks,” says Morris.

For the past two years, Étaín has collaborated on and hosted an “inclusive, all bodies, all genders” fashion show in collaboration with Maine Educationalists on Sexual Harmony. “We received an incredible response both from the audience and from the participants themselves,” says Morris. While her store and efforts have made waves, she acknowledges that more work remains to be done. “There are always more individuals to represent,” says Morris. “We are constantly working to expand our range of models in terms of size, shape, age, gender identity, race, and ethnic background.”

For Aristelle owner Andrea King, the fashion show at Portland Art Gallery provided one more opportunity to “change the way people think and move the conversation about body image forward.” “I received emails after the event from so many people,” says King, “some telling me about hard experiences they’ve had dealing with body image, others talking about their children or loved ones who struggle with body confidence. They are thankful for companies who try to change the status quo.”

The prevailing message from the Maine lingerie scene and media is simple: there is no such thing as a perfect body. Statuesque or curvaceous, regardless of gender, age, identity or ethnicity, every body is a work of art.