Plus-size models once hidden from view are now in the spotlight

Plus-size models have been making headlines this year, signaling a possible shift towards greater size diversity in fashion. Robyn Lawley became the first plus-size model featured in a swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Another (Ashley Graham) was featured in an ad in the same issue. Graham also recently gave a TEDx Talk on body acceptance this past spring and is one of the models featured in Lane Bryant’s #ImNoAngel campaign.

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While the inclusion of plus-size models like Lawley and Graham marks a progressive move by fashion to embrace larger bodies, more striking is the recent developments involving Tess Holliday.

The typical, commercial plus-size model is tall with a minimum height of 5’8’’, wears a woman’s size 10 to 16, and portrays a conservative style of appearance. Most casual observers would probably fail to identify these models as plus size. In sharp contrast, Tess Holliday is short, large, and tattooed.

tess peopleIn January, MiLK Model Management in London signed 5’5”, size 22 model Tess Holliday, making it the first major agency to represent a model of that size. Since then, Holliday has become the new face of a number of campaigns: Sea by Monif C swimwear campaign (in which she is the first model over a size 18 hired by the swimsuit line), Torrid’s Photoshop-free spring 2015 campaign, and #SimplyBekini summer body confidence campaign for the UK’s plus-size brand Simply Be. Most recently, Holliday is on the June cover of People Magazine, dubbed “the world’s first size 22 supermodel.”

Tess Holliday and her booming career is remarkable given the tendency of fashion to hide bodies over a size 16 in designer studios and showrooms, out of sight from consumers.

The commercial print world is dominated by a specific image of plus-size beauty. Modeling agencies that focus on commercial print work represent plus-size models who fit within a narrow range in size from an 8 to a 16 because there is not enough work for models larger than a size 16. As one agent claimed, “that is what advertisers want,” even plus-size ones. This rationale explains the increased visibility of models (like Lawley at a size 12 and Graham at a size 16) who inhabit the small end of the plus-size spectrum. Consequently, size 18 and up models are virtually absent in print but, instead, work predominately as fit and showroom models, since 18 is a common sample size in plus-size.

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Plus-size fashion companies produce lines of clothing that range from a size 14 to 24. These companies usually build their lines from a pattern based on a size 18 fit model. Designers and clothing manufacturers hire fit models to try on garments at various stages of production to determine the fit and appearance of the pieces on a live person. When it comes to selling these garments, however, smaller models are more often hired to appear in the print advertisements. “Larger” plus-size models work behind the scenes in fashion while the “smaller” ones are out basking in the public’s attention.

But consumers are starting to notice this absence of larger bodies.

Tess Holliday in Sea by Monif C

Tess Holliday in Sea by Monif C

The types of bodies used in print campaigns are of growing concern to consumers, so more of the newer, web-based retailers have begun using “larger” plus-size models. For instance, one owner of an on-line boutique explained, “I prefer to use size 16 models so my customers can identify with them. I’ve had complaints in the past that our models didn’t look plus-size enough. I actually used a size 22 for some pictures.” Competing with national retailers who do not use models larger than a size 16, these newer brands do not want to risk alienating consumers. This concern prompted designer Monif Clarke to hire Holliday. “We’ve always featured size 14 plus models,” Clarke explained to Yahoo, “But, we thought, ‘How do we make this more compelling for our customer?’ The feedback we were getting was, ‘We love that you show women in size 14 and 18 but what about the 22s and 24s?’” The “larger” plus-size model, shunned by certain sectors of the fashion industry, is gaining visibility in a burgeoning virtual marketplace of e-commerce.

Ultimately, the distinction between “smaller” and “larger” plus-sizes reveals the continuation of thin privilege and size discrimination in fashion. It is not uncommon for size 10 and 12 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 curvy body but a thin face.

Tess Holliday in Torrid

Tess Holliday in Torrid

As a photographer who has shot for catalogs and a model who graced the runway for John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, Velvet D’Amour asserts that advertisers rely on “smaller” plus-size models to boost sales, “If they put a size eleven girl in and she’s wearing butt padding and boob padding and they sell a muumuu with this girl in that outfit, they’re going to get more sales having her in that outfit than they are me [at nearly 300 pounds].” Velvet argues that the capitalistic nature of media and retail fashion creates this size inconsistency in marketing. She explains, “They need to create the unattainable because the unattainable is what drives capitalism. If everyone accepted themselves, just as they are, imagine how sales would go down the tubes.” This tactic of hiring “smaller” models and then padding them up and pinning them into garments for photo shoots is simply part of a larger process of image manipulation aimed at increasing sales. Such manipulations further distort our sense of what bodies should look like, creating impossible ideals. And they perpetuate thinness, albeit of the face, as an ideal component of beauty.

Given these conditions, it is quite an accomplishment for Holliday to be in the limelight. She and other plus-size models simply want to be seen. They do not want to topple and take over the industry; they want to carve out a space for themselves and diversify our notion of beauty. “Larger” plus-size models such as Tess Holliday work to expand the definition of beauty beyond not only a size 6 but a size 16.

So, the question is: Are Tess Holliday’s successes part of a spectacle that will soon fade or, rather, start of a revolution in fashion?

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