As the fashion industry continues making strides in terms of diversity, there are plenty of hits and misses to highlight. Earlier this year, plus-size male model Zach Miko arrived on the scene. More recently, model and entrepreneur Deddeh Howard recreated high-fashion ads in a much more diverse light by superimposing herself in place of the white models originally featured, and everyone paid attention. Now, inclusive fashion brand Coverstory makes history by casting the first plus-size transgender model in its latest campaign. Meet Shay Neary, a plus-size transgender model from the Poconos. Coverstory had already showcased a range of races and sizes in previous imagery — but in casting its next campaign, the brand saw that Neary represented another sector of its customer base that needed to be seen. Neary's life and experiences before joining the fashion world remind us of the work that needs to be done. Ahead, the Brooklyn resident discusses living life as a trans woman, shopping as a plus-size woman, and how the fashion industry treats those who are both.
Tell us your story. What lead you to transition?
"I was born and raised in the Poconos; when I was 14, I was living in Pennsylvania, I didn’t really know what I was. I didn’t really know what was wrong with me — I couldn’t really understand it. At one point, I very much defined myself as a gay man. I started doing drag when I was in my senior year of high school; I was part of a drag house. I had a bunch of gay friends, and I came out. "My drag mother had a transgender friend, Christine, who lived in the area. I didn’t even know what transgender was back then. I remember taking off my attire from the evening, and I was covering my chest, and she goes, 'Why are you covering your chest?' And I said, 'Um, I don’t know. This is what I always do.' She asked, 'Do you know you're trans? You’re covering your chest because you feel like you’re exposed, like you have something to cover, when in reality there’s nothing really there. You’re still a boy underneath all that.' I kind of took it with a grain of salt, and didn’t really think twice about it. "A year later, I started transitioning. My freshman year of college, I realized how uncomfortable it was to be around a bunch of men, and that I didn’t relate to men at all. So, I took all of my male clothes and threw them in the dumpster. I borrowed clothes from my friends; then I went to a Salvation Army and bought a ton of awkward clothing that I should probably never wear in public ever again, and I started living [as a woman] full-time. "It was difficult to transition when I was living in Pennsylvania; I had to travel to Philadelphia to get hormones from a clinic. It's not an easy process. Before college, I was basically living full-time as a woman. I wanted to push that [further], by starting HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy]. So, I moved to New York, I fell in love, got a job, and started my hormone and gender therapies. I’ve been on HRT for over four-and-a-half years now. But I’ve been 'full-time' for about 11 years."
Why did being around other men make you feel uncomfortable?
"Living on a men’s floor freshman year, I almost felt exposed. I had never lived with a bunch of men before, I had never played a sport, and I was the artsy kid in school. Going to college can put you in a situation where you have to kind of sort out your gender role. No one had ever pointed it out to me that I didn’t fit characteristics of what a man is. I wasn’t necessarily interested in anything masculine. I wasn’t even having sex at the time, to be honest. I was interested in men still, as a 'gay man,' but I wasn’t comfortable with myself enough to put my body on the line for that. I’ve never been comfortable with having a penis."
How has your relationship between fashion and gender identity evolved?
"In the last year-and-a-half, I've been experimenting with my masculinity. For the longest, I was as feminine as feminine could be. I was always in heels, always in a dress, always business professional or more. Recently, I chopped off all my hair. I started buying more jeans and 'gender neutral' clothing. It’s so weird how gender fluctuates so much; it’s not necessarily cut-and-dried. You can’t say 'this is masculine' and 'this is feminine' anymore. I can wear a dress and feel as comfortable as I would in a pair of jeans. "At one point, I didn’t want to define myself as trans; I wanted to blend in. I didn’t know myself well enough to be comfortable with saying, 'I’m okay with being a trans individual; I’m proud to be a trans individual.' A lot of trans people say phrases such as, 'the dead me,' or 'my dead name.' I don’t really relate to that. I don’t really think of my former self as a dead part of me. I find that person very fluid with who I am today. I had to accept who I was to become who I am now. "I've only just begun to get closer with trans women. For a very long time, I avoided them. Not only were they a threat to me as a woman, but they brought out something in me that I didn’t really recognize: my sense of masculinity."
When a new model is touted for being different and diverse, it seems like they’re always photographed naked. Why do you think this happens?
"Oh my god, the truest statement ever. I've done maybe eight to 10 naked shoots. I’m a new trans-plus model to the scene, but I have yet to find any designer willing to actually dress me for a shoot or book me an actual high-profile gig. They’re not willing to get you clothes. They’re not willing to find a designer to get you clothes for a shoot. [Photographers say] 'We’re not gonna hide your body, we want your raw body.' Hmm, how about [designing] some clothing for my 'raw body'? "Also, why do trans women get booked [for shoots] and then put in suits? [The industry] always wants trans women to look a little bit masculine, because that's somehow more high fashion. If you’re not androgynous, if you're too feminine or masculine, they don’t want to book you. They want people to know you’re trans, so they can include it in press releases and so on and so forth. It ends up exploiting my identity to make the designer look better."
What's challenging from a fashion perspective about being plus-sized as well as trans?
"As a plus person, it's so aggravating to try to find things that are supposed to represent you as a person. Coverstory does a really good job of doing comfortable, classic styles, which very much represent the 'new woman,' instead of definitions of what women were like in the past, and of being stigmatized into being either sexy or conservative. Finding plus-size designers who are willing to dress a plus body as sexy or simple as a straight-sized body is difficult. I think I can name, like, six designers who actually do a good job of dressing plus-size individuals. "I very much love my body: my shape, my representation, my gender. I enjoy using fashion as a vehicle to portray how I want to be observed. When people meet me, they always say, 'Oh, you dress so well!' and 'Oh, you’re so well-put together for a big person.' I hate those comments; it's as if plus-size women don’t know how to dress. God forbid we don’t wear hot pants every day of the week and caftans to brunch. "I would love to see a runway with a full size range. Because those are the people buying your products and [they're] not always average size size 6-to-10 blonde woman. A Real Housewife shouldn't be your only target clientele. And I would love to be able to go shop with my girlfriends in the store. But I can't, and I hate that. I have to go to another store to do my shopping, because they don’t sell my size in the same stores that they sell my friends' clothes. I imagine what that does to younger girls: They can’t wear the same clothes as their friends, and as much as they try to fit in, literally, they can't. Fitting in isn't important, of course, but we don’t really learn that till we’re older."
We spoke with Melissa McCarthy last year, and she lamented how the plus-size section is usually hidden next to the tires in the back.
"I love her. She’s working so hard to bring a brand to plus-size women, which I love. But it’s true. We’re segmented. Even in a big city, if you don’t have a budget, the places you can shop are Lane Bryant, Avenue, Dressbarn. Or you can order online, that’s my favorite. Take Eloquii, for example: an online, plus-size brand that doesn't have brick-and-mortar stores. "But the bottom line is, as a plus-size woman, you can’t really try anything on if you're shopping online. So basically, plus-size women are told, 'We’re willing to take your money and we’re willing to dress you, but only from your computer screen. We want you to give us your checkbook, and we’ll send you clothing, even if you don’t know what it’s going to look like or how it’s going to fit.' You can’t try anything on; that’s just for 'small girls.'"
They want your money, but they don’t want you in their stores.
"Exactly. It’s a double-sided knife. Like, 'We’ll make fashion for you, but you can [only] get it mailed to you.'"