Wednesday 17 July 2019

Katie Byrne: 'There are some uncomfortable truths about the plus-size modelling industry'

If brands really want to redefine beauty norms, they should find models who aren't beautiful

Ashley Graham attends Daily Front Row's Fashion Media Awards
Ashley Graham attends Daily Front Row's Fashion Media Awards
Ashley Graham attends the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Ashley Graham attends God's Love We Deliver 12th Annual Golden Heart Awards at Spring Studios on October 16, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images)
Model Ashley Graham presents 'Violeta By Mango' new campaign at the ABD Museum on October 15, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)
Ashley Graham
Winnie Harlow attends the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Model Ashley Graham attends the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 91st Academy Awards at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on February 21, 2019. (Photo by JB Lacroix / AFP)
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

After Ashley Graham became the first ever plus-size model to appear on the cover of American Vogue and designers like Marc Jacobs and Jonathan Simkhai started making plus-size clothes for online retailer 11 Honoré, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the body positive movement was gaining momentum.

These cultural shifts might even lead you to surmise that plus-size has gone mainstream and diversity has become the new normal ... well, until you take a closer look, that is. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, size 16 “curve model” Sonny Turner revealed some uncomfortable truths about the plus-size modelling industry.

“You can be fat, but not too fat,” explained the 20-year-old. “And you can be plus-size, but you’ve still got to have a flat stomach. It’s annoying because plus-size is supposed to mean being whatever size you are — but within that, there are still restraints.”

One of the biggest restraints, she added, is the pressure to have a certain body shape, and “a preference to be hourglass”.

Ashley Graham
Ashley Graham

“I’ve still got to be cautious and watch what I eat, and I still have to go to the gym,” she said. “I think the misconception is that we’re all unhealthy but if I was, I wouldn’t be able to do this job.” 

Turner’s comments shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. We only need to look at the plus-size models who are “changing the face of beauty” to see that rollercoaster curves are an essential requirement for the job — along with breathtaking beauty, enviable chutzpah and an Instagram following of at least 20k.

We often hear the word ‘representation’ bandied about when brands purport to be championing inclusivity, but in reality, models like Turner don’t represent the vast majority of plus-size women whose body shapes are more apple and pear than perfectly proportioned hourglass. 

Likewise, it’s wonderful to see older models in ad campaigns but let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a rare woman who can pull off the feat of maintaining a balletic figure while rocking preternaturally silver hair.

Brands would like us to believe that they are challenging beauty standards by ‘representing’ women of every colour, shape and size. Look closer, however, and you’ll notice that they’re still idealising beauty standards that are out of reach to the average woman.

Ashley Graham has the kind of hip-waist-ratio that evolutionary psychologists would have a field day with. Ninety-year-old model Daphne Selfe has the facial features of an Egyptian sculpture.

Winnie Harlow’s vitiligo is as symmetrical as the rest of her perfect face and transgender model Valentina Sampaio is so beautiful it hurts.

In other words, the women that the industry has chosen to represent inclusivity and diversity are in fact only representing a teeny-tiny group of women who have won the genetic lottery.

Winnie Harlow attends the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Winnie Harlow attends the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 24, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Every ‘woke’ fashion brand likes to think that they are challenging beauty norms with their diverse choruses of models. Like a grown-up collection of Bratz dolls, they’ll send out a token plus-size model, a token black model and a token transgender model.

What they won’t send out — and may never send out — is a token average-looking model or a token 5’4” model or a token unruly-hair-and-blotchy-skin model. Put simply, they use strikingly beautiful women to challenge beauty ideals.

This is how fashion and beauty brands have done business since time immemorial. Captivating faces sell products and that’s not going to change any time soon. What’s interesting, however, is that a new generation of consumers will demand diversity from these brands, all the while accepting that they’ll get it through a soft focus lens.

Representation is important — that much is inarguable — but it’s time we realised that brands are only representing a fantasy version of diversity, and that’s an affront to diversity itself.

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