Modeling agencies want to represent women of all sizes. But the fashion industry won’t let them.

Originally published in The Washington Post on February 9, 2015

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Robyn Lawley made a name for herself last week when she became the first plus-size model featured in a swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

It’s great to see a slightly larger figure grace the magazine’s pages. But Lawley’s presence is hardly a victory for the average American woman (who wears a size 14). A 12, she’s too small for the clothes retailers market as “plus size” (a designation that generally applies to merchandise from size 14 – 24).

This irony highlights a big problem – the term “plus size” has no real definition in the fashion model industry. Often, it’s used by industry professionals to describe women over a size 8. As a result, it’s not uncommon for models to advertise plus-size clothing lines they themselves would not fit into. Many of these “smaller” plus-size models use body padding to effectively size up, because clients want a plus-size body but a thin face.

Such manipulations further distort our sense of what bodies should look like, creating impossible ideals. And they perpetuates thinness, albeit of the face, as an ideal component of beauty.

The problem is not that modeling agencies won’t represent larger women. These agencies are trying to diversify their ranks and bring in women of all sizes.

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One agent spoke of the challenge of convincing clients to hire plus-size models in the 1990s. “Was there resistance in the beginning?” he said. “Of course! I was hung up on. People were laughing at the idea [of plus-size models].” Back then, only 50 plus-size models were represented by the three largest modeling agencies in New York City, combined.

That’s changed in a big way. Today, each agency represents dozens of plus-size models. “Now there are more shapes and sizes,” explained one agent. “There is more cross-over than there ever was.”

But the fashion industry won’t hire them.

Most runway shows maintain strict and often extreme body standards. In 2009, designer label Ralph Lauren fired model Filippa Hamilton for being too fat. At the time, Hamilton wore a size 4. Both Coco Rocha, whom the industry considered “too big” for high fashion at a size 4, and Gemma Ward lost work opportunities due to weight gain because they could not fit into the common sample size — a size 0.

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Even print advertisers often won’t hire anyone above a size 16, even for plus-size campaigns.

Recent developments indicate that the distinction between plus- and straight-size modeling is eroding and plus size is expanding. Take Jag Model Agency, founded in 2013 by former directors of Ford Models’s now-defunct plus-size division. The agency represents models from size 6 to size 20. And unlike other agencies, they don’t segregate based on size categories. IMG Models (the world’s top modeling agency) announced in the fall of 2013 that they, too, would no longer segregate models into different boards based on size. MiLK Model Management recently signed size 22 model Tess Holliday, making it the first agency to hire a model of that size.

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Modeling agencies have taken the first step. Now, companies and designers need to hire these models — women of all sizes. Sports Illustrated just took a step in this direction. Perhaps next time, it will take a leap.

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