Curvy may be the new look but the fashion police need to be convinced. Tahira Yaqoob analyses whether recent magazine covers are a fad or a force to be reckoned with.
In the fashion world, is curvy the shape of things to come?
Curvy may be the new look but the fashion police need to be convinced. Tahira Yaqoob analyses whether recent magazine covers are a fad or a force to be reckoned with, and how the fuller figure represents most women, whether a runway revolution or not.
The contracts had been exchanged, a cheque handed over and the keys were in my hand.
Then just as he was about to leave, my property agent paused at the door.
"You know, I'm also a personal trainer," he said with a little wink.
And as I puzzled over this information, wondering why on earth he was telling me, he added: "You know, in case you need any help... with this," and as he spoke, he made a sweeping gesture taking in my muffin top.
I wish I could say I slammed the door in his face, shredded the contract, or came back with some Churchillian riposte: "I may be podgy but you, sir, are ugly. Tomorrow I can go on the treadmill but you will still be ugly."
Instead, I was just left gawping and speechless at his utter rudeness.
You see, I have always been on the curvy side. Kind friends would say voluptuous. My less kind sisters came up with nicknames like "thunder thighs" when we were growing up.
If, as the surveys all state, the average woman is a UK size 14 to 16, I am firmly average.
Madonna will announce her decision to join a nunnery and the writers of Days of Our Lives will be nominated for a Nobel Literature Prize before I ever say no to dessert and slim down to a size 0.
But that doesn't mean I, or women like me, have always been made to feel average.
Airbrushed photos of stick-thin models in magazines, catwalk shows featuring women with figures like knitting needles, and clothes designed to fit a gnat on a diet have all conspired to make us feel abnormal.
So we layered up to hide our curves, wore shapeless, tent-like dresses to disguise our figures (and which made us look even more enormous), self-consciously yanked our cardis/handbags/napkins over our rounded bellies, and never, ever wore jeans for fear of the dreaded muffin top spilling over the waistband.
Now though, it seems the worm is turning. Last summer Vogue Italia featured Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine and Robyn Lawley in a cover photo shoot, three seriously curvy women with ample bosoms spilling out of corsets, rounded hips and wobbly thighs splayed across chaise longues in all their naked glory. And not a napkin in sight to hide them.
It became an instant talking point, as did those memorable pictures of the American model Lizzie Miller. Head thrown back laughing, she appeared naked in Glamour magazine in the US in 2009.
But that wasn't what sparked a frenzied debate worldwide. It was the fact that she was photographed with stretch marks and a little roll of tummy fat clearly on display.
"Seeing someone not airbrushed with an average looking body, compared to all those stick-thin pictures of perfection - I guess people thought: 'Wow! This girl looks like me,'" Miller reflected a year later. "It really struck a chord. The work flooded in, with lucrative contracts with American and Italian fashion labels."
Britain holds a Miss Curvy competition to find women who are proud of their sensual curves and accept the way they look.
Last year's winner of Miss America was not a scrawny blonde as in previous years but a curvy Latin beauty - with an ambition to train as a lawyer to boot.
And the fabulously named Miss Ronde contest in France was won earlier this year by 29-year-old Hyslyne Blanchon: height 5 feet 7 inches (168cm) and weighing in at 212lbs (96kg). Last year's winner was the similarly rotund Marion Bogaert, 2cm taller and 1kg heavier than Blanchon. Even the French word to describe skinny-minnies - minceur - sounds mealy-mouthed and unappealing. To cap it all, French Elle, the definitive word in the fashion industry, had the curvaceous Lynn on its cover in February this year.
So is it time to get eating? And when is bigger better?
"Looks can be deceiving and striving to be thin is not always the best option," says Andrew Picken of Bespoke Nutrition, a Dubai-based firm that aims to help clients maintain a healthy lifestyle.
"Someone who is skinny may be in for a rude awakening. You can look the picture of health on the outside but the inside can tell a different story.
"You can have someone who is bigger but is physically active and eats healthily. They are less likely to have a heart attack than their skinny counterpart who drinks, smokes and eats a poor diet.
"Some of us are just genetically programmed to be petite and others to be voluptuous. The priority should be health and wellbeing first. We need to get away from focusing on the number of kilos and instead focus more on healthy eating and shape. To be a nice shape is better than to be a number."
Picken has noticed a new trend among his female clients. Instead of asking for his help in reducing their curves, they are demanding to be more shapely.
"Recently some women have come to me to try to gain a bottom," he says. "It is the new skinny. The likes of Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian have made the fuller bottom fashionable and desirable."
Indeed, rather than disguising their rounded derrières, La Guitarra and Kardashian positively revel in wearing clingy outfits that show their behinds to their fullest advantage. The stars are thought to have inspired a flood of requests for silicone buttock implants, particularly in Latin America, where a perfectly spherical backside is highly coveted.
And there's the thing: ideas about what constitutes attractiveness have evolved over the years and varied widely among cultures and eras.
While a slender waist has always been celebrated, women with more meat on their bones have historically been deemed more attractive. The term "child-bearing hips" says it all - women with curvier figures were thought to be healthier, more fertile and better equipped to survive in hard times.
In Tudor times, they wore a padded roll around their waists and under their dresses, although that was as much to carry the weight of their voluminous petticoats as to enhance their curves.
In the West in the 17th and 18th century, women's love handles and corpulent forms were portrayed as the epitome of beauty by the likes of Rubens.
Art and literature over the last few centuries have been littered with references praising the rounder form, from "plump" Meg in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women to Fernando Botero's bulging sculptures.
Today in some parts of Mauritania in west Africa, teenage girls are force-fed up to 16,000 calories a day. In a country where big is beautiful, the ideal goal is an ample figure with stretch marks.
Devendra Singh, a psychologist from the University of Texas, studied references to figures in more than 345,000 British and American works of fiction, prose and drama and says it was not until the 1950s - when Marilyn Monroe's voluptuous figure was much envied - that scientists made a firm connection between waist and hip measurements and good health.
The waistline of the average woman has expanded by six inches since then, but Picken says rather than focusing on an ideal weight, women should aim for a healthy body fat percentage of between 21 and 33 per cent.
Men's ideal body fat ratio is much lower, at 11 to 22 per cent, as oestrogen levels in women cause more fat to be stored in the bottom, thighs and hips.
When women become menopausal, oestrogen levels take a dip and fat migrates to the waist and the abdomen, contributing to the dreaded "middle-aged middle".
But while we may be learning to love our curves, the fashion industry is still a long way from accepting that not every woman is a size 0.
The Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, whose tiny waist, heaving bosom and shapely hips made the hourglass figure fashionable again, recently complained she could not find a swimsuit to fit her, adding: "No one will send me dresses. Designers loan size 2 or 4 samples to actresses but I'm not that size. It's like I'm a freak because I'm curvy and I can't squeeze into those things."
In 2010, New York Fashion Week hosted its first show featuring fuller-figured models - but even the term plus-size, often used in magazines and by model agencies, implies they are somehow out of the ordinary rather than mirroring real women. While Crystal Renn, the model behind the memoir Hungry, in which she described starving herself and exercising for eight hours solid, was recently celebrated in Glamour magazine for now being a plus-sized role model, readers pointed out that as a size 12, she was still slimmer than the average American woman.
Franca Sozzani, Vogue's editor-in-chief who launched the website Vogue Curvy giving fashion tips to the larger lady, says she is committed to proving fashion can "get on the frontline and struggle against [anorexia]."
The American model Miller adds: "We have a long way to go until a girl who is curvy can be in a magazine without a lot of attention being drawn to her."
In the meantime, I plan to do my bit to help the cause. Another cupcake, anyone?
Top 10 women whose curves we admire
ADELE The 23-year-old British singer, who has conquered both sides of the Atlantic with more than 23 million album sales to date and with six Grammy Awards last month, was criticised by the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld for being "a little too fat". She responded by saying: "I've never wanted to look like models on the cover of magazines. I represent the majority of women and I'm very proud of that."
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS The New York Times columnist Cathy Horyn cattily commented: "You don't put a big girl in a big dress" after Hendricks wore a peach ruffled dress at the 2010 Golden Globes. The curvy one retaliated by wearing an even clingier outfit at her next red carpet appearance.
KIM KARDASHIAN The reality TV star bizarrely had an X-ray on screen to prove she had not had silicone implants to make her bottom bigger. "It's all real," she said after speculation on celebrity blogs that she might have had some help in enhancing her hourglass figure.
BEYONCÉ KNOWLES Beyoncé, who often performs in figure-hugging corsets that show off her ample assets, coined the word "bootylicious", which she describes as "a celebration of curves and a woman's natural body".
NIGELLA LAWSON The domestic goddess had us all reaching for giant-size chocolate bars with her indulgent cooking methods. The 52-year-old recently topped a survey asking 2,000 British women which celebrity's body shape inspired them most.
JENNIFER LOPEZ La Guitarra, so nicknamed because of her guitar-shaped figure, once sacked a manager who told her to lose weight. J.Lo said: "I was just so infuriated that somebody said you couldn't have a little extra meat on you because I was by no means fat."
MARILYN MONROE Voluptuous Marilyn was a reported size 16 but wore clothes so tight that they would often split at the seams. She is still regularly voted one of the sexiest women of all time.
REKHA The legendary Bollywood star said she was nicknamed the "ugly duckling" of the Hindi film industry because of her plump figure and dark complexion. She had the last laugh when she transformed herself into a smouldering screen star and award-winning actress. She said: "I was determined to make it big on sheer merit."
JESSICA SIMPSON It's been a while since she squeezed into a pair of denim hot pants as Daisy Duke and she has sparked a lot of column inches about her yo-yoing weight, but Simpson defiantly declares: "I'm not ever going to be size 0 and I don't want to weigh 90 pounds. I love my curves."
HAIFA WEHBE The gloriously voluptious Lebanese singer, model and actress rose to fame in the Arab world at the age of 16 when she won the Miss South Lebanon competition. She went on to become the runner-up in the Miss Lebanon competition. Newsweek put her on its list of the 50 most beautiful people in 2006. She is famous for, as someone once put it, "singing with her body, and not her voice".