Not Small Enough, Not Big Enough: How The Plus-Size Debate Got Silenced

After several seasons of increased body diversity in fashion, why are plus-size models starting to disappear from the catwalks?

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In fashion, representation isn't given — it's earned. Black? Curvy? Short? Get in line. The industry, diversity and all, is nowhere near solving its inclusion problem. But that doesn't mean it hasn't tried.
It was just a few seasons ago that models found their voices. Decades of mistreatment, professional misconduct, and misplaced paychecks inspired the ambitious to use their platforms for good. Better late than never, social justice manifested; fucks were (finally) being given. Models redefined themselves as model citizens. And everybody paid attention. But one group is being left behind.
Last season's Fashion Spot diversity report — a biannual digest that logs runway diversity in all forms — showed the AW18 catwalks experienced the first regression in plus-size model castings in two years. A reported 30 plus-size models walked across each fashion capital (27 in New York, a proud three in Paris, and none in London and Milan), eight models shy of the season before. That makes up approximately 0.4% of castings for the season.
It's easy to overlook this kind of systemic shift in an industry that doesn't cater to women above a size 12 because it's seldom that we're ever shown anything different. It's why the movement toward a more inclusive landscape moves in slo-mo rather than a tidal wave-like rush. But it's hard to face the facts — especially the aforementioned — and the gut feeling that things are getting worse. For now, it bears repeating that bodies are not trends and models are real people with feelings and futures; never mind the fact that they're talented, too.
Ahead of yet another New York Fashion Week, we reached out to as many plus/curvy models who walked last season as we could. We asked three questions: 1. Has walking the runway changed for you? 2. What do you think is at the root of the problem? And 3. What do you think needs to happen to change things for good?
But not everyone felt comfortable speaking up. Some agencies declined to participate, including a few who claimed they're "just not doing plus right now." And that's what worries us. Was the long-awaited plus-size model inclusion on the runways just a fad? Or worse, are people just done talking about it? That the opposite effect is happening is no mystery; that it's still happening is indefensible.
While it's clear where we, and some others, stand on the issue, it's important to keep the conversation going. And that's why we're starting with the voices that matter: the 0.4%.
Allison Owens
"Walking [in shows] is always something I've wanted to be more obtainable for 'plus' models. It’s very frustrating trying to shove your fat foot through a skinny door. Until all fashion houses recognise the art and beauty in a curvy woman, we won’t see the change we need. Everything starts with high-fashion and trickles down. The reason curve models aren’t staying around in shows is the lack of representation on high-fashion runways."
"Even though there are extremely limited slots for curve models (and now even less this year), I still train as hard as straight-size models for the opportunity to walk in shows. I’m a body positivity activist. That means 24/7 I'm observing the fashion industry and how it moves. Its patterns have been something very interesting to study. I’m afraid to say it, but it might be because 'plus-size models' are looked at purely as a trend.
"How many curve models are here now working in New York City? How many take runway classes? And how many of them will actually walk? Now compare that chance with a model who fits the standards listed in a casting call I just went to: '150 models, sizes 2 to 4, perfect skin, hair, and teeth.' Now, tell me: Is the fashion industry actually changing? Or is the concept of change just a little game being played to please the current interest?
"We need to constantly remind designers about the importance of showing different body types. Everything they publicise affects thousands of young people, so are they willing to take on the responsibility of mass eating disorders? Self hate loops?
"There is a gap between straight-size models and plus-size models. If designers also started to cast models of in-between sizes — 6, 8, and 10 — it would also help the industry become kinder and more accepting. There is practically no market for models of in-between sizes, especially during New York Fashion Week."
Ariel Pierre-Louis
"I feel like some brands only decide to add plus-size [models] at the very last minute, to be 'inclusive', and they usually only hire the non-double digit 'plus' [models] or under-a-size-14 [models]. I guess it’s nice they are being more inclusive, but they still aren’t serving authentically plus-size models.
"Body positivity has turned into this concept of 'self love' — which is beautiful on its own, but isn’t the same idea. When that happens, the conversation changes to 'Oh, anyone who isn’t a stick figure doesn’t get represented and faces the same adversities, so let’s have the least fat [plus-size model] on the runway but still call it 'plus.' There lies the issue. Size 12s, especially 14s, and up will continue to have no visibility as long as we keep acting like visibly plus-size women and sizes 4-10 are the same and should be treated the same. Incorporating both concepts of self love and body positivity as the same thing leaves behind the actually marginalised sizes.
"We need to set the record straight that body positivity is meant to make those bodies that are actually marginalised be seen and heard. It’s for the actual fat bodied, disabled, Black, transgender, etc. bodies that are actually dehumanised and harmed for it, so we need actual representation — not the same slim girl that just weighs 20 lbs. [less/more] from the desired straight-size standard."
Lauren Karaman
"Being one of the 38 plus-size models who walked in the spring 2018 season was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. Walking down the runway as a model making history in an industry prone to perpetuating one type of beauty made me the model I’d always dreamed of becoming: a model carving change. However, when I read that plus models have only made up around 0.4% of total model castings in each of the past three seasons, I was floored.
"That’s it? How can that be? 67% of the women in this country are a size 14 and above, yet only represented by 0.4% of models on the runway. If the fashion industry doesn’t change to represent and meet the actual needs of consumers, we will continue this detrimental cycle of shaming women into thinking they have to be sample-sized to be beautiful or happy.
"Sure, the AW18 season included fewer shows and presentations in New York, and brands like Tracy Reese (which casts size-inclusive and diverse shows) did not show, but that’s not an excuse I’m satisfied with. It’s not the sole responsibility of brands who already cast diverse and inclusive shows to make sure progress continues. The responsibility lies with the brands who don't cast inclusively.
"To those inside and outside of the industry: Keep making noise. I'll be right there with you, demanding equality."
Jocelyn Corona
"Maybe people don’t want to risk too much. But to change this problem for good, we need risks — especially designers willing to take them. Everyone always sees what are they doing. It’s amazing to see all the beautiful woman empowering each other on the runway. What better way way to show to the world that everyone deserves to be represented than that?"
Ali Tate
"I was a bit disappointed by how many girls were used on the runways for AW18. Part of me thinks so many brands jumped on the 'diversity' bandwagon to be seen as cool or trendy, but then they kind of just let it go back to normal after they checked that diversity box off of their lists. Or a less palatable theory: why the number of curve models on catwalks went down for AW18 is that the styles for the autumn shows are always more skin, shorter, and summery. And to have a curve model bearing a lot of skin on the runway seemed too-much-too-soon for the fashion world? I hope it’s not that, but it’s possible.
"Brands need to be held accountable for how much diversity they use on the catwalk. They should be called out if they refuse to diversify. I also think they will change permanently once they see business go up. If they use curve models and see an influx of sales of curve clothing, then they will probably continue. I can’t see businesses saying no to more customers."
"I love shifting thought around stereotypes and culture, so when I walked in Chromat last year, I felt proud I stepped out and represented where few women ages 50+ have. Being a part of such an inclusive runway is incredibly thrilling while at the same time keenly aware we're all sending an important message to continue thinking out of the box.
"As far as representation decreasing, it might be that some lines sadly went out of business or backers didn’t appreciate the size-specific attention their line drew from media. It takes all participants to give change time to take hold, not to jump out prematurely. But the public needs to continue giving positivity and room for improvement, including feedback to retailers and the designers they love. Nothing changes automatically. It takes a sea swell of individuals to create a tipping point; as with voting, make your voice count where you want it to count most."
Sabina Karlsson
"The industry has opened up doors when it comes to walking fashion week as a curvier model. I see that there are more opportunities for me, but still not enough. Designers have to keep using curvier models, not just for one show or one season — for campaigns, editorials, and so on. If you keep promoting diversity in fashion, consumers will give the feedback. More people will be able to relate to what they’re seeing in ads. It’s a circle of positivity."
Madeleine Ours
"Walking the runway has changed my perspective a lot. I feel a lot more confident as a model after walking in NYFW. It feels good to be recognised by the fashion community, even though I know that there's a lot of room for improvement. I'm a straight, white, plus-size model and there needs to be more designers who cast plus-size women of all ethnicities.
"What could end up happening if fewer plus models are cast in shows from now on is that the average woman will not be able to feel valued by the fashion community, and in turn, society. It's almost as if some designers want to sell everyone this idea of the unattainable standard of beauty that most people can’t achieve naturally. It’s as if they're saying, 'Here's what our designs look like on the thinnest women in the world; sorry you can’t fit into it, but we know you’ll buy it anyway!' (And they’re right.)
"Designers should approach the casting process differently: They should see it as an opportunity to sell to a woman of any shape or skin tone. When people see a model that looks like them, they get a chance to see themselves in the clothes. It’s not only morally important to represent as many people as possible, but it's good for business, as well."

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