Women who are fat have historically been deemed an unworthy consumer segment by fashion brands and designers (Stearns 1997). Yet, plus-sized fashion bloggers and their audiences, self-labeled fatshionistas, have re-appropriated elements from the mainstream fashion field and employed these to subvert the stigma of fat (Scaraboto and Fischer 2013; Harju and Huovinen 2015). Fat acceptance assumes that individuals should change their bodies to comply with social and cultural expectations for particular shapes and sizes. Yet, when women who are fat and accept their bodies enter the field of fashion, they face a different set of expectations – they bodies need to dress well in clothes that are made for much smaller bodies or according to different shape patterns.

Because the intersection of mainstream fashion and fat acceptance has conflicting logics (Scaraboto and Fischer 2016), fatshionistas may experience certain consumer goods and practices as paradoxical. In particular, objects that allow fatshionistas to cross boundaries between the intersecting fields entice conflicting reactions for offering the possibility of inclusion and validation in the marketplace while acting as enablers of the stigmatization these consumers fight. To advance understanding of the dynamics of consumer enrollment in uneasy intersecting assemblages, my colleague Maria Carolina Zanette (Universidade de Ribeirão Preto, Brazil) and I embarked on a research project to address the following research question: how do consumers make sense of paradoxical objects?

Drawing from qualitative data collected through a 5-year netnography (Kozinets 2015) of the Fat Acceptance Movement, we examine discourses of fatshionistas regarding a particular category of objects: shapewear. By wearing shapewear, plus-sized women can defy the stigma associated with being fat by fitting into clothing that is not “meant for them”, yet subject themselves to the norms of the fashion industry where lumps and rolls protruding from under a garment are deemed unsightly. Conversely, by not wearing shapewear, plus-sized consumers defy the stigma through making their bodies and their fat visible, albeit dressed with the limited clothing options offered by the scant brands and designers that cater to them. The ambiguous meanings and transitional functions of shapewear characterize it as a boundary object (Star 1988, 2010).

In order to examine women’s shapewear as a boundary object, we draw from Susan Pearce’s model for artefact studies (1994). Pearce argues that to develop an object-centered understanding of sociality, four aspects of artefacts should be examined: materials, history, environment, and significance. Studies on gender and gendered objects mostly focuses on one or two of these aspects (frequently significance, more recently environment), but leave historical and material aspects of the artefact uncovered (for an exception see Ostberg’s [2012] chapter on men’s socks). Hence, by adopting Pearce’s analytical framework, we extend current understanding of gendered objects (Kirkham 1996), and contribute to advancing object-centered perspectives in consumer research. Before explaining our research procedures and developing our situated analysis of shapewear, we briefly review the concept of boundary objects and the intersecting assemblages centered on them.

The concept of “boundary objects” has been developed in science and technology studies (STS) to explain the material arrangements that allow two individuals (or groups) to cooperate without consensus (Star 1988, 2010). Explaining that such objects occupy an intersection between groups or fields, Star notes how these objects form boundaries as they are acted upon, discussed, and interpreted by each group. Even though the term “object” is commonly employed in many disciplines (including consumer research) to refer to specific material artefacts, the notion of boundary objects as developed in STS requires thinking about them as assemblages of processual acts and material infrastructures that are acted upon by subjects. Even though consumer research has noted that consumption goods have different meanings that are culturally and contextually determined (McCracken 1986, Thompson and Troester 2002), when acted upon by two groups that follow different logics (and hence maintain different conceptions of those artifacts within a shared social world), a consumption good and the assemblage it partakes in becomes a boundary object and can be examined to illuminate the multiplicity of logics at play in intersecting fields (Bettany 2016). We will mobilize this concept to develop our analysis of how consumers who sit at intersecting market assemblages market make sense of (and act upon) objects that are paradoxical for them.

Material and historical aspects of shapewear
What is currently called shapewear has historically been an object of discussion. A book by William Barry Lord, published in 1868, traces the origin of the corset to the Indian hunting-belt and shows that ancient civilizations in South America, Java, and Egypt among other places, adopted practices of reducing female’s waists through objects similar to the corset. In the Victorian Era, controversies about the corset were common. Although there are interpretations of it as being an object of sexual oppression, the corset was an object that allowed women to articulate their sexual subjectivity (Kunzle, 1977; Steele, 2001). At the end of the Victorian Era, the dress reform united both suffragist feminists and mainly male doctors. Feminists claimed conspiratorially that the female garments were the result of the male patriarchy in restraining female action (Riegel, 1963), whilst doctors tended to follow the rousseaunian idea of “natural” and condemned women using the corset, especially the ones who engaged in tight-lacing (the practice of shaping the body and reducing waistline through the use of the corset) as intellectually inferior (Kunzel, 1977).
Despite the controversies, it was only in the 1920’s that the corset was substituted by simpler undergarments. Nowadays, the corset is considered part of a fetishist subculture and the object itself represents female empowerment (O’Donnel, 1999), albeit not without controversies. That is, from its origins, shapewear have been ambiguous objects. The disputes around their use usually revolved around health issues or expressed a male gaze and masculine perceptions of women who wore the garment.
Different types of shapewear have different effects on the body, depending on compressing strength of the object. Differently from the Victorian corset (Steele, 2001), which was essentially the same for all women, contemporary shapewear includes several kinds of models (as waist cincher, thigh compressor, body suits and contouring bras), and are fabricated in assorted materials (as elastic, wire, leather, fabric, nylon). The effects of each material and type of shapewear on the body were elements of great discussion in our dataset. Comfort, level of compression and “fitting” were among the aspects mentioned by bloggers and consumers. Putting on and taking of the shapewear is a difficult task, due to the restricted stretching of the material. Bloggers and their audiences described those difficulties in detail.
Other material aspects discussed were durability, color and aesthetics – consumers complained that, mostly, shapewear products are beige and ugly. This complaint is related to the ambiguity of use for shapewear, which are considered intimate, that is, supposed to be hidden, but also shown to a sexual partner.
The corset used to be considered an erotic piece, even more erotic than nudity itself (Steele 2001). However, the shapewear that is used to smooth or reduce the body lost erotic appeal. Hence, the relation between contemporary shapewear and the male gaze is a complex one. Moreover, both health and beauty benefits are claimed as alleged benefits of shapewear, contrasting with the idea propagated during the dress reform that corsets were bad for women’s health, especially affecting female abilities for maternity (Kunzel, 1977).

Corsets have been boundary objects since the eighteenth century (Steele, 2001), when both conservative advocators and feminists were publicly against its use. The semiotic-material elements that surround criticism of shapewear comprise feminist claims (using shapewear is the same as “non-accepting” one’s body), material aspects that provoke body constrains (complains that it restrains movements) and considerations of the male gaze (shapewear is no longer erotic, but a shameful piece in a world where natural beauty and nudeness are desirable).
Our preliminary findings suggest that shapewear is used predominantly for smoothing bodylines, softening aspects of their bodies that prevent fatshionistas from “dressing well”. While acknowledging that shapewear reduces body measures and that this is a perceived benefit for some consumers, for the bloggers we studied size matters less than shape. Having an hourglass-type, smooth figure is important for their fatshionista identity and for fitting their bodies into the clothes they choose. Solutions created by fatshionistas for these conflicting discourses include singularizing and fetishizing the object (Kopytoff, 1986). Consumers fetishize shapewear that comes in certain colors or shapes, refer to shapewear as their fantasy “armor” of self-esteem and tend to use it more in special occasions. In some sense, the fetish is both on the object and on the effect it produces on the body. The body in shapewear is more erotic than the body without it (as it was in the Victorian era) because shapewear grants the body confidence. However, contemporary, Spanx-like shapewear can only be erotic when covered with clothes, because it is a feminine piece unsuitable to the male gaze, who would ideally feast on the corseted body without a corset.

This research project has been funded by CONYCIT/FONDECYT through a research grant FONDECYT Iniciación Etapa 2013.

The plastic dreams of Melissa consumers

Prior consumer research has established that individuals relate to consumption objects as a means to develop, reinforce, transform, or align their fragmented individual identities. This literature has mainly focused on understanding the identity-shaping potential of finished products (e.g., branded shoes). Less attention has been dedicated to understanding how materials, designer intentions, and marketing efforts jointly influence the materialities of consumption objects and their identity-shaping outcomes. My colleague Marcia Christina Ferreira (Liverpool John Moores University) and I studied an online community of plastic shoe aficionados – fans of the Brazilian brand Melissa - to extend current understandings of object-consumer relations. The model we developed includes pre-objectification – a process whereby cultural ideas are translated into material objects. Our study answers: How do consumers relate to pre-objectification elements? And what identity-related and cultural outcomes can be unveiled through an extended view on object-consumer relations? In this post, I share the highlights of the study. For the complete article, which is part of the special issue “Leaving Pleasantville: Macro/micro, public/private, conscious/non-conscious, volitional/imposed, and permanent/ephemeral transformations beyond everyday life” of the Journal of Business Research, click here!
Our inspiration to expand the model of consumer relation to products comes from object-relations theory, as developed in psychoanalytical research (Woodward, 2011). According to this perspective, as they relate with objects, individuals are socialized, from early infancy, into the world of object-symbols (Dittmars, 1992). In object-relations theory, objects are not limited to physical things, but also include “psychological objects such as a parent or body part” (Woodward, 2011; Winnicott, 1971) or, as the term is most frequently employed in psychopathology treating, to people. Hence, objects can be animate or inanimate, human or non-human. Further, the object-relations perspective differentiates between part-objects and whole-objects: “For example, a parent would be considered a whole-object, while the particular bodily part of the mother’s breast would be a part-object” (Woodward, 2011, p. 373). In the context of our research, we understand plastic shoes and consumer bodies as whole-objects, while plastic (material substance) and feet (body part) are seen as part-objects. We combined the notion of object-relations with current understandings of the outcomes of object-consumer relations in consumer research and other disciplines:
We call pre-objectification the phase in the materialization process where material substances, designer intentions, and marketing efforts are the elements involved in creating and producing a consumption object. Of note, these elements interact in a non-linear fashion: designers and marketers work with material substances to create an object and imbue it with meaning. The center of our model depicts the creative space emerging as object and consumer interact. This space is loaded with emotional energy, which feeds into the consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, her current, past, and desired selves. The last stage in the materialization process is that in which such outcomes are materialized, and consumer and object transformations get embedded into consumer identity projects and cultural forms.
Our research context is the brand of plastic shoes Melissa and its aficionado consumers. This context can be introduced in relation to its pre-objectification elements: material substances, design intentions, and marketing efforts.
Material substances – Melissa shoes are made of a patented material called Melflex, which is composed of PVC crystals stabilized by calcium and zinc, arguably less toxic than the heavy metals usually employed in PVC compounds. This substance has allowed designers to create a myriad of different shapes and finishes for Melissa shoes, varying from high-gloss to opaque, from sequined to velvety looking. As a result, even though all Melissa shoes are plastic shoes, the experience of touching or wearing one of Melissa’s models is not necessarily similar that of touching or wearing another. One consistent element across models and collections is the shoes’ scent: aroma particles are incorporated into Melflex, attributing to all Melissa shoes a characteristic lingering bubble-gum scent. Most Melissa shoes will deform under excessive heat, and because plastic is not porous or breathable, most Melissa shoes will repel water and will not absorb transpiration. Plastic is a durable material, and Melissa shoes are consequently long-lasting. Yet, each of the different finishes employed in different Melissa models mean that different shoes will degrade in different ways throughout usage and interaction with consumers and their body parts.

Design - As interpreters of cultural ideas, designers’ intentions are influenced by the capacity of the plastic to introduce reflexive thoughts over their creative process. “Plastic is such a malleable material, so flexible, biomorphic, high performing, democratic, comfortable, soft, complex, moldable and variable,” says Karim Rashid, the designer of a high-heeled Melissa shaped as teardrops (Greenwood, 2010). Bringing their imagination to the development of new objects, designers are allured and challenged by the possibilities of plastic. Responding to a couple of years of sales stagnation in the early 2000s, Melissa started developing improvements in its material substance and production process. It also partnered with designers known for their innovative and audacious work. For the first time, the product design no longer looked like a reproduction in plastic of ‘real’ shoes and turned into an object whose conceptual form was chosen to be materialized in plastic. From that moment on, the interaction between the designer and the material substance became the catalyst of the object transformation, as Jason Wu, another fashion designer invited to collaborate with Melissa, explains: “It was really interesting for me to explore design possibilities with plastic. I wanted to take advantage of the materials I was given, make it all completely functional and waterproof and yet still remain extremely sophisticated” (Cullity, 2012).

Marketing – From the brand’s origins in 1979, Melissa shoes targeted the modern, fashion-oriented crowd of consumers. With the popularization of plastic shoes in Brazil through the 80s, prices dropped, devaluing the brand for fashionistas. Moreover, plastic became synonymous with cheap shoes, and perceptions of the material as uncomfortable, inferior to leather, and a producer of nasty odors gained relevance among Brazilian consumers. To change the image of plastic shoes and rescue the brand, Grendene decided to reapproximate consumers to the material substance and to elevate plastic shoes to the status of fashionable accessories. The company invited famous Brazilian soap-opera actresses to become spokespersons for Melissa and entered international markets through partnerships with fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and others mentioned above.
We capture the evolution through time of the proposed meanings for plastic, plastic shoes, and the brand, through an analysis of the digital version of 112 print ads for Melissa shoes launched over 34 years (1978-2012). We identified six phases distinctly marked by changes in how body and plastic relate in the ads. This analysis informed our understanding of how marketing efforts correspond to plastic in the pre-objectification stage and support our interpretation of the interactions between consumers and the material substance.
After studying the blogs of Melissa fans, we were able to identify two outcomes that arise from consumers’ interactions with these pre-objectification elements in the creative space: the Melisseira identity, and the cultural space shaped by Melissa fans. We show that, in selectively projecting their emotions onto one or another element of the pre-objectification stage rather than on the finished shoes, Melissa consumers can build flexible identities that minimize the risk of social disapproval of an identity choice. The cultural space created by Melissa fans unites the human subject with the external environment via transitional (Woodward, 2011) or “transformational objects” (Bollas, 1987; Woodward, 2011). Emotional energy still works as a catalyst of the cultural space, and it feeds into consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, core, and extended selves. For instance, Melissas can are frequently treated as transitional objects by mothers, who have worn the shoes in their own childhood and are now keen to introducing their daughters to the shoes.

Since the publication of the article on the Journal of Business Research, Chris Ferreira and I have continued to work on this research context, now also collaborating with Emily Chung, from RMIT University, and looking at collectors of Melissa shoes. So keep tuned, for more posts on consumer-object relations through a materiality lens.

This study was funded by CONICYT/FONDECYT through a research grant FONDECYT Iniciación Etapa 2013.