This story was originally published on December 5, 2014.
Sabina, a 24-year-old model in New York, shows up at shoots with a bag straight out of Mary Poppins. It’s cute and normal-looking from the outside, but stuffed with a physics-defying range of things she needs for a full day of running between gigs. Make-up bags, outfit changes, snacks, and — since she’s a plus-size model — her fat pads.
They come as a set — pairs of flesh-colored butt, breast, and thigh pads, along with a spandex girdle to stuff them in — and are packed in a little, black bag. They're part of the standard equipment a plus-size model carries. Sabina, who’s about a size 12, often needs pads to fit the size 14 or 16 samples of clothing that she’s asked to model. This is not uncommon: She says she uses pads in about half her shoots, and all the models we spoke to have used them.
The pads have a practical function. On a shoot where a model might wear dozens of outfits, padding is an easier way to make clothes fit snugly — much like the clothespins that are hidden out of view and used to perfect the fit of garments in high-fashion editorials. But, critics say argue that using pads simply creates a different "ideal" body for plus-size women — one that might be as hard to find or achieve as the impossibly tall and thin body of a straight-size model. The plus-size "ideal" is the body, big breasts, and butt of a true plus-size woman, but the slimmer waist, face, and wrists of the model beneath the pads.
Plus-size blogger CeCe Olisa remembers feeling disappointed when she learned about padding. “You think you're straying away from the media's "be skinny" mindset by embracing plus-size," she says. “Then, you realize even that’s an impossible ideal. It’s frustrating.”
The past five years have seen a huge uptick in visibility for plus-size models, from Crystal Renn's 2009 book Hungry to Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, and Ashley Graham gracing the pages of Vogue just last month. Even Calvin Klein’s much-discussed decision to cast Myla Dalbesio celebrates a bigger-than-straight-size body in a space where you’d ordinarily only see the slenderest of women.
It’s not a shift confined to glossy magazine covers. Mainstream retailers from H&M to Abercrombie have added plus-size lines to their collections this year, and business is booming. Plus-size clothing sales grew 7% this year, to generate $17.6 billion.
That change brings a host of new gigs for plus-sized models, especially in the world of e-commerce, where industry insiders describe fat pads as just a trick of the trade. “Since all women are not created the same as the samples, sometimes you need to tweak to accentuate the garment as best as possible,” says Gary Dakin, who founded the all-size modeling agency JAG. Especially on shoots for e-commerce, where one model could show 50 outfits in a day, he says padding is quicker and cheaper than an on-set seamstress, and it makes things fit. “I do not think that padding creates the illusion of unrealistic body sizes and shapes,” Dakin adds.
Elizabeth Taylor, plus-size model and industry consultant (with no relation to the movie star), disagrees. “Padding shows that advertisers don’t really believe a woman who really is size 14 or above can sell clothing. When I first started modeling, they told us that women want to see really skinny women sell regular-sized clothing. So, they see a size 0-2 and they're a 6 or an 8, and that's aspirational,” Taylor says. By that same logic, a woman who’s a 14 or a 16, she says, would want to see a size 8 modeling her clothes. It’s the same aspirational (or deceptive) fashion industry practice, just geared towards a larger woman.
We talked to six women who work as plus-size models about the state of the industry and what it’s like to try to fit into the new “plus-size ideal.” Then, to get a better sense of the padding phenomenon, we asked them to take some pictures with — and without — their fat pads. The eye-opening results are ahead.