Smashing the Stigma: How Model Representation is Changing the Industry

The female body has always been viewed as a spectacle. Throughout fashion history, the ideal image for the mannequin was a symbol of modernity. The model and the mannequin were both originally displays of mechanical reproduction, all the same look, same size. Historical mannequin parades have vastly transformed into the new sexualized and commercialized Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. The model transformed from a stiff form to a dramatic and curvaceous, yet extremely skinny figure that still doesn’t quite represent the everyday female body we see in our mothers, sisters, and friends. This standard is finally beginning to change with the partnership of the Model Alliance and the National Eating Disorders Association, who have addressed the mental and physical health issues that persist within this industry.  They write,

“Dear Members of the American Fashion Industry, 

As models, we care about each other’s health and wellbeing. As we look toward New York Fashion Week, we strongly urge you to prioritize health and celebrate diversity on the runway this season.” 

This concern is shared worldwide – as of 2017, French models need a doctor’s note before being cast in a fashion shoot or runway show. The body positivity movement has begun to permeate the industry through the voices of powerful women who own their bodies and advocate for other models in the industry who identify as “plus size”.

American model Ashley Graham believes the term “plus size” shouldn’t be used at all and that the title should simply be “model” for everyone. Graham is one of the top ten paid models in the world according to Forbes Magazine, where she was recently featured on the cover and inside spread of the latest issue.

I attended the Paris Vogue Fashion Festival on November 10th to see the 30-year old model speak about her hopes for the fashion industry. Graham was extremely personable and held the crowd’s attention with her bold voice and hilarious anecdotes. She gracefully responded to a question about plus size models being “unhealthy”, noting that what’s important is taking care of who you are.

She commented that mentally, working out is a must for her. She followed this by saying to the all the curvy girls in the audience,

“We all need to take care of ourselves, and it’s also the same for if you’re a very skinny girl, or if you’re in between sizes – It’s just about a matter of taking care of who you are. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are. As a woman we just want to take care of ourselves.” She continued to say that there’s a misconception that “big girls don’t [take care of themselves], when in reality, we’re just like the rest of em.”

This sentiment is relevant to the controversy around the body positivity movement. Weight is typically criticized, but mental health is a large part of how a woman regards her body and her relationship with others – we can’t ignore the psychological aspects of self-care when addressing shape and weight.

When it came to the Q&A portion of her talk, my hand shot up immediately. As a huge fan, I had a multitude of questions for her. Since she hadn’t addressed her new podcast, “Pretty Big Deal”, in which her first guest was Kim Kardashian West, I eagerly asked, “Why did you choose such a controversial woman to interview first, especially in regards to her connection to the body positivity movement – in that there are explicit rumors she has artificially augmented parts of her body to become more curvy?” She responded with the sentiment that every woman should be included in the body positivity movement, regardless of how they were born or if they’ve chosen to change themselves, because the movement comes from the inside – it is how we choose to perceive ourselves and others.

I began to realize her true faith in the movement. She is an inspiration for acceptance and self-love. I was moved by her French Vogue photos because although the body positivity movement is visible in the United States, France, and especially Paris, still has a long way to go in recognizing curvy bodies as fashionable. She noted, “I felt the ground [move] below me, I mean maybe French Vogue has featured curvy girls before me, but for me it was this 20-page story with intense styling and I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be in the pages of French Vogue.”

Graham is changing the narrative around women, from simply being a spectacle to taking an active role, expanding the definition of the fashionable body and giving curvy girls the opportunity to flourish in the modeling industry.


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