In the last four years, especially since Lizzie Miller's belly shot in Glamour of 2009, and V mag's "Curves Ahead" story in early 2010 there has been a steady growth of editorial opportunities for plus models. The consumer demand is finally tipping the scales in favor of plus, capitalism caught up to principle.
But I noticed more than one fellow plus model in the industry, after booking a few editorial shoots in magazines, wonder out loud when she was going to have some clothes on. Curious, I did an exhaustive search with Madison Plus owner Aimee Cheshire. Looking back we noticed an absolute trend. Most of the shoots were partially if not all nude, swim or lingerie. Even in W's recent "Transformers" shoot, which featured an otherwise fully-clothed Candice Huffine, she is fully-revealing her breast, the only nudity in the story.
It remains that plus models, used less in general and usually as a "special" feature, are featured in less clothing most of the time. Certainly, part of modeling is to look good naked; your body is your job. The fashion industry is about the body, both female and male, clothed and revealed in beautiful, interesting, and provocative ways. So there is nudity in editorial stories, but it isn't the majority of editorial shoots that a "straight-size" model will do, especially in America (more conservative than European magazines). But in America, if they make an exception for plus, it seems they make an exception for nudity as well. Is the editor going for shock value, genuinely wanting to celebrate a full-figured beauty, or are there simply logistic issues in clothing the models when mainstream samples sized 2-4 are too small? What's going on with all the curvy ladies going nude?
When a marginalized population of a society or industry begins to get attention, and that attention develops a pattern, it's important to ask questions about the intention, bias, and stereotype behind the portrayals to make sure that the full beauty and truth of the subjects is conveyed.
Plus editorials have run the entire gamut from the recent, and gorgeous, Italian Vogue cover story by Steven Meisel to Terry Richardson's "Tons of Fun" story in Vice. Some models have revealed that they were posed specific ways in some shoots to highlight flesh in a very specific way: rolls, folds, and creases. Which of these stories are celebrating a full range of beauty and which are sensationalizing size? It's all in the eye of the beholder perhaps, but the creative impulse and intention behind the shoot shows through. Fashion generally needs to take things to an extreme and some editorials exaggerate the contrast between the overtly thin models on the page before, often clothed, and these curvy women, often revealed, reinforcing Body and Size fixations.
This may not be an accidental approach to Plus. Magazines survive by advertising, not subscription rates. High-dollar advertising is attracted by branding and popularity. Plus vendors rarely advertise in major fashion magazines, because of budget and marginality. But controversial or edgy images equal more sales, more publicity, and a bigger bottom line in this precarious time for print publications.
One agent compared a story about curvy women with a story about extreme tattoos, or piercings, or bondage gear, in an "Oh my God, look at that, I can't believe it," sentiment. He wondered if his model was booked as a model, a woman being featured as a peer within the pages of the magazine, or as a body object on display? The fact is that simply picturing a woman of average size in a magazine has an incredible shock value today.
The average consumer is no longer shocked by any amount of photoshopping, bodydoubles (putting the head of one model/celebrity onto the body of another, sometimes with a non-disclosure agreement attached), plastic surgery and various non-invasive procedures. The secret's out. Everyone is faking beauty. A teenage Girl Scout came up to me after a talk on body image and the fashion industry to proudly announce that she was so good at photoshop that her friends had her "fix" pictures of themselves before sharing online. To what degree do we view pictures of ourselves with the same "body object" mentality as fashion shoots? If everyone knows it's just a game and no one looks like Giselle, not even Giselle, why are rates of depression and eating disorders among teenage girls continuing to rise?
This is something Franca Sozzani cares about. Italian Vogue has cut a reputation as both subversive and obvious, dedicated to exploring true beauty, and questioning the industry from the inside. A few years ago Sozzani took a stand with an all Black issue; more recently she featured three plus models in the cover story as well as a fashion feature with Robyn Lawley. It was partly in her dedication to fighting anorexia against young women. She says in an interview with The Cut of her decision to feature plus models, "We did it to attract the attention that it doesn't exist, only one kind of beauty, but that every woman can be beautiful, and especially curvy women can be beautiful and very sexy." She contrasts herself with other who "use curvy models sometimes, like a provocation[...]which I don't like honestly."
When a magazine does want to feature a plus fashion story, where do they get the clothes? Up until recently they didn't: one agent complained that plenty of fashion stories with a great editor, great photographer, and great plus models die when they get to styling. But reader demand is growing such that, while most shoots are body-conscious, full-fashion stories are starting to keep pace with the full-frontal spreads. (The obvious exceptions were Australian Cosmo and Vogue, who got a jump on doing gorgeous plus fashion out of the gate). And the stylists need clothes to feature.
Aimee Cheshire of Madison Plus has recently been increasingly bombarded by requests from magazines and talk shows for plus samples by contemporary designers. She says the designers are out there: Anna Scholz, Carmakoma, Stefanie Bezaire, Damn You Alexis, to name a few. But the samples are tricky. Many independent designers don't have budgets for samples beyond their own use to show vendors, or for trunk shows. They also haven't conformed to standard lead time, because they haven't been requested by magazines or other PR outlets. On top of that, some of the top design talent lives outside the U.S. and don't have a showroom or office here, and so the samples they do have are far away and unavailable at a moment's notice when an editor decides to add a plus look to a fashion story.
Madison Plus, traditionally an online fashion blog and shopping site, has begun to work with various international plus designers to house samples of their upcoming collections as a showroom and lending service to various magazines and TV shows that are coming calling. Aimee says she's excited about the speed and quantity of change that's she's seeing in the visibility and demand for quality, fashionable plus designs: "Now that the generation who grew up wanting fashionable plus size clothing are in a position to create lines that fill the void. The plus industry is reaping the benefits of young talent, but it needs to be nurtured and given an outlet for its product. The mainstream industry is taking notice and hungry to feature plus, but they don't know where to turn for the product. By making these clothes available I hope to showcase these young designers' talent."
The trend towards democratizing fashion seems to be taking root; certainly plenty of consumers of all sizes are demanding it. Yet the perfect Western trifecta remains dominant: youth, beauty and a metabolism like an incinerator. Even when one wins this genetic lottery, these are preciously fleeting states, time-bound and utterly brief. So that a never-ending, anonymous turnover of 'pretty young things' keep the face of our culture seasonless and immature, while those who fall out of its graces end up on the sidelines.
In our present moment the line between private and public, reality and fantasy, performance and authenticity are blurring rapidly for the individual. If the dominant public culture is one of criticism and judgement what hope do we have when we actually wake up in the morning and look in the bathroom mirror?
This post has been modified since its original version.