How One Queer, Plus-Size, Non-Binary Model Is Changing The Industry

Photographed By Lula Hyers.
During our conversation, Hayley Mandel tells me no less than three times that they want to change the world. After a just a few minutes of chatting, it's clear they will. The model appears in Refinery29's newest No Apologies Collection, an expansion of the 67% Project in partnership with Getty Images. The collection aims to diversify stock photo depictions of beauty, fashion, sex and intimacy, and women’s health — showing more realistic imagery of the human experience, and a more accurate portrayal of the lives of readers.

Mandel features in the sex and intimacy section of the project (officially launching in February), which is fitting, since their internet presence heavily grapples with body image, sensuality, and a brazen openness about sex as a queer, plus-size, non-binary person. The model is equally as honest over the phone, talking rapidly like someone who finally got the chance to speak during a conversation at a party. In a way, that's exactly what's happening. The 20-year-old is quick to point out that the industry has long been dominated by cis, skinny, heterosexual women — but now it's their turn.

You’re in school. What are you studying?
"It’s kind of up in the air, but I’m most likely going to go the English and gender studies route. I want to write really badly. I don’t want to be a writer, but I want to write…I want to change the world."

Where have you written?
"I’ve written for a couple of my friends’ zines — not, like, big zines, just a couple of zines — and very, very small college literary journals. This year I really think is going to be my year to break more into the scene. I’m just not quite sure how to do it, but I would really like to."

What’s it like to be a plus-size model in the industry?
"I struggle calling myself a model because…okay, I don’t know if I struggle to call myself a model because I am not doing as much work as 'models.' There’s just so little representation of bodies, of my specific kind of body, in modeling that it’s like, 'Can I really call myself a model?' I don’t really want to be a straight model. I think that, you know Barbie Nox, right? She’s tweeted something about how modeling is great, but that’s not how she wants to change the world. And that’s kind of how I feel."
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What about when it comes to modeling for these stock photos?
"I’m more than happy to pose for people, and I do really enjoy it and I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I mean, I’m totally ruled by Venus. I get a lot of pleasure out of modeling, and I think it’s really fun and I think it’s really important, especially with these stock photos, because stock photos are so often homogenous, for lack of a better word."

Have these homogenous depictions in media affected you?
"I think that to live in this American society, to say that unrealistic beauty standards, to say that the diet industry, to say that capitalism, basically, doesn’t affect you is to be in denial. For me, as a fat person, especially a fat femme, absolutely. I went to a school where I was truly the fattest kid there, or maybe was like one of three fat kids out of literally the entire school. And I definitely recognize my privilege and that I’m white, I’m upper middle class, I’m femme, I have a pretty classically beautiful face, and a classic hourglass figure.

"But I’m still 260 pounds and like, I think maybe part of the reason I struggle to call myself a model is because…I just cannot see myself being…like, I’m not going to lose weight. I already know this. I have a lot of hormonal issues where it’s assured that if I wanted to lose weight, it would be a road paved with much hardship, which it has been in the past. When I was in high school, I had a pretty real eating disorder that I don’t ever talk about — literally, I don’t think anyone knows about it. But no one would believe me, because I’m fat. There’s systemic abuse for fat children because they are fat and because this anti-fatness culture is so pervasive…so, yeah. That’s how it’s affected me."
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Photographed By Lula Hyers.
Growing up, were there any positive depictions in media that inspired you or did you have to create your own?
"I think honestly I had to create my own images, because I think it was more subconscious that I noticed that…well, I’ll just start from the beginning: I don’t fit in anywhere. I’ve never felt that I really fit, even in groups of friends. I just don’t feel like I really fit. And I think part of that has always been because I’ve always been 'the fat kid.' And fat people are, and this is never talked about, fat people are dehumanized to an extreme, like to an extreme.

"I know that I need to create my own images of what I need to see, because there’s a teenage girl or person out there that follows me on Instagram and is seeing their body finally represented on the internet. I need people to see that, even throughout the truly massive amounts of hate that I get.

"I feel like, yes, I’ve really had to create these images for myself because it’s been vital to my life. I probably wouldn’t be alive, honestly. I don’t think I would be alive if I didn’t take a lot of care to document my body and myself as, like, a human being and someone with nuance, not just a caricature, so that a teenage girl in, I don’t know, Idaho or something, can be looking on the internet which is both a scary and amazing place and be like, 'Oh shit, there’s someone who is owning the fact that they are considered obese, they are sexy, they are nuanced, they are funny, they are smart, they can model. I can do all of these things that people don’t expect.'"

You’re also very open about mental health and mental illness online, specifically on Instagram. When did you decide to start talking about it?
"I’ve realized that, the more you don’t talk about something, you think about it a lot, the more it’s just gonna build up. I think I started talking more openly about my mental health a couple years ago when I went to this school that, for some reason, was rife with sexual pressures, more than I had ever come across. I am a rape victim multiple times over and just have a lot of sexual trauma, so I kind of lost my shit. That’s when I experienced my first psychotic episode. I was assaulted there.

"I thought that I was going to do something drastic, and I realized that I wasn’t talking to anyone — at this point, I was not in therapy. I didn’t have an outlet, because…the people I was friends with, a couple of them were great, but I was not in a safe environment to be talking about any of this. So I started using the internet as a vehicle to talk about this, especially because this was during a time where if I wasn’t in therapy, I wasn’t working through any trauma. So it became this very public bearing witness to my mental illness and my trauma and my fatness, being like, 'Look at me. This is what you think is ugly, and I need you to look at this, and I need you to be just as disgusted by it as I am, and I need you to know why you’re disgusted by it.'"

What do you hope people are learning about body image and mental illness by following you?
"I hope people are uncomfortable. I do. Obviously not bad uncomfortable. But at the same time, no growth comes out of comfort. If you are comfortable, you are not growing. That is probably my main mantra. When people go onto my Instagram page, I need them to be uncomfortable. I need them to look at my page, especially because I grew up in an environment — like I said, I am upper middle class and I am white and I fully recognize that — I just need the people that I grew up with, especially, who were so horrible to me and who were all skinny and all cis and straight and whatever to, like, I just need them to see that. It is like a deep, deep need within me for people to grow and to make people uncomfortable because this is reality.
Photographed By Lula Hyers.
"I feel like my whole life people have been like 'Hayley, stop' or 'you’re being dramatic,' basically gaslighting me. But I’m not going to stop. Literally. The day I die will be the day I stop yelling about issues that directly affect fat and mentally ill communities and communities that are marginalized. The day I die will be the day I stop talking about it. People need to know this. I know my power, and I know that I have the power to change something and to make an impact on someone who is fat and who is mentally ill or who is neither of those things, and for who it’s just absolutely vital that they are educated about these things."

What should your followers look out for? What are your goals?
"Oh God, I have so many. I would really like to continue modeling. I get a lot of joy out of that. But honestly, dream-wise, I want to write screenplays.

"I don’t know, I’m hesitant to be like 'Look out for this!' I’m just in a constant state of growth. My only goals are ones of personal growth…I just wanna change the world! Easier said than done.

"I spoke on a panel when I was in New York that was about living in the intersections of masculinity and femininity, and that was a great experience, especially because I got to share my experiences as a fat, queer, mentally ill, non-binary person. Realistically, I’d like to do more speaking things and I want people to hire me to come to their school and talk about being fucking me."

This interview has been condensed and edited.
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