Body positivity is turning a corner in the media and fashion industry. Discover the creatives who are transforming the representation of plus-size people in imagery.
“I still remember seeing the images for Lane Bryant’s Cacique campaign #ImNoAngel on 34th street in New York City, near the Macy’s store, five years ago,” the portrait and fashion photographer Carlos David tells us. “It was rush hour, and I was late for an appointment. But I just stopped when I saw them on a window display. The person behind me almost fell over me.’
“It was an image with six models. The first two have a fierce look at the camera, the middle two are laughing joyfully, the fifth is standing relaxed, and the last one is confidently posing with her arms on her hair. The image is both bold and beautiful — sexy, fun, confident. It was the first time I saw an inclusive sizing image displayed in an advertisement. I was ecstatic.”
The conversation around body positivity and size-inclusivity in the media and fashion industries has been brewing for years, but we still have a long way to go. Sixty-eight percent of women in the United States wear a size 14 or above, with the average woman wearing sizes 16-18, but according to research, just 2,000 of the 62,000 specialty stores in the country focus on plus-size women.
Reimagining the “Ideal” Body Type in Imagery
“It just makes sense to create for and represent everyone, so it’s frustrating when you hear about brands using plus-size models who wear a size 10, when the average woman wears a 16,” Michae Allen, a photographer who specializes in size-inclusive imagery, tells us. “It doesn’t make sense to ignore the majority to push forward a so-called ‘ideal’ image.”
Even if the industry, in general, has been slow to catch up, independent influencers and designers have taken matters into their own hands by creating clothing and campaigns that represent their customers. Artists can do the same by partnering with indie brands to create images of body positivity that are size-inclusive, and that’s exactly what Allen has done.
“I work with two-plus size designers, Kelly’s Kloset and Nina Sharae Resort & Swimwear, so I am delighted to be part of the cutting edge,” he says. “This year, shooting has been challenging, but I want to use photography to push the boundaries of what people think is possible for people of size.”
Size Inclusivity Leads to Body Positivity
As Allen explains, size-inclusivity doesn’t begin and end with representation. To be meaningful, it has to be an accurate representation, free from harmful stereotypes that instead, amplify body positivity. “People have misconceptions about people of size, so it’s necessary for all of us to see different body types in different settings,” he explains.
“Curvy people can be healthy, and they are happy as they are. I’d like to see more images of curvy people living life and being active. I also want to put out more images of curvy black people.”
Dispelling the Size Myth
Creating images of joyful, active people at every size counters the harmful — and false — narrative that we have to look a certain way to be happy and healthy. And, that’s a myth that needs to be actively called out, even today if we want body positivity to be the norm, not a trend.
“In 2019, Bill Maher did a segment about bringing back fat-shaming to help people lose weight — as if bullying would help anyone,” David remembers. “It was offensive and baseless. He got a bit of a backlash, the leading voice being James Corden, but it was not enough. I was hoping for more people from the media to say something, but there was just an uncomfortable silence and perhaps a dismissal of people’s feelings.”
In the months following Maher’s segment, David took action by creating PERSONAE II, a fantastical series of moving portraits of diverse individuals, highlighting stories from communities that have been historically marginalized and stigmatized. One of his models spoke about the obstacles she faced breaking into an industry where 6’2’’, size 2 women were the norm. David hopes to see the same kinds of empowering images in the commercial sphere.
The Evolution of Beauty Standards
“I want to see fun, sexy, glamorous, and trendy shots — models who are wearing vibrant styles and quality clothes, regardless of their size,” David urges. “We are currently experiencing an evolution of beauty standards, but there is still a disconnection between who we are and the images we see in our daily marketing/advertising intake.’
“It is essential to feature people of any size and shape in advertisements, magazines, and editorials. We need more fashion, beauty, and lifestyle images. When we do this, each individual will feel better represented. Inclusive sizing is a philosophy that must be embraced in all aspects of our lives.”
Vying for Change
As Allen stresses, it’s not the models’ responsibility to educate the photo industry about size-inclusivity. It’s up to photographers, advertisers, and editors to make changes and avoid exclusionary practices.
“Do your homework,” Allen says. “All bodies don’t photograph the same, and the model/subject is not responsible for creating a great image. Also, create a positive experience for everyone who steps in front of your camera. If they are having a good time, you will get better images.”
A Demand for Diversity
And, it’s not just photography that has a problem with size-inclusivity. “In my opinion, there is a noticeable lack of simple body-positive illustrations in the commercial field,” illustrator Lena Lapina admits. “It does seem that diverse bodies are gradually being drawn and promoted more in the art community, but there are far fewer illustrations like these in the commercial field for businesses, brands, and companies to use.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a demand for these kinds of representative images. In fact, a few of the artists we spoke with said their body-positive illustrations are frequently downloaded. “I remember back in the old days, I noticed the media featured mainly one specific body shape for women,” illustrator Natalia Anichkina tells us.
“But recently, I’ve noticed that the quantity of size-inclusive commercial images has risen, and I receive more and more commissions focused on representing diversity. I am happy to be a part of these changes because our beauty lies in our differences and our variety.”
Beauty Comes in All Sizes
According to a 2018 survey from LinkedIn, fifty-six percent of employers believe they are missing out on talent due to discrimination against people based on size. “People get discriminated against due to their appearance,” illustrator Polina Yanchuk confirms. “That’s one of the reasons why I always try to emphasize unseen beauty, not just in fashion but in everyday life. I want to see more size-inclusive illustrations of people at home or work. I want to see them living their lives and engaging in hobbies that make them happy.”
According to a 2018 survey from the Florida House Experience, eighty-eight percent of women compare themselves to media images, and more than half find those comparisons unfavorable. That pressure to fit a certain mold can take a toll on our mental and physical health. “Mainstream images tend to be rather uniform in showing tall and slim people,” illustrator Mary Long says.
“That can cause us to doubt the value of our own body if we do not possess the same features. That’s why it’s so necessary to include people with different shapes and sizes in the media. Everybody should feel seen while looking at advertisements or watching commercials.”
The illustrator Olga Matyash of Cincinart was inspired to create size-inclusive images that celebrate body positivity, in part because of her own relationship with the media. “It took me a lot of time to accept my ‘imperfect’ body,” she tells us. “When I’m scrolling through my news feeds on social networks, I sometimes get a feeling of my own inferiority. Many influencers look unnaturally perfect, and it seems like they live in a completely different world.”
At the same time, she says that’s changing. “On the other hand, I often see blogs where women post real, honest photos without retouching and makeup,” Matyash says. “It is so inspiring! I regularly read their blogs and look at their photos before starting work on a new illustration.’
“Now, when I create size-inclusive images, I am more and more inspired by the diversity and authentic beauty of each of us. I am happy to be able to share my perceptions with the world. I feel myself becoming stronger and more confident by painting size-inclusive illustrations.”
The illustrator Tory Levi is also heartened by the changing culture around size and inclusivity. “As a child, I remember looking at the media and seeing people who all looked very similar to one another and so different from how most of us do in real life,” she says. “Now that that’s changing, I’ve come to accept myself. I find it much easier to take care of my body in a healthy way when I see it reflected in the media.’
“As artists, it’s our job to see the beauty of diversity and bring it to our work. We have a role in forming public opinion and need to use it responsibly. There is still so much to achieve. My hope is that someday soon, size-inclusive imagery will stop being seen as a bold or radical move and become the norm.”
Cover image via Rawpixel.com.
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