Naomi Watanabe is the coolest damn bumblebee I’ve ever seen. Clad in a plunging yellow-and-black-striped flapper dress (complete with fringe), the Japanese comedian and plus-size fashion icon steals the stage as she pops, locks, and drops it under a disco ball at L.A.’s Union Nightclub.
To say Watanabe is a star is an understatement. Having risen to fame for her spot-on Beyoncé impressions (she is literally known as the “Beyoncé of Japan”), Watanabe has since earned a spot as a cast member on Japanese SNL, a judge on X-Factor Japan, and the most-followed person on Instagram in the country (5.2 million, thank you very much). But her sparkling sense of humor — a quality that’s made her a star — is only half of the story.
The 28-year-old is also lauded for her curvaceous figure and for being a champion for plus-size women in one of the world’s thinnest countries — Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world at 3.6% (compared with the United States’ 67%). However, these women obviously deserve representation in the media, and they’re finally getting it thanks to Watanabe, who, alongside music groups like Pottya and La BIG 3, are attempting to overturn Japan’s current lack of size inclusivity.
Aside from being a spokesperson and cover girl for La Farfa, Japan’s premier magazine for plus-size women (which uses animal shapes to help women identify their body type — i.e. pigeon for bustier women, penguin for bootylicious women, teddy bear for women rounder in the middle), Watanabe also has her own clothing line, which is one of the country’s only plus-specific labels. PUNYUS, which loosely translates to “chubby,” launched in 2014 with the goal to provide women of different sizes with the opportunity to embrace fashion, rather than having to hide behind pieces that don’t fit (typically, she says, in Japan, it’s nearly impossible to find pieces in larger than a size medium). Though other plus-size retailers in Japan exist, Watanabe, and her U.S. representative and translator, Rei, explain that they are all very specific to a genre, like tomboy or ultra-feminine. PUNYUS however, with its red satin bomber jackets and tartan skirts, caters to everyone; Watanabe describes its aesthetic as “kind of Harajuku style, but can be dressy, and can be sexy.” Her line offers both regular and plus-sizes and has a penchant for bright, colorful designs and prints influenced by ’90s hip hop, ’60s style and, of course, all things kawaii.
Having unique clothing options for women is an important part of Watanabe’s mission. She explains that most plus-size offerings in Japan come in bleak colors, and have little to no shape, which means that plus women are forced to hide instead of celebrate their figures. Watanabe is not only changing this narrative by introducing styles that fit and are flattering — she’s also creating a community while she’s at it. With Japanese culture emphasizing the importance of belonging, Watanabe is helping facilitate a new sect of women who aren’t ashamed to be who they are and wear what they want.
This confidence can be seen predominately in Japan’s “pocharri” trend, which encouraged women to embrace the term “marshmallow girls,” reshaping the notion that girls who are bigger aren’t cute. Watanabe and La Farfa are at the forefront of this movement, helping to create a new look for women who have never been able to identify with another trend because of their bodies. There is no size limit for cuteness, and “pocharri” girls know it. The goal is to help women embrace fashion and personal style, without having to change their bodies.
The real change, though, will come when the fashion world truly starts to cater to a variety of real-life bodies. And although there are many more plus-size labels available for American women, the cultural impact of thin privilege is real. Watanabe, despite being Japan’s most-followed Instagram user, is just breaking into the American market — a place where her platform is important, because she serves a reminder that women of any size are capable, important, and beautiful. Her mission too, sets an example to follow: One size does not fit all, and empowering woman of all shapes and sizes is a mission that we all can — and should — get behind.
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