The Plus Size Models At This Photoshoot Demand To Be Visible. Here's What That Means For The Rest Of Us.
When plus size model and Sports Illustrated rookie Hunter McGrady arrived at Milk Studios for a Bustle shoot with fellow Sports Illustrated model Robyn Lawley on May 10, she came pre-hair, makeup, and styling — but like so many professional models, she looked camera-ready the second she stepped over the threshold.
All six feet of McGrady floated to hair and makeup without hesitation, the unwavering actions of a woman who, despite her short amount of time in the industry, knows how to get down to business.
"When you walk in a room, you grab attention," McGrady says of her professional strategy as highlighter is dusted over her cheekbones. "You have presence. It's important, especially doing what we're doing, you can't bring yourself to everyone else's level."
And at this particular shoot, we had presence in spades: The presence of Lawley as a creative and photographer, despite making her career in front of the camera as a model. The presence of McGrady unapologetically working for the camera in a tiny, Baywatch-inspired red one-piece. The presence of our photo, fashion, design, hair, and makeup teams, fabulous as ever. And the presence of me, a curious editor eating a shoot cookie, getting crumbs all over her shirt.
It was an unusual shoot: Bustle asked plus size model Lawley, who's been developing her skills as a photographer since she was 18, to shoot McGrady, with the explicit intention of giving a behind-the-scenes look on what it's like to see one plus size model shoot another.
Lawley is a seasoned veteran of the modeling industry — her first magazine shoot was all the way back in 2006. McGrady broke into public consciousness after Sports Illustrated cast her in its 2017 Swimsuit Issue — in fact, she's the largest model that's ever been featured.
To see Lawley and McGrady stand next to each other, at least in my view, is a testament to how far the industry has come — and where it could be going. Lawley is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and a genuinely large person — by technical industry standards, she's plus size. According to standard US sizing, however, she's not plus size. McGrady, on the other hand, is 6 feet and plus size by both industry and standard US sizing.
On the topic of size: Lawley was a Sports Illustrated rookie in 2015, curve model Ashley Graham was a rookie in 2016, and McGrady in 2017. That considered, it's hard to ignore the fact that gradually, the women deemed "acceptable" to appear in bikinis in a mainstream magazine have gotten bigger.
Women over a size 22 still have little to no representation in mainstream media — but with a progression like this, along with increased plus representation in film, sports, and fashion, it's a bit easier to imagine that one day, there could be. As a plus size editor, I encounter women changing the landscape on a regular basis. I've interviewed actor Chrissy Metz, Olympic track and field athlete Amanda Bingson, and plus size models like Sabina Karlsson and Marquita Pring — and now, Hunter McGrady and Robyn Lawley. Technically, I'm also a plus size woman working in the industry, albeit in a way that's less visible than any of the above.
After each interview I've done, I'm left contemplating the confidence it takes to be one of our kind in front of a camera. For decades, plus size women were barely visible at all — now, slowly but surely, at many different sizes, we're confidently making ourselves known — a task that's easier for some than others. The reason for that, though, is where the complicated politics of representation come into play.
"To me," Lawley says, "The most important thing is a confident girl. It always shows, especially when I [shoot] — there are some girls that are stunning girls, but they're not confident and it comes across immediately."
There's an important idea lurking beneath the surface of Lawley's words. Self-possession like Lawley's or McGrady's is definitely admirable, but it's easier to access when you've already been accepted into an industry that sets the conventional standard for what's beautiful. Yes, Lawley and McGrady are gorgeous, confident women — but they're professional models that live in a world where their physical characteristics are regularly affirmed as such. They're also both white, which affords them (and me) a significant leg-up in terms of industry acceptance and professional privilege.
This isn't to say that either of them are free from criticism. Seeing the biggest girl in the room — or on the cover of a magazine — assert herself is still a source of discomfort for much of the general public (and a downright horror to others). Still, there's much to strive for — and if you happen to be the biggest girl in the room, it's on you to make space for someone bigger. When we discussed this at the Bustle shoot, it was clear that despite their different experiences, Lawley and Hunter are here for the representation of all sizes — and time will tell what kind of impact their industry presence could make.
As for this particular shoot, on this particular day, at this particular junction in society's journey towards inclusivity and representation, Lawley explored different tactics and angles behind the camera, and McGrady served looks and all the body, wearing everything from a $12 Forever 21 jumpsuit to, yes, that epic red bathing suit. The atmosphere was supportive, completely comfortable, and feminist — the type of environment that could become the status quo as the industry evolves.
"One thing I've learned is that you should never, ever say anything negative to someone on a shoot," Lawley says. "Build someone up when they're doing something good, don't tear them down."
Despite the fact that very few women outside of our industry, plus size or otherwise, actually get to experience a photoshoot like this or a career in front of the camera, Lawley's words resonate. As many steps forward as we've collectively made, many people have characteristics that, while beautiful, fall outside of conventional norms dictated by an industry that is beyond our complete control.
In 2017, there's no escaping the fact that not everyone is welcome in the same spaces that professional models like McGrady and Lawley are, and it is both possible and important to acknowledge that without undercutting the work they've done. For those of us who are on the inside — either as the bombshell model making waves, the photographer making a statement, or the editor with a platform, the responsibility to make space and lift others up falls to us. With a little bit time and effort, the possibilities are as endless as the crumbs on my shirt that day — and a lot more satisfying to contemplate and dust off.
Hair: Adam Maclay using René Furterer
Makeup: Mary Guthrie using BECCA
Manicure: Miss Pop using CND Vinylux in Wildfire and Skin Tease