What It Takes to Be a ‘Plus-Size’ Model

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Amanda Czerniawski, an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University, took an unconventional approach to writing her dissertation: She decided to try her hand at plus-size modeling. “As an academic, I’d always been interested in the notion of ‘ideal weight,’” Czerniawski told the Cut. “I wanted to try to understand the position of plus-size models — and what impact they can have on constructions of beauty.” As a former child-actor, modeling wasn’t completely foreign to her — so she decided to get some headshots taken and try her hand at getting an agent.

At first, Czerniawski wasn’t sure that she fit the typical profile for “plus-size” modeling. As a size 10, she falls into the range that Calvin Klein model Myla Dalbesio called “in-betweenies”: “We’re not skinny enough to be straight-size — [meaning] these size 0, size 2 girls — and we're not large enough to be considered for plus-size." Yet, though plus-size typically starts at size 14, Czerniawski noticed that a lot of the plus-size models she saw in magazines and catalogues looked a lot like her. “When you look at the plus-size models agencies represent, they often go down to a size 10 or 12,” she explained.

Czerniawski worked as a plus-size model in New York for about 2.5 years — while getting her Ph.D. at Columbia — before calling it quits. “It was a struggle. I don’t think I was a very good model,” she says now. Her experience modeling, as well as her interviews with 35 other plus-size models, are the subject of a new book, Fashioning Fat, which will be published by NYU Press this January. She spoke with the Cut about the pressures plus-size models feel to manipulate their bodies and what it’s like to be an “in-betweeny.”

So, did you decide to give modeling a try purely for research, or was there a part of you that genuinely wanted to do it?
It was a mix. I wanted to do it so that I could really understand the pressures that these models face — which you don’t understand unless you are in a room being judged by casting directors and agents and clients. Models are supposed to embody ideal beauty, so I wanted to know what happens when they have a non-normative body, especially for fashion. The fat body still seems antithetical to fashion. I was curious if plus-size models had the power to challenge thin privilege. But there was also a part of me that felt like, I need this personal validation, that I’m pretty enough. I wanted to know whether I could do it.

What assumptions did you have about the plus-size modeling industry before you started modeling?
I think I assumed, as many people do, that these women had undisciplined bodies. When, in fact, these women work really hard for their bodies. It didn’t dawn on me that they actually experience the same kind of bodily pressure as straight-size models. They all have to work on maintaining their size; plus-size models just have a different body.

Among the models that you interviewed, what were their attitudes toward being plus-size models?
I found that many of these women had grown up struggling with their bodies. Many of them had spent years in shame, trying to cover up their body. But when they discovered plus-size modeling, the way they saw themselves transformed. They realized that the body that they’d hated for so many years could actually give them work opportunities. By working as models, they started to appreciate their bodies. Many of them develop more positive self-images through modeling and embrace the mantle of spokesmodel for size acceptance. Many want to change the cultural ideals of beauty to include their kinds of bodies — larger bodies, and diverse bodies.

How does diversity among plus-size models compare to the straight-size modeling industry?
In terms of age, many plus-size models are much older than straight-size models. Many begin in their 20s — the age where straight-size models are retiring. There’s definitely a greater level of racial diversity among plus-size models, but there is also a hierarchy. The more prestigious agencies tend to represent plus-size models who are on the smaller end of the spectrum, and they also tend to be lighter skinned. But if you go to agencies that exclusively represent plus-size clients, there is greater diversity both in terms of size and racial representation. There were some castings I went to where [as a white person] I was the racial minority. It seems like there is more space in the plus-size industry for nonwhite models.

How did the models you spoke with define success within their industry?
At a very basic level, getting jobs. But also what kinds of jobs: Are you working in jobs that present a positive image of plus-size bodies, or not? Because there were some models who were modeling in ads for weight-loss products as the “before” image. That’s not the best work, but it is a job, and opportunities for plus-size models are still so limited. The majority of the work is just steady, routine modeling for catalogues and behind-the-scenes fittings — it’s not very glamorous. Beyond success at work, feeling a personal sense of fulfillment and acceptance was important to them, too.

Very few plus-size models are able to earn enough to live off their modeling, right?
Yeah, most of these models wouldn’t consider modeling their main bread and butter. They wouldn’t be able to live off their modeling alone. They had all types of other jobs, because the plus-size modeling jobs are so limited. There’s a very high start-up cost to becoming a model, and very few can really make a living out of it.

It is very competitive?
It is a small world, so there is a competitive edge. One model told me she was so happy that her main competitor had lost weight, so now she could go for the jobs that her competitor had lost. So everybody’s looking at each other’s back, but at the same time there’s also a lot of openness and warmth, because all of these models realize that they’re not the norm for fashion models. There is a great sense of community where they realize that the opportunities are limited, so if somebody succeeds it could potentially benefit all plus-size models with more opportunities in the future.

You also mention that among plus-size models, losing weight is stigmatized.
Well, if you break the cardinal rule of changing your body, it’s a huge problem, whether you gain or lose weight. It’s interesting, though, because by losing weight these women are conforming to the general cultural expectations for women, yet within the modeling world, they’re told that they did a bad thing. One model I interviewed really struggled with that. She got these Invisalign retainers to improve her smile, but that made it very hard to maintain a steady eating routine, because you have to wear them all the time, and you can’t eat with them in. She didn’t even realize that she lost all this weight, but her dimensions changed dramatically and she lost clients. She’d struggled with an eating disorder and a binge mentality before, so she really struggled when her clients said, “Just do whatever you need to gain the weight back quickly.”

As a size 10, what was it like to be a model on the smaller end of the plus-size range?
Well, in fashion in general, the ideal image of beauty is always in flux. Just as fashions change with the season, the most desirable plus-size body can change, so some seasons you’re seeing a larger body, and other times, a smaller body. When I was working, I felt like there was more focus on bodies that were a little larger — more of the 14-to-16 size range — so I felt a little disqualified. It always shifts back and forth, and that’s something these models have to deal with: If your size isn’t in demand, do you radically transform your body, or do you wait for the trends to shift?

In the book you mention that a number of models use padding to enhance their measurements. How common is that?
There are varying degrees, but I think that some level of padding is pretty common. A lot of models use silicon “chicken cutlets” to add to their bust dimensions, or add shoulder pads to their hips for a little boost. Or they’re putting on full-body padding. Many smaller plus-size models use padding to meet a specific size demand. A lot of clients want a larger-size model, but with a thinner face, so they’ll use a size 10 or 12 model and put her in padding to make a size-14 body.

Did you feel any pressure to gain weight?
At that moment, when I started hearing, “You have to be a size 14,” I did feel that pressure. But that was also what prompted me to step back and say, Okay, I’m done. I didn’t want to have to change my body at someone’s beck and call. I couldn’t maintain my body and size and dimensions at that strict level — it was too much pressure.