Inside the insane world of plus-size modelling

Ashley grahamAndrew H. Walker/Getty ImagesModel Ashley Graham.

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 modelling 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 [modelling]. You have good eyes, teeth, and well proportioned . . . You will have to maintain your shape . . . Besides fit modelling, 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 recognisable 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 modelling journey had officially begun.

Typology of Recruitment into Plus-Size Modelling

ModelsLisa Maree Williams/Getty ImagesA model contestant checks her makeup.

The nature of modelling 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 modelling include the former straight-size model, the performer, the outsider, and the self-promoter.

Success, by any route, is rare.


Model 2Lisa Maree Williams/Getty ImagesA model contestant is measured during the Plus-Size Model Search Grand Final at the Westin Hotel on August 8, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.

Some of today’s top earning plus-size models began their modelling 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 modelling:

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 modelling. Clarissa, too, switched to plus-size modelling 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 modelling].

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 mould 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 modelling, they found a place where they embraced their bodies and even modelled alongside straight-size models.

“When I stopped trying to fit the mould 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.


Model 3Lisa Maree Williams/Getty ImagesModel contestant Jessica Dickman pose during the Plus-Size Model Search Grand Final at the Westin Hotel on August 8, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.

Another freelance, size sixteen/eighteen model, Janice, agreed with the sentiments of the formers:

Despite all the problems in this [modelling] 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 modelling work and then decided to pursue additional modelling opportunities.

Primarily an actor, Janice earned the much-coveted SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card from, to her own disbelief, booking a modelling 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 modelling 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 [modelling].’ 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 modelling in the long-term. For her, this was a temporary opportunity that turned into a series of reoccurring commercial print jobs, where she modelled clothes for department store circulars Gail, a size twenty-two commercial and catalogue print model and singer from Boston, also found herself thrust into modelling 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 modelling and music.


Model 5Lisa Maree Williams/Getty ImagesModel contestants line up during the Plus-Size Model Search Grand Final at the Westin Hotel on August 8, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.

Given the similarity between modelling and the performing arts, it is not unreasonable to consider a professional leap from straight-size modelling or acting to plus-size modelling; however, for some women, pursuing a career in modelling 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 modelling.

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 modelling. While there were those few women who previously worked as straightsize models or in other related performance fields and then transitioned into plus-size modelling, 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 modelling 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] modelling. 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 modelling experience enticed Becky enough for her to make the leap to New York City, where she attended modelling workshops to learn how to walk the runway and pursued other modelling opportunities.

Grateful for the introduction to modelling 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 modelling after attending an open modelling 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 modelling career.

“I was shocked by the suggestion,” she admitted. “I thought only anorexic girls modelled . . . 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 modelling 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 modelling, were older and larger than the traditional fashion model.


ModelsLisa Maree Williams/Getty ImagesModel contestants line up during the Plus-Size Model Search Grand Final at the Westin Hotel on August 8, 2009 in Sydney, Australia.

The fourth type, the self-promoter, was a fat woman who entered the field of plus-size modelling 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, modelling 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 modelling 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 modelling 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 catalogue model for a reputable plus-size retailer, she signed with an agency specializing in fit modelling and hoped to expand her modelling career.

Rachel, who worked as a size eighteen fit model for a few local companies, had a similar start: I had thought about modelling 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.

Fashioning fatAmazonThis story comes from ‘Fashioning Fat’ by Dr. Amanda Czerniawski.

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 modelling 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 modelling 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” by Dr. Amanda Czerniawski with permission of NYU Press.

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