Fashion, Plus-Size Modeling and Race: When ‘Diversity’ Isn’t So Diverse

Lisa Respers France, CNN, May 26, 2015

From the beginning I have been a fan of model Tess Holliday.

Not only is she gorgeous, but at 5-feet-5, 280 pounds and a size 22, she looks a great deal more like me than most other models, even among plus-size ones.

Which is why I was thrilled to learn that Holliday–who captured headlines when she became the first model of her stature to sign with a major modeling agency–made the cover of People magazine. There she was, in all her bountiful glory, with the headline “The World’s First Size 22 Supermodel!”

TessHolliday

But I was disappointed when I looked at the models featured inside the magazine as members of “The Plus-Size Revolution.” At first glance there appeared to be no women of color among the four women featured. (Further research revealed that model Denise Bidot is Puerto Rican and Kuwaiti.)

My first images of plus-size models were African-American women.

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If you were African-American, it was expected that you would have some “junk in your trunk,” and when I complained of being a buxom, overweight teen one of my aunts retorted that “only a dog wants a bone” and that I would see in the years to come how much men appreciated a woman with more “meat on her bones.”

Over the years there has been much debate as to whether the classification of obesity is even fair when it comes to women of color.

A study published by the British Journal of Nutrition found that Body Mass Index, or BMI, which measures body fat based on height and weight, may not be accurate for those who aren’t Caucasian.

“This scale was created years ago and is based on Caucasian men and women,” Molly Bray, an associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, said in an interview with BlackDoctor.org. “It doesn’t take into account differences in body composition between genders, race/ethnicity groups and across the life span.”

The standard of beauty among the black women I know and grew up with was never about how thin you could be but rather about how well you “carried your weight.”

Perhaps that is why I never quite understood the level of celebration now over fashion being “more inclusive,” with larger models everywhere from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to the cover of People now. After all, I grew up surrounded by BBWs (big, beautiful women) of all shades who were as fashionable as many of the women one might see strutting the runway.

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The struggle for inclusion among African-American models of any size has been a long one, predating even the appearance of Beverly Johnson as the first black model on the cover of American Vogue in 1974. Supermodel Tyra Banks has spoken about the “unwritten rule” that only one black model was allowed to reign in the industry at a time.

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