How the plus-size industry is still failing plus-size women

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Take a look at the top models today who just happen to be a size 12 or larger — see if you notice what they have in common. 

Here are Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine: 

Here are Sabina Karlsson and Denise Bidot: 

Here are Precious Lee and Iskra Lawrence: 

Source: Getty Images/Instagram
Source: Getty Images/Instagram

These are the plus-size women who are currently turning the fashion industry on its head, demanding that women who look like them garner more respect from fashion. But unfortunately, they all have two things in common: None of them are above a size 16, and they all have an hourglass shape, with narrow waists and wider hips. 

There are no women with prominent tummies, for instance, or models who are a size 24. Instead, they're more like size 14. 

Within just the past year, plus-size models have made tremendous strides. Ashley Graham, who's a size 14, appeared on the cover of Sports IllustratedWomen's Running had its first plus-size cover star. And this past NYFW was hailed as the most body positive to date, with more plus-size models cast than ever before. 

Iskra Lawrence (far left) and Sabina Karlsson (far right) at the Chromat show at NYFW Source: Mic/Getty Images
Iskra Lawrence (far left) and Sabina Karlsson (far right) at the Chromat show at NYFW  Mic/Getty Images

Though that doesn't mean that all women are feeling more represented than ever before. And that's certainly not the fault of the women themselves, but the entire industry.  In other words, the plus-size industry may pride itself on being body positive, but it's still not really inclusive of every body.

"Although plus-size fashion is more inclusive than straight size, it's still fashion," model Clémentine Desseaux, who is a size 14 and is attempting to show more diverse bodies with the All Woman Project — a campaign with a goal to show what accurate diversity should look like within the fashion industry, said in an interview. "[Fashion] is based on sizes and weight. Castings are still looking for one ideal."

The plus-size standard: In that sense — looking for just one ideal — the plus-size industry isn't really that different from the straight-size industry. After all, both are overwhelmingly white and full of tall women. It's just that rather than being obsessed with models being a size 4 or smaller, the plus-size industry is obsessed with size 14 or smaller.

"I think that the stage that we are in is normalizing these sizes of 10, 12, 14, 16," Nicole Spiezio, a model who wears between a 24 and 26, said. "Those types of bodies, just because they haven't been seen at all, seeing them now is huge. I'm glad we're having it and I think we have to have this stepping stone." 

Nicole Spiezio Source: Mic /Instagram
Nicole Spiezio  Mic /Instagram

So although plus-size clothing can go up to 24 or 28 and beyond, the most successful models working today who can either define themselves as plus-size or curvy are somewhere between an 8 and 14. Often, plus-size clothing starts at a size 12. The women we most often see modeling these plus-size clothes are sizes that only the smallest plus-size customers can relate to. 

And because of that, women have started to speak out. 

"When I had my first photoshoot, it was an amazing experience. I was super excited," Jenna Lee, a model who wears a size 16 to 18, said in an interview. "But then, after I got my pictures back, I looked to see if I could apply to some agencies and they were all like, 'You can't be above a 14.' They won't even look at your picture. If you don't fit that mold, they're just not going to give you a chance."

And other than the actual size, the plus-size industry is smitten with the hourglass shape, similarly to how the fashion industry praised the waif look in the '90s. 

"We're definitely way more diverse than the [straight-size] industry; however, I feel like every time a campaign drops, you can see most of the comments are about the fact that they're all hourglass figures," Desseaux said. "It's just like with every fashion industry, the [straight-size] industry has criteria, and the plus-size industry has it too, and it's to have a proportional figure. So [the industry has] definitely embraced that shape more than any others." 

What's missing? Currently what's almost entirely absent from the industry are successful, truly plus-size models who do have stomachs or small breasts and are maybe also a size 20 or 22. Tess Holliday, who's a size 22, is really the only outlier. 

"You're not seeing women with big bellies. You're not seeing anyone that has a smaller chest. You're not seeing anyone with big arms or really big thighs," Holliday said. "You're kind of just seeing what's acceptably plus-size. Again, and I've been told this before and throughout my career: The clients are selling women an image and they're saying, 'This is what you want to look like and this is what you hope you look like in our garments.'" 

Tess Holliday Source: Mic /Instagram
Tess Holliday  Mic /Instagram

Given that Holliday is one of the few women attempting to pave the way for other women like her, with her own clothing line, more than 1 million followers on Instagram and her own popular hashtag campaign #EffYourBeautyStandards which highlights people who are defying society's beauty norms, she admits that she's had several instances of being turned down because of her shape and size, even though the plus-size world does pride itself on acceptance and inclusivity of larger bodies. 

"I've had to work so hard to prove myself to people. I definitely experienced so much discrimination in the beginning," Holliday said. "I emailed a company to see if I could pull sizes, because I didn't have a stylist. So I emailed this company like, 'Hey, this is what size I am. Can I get something in those sizes?'" 

Instead, the company accidentally sent its reply to Holliday rather than its owner. "They emailed me with, 'We don't know who this girl is, but she's really big,'" Holliday continued. "This was the start of my career, and I just laughed. That happened a lot because of my size and they didn't take me seriously because of how I looked." 

But still, what's the reasoning behind this one body shape and this one small range of sizes dominating plus-size fashion? 

Why those particular traits? It may be obvious, but according to a number of models we spoke to, the reason why smaller sizes and the hourglass shape are most desired within the plus-size industry is because of one thing: sex appeal. 

"I do think it's because of the pop culture we're in," Desseaux said. "We have Beyoncé. We have Kim Kardashian. And that's the shape that's glorified in men's minds, too. It's an ideal to have big boobs and big butts and hips and a tiny waist. Because of men, that's the shape to be. And that's kind of fucked up, because it's like we're following men's tastes." 

Clémentine DesseauxSource: Mic /Instagram
Clémentine Desseaux  Mic /Instagram

It's true that plus-size models are quickly sexualized by fashion. With Graham speaking out on the matter last year: "If I was cast in a role in a movie, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I would be the sexy girl, I would have a sex scene, I would probably have to show a little nipple," she said. 

According to Holliday, if you are above a size 8, you better be curvy, because what matters as a model is that men are attracted to you, and the only way to achieve that is if you have an hourglass figure. 

"It's because these companies are trying to cater to what women want to look like," Holliday said. "When you see curvy people in TV, you're seeing Jessica Rabbit and Christina Hendricks, and we're told by the media that that's what men are attracted to. We're just basically all being sold a lie that keeps on going around, instead of the reality that people are attracted to a lot of different things and all of it is OK." 

That lie — that only hyper-curvaceous plus-size women are attractive — also affects the size of the models we're seeing today. According to filmmaker and journalist Natalie Abruzzo, who made a documentary about the plus-size industry called The Sixty-Six Percent, smaller women are thriving in the plus-size industry because they are aligned the closest to our current beauty standards.

"They want the aesthetic of that very thin, angular bone structure in the face that might come with someone who's on the smaller side, but they know they have to fill those clothes in order to fill those sizes," Abruzzo said. "So they pad — they add extra padding."

Nicole Spiezio Source: Mic/Instagram
Nicole Spiezio  Mic/Instagram

Why is it so important to change? Because, just like women who are a size 14 or smaller are seeing their bodies praised as beautiful and aspirational, women who don't fit into that norm deserve to hear that, too. 

"If these casting people include women who have a big stomach and are above a size 16, or a pear shape or apple shape or whatever, and [they] say, 'You know what? This person can look great in clothes too,'" Lee said. "Girls will see that in the mall or [on the] internet and know that it's ok for them to feel good and dress nice. Then others will see that too and won't have a judgement about what these women can and can't do." 

The ultimate goal is for as many women to see themselves in fashion as possible, since women who are above a size 16 should be able to see women wearing clothes that they want to wear, too. That's the entire purpose of modeling anyway. 

"One body type being desirable doesn't make another body type not desirable. All body types are worthy and good," Spiezio said. "We know that. We know that all bodies come in different shapes and sizes, so if that's something we understand, then we should be seeing different types."

Tess Holliday Source: Mic /Instagram
Tess Holliday  Mic /Instagram

What needs to happen so more women are represented? As Spiezio said, this plus-size era we are in now, which is overflowing with hourglass bodies, is a "stepping stone." As models like Holliday and Spiezio and Lee demand more attention, what's really going to help is inviting more women like them into the industry who defy standards. 

"The first step is more people like me," Holliday said. "There's a ton of us that are speaking up and saying there needs to be more diversity. And the louder the voices, the more it can change. As long as we don't give up, and keep being vocal, then the more likely it will." 

The platform where that is happening most is Instagram, where Lee and Spiezio both launched their careers. That's where women who don't fit into the plus-size industry's norm of being hourglass and around a size 14 or 16 or smaller are showing agencies what they can do. 

"I 100% believe that if women can't support women, then our entire movement isn't going to work," Lee said. "I've definitely seen other people's posts on how they've dealt with their body confidence issues. If they're doing it, then I can do it. Everyone inspires everyone. Anyone who's in the community is always positive. You really don't have that outside of Instagram."

Jenna Lee Source: Mic/Instagram
Jenna Lee  Mic/Instagram

Having a variety of bodies seen and appreciated leads to the acceptance of all body types. This past May, Facebook banned a photograph of Tess Holliday standing in a bra and underwear because it depicted "body parts in an undesirable manner." So yeah, obviously, normalization and visibility matters. 

"Even just seeing Tess is hope for the future," Lee said. "Once these brands and everyone sees there's a community here of women who are so capable, hopefully they'll take advantage. It might take it's time, but we'll get there."