Despite recent progress in the world of plus size fashion, there's still much that can be incredibly improved. Although we're seeing more plus size women in advertisements, women above a size 16 still don't have the luxury of walking into any store or mall (or even most stores or malls) and walking out with something in their size. When stores do have plus options in their brick and mortar locations, I've found that they're often designated to minuscule corners of massive floors — a hanging rack ready to greet you with eight to 10 poorly-fitting basics (many of which are probably subject to a fat tax so you can pay twice as much as your straight size friends to dress half as cute). And our plus size fashion advertising? It still mainly consists of women who follow traditional tropes of beauty, but are slightly curvier. They often seem to wear sizes 12 to (a smaller) 20, are owners of conventionally attractive hourglass figures, and have fair skin. So as well as seeing more models of color in the industry overall, what I'm also hoping we finally start to see more of in 2016 is plus size models sizes 22 and above.
The aforementioned current models are stunning, of course. They are talented, and deserve all the accolade they get and more. I not-so-secretly hope to frame images of Denise Bidot, Tara Lynn, and Ashley Graham someday to remind myself that they were amongst the first women above a size 4 I ever saw in my mainstream media. And they were subsequently among the first to suggest to me that I didn't need to be a size 4 to be beautiful or worthy or whatever else chubby kids get told they aren't.
As we talk more and more of the importance of body positivity, inclusivity, and intersectionality, however, it's become pretty clear that plus size fashion has (be it intentionally or inadvertently) created a new kind of aspirational beauty: The "right" kind of fat. The kind that is curvy, but not too curvy. The kind that has a relatively flat stomach, and whose fat lies principally in the bum and chest. The kind that doesn't automatically raise people's "that's obviously unhealthy" trolling flags. In other words, the playing-it-safe kind.
The majority of mainstream plus size models are certainly representative of the average size of women in America, which tends to fall between 12 and 14. And that's great! However, the majority of plus size brands are catering to to sizes 12/14 and above, extending to the late 20s and early 30s. So while the models in the ads may look like some of the people buying the clothes, most women who might identify as "fat" — i.e. the demographic plus brands cater to and make money off of — don't. As model Tess Holliday tells me in an email, "For so long it's been nothing but the typical smaller sized hourglass figure, and that doesn't represent a lot of us."
The danger with aspirational beauty, often perpetuated by only seeing one repeated image of supposed beauty everywhere you turn, is that it inevitably invalidates a whole lot of people. It seems obvious that one body type, one person, or one model cannot possibly represent everyone. And if people don't see themselves represented in their media or billboards or ads for pretty dresses, they can often begin to think there is something wrong about the way they are existing. This, to me, is why diversity in advertising, and particularly in fashion advertising (since clothing is something we all wear and have to deal with, regardless of our specific interest in the industry) is so important.
With the exception of actor Gabourey Sidibe and the one plus size model above a size 22 signed to a major agency, Tess Holliday, there are no women visibly above a size 22 anywhere in the mainstream media or in brand advertisements. There is no one else openly loving their size 22 or size 28 body while showing off a love of style. It's no surprise, then, that when longtime plus brand Lane Bryant held its Twitter chat with Refinery29 in late 2015, one of the main takeaways from consumers was the desire to see more women sizes 22+.
When talking to Volup2 editor and size 22+ model Velvet D'Amour via email, she recalls being signed to Agence Plus — a French modeling agency with a focus on plus sizes — in 2006, at a size 28/32. "That is 10 years ago," she tells me. "Since that time, we have seen what progress, in a decade, with regard to the inclusion of women who may actually appear fat in ads for women who happen to be fat?"
Thankfully, this is where smaller businesses as well as independent retailers and designers are coming through for the public. Take ELOQUII, for instance: A brand that is filling the void not only for higher-end plus style, but also for extended size lookbooks featuring women who actually wear the sizes being sold.
Since extending its size range to a 28 in May 2015, ELOQUII has made a name for itself for its 26 + 28 Lookbooks. "We do think it is important to show diverse sizes in advertising," Creative Director Jodi Arnold tells me via email. "It's [...] a reflection of the beauty and style that exists in all sizes." The brand's first lookbook featured Sarah Conley, plus size fashion, beauty, and tech blogger of style•it and social media professional. Later models have been stylist and plus fashion professional Reah Norman and actual customer Emmicia Bracey.
"Representation is so important because it's reflective of the society we live in," Bracey tells me in an email. "If I don't see myself reflected in the advertising or media around me, how can I feel like a valid member of society? When groups of people aren't represented, it feels like [...] hurtful, purposeful exclusion or erasure of your identity."
As well as featuring women like Bracey, ELOQUII also highlights one customer per month in its Style & Substance: Spotlight Series. The diversity of the body types showcased in both the lookbooks and series are far more representative of the vast and varied ways there are to have a fat body than the one mold we're so used to seeing in ads. "Anything out of the norm is scary to most retailers," Bracey adds. "[But] I'm more likely to purchase from brands that are showcasing models or bloggers at various sizes or at least open themselves to the conversation."
And this is where the indie community comes in. Brands like Re/Dress NYC, Ready To Stare, and Chubby Cartwheels are amongst the most inclusive out there, ensuring representation of plus size individuals of all skin colors, body shapes, gender presentations, and sizes — and always making sure to include models above a size 22 in campaigns and promotional shoots.
"I believe very strongly that indie brands are leading the way in this area," Ready To Stare owner Alysse Dalessandro tells me via email. "I receive messages constantly from folks regarding the size of my models and how seeing the clothes on them made them feel better about themselves." She adds:
"[I think most] brands continue to work with size 10 to 16 models because they believe that models must be 'aspirational' (which I read as 'acceptably fat') in order to sell clothes. But from what I see as a plus size consumer, designer, and engaged member of this community is that people are literally begging to see more models that look like them and that are actually relatable."
Re/Dress owner Rachel Kacenjar shares these sentiments: "I think a lot of companies rely on us to feel ashamed of our bodies to sell us things," she tells me via email. "When they sell us size 28 clothing on a size 12 model [...] they are trying to sell us a fantasy about what they think we should want to look like."
The question as to whether or not fashion is supposed to echo reality or be some kind of fantasy has long been debated. But speaking from personal experience, I know that nothing makes me build a cart and press "checkout" with as much excitement as having a clear picture in my head of what those clothes might look like on someone like me: Someone who has a double chin and visible belly outline and thunderous thighs, and still rocks stylish garments because there's no reason not to. There's no "fantasy" that would ever make me not want to have those traits, and so there is no fantasy that would ever make me want to only see one image of beauty when I visit my favorite retail sites online.
After years of excuses from the fashion industry about not making plus size options, things are slowly beginning to improve, with the plus size industry in the United States alone booming to a $17.5 billion market in 2014. Yet when I look to the mainstream brands, I very rarely see a body comparable to my own. So I can only assume that those with bodies more marginalized and subject to more fatphobia than my own must feel entirely invisible.
Contrary to what we're so often fed, a smaller fat who can squeeze into the larger sizes at straight size stores simply isn't the only kind of fat there is. The kind of fat we're used to seeing in our brand ads rarely has visible cellulite or stretch marks or rolls that jiggle. But so many consumers have visible cellulite and stretch marks and rolls that jiggle. And the only way to normalize the diversity of body types is to regularly see all of them.
We might not be used to seeing women sizes 22 and over in our advertising, but we should be. This is something we should be championing. It isn't the fault of plus size models that we've reached a new narrative for aspirational beauty in the plus size fashion industry. But the brands themselves could be doing a heck of a lot more.
D'amour tells me, "I think anytime anyone sees someone size 22 and over, they immediately are diverted from what is being sold and are instantly engaged in a health debate. [It's possible that] companies fear the backlash that they will be perceived as supporting 'ill health.' Some may believe the old adage that consumers are more likely to buy when presented with smaller sized models."
Unfortunately, we're not yet at a point when fat acceptance is discussed outside the realms of health. We're not yet a point when a person doesn't have to prove their clinical health status before being deemed worthy of basic human decency. But I believe in the political powers of fashion, so I have to believe that plus fashion can spark progress.
Fat women are as diverse as their straight size counterparts. They come in a spectrum of sizes. They wear a variety of styles. Their skin colors are incredibly diverse. They sometimes rock alternative, subversive looks that piss people off. Some of them are size 12s, and some of them are size 30s, and every single one of them should be seen. We've come a long way in representing women in the 12 to 20 category (as Kacenjar tells me, "I'm apt to believe that [the mainstream] cutoff is somewhere around a person who is a size 18 and is tall"), but this year, I hope we go further still. Whether we've been held back because we thought the world wasn't ready, or we've been housing our own internalized fatphobia that still tells us a fat hourglass shape is more appealing than a fat apple shape or a fat pear shape or a fat cactus, pizza, or banana shape, there really is no excuse for not offering representation.
I don't want size 22+ trailblazers like Saucye West, Tess Holliday, Velvet D'Amour, or the models of The Adipositivity Project to continue to be rarities in an industry. Plus size fashion needs more women like them if it's ever going to help further long-lasting, radical change or have a role in ending the realities of size discrimination.
Want more body positivity? Check out the video below, and be sure to subscribe to Bustle's YouTube page for more inspo!