By Stephanie Shi
It’s quite rare to find someone who thinks or wonders about the pressures plus-size models go through. Popular culture and media make it seem like these people no longer struggle with their weight or societal expectations to be skinny, especially since they’ve become glamorous, confident models. Yet there are standards of how their bodies should look like: a minimum height of five feet eight inches; clothing size 10 to 18 (that’s from a 35-28-37 bust-waist-hip measurement in inches to a 46-39-48.5); and waist-to-hip measurements being at least 10 inches apart. But most plus-size models in the top agencies are size 10 to 14 (44-34-44); that’s according to sociologist and former plus-size model Amanda Czerniawski, PhD.
Amanda went undercover as a model for two and a half years to investigate the plus-size modeling industry. In her book Fashioning Fat, which was published in 2015, Amanda uses her experience as a plus-size model and her sociology training—she interviewed a number of models—to reveal what takes place in these models’ professional lives, what they think and feel working in the scrupulous industry of modeling and fashion amid their goal of proclaiming that fat can be sexy, and who gets to say what kind of body is “in.”
Here we chat with Amanda for her to give us insight on what it’s like to be a plus-size model.
What led you to ask if plus-size models also experience pressure in the modeling industry? So much so that you went undercover for answers!
As a sociologist, I have always been interested in the notion of “ideal” bodies. So, I went undercover as a plus-size model to gain insight on how women navigate this sector of the fashion industry and the impact plus-size models can have on our constructions of beauty.
Initially, I thought I had an advantage due to my past experience in the entertainment industry. As a child actor, I entered an audition room with a blazing personality and showed wit and a high social aptitude through conversational banter. So, for my first modeling open call at an agency, I prepared to wow the agent with my purposefully peppy personality. I never got the chance. Before I could even offer simple words of introduction, she told me that she was not interested in representing me. The agent evaluated my potential to model based only on a snapshot, without a word exchanged. I was caught off guard by the impersonal nature of this interaction, as well as the immediate evaluation performed by the agent. With one glance at me and my pictures, she was done. That was my first glimpse at what it felt to be “just a body.”
As an academic, you would think that I would have learned from this exchange and adjusted my expectations at subsequent calls and castings. Nope. I still waited for my chance to dazzle the next agent with my way with words. At that next opportunity, it happened again (but with different results).
Ultimately, I learned (the hard way) that while acting and modeling are alike in terms of the need to transform yourself into a character for the camera, different skills are used to achieve this goal. In acting, I used my body and voice. In modeling, I was voiceless. You can imagine how difficult this could be for an academic.
In the introduction to Fashioning Fat, you give the body requirements of plus-size models, which are not far from the measurements of average women. What, then, sets plus-size models apart?
While a plus-size model is, arguably, close in size to the average woman, her body is still atypical in terms of height, symmetrical facial features, and proportional body frame. She possesses a “look” or “it-factor” that captures the attention of others. A model also maintains a high degree of body awareness. This is used to effectively pose and saunter down a runway.
What do plus-size models have to do in order to maintain their size and shape? What do they have to do to be bigger? In your case, when you were asked to move up to a size 14 from a size 10, what would you have had to do to get there?
There is an assumption that these women have undisciplined bodies or don’t diet and exercise. The reality is that these women work hard for their bodies. At times, they engage in severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size. Models have to adapt to changing ideals. If your size isn’t in demand, do you radically transform your body, or do you wait for the trends to shift?
The act of losing weight for plus-size models is interesting, because by losing weight these women are conforming to a general cultural expectation for women; yet, within the modeling world, they are told that they did a bad thing. One model I interviewed really struggled with her unplanned weight loss that altered her dimensions dramatically and she lost clients because she was not hired for her perfect body but, rather, for her consistent body.
At the moment when I started hearing, “You have to be a size 14,” I did feel pressure to change. But that was also what prompted me to step back and say, “Okay, I’m done.” I didn’t want to have to change my body at someone’s beck and call. I couldn’t maintain my body and size and dimensions at that strict level—it was too much pressure.
What food would they binge?
One model I spoke to unintentionally lost weight and was pressured by her clients to try to gain the weight back. So she carried a jar of peanut butter in her bag, consuming it by the spoonful as she went about her day and drank [protein] shakes. The model struggled with the issue of having to gain weight in an unhealthy manner, something she never thought she would have to do as a plus-size model, but clients demanded a specific body. There is little concern in the industry over health. Clients want specific types of bodies and expect models to meet these expectations without regard to how they go about it.
Model Tara Lynn was quoted in Elle as saying “I’m just going to make this confession: It is hard to make clothes look great on big women.” As a former plus-size model and someone who’s been around plus-size models too, did you ever feel that certain clothes didn’t look great on plus-size models/women? Did you know models who shared Tara Lynn’s sentiment?
There is still great resistance in the design community to design for the plus-size community, due to fear of fat and failure. Frankly, most design schools do not teach how to make clothes for plus-size bodies. As Tara Lynn said, it is hard to make clothes for plus-size women since plus-size bodies come in different shapes.
Given this reluctance to dress larger bodies and the birth of e-commerce, more plus-size women, like Ashley Nell Tipton who won Project Runway, are entering the design field (mostly out of pure frustration over the lack of stylish and figure-flattering plus-size clothes), making the plus-size design community a unique market of and for their own. As women who identify as plus-size, they possess first-hand knowledge of the problems plus-size consumers face, which gives them a competitive advantage. These designers are better equipped to address the concerns of their customers, aiming to produce fashions that fit properly, look good, and are trendy. Unfortunately, these are rather small businesses that lack the infrastructure to grow and meet the growing demand.
Why is the fashion industry slow to keep up with making clothes that are for plus-size women? Wouldn’t fashion houses and brands benefit from being able to cater to more women?
According to new research from Washington State University, the average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. Market analysts estimate that the plus-size retail category is worth over $20 billion in the US (a 17 percent increase from 2013)!
With this kind of sales potential, you would expect more designers to jump at the chance to be a part of this revolution, but, alas, there is still great resistance in the design community to design for the plus-size community due to fear of 1) brand spoilage due to persistent stigma of fat and 2) failure due to a lack of experience in designing for curvy bodies.
Would you have any design tips or insights on designing for plus-size models or women?
From my experience talking with plus-size models and consumers, I hear the constant call for clothes that are fashionable and fit well. No woman wants to wear shapeless stuff. They want clothes that flatter their figures, not hide them.
How competitive is the plus-size modeling industry?
It is highly competitive because there are limited work opportunities. Plus-size models recognize that they have to fight for every job and media appearance. While there is a great sense of camaraderie because they all share in the mission to expand notion of beauty to include bodies of all shapes and sizes, plus-size models do compete against one another for work. They know that they are easily replaceable with another body and, therefore, keep tabs on one another. For example, one model I spoke to noted with glee during our interview that her “nemesis,” represented by one of the top agencies, had recently lost weight. As a result, this model hoped to get some of her competitor’s lost work opportunities. With a limited number of potential jobs, these models use each other’s loss to their advantage.
How do plus-size models become very successful, in that they’re not modeling for weight-loss products as the “before” woman—that they actually work for brands that understand the reality and the need for diversity?
At a very basic level, getting a job is a success. But also what kinds of jobs: Are you working in jobs that present a positive image of plus-size bodies or not? Yes, there were some models who were modeling in ads for weight-loss products as the “before” image. That’s not the best work, but it is a job, and opportunities for plus-size models are still so limited. The majority of the work is just steady, routine modeling for catalogues and behind-the-scenes fittings—it’s not very glamorous.
What was your worst modeling gig?
There is a certain level of fear involved in every casting because you are being judged without knowing the criteria. I did panic before one particular casting for a potential fit job, which my booker described as a client for lingerie and swimwear. The thought of parading in underwear for strangers while being poked, prodded, and pinned roused all of my bodily insecurities. Fortunately, at the casting, I was only asked to try on a pair of pajamas. I was beyond relieved, but this casting illustrates the unpredictable nature of fashion modeling.
And the best?
Walking down the runway is an amazing experience. I felt a thrill the moment I stepped out on that runway and hit each mark, while photographers snapped away on their cameras. I felt the gaze of the audience follow my every move. The energy was intoxicating. Plus, professionals did my hair and makeup!
Isn’t it ironic that the modeling industry that’s helped plus-size models find confidence in themselves also reduces them to measurements? How does one not get caught up in the numbers and become insecure, especially with the tight competition?
Plus-size models should be acknowledged for their courage to withstand fat stigma and bare their flesh for all to see. They fight to get out from the margins and into the mainstream fashion market. However, the harsh reality is that they are simply bodies. Fashion still judges them on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure.
I have met models who got caught up in this pressure and experienced a great sense of shame and insecurity for not living up to fashion’s expectations. This can be a huge obstacle since modeling work requires a certain level of self-confidence. If a model cannot manage her emotions, she will not be able to do her job.
How do plus-size models feel about themselves when they’re outside of work and not glammed up?
For many of these models, they try to keep themselves “runway ready” at all times because their agent or booker could call at any time about a last minute casting or fitting. So, they are prepared with their model bag (full of their modeling supplies like hair and makeup products, heels, shapewear and padding). Many feel a pressure to regularly “glam up” and represent plus-size women outside of work. They see themselves as spokespersons for size acceptance so they want to look the part.
Why are paddings used at times in photo shoots? Why not have a woman who fits the bill do it?
Generally, plus-size models engage in various forms of routine bodily manipulations, such as applying makeup and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding padding to make the body frame more proportional. There are varying degrees, but I think that some level of padding is pretty common. A lot of models use silicon “chicken cutlets” to add to their bust dimensions, or add shoulder pads to their hips for a little boost. Or they’re putting on full-body padding.
Many smaller plus-size models use padding to meet a specific size demand. A lot of clients want a larger-size model, but with a thinner face, so they’ll use a size 10 or 12 model and put her in padding to make a size-14 body. It is another contradiction in fashion [because this cannot be proportional in real life, and models have to have proportional bodies]. This practice is simply another aspect of image manipulation that perpetuates thinness, albeit of the face, as an ideal component of beauty. The fashion industry, even the plus-size sector, reproduces the “smaller is better” ideal.
Do plus-size models dislike the word “plus size”? If so, for what reasons? Are there models who don’t dislike the term?
The expression “plus size” is often misunderstood and usually equated with fatness. As many could surmise from a single glance at magazine photos of plus-size models, the basic definition of “plus size” in modeling does not match the cultural image of a fat woman. Most casual observers of plus-size models would probably not even perceive them as “plus size,” let alone fat. Indeed, many of these models are of “average” size and weight.
On top of that, there is the inconsistency in the categorization of plus size between the modeling and retail clothing industries. In clothing retail, plus-size retailers generally start their merchandise at a size 14 (sometimes 12). On the other hand, the fashion modeling industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight [33-26-35] as “plus size.”
Ultimately, the term “plus size” does not accurately reflect the nature of the bodies it supposedly describes. The term “plus size,” however, is still loaded with huge cultural significance and plagued by the stigma of fat. The “plus” in plus size is not really a positive but a negative, which explains the increasing movement by industry professionals to distance themselves from the term.
Robyn Lawley and Ashley Graham, along with a number of prominent plus-size models including Denise Bidot, Stefania Ferrario (who launched the #droptheplus campaign), and actress-now-clothing-designer Melissa McCarthy, have used their recent successes to ignite a movement to encourage a fashion industry built around a thin body beauty ideal to include women of every size and eliminate its categorical system that segregates both models and consumers on the basis of size. As the argument goes, models are models, regardless of their size.
However, there are those within the plus-size industry who fear that the elimination of the plus-size category itself would lead to fewer opportunities for plus-size models. The plus-size industry fought to carve a niche for itself in fashion. They don’t want to lose their progress.
Personally, what do you feel about the term “plus-size” model?
“Plus” what? You’re referring to average bodies!