A week after the call from the assistant, I was sitting in the center of daily operations for this mid-sized agency, which employed up to eight modeling agents.
Finally, I was called into the director’s office. On a desk in front of me were piles of photos and proof sheets.
To my left, shelves displaying the faces of dozens of plus-size models with ruby lips and smoky eyes stared down at me.
I wanted my picture up on that wall.
In rapid-fire succession, Bobby, the director, detailed my fate as a plussize model while he visually sized me up aloud:
You’re cute and have a good personality but a bit small for plus. We start at [size] fourteen but you may be right for fit and commercial [modeling]. You have good eyes, teeth, and well proportioned . . . You will have to maintain your shape . . . Besides fit modeling, you could do showroom and commercial print for catalogues, cute little articles in magazines like Marie Claire, and commercials like Verizon . . . You are more of the Banana Republic look . . . classier, sophisticated. At some point during his verbal tirade, I reckoned this was a sales pitch to tantalize my model dreams, throwing me candy bits with recognizable retailers and markets to bait me. As much as I tried to sell myself to this agent, he tried to sell his services to me.
He handed me a photographer’s business card and directed me out the door. My modeling journey had officially begun.
Recruitment into Plus-Size Modeling
The nature of modeling work suggests that models are different from the general population.
Compounding the difficulty of working under the conditions of impersonality, objectification, and necessary corporal discipline, plus-size models face additional scrutiny due to the negative cultural view of fat.
While Erving Goffman’s view of stigma suggests that fat women would be more inclined to cover up their curves and excess flesh, these women chose to enter a field where they publicly parade their fat bodies for a discerning public.
Essentially, it is this very courage to flaunt their bodies that sets plus-size models apart from traditional, straight-size models. These women shed a penetrating layer of shame and guilt built up over the years to reveal a new, confident self that was no longer afraid to enjoy her size and shape.
These plus-size models broke with conventional interpretations of their social identity by flaunting their fat bodies in hopes of changing the cultural discourse.
The typical routes to enter into plus-size modeling include the former straight-size model, the performer, the outsider, and the self-promoter.
Success, by any route, is rare.
Some of today’s top earning plus-size models began their modeling careers as straight-size models.
Crystal Renn’s career trajectory is a prime example of this route. After struggling to maintain weight as a straightsize model by exercising for eight hours a day, Crystal transitioned to plus-size modeling:
You know, I was so happy for once, and I was really comfortable in who I was. You know, whereas before, I was completely unhappy, and you know, scared and insecure. It was a whole different me . . . I really learned—it took me six years, but I learned to be who I was.
Livia’s story is another example of this transition.
While working as a size seven fit model in Los Angeles, Livia’s body “gave up” on her due to hunger and dehydration, so she decided to move to New York, where she discovered plus-size modeling. Clarissa, too, switched to plus-size modeling after a couple of, self-described, unsuccessful years as a straight-size model:
I was told my boobs were too big, my hips too wide. I wasn’t booking work and trying to lose [weight] wasn’t working . . . I stopped fighting my body and found a new career in plus[-size modeling].
As a size fourteen commercial print model, Clarissa booked more jobs than when she was a smaller size.
In their first stints as models, these formers tried to maintain a thin model body type to the detriment of their own health and emotional well-being, exacerbated by the pressures of working alongside pre-teen models with extraordinarily high metabolisms. They felt like failures as their bodies changed despite their best efforts.
Livia admitted that she felt uncomfortable with her body as it began to change: “I believed I had to cover myself up. I was ashamed I couldn’t control it [her body] . . . I failed at my job.”
These formers tried to mold their bodies to match the thin model expectation; yet, in that very process of losing weight, they gained insecurity and body loathing. Once these former straight-size models discovered plus-size modeling, they found a place where they embraced their bodies and even modeled alongside straight-size models.
“When I stopped trying to fit the mold my agency wanted [as a straight-size model],” Clarissa explained, “I entered a kind of happy place. I made peace with my body.”
As plus-size models, their bodies, which no longer fit the normative expectation of a straight-size fashion model, were valued for their natural curves.
Another freelance, size sixteen/eighteen model, Janice, agreed with the sentiments of the formers:
Despite all the problems in this [modeling] industry, I’m rewarded for being myself. I’m grateful for there to be such an industry. I’m honored to take part in this field where I can potentially change minds about beauty.
She was thankful for the opportunity to work in a field where she could be herself in her fat body. Janice fell within the second type of recruitment—performance artists, such as actors and singers, who were offered modeling work and then decided to pursue additional modeling opportunities.
Primarily an actor, Janice earned the much-coveted SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card from, to her own disbelief, booking a modeling commercial. A self-described “chubby” girl, Janice never thought of her body as something useful, let alone something that would bolster her acting career. She understood that to act, she needed to be thinner, but as a plus-size model Janice could be her two hundred-pound self.
Armed with the good fortune of receiving union benefits, she focused on auditioning for acting jobs, but admitted that modeling jobs were more lucrative and she intended to continue to model until she got her big acting break.
Lea, too, an accomplished Broadway performer, began working as a size sixteen plus-size model to earn extra money. She regularly worked in showrooms, parading in next season’s designs for fashion buyers.
She recalled, “I thought, ‘I might as well try it [modeling].’ And guess what? I was the right size. It worked out, and I have extra cash in my pocket.”
Lea did not expect to continue modeling in the long-term. For her, this was a temporary opportunity that turned into a series of reoccurring commercial print jobs, where she modeled clothes for department store circulars Gail, a size twenty-two commercial and catalog print model and singer from Boston, also found herself thrust into modeling while on a whim to bolster her other performance-centric career aspirations.
A fan of a custom plus-size design label, Gail added the fashion line to her friend list on her social networking page. The owners of the fashion label, after listening to a couple of tracks on her profile page, decided Gail’s style matched that of the fashion’s and asked her to model their latest collection in an upcoming advertising campaign.
“It was random,” recalled Gail, “but hopefully this gig will help my career with more publicity and exposure. I may try acting, as well.”
Gail signed a contract with the fashion label and divides her time between modeling and music.
Given the similarity between modeling and the performing arts, it is not unreasonable to consider a professional leap from straight-size modeling or acting to plus-size modeling; however, for some women, pursuing a career in modeling involved an unexpected turn of events.
In the third type, the outsider, a member of the fashion community—a designer, boutique owner, agent, or another plus-size model—recruited a fat woman into modeling.
Unlike the first two types who have experience in being evaluated on the basis of their bodily capital, the outsider may be unfamiliar with the use value of her body and, consequently, need to overcome an initial resistance to hide her fat body.
The majority of the models interviewed in this study were of this third type, the outsider who was urged by others to pursue modeling. While there were those few women who previously worked as straightsize models or in other related performance fields and then transitioned into plus-size modeling, most of the women entered the field by chance.
Whether scouted by an agent, recruited by a designer or boutique owner to model fashions, or approached by another plus-size model, these women were introduced to plus-size modeling through someone connected to the industry. For example, size fourteen/sixteen model Stephanie was approached by a makeup artist while she was clothes shopping:
I was in the checkout line, just chatting, when she suggested I try plus[- size] modeling. I hadn’t thought about it before but she made me think. If an established professional in the biz says I should do it, why not?
In ethnographic studies focused on cultural producers within an aesthetic economy, researchers found that a greater proportion of fashion models were “discovered” by agents at random and others entered the field by chance.
This was the case of size fourteen freelance model Becky, who, while shopping, was approached by the owner of a Connecticut plus-size boutique to participate in a showcase:
A woman just came up to me and asked me to model the clothes in a fashion show for the store. I figured since I already wear these clothes, it wouldn’t hurt. . . . Of course, I was nervous, but it turned out fun. I guess I can say that I am now hooked.
That first taste of the modeling experience enticed Becky enough for her to make the leap to New York City, where she attended modeling workshops to learn how to walk the runway and pursued other modeling opportunities.
Grateful for the introduction to modeling by that boutique owner, Becky confessed, “If she hadn’t approached me, I wouldn’t know that I could model. It’s not something I could’ve imagined.”
Similar to the hesitation I experienced while waiting to see the agent at my first open call, these outsiders, like Becky, were initially unsure or simply unaware of their place in the fashion industry before an insider showed them the way.
Size sixteen/eighteen model Joelle began modeling after attending an open modeling call with her friend who worked as a plus-size model:
At first, I didn’t want to go because of my body issues. She basically dragged me to the casting. But it was the best thing I could’ve done for myself . . . After the casting, I saw myself differently. I looked around the room and saw a group of plus beauties. I belonged. “I could do that,” I thought to myself. I really did believe it . . . Finally, I appreciated my body instead of hiding from it. Mary, too, was recruited by another working plus-size model who urged her to pursue a modeling career.
“I was shocked by the suggestion,” she admitted. “I thought only anorexic girls modeled . . . I spent so many years hating my body that the idea of selling it was foreign to me.”
After a few months of what Mary described as “researching modeling agencies so I don’t get scammed” and essentially “psyching myself up for the challenge,” she approached a few plus-size agencies and eventually signed with one.
As a result, she worked steadily for a couple of years as a size fourteen fit model with a few designers.
Given the normative expectation of fashion models as young, tall, and thin, it is no wonder that these women had trouble envisioning a place for themselves on the fashion boards. All of these women, who were already in their twenties when they began modeling, were older and larger than the traditional fashion model.
The fourth type, the self-promoter, was a fat woman who entered the field of plus-size modeling of her own volition without a network connection to aid in her pursuit. Without this help, she was left to her own resources, cold calling agencies and sending in blind submissions.
For some women like Willa, modeling was thought to be an unattainable dream, but as Willa discovered, it only took a few courageous steps:
I had been told that I should look into modeling since I was a little girl, but didn’t think anyone would be interested in hiring me. Last year, I finally took a chance and sent my pictures to “Curvy Clothes,” and I’ve been modeling with them ever since.
Willa was considered lucky to have booked a job on her first try.
After working steadily as a size fourteen/sixteen catalog model for a reputable plus-size retailer, she signed with an agency specializing in fit modeling and hoped to expand her modeling career.
Rachel, who worked as a size eighteen fit model for a few local companies, had a similar start: I had thought about modeling for quite some time and finally took a chance and entered a contest through a department store to do one of their runway shows. I was put in touch with an agency and have been working since then. Rachel hoped to expand into commercial print work in the near future.
There are opportunities for those without prior experience to enter the field. Many plus-size fashion labels, from large-scale plus-size retailers like Torrid and IGIG to smaller, independent labels like the one in Gail’s case, recruited models directly from their customer base by advertising model searches online on their retail websites.
Using actual customers without previous modeling experience as models in advertising campaigns is an increasingly popular trend in retail. Besides plus-size retailers, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel regularly use store employees in their advertisements. Casting calls, themselves, can be an opportunity for a sale.
At an open modeling call where I met Gail, the owners of the fashion label were selling t-shirts and tickets for a raffle, where the prize was the option to buy any item in the collection for five dollars. The models at the call jumped for a chance at a greatly reduced garment and bought raffle tickets by the handful.
Excerpted from “Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling” by Dr. Amanda M. Czerniawski.