Precious Lee is a model and advocate for race, gender, and size in fashion. She is the first Black plus-size model to appear in Vogue and on the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
“It is the what ifs, the magnanimous possibilities of this life, this now, this minute…”
I remember exactly how I felt when I first read those words in a book of poems given to me by my high school honors literature teacher, Ms. Kinlaw. The title is “The What Ifs,” and it's been a mantra that's stuck with me since I was 16 years old.
When I first decided to move to New York and become a full-time model, I knew that I would face many 'what ifs.' But instead of focusing on the negatives — What if I don't book enough jobs to support myself? What if clients think this or that of me? What if I don't make it? — I chose to think of the positives: What if I could actually change the way people feel about diversity? What if I could be in Vogue? What if I could be on a billboard? What if I could walk a New York Fashion Week show for a high-fashion designer? What if I could actually be a chunky Black supermodel? My goal was to make these 'what ifs' my reality.
I had many aspirations coming into this industry, and one of the first on my list was to shoot a campaign for Lane Bryant; the brand has consistently been a pillar in the plus community, providing apparel and lingerie for the 67% of women who are sizes 14 and up. After two years of working as a full-time model in New York, I finally got the opportunity to meet them for a project. I felt confident, and I went into the meeting with one goal: to book the job. Little did I know that the casting was for a campaign of great magnitude.
Remember when I asked, what if I was in Vogue? Well, it happened — and not once but twice (more to come!). Plus, it was shot by a photographer that I’ve admired since before becoming a model, Cass Bird, who's shot countless campaigns for high-fashion magazines and designers. The campaign went viral and was everywhere you looked: The subway, Times Square, Sunset Boulevard, even on South Park! It was a 'what if' manifesting right before my eyes. That was one of three consecutive viral campaigns I shot for them, later including a three-page spread in Sports Illustrated. Me, the chunky Black girl from College Park, Georgia, in a bikini on billboards and magazines across the nation. It was “the what ifs, the magnanimous possibilities of this life, this now, this minute.”
I will never forget the day I walked in my first New York Fashion Week show, either; it was pure magic. Part of the magic was that I was walking for a designer I admired before I became a model. I first saw Christian Siriano on Project Runway. When I walked into hair and makeup for the runway show, I felt liberated and, to be frank, proud. It was another 'what if' happening. Not only was I walking in a fashion week show for one of my favorite designers, but I was one of the first plus models to do it. I’ve walked for him every season since.
Ultimately, the 'what ifs' are what motivate us and eventually create our destiny. I’ve taken great pride in being vocal about diversity in fashion and media. I didn’t realize how brave it was until I begin to receive messages from followers and strangers on the street thanking me for speaking up. As a size 14 (sometimes 16) Black woman who loves fashion, I am often confronted with issues that honestly just shouldn't be an issue. As I cross off 'what ifs' from my personal list, I can feel a few more cracks break in that glass ceiling.
It still isn’t completely shattered, though, and I'm reminded of this every time I go shopping. Have you ever gone into a store and noticed that all of the larger sizes on the rack are gone first? They are basically non-existent. How is that possible, when 67% of American women are looking for these sizes? Nonetheless, I press forward and search for clothing that fits my vibe, hips, and boobs. With the capital-driven society we live in, I’m astonished by the lack of effort from the industry's heavy hitters to include larger sizes. What if the fashion industry demanded more size diversity and truly committed to inclusivity (besides it making billions of dollars)? What if there was more than one prototype 'sample size'? We have style, and we want access to more.
What if we all let go of the labels and fears in fashion and media? What if designers, casting directors, and publications truly embraced the 67%? Because the reality is, we are the norm. The author of the poem ‘The What Ifs,’ artist Jill Scott, is a part of the 67%. My high school teacher who introduced me to the poem, Ms. Kinlaw, is also a part of the 67%. We are the majority, not the minority. If I’ve learned anything from my journey as a model, I know that the ‘what ifs’ are malleable, and we all deserve to be relentless with our goals.
67% of U.S. women are plus-size. Join as Refinery29 gives these women their own megaphone, doubling down on our commitment as allies, and partnering with them to catapult their powerful conversations into a true historic movement. #WeAreThe67
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