As body-positive activists put pressure on New York Fashion Week to become more inclusive, the plus-size industry is slowly gaining more visibility in the mainstream market. But time and time again, the designers who preach inclusivity send the same curve models down the runway: usually a size 12/14, and almost always with an hourglass figure. For the fat models who fall outside this norm, getting cast is near impossible. And for the plus-sized majority of American women, this limited casting shows that most designers still refuse to acknowledge their right to fashion.
“I'll attend a million castings, I’ll be complimented on my strong presence and my strong runway walk, but they don’t have anything to fit me,” says Constance Smith, a model signed to the size-inclusive agency We Speak. “You say you’re inclusive, but it’s not genuine.”
Smith’s experience is not singular. Many designers — especially at NYFW — continue to use one token plus woman in their shows, and on top of that, one type of plus woman. While it is certainly progress for this to happen — as most designers who present at fashion week still only make clothing for straight sizes — a deeper conversation is being had within the modeling community about why only one type of plus is considered beautiful or worthy, or worse, why brands are checking “representation” boxes by including one small sliver of body diversity. Helping lead the conversation is supermodel Hunter McGrady.
“[The hourglass body] is not attainable for a lot of us,” McGrady told InStyle. “I don’t have that. Where’s the girl who has stretch marks up and down her legs, and cellulite, and is top heavy or is bottom heavy, or has a variation of where she holds her weight? Why is it just one type?”
This season, McGrady made it her mission to only support designers and brands that are practicing true inclusivity — one of which is a collaboration between DSW and Create & Cultivate, with whom she partnered to put together a truly diverse runway show. “I’ve always dreamt of an inclusive runway: It’s women of all shapes and sizes, ethnicities, gender, and I think that it’s important to get that message across [in everything I do].”
The feeling of being othered, even at plus-exclusive castings — whether at Fashion Week or brand campaigns — can have a damaging effect on models. Several models interviewed for this piece reported feeling like their bodies may be too fat, not curvy enough, or not worthy of the runway. It’s clear that while some designers have begun to consider inclusivity, they’ve yet to understand what the term really means.
“It’s really disheartening because the average size of a woman in the US is a size 16, and we can’t even hit that mark in campaigns or get past that,” says Alexis Henry, a model with Yanii Models. “If I go to a casting and I know that they don’t really care for me, you can just feel the vibes. They’re not too friendly, they’re not too chatty. They will only cast to not even a 16 a lot of the time … but because they have someone in the double digits in their cast or campaign, they feel like they’re doing their due diligence.”
The choice to only showcase one type of fat body on the runway points to a much larger issue: Most women of size are still being left out of these opportunities and ultimately, the clothing won’t be made for them. Designers who cast their token plus-size girl at a size 12/14 are still not even representing the average woman — and while having one plus-sized model at all might be progress, it's still a far cry from true representation.
A possible explanation (not excuse) for this dearth of representation is the changing meaning of the term “plus-size.” Years ago, the fashion industry considered anyone over a size 6 to be plus. Now, it is usually used to categorize anyone above a size 12. But out in the real world, a huge range of body shapes and sizes are constantly left out of fashion. For any woman who falls within this category, consistently being underrepresented is more than just saddening: It sends the message that despite efforts by body positivity activists in recent years, fashion is still not for them, solely because of their body type.
“There are so many stereotypes and ideologies around women who are above a size 14 or 16: That they don’t know how to walk a runway, they don’t know how to pose, that they’re not going to do the garment justice,” says Henry.
New York Fashion Week is the perfect time to make inclusivity the headline: Designers should use this global platform to take a stand for plus-size representation and body diversity. And a few reliably do. This season, Christian Siriano, who is known for putting on some of the most diverse shows, did so again with a Spring/Summer 2020 collection featuring plus models like Marquita Pring, Alessandra Garcia-Lorido, Chloé Véro, and Candice Huffine. Even more diverse was Chromat's show, which featured Tess Holliday, Denise Bidot, McGrady, and more. Tanya Taylor — who makes clothing up to a size 22 — also used a few plus models in her presentation, as did Veronica Beard. Other designers — Tommy Hilfiger, for instance — did manage to use one or two curve models on the runway, but once again chose women who slide into the smaller side of plus.
“Put true plus women in there, put true diversity in there. She doesn't have to be six foot tall, she could be five foot, whatever it is. You have to be the first one to break the ceiling and that’s hard for a lot of people,” says McGrady. “I want my children to grow up seeing that, because I never want them to be like, ‘I’m plus but I’m not the perfect plus-size [body type].’”
Henry feels similarly, saying, “If designers are actually trying to be inclusive, they’re going to make intentional designs [for fat people] and they’ll do that all year round. They’re not just going to give you three plus models a year in a couple fashion shows they hold during Fashion Week.” Separately speaking on the same subject, McGrady said, "that will make a change more than anything else, if [other brands] see that everyone is doing it.”
Despite small steps toward progress, fashion has a tremendously long way to go before every woman can look at a runway show or campaign and feel seen. With brands like Chromat and Christian Siriano leading the conversation, change is inevitable. But along the way, much more noise has to be made about this issue. To that end, McGrady has a strategy: “It’s important to speak your mind and not be afraid, because society would love nothing more than to just push you down, push you to the side and silence you, so you have to keep screaming.”