A More Inclusive Spectrum of Beauty: Thinking about Plus-Size Modeling and the American Apparel Contest

Note: This is my personal post on the American Apparel controversy. For the “official editorial” I penned for Healthy is the New Skinny on the story, go here.

American Apparel’s “XL Model Contest” has concluded, and we await the company’s announcement of a winner. As of the close of voting last week, the leading contestant for the spot as AA’s first plus-size model was Nancy Upton, whose photo entries seemed cleverly designed to satirize the sexualized, over-exposed aesthetic for which the Los Angeles-based clothing company is notorious. (The CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.)

While we wait to find out if Upton will be declared the winner, the media coverage of the contest (and the guerrilla campaign to undermine its intent) has been intense. Lost in the discussion, however, are the voices of professional plus-size models — all of whom had long been openly spurned by American Apparel – at least until the sudden contest offer. (It’s not much of an offer, of course: just a trip to L.A. and a photoshoot. No guarantee of an actual contract.)

(As co-founder of the Perfectly Unperfected Project and a director of the Healthy is the New Skinny program I work closely with the plus-size modeling community. I serve as an adviser to Natural Models LA, a new agency that not only represents straight-size and plus-size models but also pushes for more opportunities for “talent” in the industry’s “no woman’s land” — too small for plus, too “big” for straight-size. Natural just put out a new promo video featuring several of our L.A. based team members.)

Many professional plus-size models did make the decision to enter the contest, despite the fat-shaming language AA chose to use in their promotions (like invitations to send in photos of “you and your junk”). As of the close of the contest, two good friends of the Healthy is the New Skinny campaign, Erin Tinsley and Hillary Officer, were trailing just behind Upton. Unlike the apparent winner, Tinsley and Officer took the contest seriously, overcoming real misgivings about American Apparel’s deserved reputation in order to enter.

Why would professional plus-size models enter a contest in which there’s little chance of a payout? For publicity, sure, but also because the plus-size modeling community is eager to expose the American (and global) public to a more inclusive spectrum of what is beautiful. In an industry where so many models are unhealthily thin (though to be fair, not every size two model is unhealthy), plus-size models want to offer a vision that is both more attainable and more realistic while still retaining glamor.

But this attempt to broaden the spectrum of beauty regularly meets with ridicule, anger, and pushback. The ridicule comes from some of the more reactionary wings of the industry, including the organizers of last year’s New York Fashion Week who told plus-size denim designer Jessica Svoboda that they “didn’t want to see a bunch of elephants stomping on our runway.” The anger comes, with no small degree of justification, from many women who are horrified that plus-size models are still so, well, small. Working with Healthy is the New Skinny, I often hear comments like this: “This makes me feel so bad. I’m a size 18 and if even the larger plus-size models are smaller than me, what does that make me? A whale?” Or: “I expect plus-size models to represent real women and girls. We all know that high fashion models are much thinner than normal, and that they have unattainable bodies for most of us. But plus-size models should look more like the average. If size 8 or even 10 is plus-size, that’s just wrong.”

And the pushback comes from those who are critical of the notion that the modeling industry can be redeemed. For many of my feminist allies, for example, broadening the beauty standard is putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. Meghan Murphy writes this week:

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it)…

In other words, the fashion and modeling industries are so fundamentally at odds with women’s real liberation and happiness that any attempt to try to transform these businesses will either meet with failure or be slickly co-opted. Best not to try.

I’ve never liked American Apparel’s clothing, and honestly, find Dov Charney to be the creep de résistance of the rag trade. I don’t like the way the XL campaign was promoted, and I admit to admiring the clever and creative way in which Nancy Upton satirized the whole process. Despite that, I also stand in strong support of the individual professionals like Erin and Hillary who entered the contest seriously. Modeling is, after all, a profession like any other; it requires skill as well as beauty. (AA would have done best to reach out directly to an agency that books plus-size models.)

I also remain passionately committed to the principle of incremental transformation. Organizational or personal change happens through a combination of external pressure and internal reflection. The campaigns I’m involved in work both within and without the modeling and fashion industries, pushing relentlessly, creatively, and to some, frustratingly gradually for a more inclusive, healthier, more sustainable (and attainable) vision of beauty. To the extent that the conversation around the AA campaign moves us closer to achieving that vision by broadening opportunities for women to model outside of the traditional size-range, this is real progress.

3 thoughts on “A More Inclusive Spectrum of Beauty: Thinking about Plus-Size Modeling and the American Apparel Contest

  1. Hi Hugo: Just read your article and I have to commend you for your insight and forward thinking. This whole plus-size modeling issue is about to explode; and, I’m thinking will be in favor of all women – thanks to those journalists, like yourself, who can see the bigger (pardon the pun) picture. Thanks – Hillary O’s mom

  2. Ah, the modeling issue. I don’t know that I’m on board with the plus-size hubbub. I mean, I feel compelled to mention, if you don’t already know, that female models need to be at least 5’9 or so. That eliminates about 95% of women right there. So unless you’re unusually tall, you’re already getting absolutely no representation from the industry. Not to mention that even plus-size models need to be facially attractive, because otherwise- industry wisdom holds- the consumer will be distracted from the clothing, which after all is what is really on display. Another 50%-ish percent of tall women are thus eliminated, and not represented. I sympathize with plus-size women who have been locked out of the industry, of course, but seriously… no more than I do with the rest of the 90% of women, and men, who are likewise barred.

    I mean, I understand what you’re driving at- acceptance- but seriously, modeling is and, in the foreseeable future, will always be a very, very, very exclusive profession, in many more ways than just weight. And this exclusivity is based on physical attributes. It’s like, I don’t even know where to start. A better solution is to just say fuck it to the industry’s standards. They apply to nowhere other than the industry itself. Which is hard, but more likely that getting that brick wall to change its mind.

  3. Pingback: Fat, Plus-Sized or Normal? | Past the Hurt

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