PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
In the past decade, the plus-size modeling industry has grown astronomically. The fashion industry, which once contained only a few select plus-size models, is now booming. Kurvy models walk the runways of designers like Micheal Kors, Christian Siriano and Alexander McQueen, and they are being featured in the campaigns of major fashion retailers.
According to the Fashion Spot’s Diversity Report for Spring 2020, 86 plus-size models walked the runways in New York, London, Paris and Milan—an extreme increase from previous years. Not only were there more plus-size models overall, there were also more plus-size models of color than in the past. 72.1% of New York’s plus-size model appearances featured non-White models, while 84.6% of Paris’ plus-size appearances included non-White models.
In an era where you can easily find plus-size models of color unapologetically celebrating their bodies on the runway and social media, it would seem that the modeling industry is making leaps and bounds. However, for many working models of color, discrimination and prejudice remain daily occurrences.
After Veronica Campos—a Caribbean model based in Brooklyn—finishes her shoots, she often questions whether her client hired her for her modeling prowess or if she was simply being used as a token of diversity. “I do think that most of the time I am booked … it’s the campaign or client really wanting to say that they have worked with a person of color,” Campos explains. “Leading up to the shoot and at the shoot I still have that excitement of one, I was booked and I was paid, so my bills are taken care of, and two, just being in a new experience and being chosen, so the thought of tokenism isn’t just the first thing in my mind,” she shares.
During the shoots, Campos faces even more trouble. “My agent always, always, always, double, triple-checks with me, she’s like, ‘I’m finding out about your hair, I’ll let you know about the stylist soon,’ and it always tends to be that I get the stylist’s number, and literally have a full conversation with her so that I know how to prep myself to arrive at work, because 90% of the time I do my own hair, because it’s never communicated correctly what they want to do with it,” she elaborates.
While she could blame the stylist for not knowing how to work with her hair, hair-stylists are employed as independent contractors by the client. Therefore, “if the hair-stylist doesn’t know what to do, that’s the client not informing them correctly,” she says.
Constance Smith, an Afro-Latina model, avoids tokenism by purposefully choosing brands that are racially inclusive. “A lot of the projects I’ve worked on, I was able to choose what I was a part of, because a lot of them have been body positive focused projects,” says Smith.
However, because Smith consciously avoids tokenism, she feels like her career has been stunted by prejudice. “I feel like if I was White, or a lighter complexion, my career would’ve taken off so much further,” Smith explains. “Although, I do feel weird because I am lighter and there are darker models who don’t get any opportunities at all, so I am grateful for what I have had, but I feel like if I was another ethnicity, I wouldn’t still be struggling the way that I’m struggling,” she describes.
Despite the challenges she has experienced thus far, Smith carries on modeling for her younger self. “I would love for a ten-year-old now to say that, ‘You know what, there is nothing wrong with me,’” she adds, “not going through all of that battle of insecurity. They’re just able to be themselves without having to satisfy society.”
Ja Tawn Avant, who has been modeling since 1998, holds a unique view on race after more than twenty years working in the industry.
“At the time when I was trying to get in the field, there was nothing but blue-eyed, blonde-haired [models] … They weren’t accepting anybody [outside of that],” says Avant. “They wouldn’t sign you if you had cornbraids in your hair, they wouldn’t sign you if you were as dark as Naomi Campbell … If I went to an agency they would say ‘Oh, we have one of you already,’” she expresses.
And for the Black models in said agencies, the standard of beauty was even more rigid. “[The agencies] wanted long flowing hair,” shares Avant. “The African American models when I was coming up, they all had the same weave in their hair,” Avant says. Due to the pressure placed upon Black models to conform to this unspoken ideal, Avant found herself changing for modeling jobs. “[The Black models] all looked the same at castings, [so] I found myself wearing weaves and stuff like that,” she adds.
Now, after more than twenty years of experience in the modeling industry, Avant has achieved her aim of becoming a high-fashion model after her feature in a three-page Vogue Italia spread. “Since the Vogue [Italia shoot], there’s been a lot of inquiries for me to do high fashion now … It was always my goal to be high fashion. I’ve always loved high fashion, like everybody else. I’m just very happy. Before, [modeling] was a business, but now it’s fun,” she states.
While Sephra Anthony—a Bangalore-born model—has only been in the industry for a little over a year, she has experienced discrimination in every facet of her job.
“I feel like because I’m a Brown girl, I’m a South Asian, I feel like I get rejected.” says Anthony. “Every time I check who got picked, it’s usually a White person … or a racially ambiguous person, and I just don’t feel represented.”
Additionally, Anthony has experienced discrimination due to xenophobia—the hatred of people from foreign countries. On sets, her accent receives unnecessary attention; Anthony notes that when she speaks with someone on set, her accent usually becomes the main topic of conversation. Her annoyance towards this unneeded attention is clear: “Why do we have to talk about my accent? You’re casting a model … I’m sorry that I’m not American, but I speak English, I think that’s good enough.”
Not only does Anthony have to deal with people focusing on her accent rather than her modeling abilities, but she also sometimes doesn’t receive opportunities at all because of xenophobia. “I’ve gotten rejected because of the way that I speak many times, but that’s okay,” she says.
However, in the face of discrimination, Anthony remains optimistic that the plus-size modeling industry will become more racially inclusive in the future. “Everybody is out there to change things, change the narrative. I feel like [brands] can’t afford to [remain racially exclusive]. People are boycotting left right and center, and at least for that I feel like it will change,” Anthony states.