Representation Matters: Why plus size models are not a trend

Plus size models

Model Isabella Moore on the runway for Starving Artists Fund at New Zealand Fashion Week 2019. Image by Getty Images.

Seeing people that look like you in fashion campaigns, magazines and on social media is powerful. Up until the past decade, you would be forgiven for thinking that only thin, mostly white people wore fashionable clothes as that was all that was promoted in advertising and the media. But with the recent proliferation of plus size models in fashion imagery and more designer brands offering extended sizing ranges, those of us with curvy bodies are finally feeling seen.

That representation matters because for decades it was pretty much impossible to find anything above a size 14 that wasn’t sack-like or matronly. If a brand did sell a size 16 or above, you very rarely saw a model of that size in any advertising. Plus size people were mostly invisible in fashion and clothing choices were very limited with only a few exceptions.

The fact is that everyone wears clothes, every human on Earth makes clothing choices every single day and we all deserve to feel good about what we’re wearing and have options available that make us look good. After decades of the fashion industry worshipping thinness, the tide has finally turned and plus size models are doing more than having a moment, they’re shifting the perception of beauty, and along with it self-acceptance, in a powerful way.

That change is palpable but why has it taken so long and will it last? The fashion industry is known for its fickle, trend-based approach but this feels different and is partly driven by social media where plus size models like Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser, Tess Holliday and Barbie Ferreira have grown loyal followings of millions from around the globe.

Here in Aotearoa, plus size models are also on the rise and while we don’t yet have as many as some other countries, change is well underway and the old fashion system is something those coming through now are keen on dismantling.

Among them is Samoan-Kiwi model Isabella Moore, currently based in London, who works professionally as a model and opera singer. She was first scouted at an Auckland shopping mall in 2014 and signed as a model, but it’s only in the past few years that her modelling career has taken off and she now works in London for some of the world’s biggest brands, regularly flying all over Europe for modelling assignments.

“I think it’s taken so long for things to change because the fashion industry has been carefully filtered by a few people ‘at the top’ who make the ‘rules’ and it’s their opinions and theirs only that influence and dictate the media and what we see,” says Isabella Moore.

“People are questioning the narrow beauty ideals of the past that we have been force-fed, and are now more open-minded about what is beautiful, but more importantly we are now celebrating what makes us unique, rather than just blindly following trends. As a bigger woman who felt overlooked and forgotten by the industry when I was younger, today I can say I finally feel seen.”

That’s something that fellow plus size model Kaarina Parker (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Maru), whose work was recently seen in the glossy pages of Fashion Quarterly and for leading bridal label Hera Couture, agrees with. And the model and novelist is also well aware that things haven’t always been this way for those with bigger bodies.

“The thing is, historically, fat and curvy women have been seen,” says Kaarina Parker. “Visit any museum or art gallery and you will see that. The demonisation of fat people is a relatively contemporary thing. In Ancient Rome, to call a woman ‘skinny’ was a terrible insult. I highly recommend reading Fear the Black Body by Sabrina Strings for a more in-depth explanation, but essentially the focus on thinness as a kind of moral superiority that we see today stems from anti-Blackness in 17th and 18th century America. Then you add a healthy dose of capitalism and you get the commodification of thinness and diet culture that we see today. So, it’s not so much that we are moving away from a long-established norm, but rather trying to dismantle systems that have been put in place in the last few hundred years.”

Plus size models

Model Kaarina Parker in an image for RUBY.

Capitalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to how we see ourselves, with a multi-trillion dollar global industry built out of marketing every conceivable beauty and diet product to make us feel like our bodies aren’t good enough and that we need to be thinner, prettier and fit into a very narrow ideal beauty standard to be accepted and loved. The media have had a major part to play in this too, pushing articles promoting harmful diet culture and constantly displaying imagery that perpetuates the ‘thin is better’ narrative.

Model and lawyer, Lanu Faletau, who has walked the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week and recently featured in campaigns for the likes of high end bridal label Trish Peng and sleepwear brand by Natalie recognises that social media has been powerful in changing how we perceive ourselves.

“I think that the media has flourished as an industry that breeds insecurity,” says Lanu Faletau. “For a very long time the super thin look was on trend with almost no scrutiny until social media became popular. When we look back to just ten years ago the tabloids were rife with body shaming and ‘how to lose weight at the cost of health’ schemes. I think once social media made it more accessible to see various bodies and beauty, it became more acceptable to be who you are. It then became widely unacceptable for companies and the media to continue with their agenda, particularly because people now have their own platforms to cancel or accost brands that still do that.”

For brands choosing to expand the sizing ranges they offer and utilise plus size models in their campaigns, the rewards are increased sales as well as contributing to the visibility of different shapes and sizes. Fashion forward local brands RUBY and Liam recently upped their available size ranges to a size 20 and 24 respectively, with garments also available as made-to-order pieces up to a size 28. Those bigger sizes regularly sell out quickly and the brands have been praised for their diverse use of models in their imagery in recent seasons.

Celebrated designer brand Maggie Marilyn also recently increased their size range to a size 20, with the brand’s focus on sustainability making ethical designer fashion more accessible. While popular label Augustine added a plus size range called Stella Royal by Augustine to their offering in 2016, which is available up to a size 22. There’s quite a few more examples of local brands like Citizen Women, Isla-Maree, K&K, Hine Collection, Ruby & Rain, Kowtow and Friday Flamingo etc. who offer plus sizes too.

So why aren’t even more brands extending their size ranges and why doesn’t every label offer up to a size 30 to be truly inclusive? Some would argue that it’s about cost and that grading a clothing pattern from a size 6 to a size 30 is a difficult process depending on the style of garment and that is true. However, Sarah-Jane Duff, designer and founder of one of Aotearoa’s leading plus size labels Lost and Led Astray, knows there’s more to it than that for some brands.

“Prejudice is still alive and well in 2022,” says Sarah-Jane Duff. “I think people’s personal attitudes to the fat body is what becomes their business’s attitude when it comes to the sizes they choose to make. Sure, it is harder to make clothes for a plus size body. It has more curves to shape around and you have to create patterns with different proportions but it’s definitely not impossible. The other thing is when society is so negative to plus size bodies it does create a different attitude toward clothing. There is a lot of self-hate and a constant state of wanting to change the body which I think effects how plus size women shop. Seeing value in yourself just as you are, is so important.”

Caroline Marr, designer and founder of beloved plus size label The Carpenter’s Daughter, which was launched in 1990, concurs that attitudes have a big part to play in how bigger bodies are perceived.

“It’s about acceptance, which is always a hard one for people,” says Caroline Marr. “Change also takes time, the more often plus size people are showcased the quicker the change. Normalising it and having gutsy editors and media moguls to push boundaries means the quicker the change will happen.”

Plus size models

A model wearing a look by The Carpenter’s Daughter on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week 2009 (left). Caroline Marr, founder and designer of The Carpenter’s Daughter (right).

Caroline and her label were at the forefront of change in 2009, when The Carpenter’s Daughter became the first plus size brand to have a show at New Zealand Fashion Week. The runway show was widely celebrated and received a standing ovation from the audience with multiple articles written about how refreshing it was to see curvy women on the runway. However, behind closed doors the show was hard fought for and the brand had to really plead its case to NZFW’s owners to be accepted onto the event’s show schedule.

Once the show was confirmed, the next challenge was trying to find runway models as there were zero plus size models on the books at any of the local modelling agencies. Sarah-Jane Duff, who was Caroline’s design assistant at the time, recalls how difficult that task was.

“We had to do our own nationwide model calls,” adds Sarah-Jane. “It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of hard work to find the models we needed. Asking people to hold space for you in a plus size body is hard work, society is against you and social media gives people the impression it’s OK to comment on people’s bodies when it’s not.”

“Fashion Week soon learnt the ‘click bait’ that is plus size, and the emotions it stirs when you have plus size women on a runway but wow the models were amazing, not a dry eye in the house!”

Caroline also emphasises how much the show meant to her brand and to plus size women, “Allowing us to show up and be seen, to be treated normally, made an impact. We were the first to do it and after we got a standing ovation for that show we were invited back again and again.”

It was quite a different story to when The Listener came to Caroline Marr asking for a plus size model in 1993. With no-one to ask to model, she ended up being their model herself and to this day Caroline regularly models her own designs for The Carpenter’s Daughter on her brand’s online store and social media which gets a great response from her customers.

With the rise in plus size models has come the establishment of Aotearoa’s first plus size modelling agency Belle Models, which was launched in late 2017. There are also now more curvy models on the books of long-standing agencies Unique Model Management (who represents Isabella Moore and Kaarina Parker) and Red 11 Model Management (who represents Lanu Faletau).

Entrepreneur Holly Dhillon-Taylor recently took ownership of Belle Models and is enthused to see how things are changing. “It has been amazing to see the changes in the fashion industry – no matter how small,” says Holly Dhillon-Taylor. “We are seeing brands display plus size mannequins in their shop windows, campaigns having different sized women and more brands are exploring how they can join the movement. It is still in the infancy stage for NZ but I am so proud to see the needle moving! At the moment, we have brands wanting to book our models based on their size first and these women are absolutely smashing it! Brands are definitely understanding what their customers want to see and they are making this happen. I also want to make a special mention of Pacific Fusion Fashion Show where we saw an amazing range of models strutting their stuff on the runway recently.”

Like every modelling agency, Belle Models deals with a range of requests from clients and is currently seeing an increase in demand for the agency’s models. Some brands have a clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve with their casting and which models they would like to utilise while others are looking for more guidance or are open to ideas.

“I find that brands will either have a very specific brief or have seen and fallen in love with a model from our website,” says Holly. “Otherwise, I’ll receive a vague brief and have total freedom to send the model who I believe will do a fantastic job and fit the brand’s vibe. We are seeing a lot of interest in sizes 16 – 20 at the moment and I have quite a few amazing models in this category. We also have a definite interest in our Pasifika and Māori models. I have a fantastic range of women on our books so I am lucky to meet demand – I always welcome new applications so we keep things fresh and give more women an opportunity!”

Plus size models

Holly Dhillon-Taylor, owner of Belle Models.

For Belle Models, as for other modelling agencies in Aotearoa, plus size means models from a size 10 upwards which is pretty standard for other countries as well. That’s where there’s quite a disparity from what the modelling industry considers standard size (which is size 6 – 8, otherwise known as sample size) to what is currently considered ‘standard’ sizing for fashion brands (which is size 6 – 14). If you go into most stores and look for plus size clothing what you’ll find labelled as plus size is size 16 and above, not size 10.

This is where things also get sticky and often misleading, aside from the fact that size 6 – 8 is still the standard modelling size which is a whole other problematic conversation in itself. Some brands have recently launched ‘plus size sizing’ which means they’ve only extended to a size 16 so it just fits into that category. Then they’ll use a size 12 model, maybe a size 14, in their imagery to seem more ‘inclusive’ as opposed to using size 8 models all the time. Whereas the reality is they’re merely capitalising on the plus size movement without actually making much in the way of meaningful change with properly extended sizing or using bigger models.

While not everyone is doing that and there are plenty of genuine and successful efforts at extended size ranges, it’s pretty obvious that the sudden embrace of plus size models from some brands is an attempt to remain relevant and in some cases, financially solvent. It doesn’t take away from those brands who have made great steps forward or have simply been leading the way from the beginning but it can be frustrating. There are other issues with some brands utilising plus size models in a disingenuous way too, which comes back to that idealised beauty standard.

“I think where it becomes problematic is where the term ‘plus size’ is suddenly used broadly to capture all curves irrespective of whether they are truly plus size or not,” adds Lanu Faletau. “I find it counterproductive to the movement when companies use ‘plus size’ girls who are technically a size 14 but have perfect body proportions, to represent the bigger girl. Because the reality is, that excludes plus sized women even more so than the norm because suddenly the category created for them no longer represents them either!”

It’s worth mentioning that the term plus size itself implies a category that is different from ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ size. When you think about it, plus size was probably only meant to refer to clothing, not the people who wear it. So how did it stick as a label for people, especially women? Perhaps that comes back to some people’s distaste for anything that doesn’t fit within the narrow confines of what they consider ‘normal’. However we got here, plus size is now widely used, even if it’s not always accurate and sometimes unnecessary.

“I am used to the term as it’s still used a lot in the industry, but personally I can’t wait until it loses its relevance as I’m not a huge fan,” says Isabella Moore. “The term plus size has been a helpful indicator, as someone who doesn’t fall into the narrow ‘standard’ size category, letting me know, ‘Yes, you are welcome here! You can shop here! Our clothes will fit you!’. But I’d really just love for the fashion industry to hurry up and accurately reflect and represent the world we live in. I don’t even want to say, ‘be more inclusive’ because it makes me feel like I’m saying, ‘Please let me sit with the ‘cool kids’ at lunchtime.’, when really I know I am a cool kid and I deserve a spot, so move over, I’m taking a seat.”

“In the (not so distant) past when people would ask me about my profession, I’d say, ‘plus-size’ model, because when I’d just say, ‘model’ I’d sometimes get that look of disbelief. I hate that habitually I sometimes still say ‘plus-size model’. I am a model – my size should really be irrelevant.”

Kaarina Parker concurs, “Plus size, mid-size, curvy, fat – they are just ambivalent adjectives,” she says. “The fact that they are necessary is the issue – ‘plus sized’ is used to differentiate from ‘straight’ or ‘normal’ sized, because the industry still operates with size 6 – 8 as the standard. So, it’s not that ‘fat’ or ‘plus size’ are dirty words, but rather that we need to get rid of the idea of one ‘normal’ body size or type because it doesn’t actually exist.”

Trish Peng

Model Lanu Faletau in an image for bridal designer Trish Peng.

In recent years, the plus size movement has often gone hand-in-hand with the body positivity movement which has also been called out for its blatant commercialisation and somewhat problematic attitudes that go alongside it. Being in a bigger body can mean enough doubt of your self-worth as it is at times, loving yourself all the time is a big ask for anyone, and with the more toxic aspect of the body positivity movement being highlighted in recent years, these days it’s more about accepting who you are and your body as it is.

“I’m not against body positivity but I am personally more into the idea of body neutrality,” says Isabella Moore. “Self-acceptance and accepting my body are what’s most important for me. I have days where I am just not entirely feeling myself and I believe that is OK. Forcing myself to feel positively about my body when in the moment I just don’t is not authentic.”

“I don’t think it’s great that the movement has been commercialised, obviously it means that there are companies and labels out there who aren’t authentic in the fight for inclusion, but I whole-heartedly believe that celebrating all body types is the way of the future, so I hate to say it, but even if the right intention isn’t fully there, giving all bodies visibility is what matters to me.”

Those sentiments are shared by Kaarina, who sees the relationship with her body as one that is more about neutrality. “I obviously want to love, appreciate and feel at home in my body, but at the same time, I’m wary of placing too much emotional weight into that relationship,” she says. “Unfortunately, commercialisation of political movements feels sadly inevitable – we’ve seen a lot of that recently with Pride month. It’s two-pronged because on the one-hand, knowing that corporations are making lots of money off of a movement that they likely don’t even believe in is gross, but on the other hand, visibility is one more step towards normalisation.”

While we continue the fight to achieve that normalisation, there is still a lot of long-held negativity directed towards those who are plus sized or in fact, anyone who doesn’t fit into the idealised beauty norms. Some of those attitudes are slowly changing, especially among the younger generation, but on social media the keyboard warriors often don’t hold back on insulting or trying to get a rise from others, and with their public profiles, models are often in the firing line of those comments.

Lanu Faletau finds her growing social media following is usually positive towards her but she knows that when the haters do strike to not take it personally. “If someone is directing hatred or negativity towards you it’s usually because they have those feelings towards themselves,” she adds. “It actually has nothing to do with you. Remember what other people think of you, is none of your business!”

Isabella Moore agrees that online nastiness is almost always a projection of how the commentor feels about themselves and is a reflection of their own insecurities. “My advice is to pity the trolls. Even if their comments aren’t a projection of their own self-hatred, I still pity them because their hateful words let me know they’re ignorant and uneducated and how sad is that for them? If a troll’s words manage to hurt me, I then turn to my support crew (family and friends), my therapist and meditation to gain some perspective.”

Scrolling through comments on plus size people’s posts you’ll generally find more positive than negative comments these days, especially on the likes of TikTok and Instagram. Posts of curvy women sharing their latest outfits are often full of comments from other women telling them how great they look and how cute their outfit is. The negative stuff is still there but the voices of those who are accepting each other for who they are is louder than ever before. Seeing lots of different bodies and normalising that is powerful and important.

Showcasing women and their bodies without editing or photoshopping is something that Chloe Wickman, co-founder of activewear brand Zeenya is passionate about. The brand is known for their joyful imagery which features models of different sizes, ages and ethnicities in their colourful activewear, which is available up to a size 22. “I believe companies in our industry have a responsibility to show representation,” says Chloe Wickman. “All women are beautiful and have value. We’ve been slammed with crappy messaging for so long. If we spent less time body shaming and more time supporting each other with our goals we’d see women really shine.”

Plus size models

Models in Zeenya’s colourful activewear.

It’s something Holly Dhillon-Taylor recognises too, “Seeing that representation is incredibly important and that there isn’t just one type of beauty out there and we all need to see this. We need to be able to see someone similar to us rocking it out there – this gives us a boost of self-confidence and positivity that we are beautiful too. The world is incredibly harsh sometimes and having anxiety around our weight or looks doesn’t help. We are seeing a huge increase in children – primary age upwards – dealing with body issues, anxiety and even depression! Knowing that we are ALL beautiful is so important and having more representation is just the start to loving oneself.”

Caroline Marr has seen first hand how powerful that representation can be, “There are no two people alike in this world. We are all unique and we relate or identify when we see a body type like ourselves. When we did NZ Fashion Week we saw what happens when you put someone on the catwalk that looks like yourself. It gives hope, acceptance and normalises differences. It matters to have differences. My saying is – ‘how boring the world would be if we all looked like Elle MacPherson’ – agreed?”

For Isabella, finally seeing other women that she resonates with and to be celebrated for her look as a model has meant overcoming a lifetime of self-doubt. “I have struggled most of my life with body dysmorphia and then as a model, imposter syndrome. To give insight, I grew up in a generation where Rachel from Friends was ‘goals’, and if you didn’t look like her you were deemed less appealing or ‘not hot’. I still sometimes try to shrink myself and take up less space just in case my body may be intrusive or a burden for those around me; a bad habit that I’m working on kicking. For a long time, I believed that fat equalled ugly, which I now know is definitely NOT the case. When I began my professional modelling career, I felt seen and appreciated in my curvy woman body and this helped me on my self-acceptance journey. My curvy body that I once felt a lot of negativity towards then became something I started to appreciate.”

When it comes to seeing more plus size people in fashion imagery, on the runway and on social media, the response is also usually more positive than negative. The fashion industry has long had a problem with cattiness but things are shifting there too and there’s something special about seeing plus size models shine in an industry that just a few years ago ignored them completely. “I am literally living for it!” enthuses Isabella. “Seeing other curvy women like me in campaigns and on runways makes me feel seen, confident, empowered, represented and honestly just over the moon excited!”

Lanu shares that jubilation, “When I see other plus size models I genuinely get excited about it! It immediately encourages me to check out the brand or product because I know I’ll find something for me, just by virtue of the fact that they have women with similar body types to me in their photos. I mean just six years ago, it was a struggle to find brands I could wear with comfort, so it’s incredible to see the growth! Without the work of plus size women in campaigns around the world, I don’t think I’d have a chance at modelling.”

Kaarina recognises that a definite upside is seeing how things look on varied shapes and sizes and is humbled by how others respond to her own modelling imagery. “It’s so important to see people of different sizes celebrated, but also to see how clothes sit on different bodies. The response to my own work has been amazing – nothing makes me more emotional than when people tell me how much it means to them to see someone with a similar body-type in a lingerie ad for once.”

Anyone trying to make change knows that progress is rarely linear, and while there has been a lot more visibility of plus size bodies in fashion, some are already dismissing it as a trend that will pass. They’re claiming that fashion will go back to a focus on size zero with the recent return of 00s fashion influences, which was when ultra-thinness was the look to aspire to.

While it’s understandable that some cynicism is expected of an industry that is trend obsessed at best and still has an undercurrent of worshipping thinness at worst. However, these days it is starting to seem dated and out of touch to not have diverse models in your campaign or on the runway. There’s a sense that the brands that don’t embrace this move towards making fashion for everyone will eventually be left behind. Not to mention that there are many who have fought long and hard for this progress and refuse to let it become a passing trend.

Sarah-Jane Duff has been part of the plus size movement for a long time and is adamant that what we’re seeing is not a trend, “This has lasted too long now to be a trend,” she says. “Yes, there is tokenism that has come along with it and not truly understanding the body but I always like to be positive about these sorts of things. Change takes time and there is so much undoing and unlearning to happen. I’m not sure how you can go back from this inclusivity now?”

Lost and Led Astray

Sarah Jane-Duff, founder and designer of Lost and Led Astray.

Isabella is particularly firm when asked if plus size models are another fashion trend, “NO. I will not let it be a trend! I cannot and will not go back into the shadows now that I have had a taste of what it is like to be seen. Whether it is me or not up there on posters, billboards and runways, I want to be represented.”

While Chloe sees the resistance to size inclusivity by some people as something that should be left in the past and yet another way in which the system tries to control women and our bodies, “Conversations about weight being an important measure of a person are outdated and are just another way for the patriarchy to keep women focused on shrinking themselves to fit a pre-existing narrative, rather than being present and cultivating acceptance, love and happiness in their lives.”

Aside from the importance of visibility and the power that comes from self-acceptance, the fact remains that plus size fashion makes money, and now that they’ve had a taste of plus size fashion from brands that have been successful with it, consumers are continuing to demand more of it. Brands would be foolish to stick to a narrow range of sizing when their revenue and relevance could be greatly increased by embracing the plus size market.

With the average woman in Aotearoa now a size 16, it’s pretty clear that the fashion landscape will be very different in future, with the resistance to size diversity a trait of the old guard, not the new. Progress is still being made and that’s important even if it’s slow or doesn’t always feel meaningful.

“I can definitely understand a healthy amount of cynicism, especially when we are talking about an industry that ultimately cares about profit above all else,” says Kaarina Parker. “It’s hard to believe long-winded statements from luxury fashion houses and magazines about inclusivity when they’re directly followed by targeted ads and marketing campaigns. But I also think that we can take the time to celebrate the wins as they come, as long as we remain wary that we have a long way to go.”

Isabella Moore is optimistic that the future of fashion is inclusivity and that a diverse approach eventually won’t be seen as innovative as it will simply be the norm. “I want the fashion and modelling world to be more accessible for ALL humankind regardless of your size, race, body, gender, beliefs etc. No one is more or less deserving to be here on this earth so why are some people still being actively excluded from the fashion industry? We should be celebrating our differences and I hope that in the next few years we could all be invited to the party, because we all deserve it.”

Image supplied.