There appears to be a movement of sorts happening within the mainstream culture to declare that there is beauty at any size.
Lane Bryant has an ad about beauty at any size. So does Curvy Kate Lingerie in the UK, and the Dove beauty brand. Recently, MiLK Management made history by signing size 22 model Tess Munster (aka, Tess Holliday). Moreover, even Sports Illustrated, despite having made its living by selling a very particular slim body archetype as the standard of s*xy and beautiful, has joined the body positivity movement and featured two models of much curvier measurements within its pages.
Yet in spite of what appears to be a changing tide in how the mainstream defines and markets beauty, one thing remains the same: Racially, that standard continues to be pretty homogenous and exclusionary to women of color.
Not only are most of the faces featured in the ads for this recent plus-size renaissance white women, but when there are women of color featured in these body positive campaigns, they are usually featured in a sea of white bodies, this even as Black women remain the face of obesity in America.
“I just think that sometimes the media will pick up and embrace a white person over a person of color, each and every time. No matter if it is modeling or some other industry, it is just so hard out here for Black women to get praise,” said Chenese Lewis, plus-size model, public speaker, and current host of The Chenese Lewis Show.
In 2003, Lewis, who is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, became the first woman crowned Miss Plus America. With the title under her belt, she decided to move to Los Angeles to chase her dream of plus-size modeling and acting.
At only 5’6″ tall and a size 22 (the plus-size industry standard is at least 5’9″ and between the sizes of 10 to 14), Lewis said she already knew the road to stardom would be tough. However, she did not expect the level of discrimination she felt even among the plus-size community.
Even as plus-size retailers market to women up to size 24, Lewis said models they hired were no bigger than a size 10, often too small to even the fit the clothing they were advertising. “Tess Munster is getting lots of attention now, but it just didn’t work with me,” said Lewis.
Even worse than the size discrimination within plus-size modeling was the discrimination she faced as a Black model. Lewis said that many of the auditions, or “Go-sees” would explicitly request Caucasian models. And on the rare occasion they were looking for Black models, Lewis said that they rarely hired a woman who was darker than a paper bag.
Unable to find an agency to represent her, Lewis did mostly freelance modeling and acting, which she found through connections she made by networking and hustling. In spite of the daily grind, she said that her national title did help her successfully land some gigs, including a campaign she did with Torrid and a number of modeling jobs with independent designers in the Los Angeles area.
“The downside of it all was that I didn’t always have the contacts and connections that agents already have. So I missed out on lots of work,” she said.
Lewis speculates that one of the reasons why many agencies and brands themselves may not be so keen on hiring Black models is because many retailers do not believe that African-American models can sell the products to middle White America. “But it is just not true as many of us are not only their biggest customers but the most loyal to brands,” she said.
Eventually, Lewis would abandon her dreams of making it in L.A. and continue her independent work closer to home. Today, she hosts her own online talk show geared to plus-size women and has become a body positivity motivational speaker. While she doesn’t do lots of mainstream modeling (with the exception of a campaign she recently landed with a cosmetic company), she has been able to find great success within the plus-size community, working with independent designers and publications.
“The demographics between the plus-size industry and the plus-size community are just different,” said Lewis. “The industry is geared to more White plus-size models, but the community is mostly led by Black women and the audiences are mostly Black women too. Plus, the plus-size community is more accepting of more diverse body types.”
Echoing a similar sentiment is Marie Leggett, fashion blogger, and founder of the wildly popular site Curvy Fashionista. She said that the Internet has become the great equalizer between the mainstream plus-size industry and the actual plus-size community. Gabi Gregg, aka GabiFresh, is a prime example of how plus-size fashionistas have been able to galvanize large audiences and turn their popularity into work within the mainstream, including a swimsuit line with Swimsuits For All and a print ad campaign with Target.
However, Leggett also contends that Gregg, among others, does not get the recognition she deserves.
“Even when you look at [plus-size fashion] blogging, you don’t see black women getting recognition period. Elle magazine recently did a ‘best of’ fashion bloggers and didn’t include a single plus-size blogger, many of whom are Black,” Leggett said.
She says that these conversations about racial inclusion are often difficult ones to have, considering that the plus-size community is still fighting to get recognition within the mainstream modeling and retail industry. However, she also said that even within the plus-size community, particularly among retailers and brands, there is a reluctance to address the problem. Some brands are better than others, like Ashley Stewart, which has routinely featured women of a variety of colors.
However, she believes that other brands like Lane Bryant have been slow to accept and encourage inclusion. According to Leggett, the reason is obvious: When you do not have diversity in corporate settings then you find a lack diversity within marketing. “The challenge is for the media and brands to step outside of their box and realize that there are people who are supporting and reading who exist outside of their own bubble,” she said.
But she does feel that social media and the online plus-size fashion community have been good at forcing retailers and brands alike to have the conversation. Not only will she not feature a brand on her site that doesn’t feature diversity, but many of her readers will openly denounce and even boycott a brand that fails to feature women, and men, who look like them in their advertisements. “It’s about leveraging our platforms to bring about change,” she said.
Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough, co-founders of the blog Fat in the City as well as the founders of the Body Confidence Canada Awards, know all too well the value of leveraging platforms. Through their annual awards, now in its fifth year (and will commence again on September 9), the two body positive activists honor individuals, artists, businesses and organizations whose work challenges the public perception of what the ideal body is supposed to look like.
Still, outside the work that the two engage in to honor inclusion, both activists contend that the body positivity movement in general remains homogeneously white.
“Are there Black women in the body positivity movement? The answer is yes. Are we allowed to be the face of it? Then I would have to say no,” said Fairclough. “More often than not, that face is white while Black women are seen as just fat.”
Andrew cosigns Fairclough’s sentiments:
“The whole thing reminds me of the second wave of feminist movements where Black and other -isms were pushed to the margins in favor of the interests of white women. I mean look how Gabby Sidibe is mocked and what not, although she is very comfortable in her weight and yet [actress and comedian] Melissa McCarthy gets to be the face of the body acceptance movement. Why is it okay for the Black woman’s body to be the sickly pathologized body, but the white female body is this new wave of feminist empowerment?”
For Fairclough, who works as a television producer by day, her work within the body positivity movement is a way to honor the fat Black women whom many of us have known all of our lives, but weren’t allowed to see their bodies as progressive. For Andrews, who has a master’s degree in gender studies and regularly lectures about Black women and body image, her activism was a matter of coming to terms with her own often disjointed relationship with her body.
“The body is the most important thing we have in this world. Not only do we have it to keep us alive, but when we walk into this world, it is something that people either give us status for or take status away for, depending on how our body is read,” she said.
Andrew said that this complicated relationship she has with her body is not unusual within the Black community, however, the misconception, mostly brought on by the “strong Black women” trope, is that all Black women are totally happy with our bodies.
However, her own research has shown that Black people do have issues with body image.
“If we expand the conversation just from how we think we look to how we feel about our bodies, including our skin complexion, our hair texture, and our facial features coupled with how we feel about our weight, then we will realize that women of color do have lots to say about our bodies and no we are not all perfectly fine with how we look,” said Andrew.
Andrew and Fairclough both believe that these tropes and misconceptions are the number one reason why more Black women need to be forceful about our inclusion in both the mainstream plus-size industry and in the body positivity movement. “We need to have conversations with leaders of these body confidence movements to get them to understand their own privilege even as they are recognizing how they are marginalized because they are fat,” said Andrew.
Fairclough adds, “We have to be at the table. We have to be seen. We have to be heard. We have to continue producing media. Is Elle magazine going to put a Black woman on the cover on its own? Probably not. Well, then we have to become editors. We have to become writers. And we have to become authors of our own stories. Otherwise, we will remain invisible.”