The truth about plus-size modeling: What I learned on (and off) the runway

As a sociologist, I have always been interested in the notion of “ideal” bodies. So I went undercover as a plus-size model—I went to castings, I posed for catalogs and I walked the runway. I also interviewed models, casting agents, and the clients who book models. During that time I gained a great deal of insight into how women navigate this sector of the fashion industry and the impact plus-size models can have on our idea of beauty. The result is my book, Fashioning Fat, out this month from NYU Press. 

Here are the top five questions I am asked about my research:

1. These models are not “fat”. Why are they considered plus-size?

The expression “plus size” is often misunderstood or unknown (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.” Indeed, many of these models are of “average” size and weight, typically wearing women’s sizes ten to eighteen; retail industry experts estimate that the average American woman weighs approximately one hundred sixty pounds and wears a size fourteen. Typically, the industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight as “plus size.”

For example, look at the case of Whitney Thompson, the declared first plus-size model to win the coveted title of America’s Next Top Model in the television series’ tenth cycle in 2008. Since she first appeared on the show, many debated whether she should really be referred to as a plus-size model since she, at a size eight or ten at the time, did not embody their image of a full-figured woman; however, from the fashion industry’s perspective, she was, indeed, plus size. Tyra Banks alluded to this distorted body standard when she argued during a judging session that Whitney was not considered “big” except when judged as a fashion model. These models, like Whitney, are “average” to the ordinary consumer, but, in sharp contrast, they are “plus size” to the fashion industry. 

2. So, can anyone be a plus-size model?

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 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. For those who work as fit models (i.e., a model hired by a designer or clothing manufacturer to try on garments at various stages of production to determine the fit and appearance of the pieces on a live person), knowledge of garment design is essential, too.

3. Since they don’t have to watch their weight, modeling must be easier for plus-size models, right?

No. There is an assumption that these women have undisciplined bodies or don’t diet and exercise. When, in fact, these women work hard for their bodies. Plus-size models engage in, at times, severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size, as well as more routine bodily manipulations, such as applying make-up and hair products, wearing shapewear, and adding body padding to make the body frame more proportional.

If a model breaks the cardinal rule of changing her body, it is a huge problem, whether she gains or loses weight. The act of losing weight for plus-size models is interesting, though, 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. She got Invisalign retainers to improve her smile, but that made it hard for her to maintain a steady eating routine (because you have to wear them all the time and you cannot eat with them in). As a result, her dimensions changed dramatically and she lost clients. A plus-size model is not hired for her perfect body but, rather, for her consistent body.

4. Do these women have super-sized self-esteem to work as plus-size models?

I found that many of these women had grown up struggling with their bodies. Many of them had spent years in shame, trying to cover up their self-perceived flaws; yet, when they discovered plus-size modeling, the way they saw themselves transformed. They realized that the body that they had hated for so many years could actually give them work opportunities. By working as models, they started to appreciate their bodies. Many of them developed more positive self-images through modeling and embraced the mantle of spokesmodel for size acceptance. This did not mean that these women have perfect body images. In fact, Angellika, the first plus-size model inducted into the Modeling Hall of Fame, admitted that she does not like her stomach so she plays up her other assets. Ultimately, these plus-size models want to change the cultural ideals of beauty to include their kinds of bodies—larger, more diverse bodies.

5. Isn’t it great to see different kinds of bodies represented in fashion?

Absolutely, we must applaud the use of a variety of looks and bodies in fashion. Plus-size models, in particular, should be acknowledged for their courage to withstand body stigmas and bare their flesh for all to see. Plus-size models fight to get out from the margins and into the mainstream fashion market. Their challenge, however, is to maintain their authentic voice amidst a stream of voiceless bodies that flow in and out of fashion’s ranks.

As plus-size models engage in a coup d’état of normative feminine bodily aesthetics, can they topple the reign of slenderness in fashion? To effectively alter contemporary bodily aesthetics, these models need to go beyond achieving increased visibility in the field and also take ownership of those images. Instead of conforming to fashion’s demands, they need to direct them. Their sheer visibility in the fashion marketplace is not enough because of the engendered nature of bodies and the threat of disembodiment.

Unfortunately, models, no matter their size, are simply treated as bodies. Fashion still judges them on the basis of their looks. Modeling reduces them to curves and numbers on a tape measure. They are not always perceived as women but breasts, bums, and hips. After all the work they do, plus-size models are still objectified and sexualized bodies

(Image via Shutterstock)