The perfect body for a model is supposed to be lean and tall. Therefore, the average size of a model in the industry should be less than UK 4, and anything beyond that is deemed unacceptable. However, in recent years there has been a wave of plus-size models breaking conventions of beauty.
Ashley Graham was on the cover of Vogue, Candice Huffine walked down the runway for Prabal Gurung during New York Fashion Week, and Paloma Elsesser modelled nude on a billboard advertisement for Glossier’s Body Hero campaign. Now more than ever, there has been a call for inclusivity and diversity in the modelling industry.
However, unlike the West, India still has a long way to go for fair and equal representation of plus-size models. The industry needs to make more efforts to incorporate this critical demographic in the full range of high fashion that is a billion dollar industry.
Except for a few household names, plus-size models have been barely seen modelling. And those who are spotted on the covers of fashion magazines and walking down the runway have faced their fair share of struggles to get where they are.
All plus-size models have one thing in common. They are a size 18, with a pear or hourglass body shape. In the world of plus-size modelling, these shapes are the most commercially sellable because they’re deemed the most beautiful.
Plus-size models should have ‘ideal’ proportions, with tiny waists, large busts and hips. More than that, successful plus-size models are expected to have a sharp jawline and long limbs. How often have you seen plus-size models with flat-chests, hip dips, flabby tummies, double chins, stretch marks, and variations in body types? Despite a few, the most successful plus-size models do not have most of the above.
Ninja Singh, the founder of Ninja’s Models and a supermodel herself, said that only women who look a particular way are cast in photoshoots and on the ramp. “They have to be not too big and relatively curvy. Designers do not want to make clothes for bigger girls.“
She also said that plus-size models have to conform to traditional standards of beauty. “They have to have a thin stomach, a cinched waist and thick thighs. No real person can look like that. They have to undergo plastic surgeries and go on extreme diets to achieve that look.“
Sakshi Sindwani, a prominent blogger and model, said that the modelling industry is not entirely diverse yet. “We are not showing the spectrum of bigger size plus-size models. People are of different shapes and sizes, and brands do not represent that. So you cannot take one plus-size model and call yourself inclusive.“
“The diversity is better than before, but we are not fully there yet,” said Neha Parulkar, a model and body positivity activist. “Brands are playing it safe by representing mid-size models who are 2XL or 3XL, not more than that.”
She also said that it had become a PR gimmick where brands want to jump into the bandwagon of plus-size and misuse this term to gain traction on their page or website. “They represent average body sizes, who are slightly curvy and call themselves size-inclusive, which is extremely absurd.“
This mere tokenism is also seen in niche brands that are mainly catering to plus-size women.
Plus-size people face extreme forms of bullying and teasing. But, it is far harsher for plus-size models who face discrimination in terms of pay, accessibility to better designs, lower respectability and so on.
Sakshi grew up as a bigger girl and faced bullying, for which she had to take therapy. From a young age, she understood that people’s opinions change based on the way they look. After getting dengue in school, she lost a lot of weight. “Everybody was shocked to see me. Finally, my school’s principal called me and asked how I lost so much weight.”
She said that she was considered the ‘teddy bear’ of the class and that she never wanted little girls to feel like that.
As a model, there have been times when Sakshi does not get the size for her body type as it is not available. “Designers are not used to creating sample sizes in bigger sizes. Stylists do not know how to work with my body, and I have to help them out.“
Neelakshi Singh, who runs the blog Plump to Pretty, had bulimia at an early age. “My confidence was extremely low, and I felt so ugly that I could not post any pictures of myself. So for the longest time, I had a close up of my eye as my display picture.“
Many times as a model, Neelakshi has had to carry her own clothes for brand campaigns. “They will give me an M size dress and ask me to squeeze into it. It is a very toxic environment.“
Neelakshi added that for events, nobody would give her clothes as they did not have her size. “I had to compromise and was looked down upon as an outsider.”
More than that, she said that retailers make uglier silhouettes for plus-size models. “Brands give plus-size models dresses which look like Kurtis instead of beautiful designs. I do not want to wear ugly clothes. I want proper waists, deeper necklines and an option to choose.“
Himika, who started modelling recently, said the same. “I did a shoot where they gave me the ugliest clothes to model in because I am plus-size. Whereas the other petite and mid-sized models were given the best clothes.“
She also noted that the largest size for some brands is Large and Extra-Large who consider themselves inclusive. “Only niche brands and quirky brands cast plus-size models while mainstream brands do not even do that.“
Similarly, Neha has been stereotyped as a plus-size model. “Fashion shows do not pay you if you are plus-size. They think they are doing a favour by giving you an opportunity to model for their so-called prestigious brand. But, it goes both ways.“
She also added that she gets many brands asking her to do barter promotions and collaborations, where they do not pay her and give her the outfit to be promoted instead.
Plus-size models are treated as side characters as well. “I remember once I was given a role in a television advertisement to be the main character’s so-called fat best friend. I would then use their product and ultimately become better in my appearance. This was the concept of the advertisement.“
Pooja Sukhwani, a model, said that there are a lot of times when brands source clothes in which the top fits her but as she has a heavier waist size, the bottom does not.
Moreover, she talked about Instagram pages that were sexualising plus-size models. “They use your pictures without your consent and then there are so many sexist comments coming in.”
Neha said that she hates the labels fat, overweight and obese because they have negative connotations associated with them. “Assuming that plus-size models promote unhealthy lifestyles is wrong. It is in fact, the exact opposite. We are teaching people how to love themselves and be comfortable in their own skin.“
She added that petite-sized people also face health problems like diabetes, heart diseases and cholesterol. “I am active and work out seven days a week. But, people still assume I am lazy and unfit because I am plus-size.“
Being overweight can also be caused due to weak metabolism, hormonal changes and thyroid. “Despite the energy a plus-size person exudes, they will be considered lethargic. There are so many women who have PCOS because of which they gain weight. However, that does not mean they are not healthy,” said Neha.
She said that she finds the term plus-size divisive. “When I tell people I am a model, they tend to laugh it out. However, when I tell them I am a plus-size model, then only they understand. So the term essentially is not bad since people need categories and labels to understand.” She wants plus-size models in the industry to be so common that the term ‘plus-size’ no longer exists.
The modelling industry has a long way to go before they can call themselves truly representative of different shapes and sizes. It can be life-changing to see yourself portrayed in the media. It’s empowering to know you are not alone. This can only happen if we continue to push forward and make this on-going tokenism into true representation.