For Plus-Size Models to Be Mainstreamed, Maybe Fashion Isn't the Way to Go

Maybe it's Maybelline.
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Maybe it's Maybelline.

I'm writing this from inside a pair of size-12 jeans. It's a strange place to be, in the context of marketing. I shop in "straight-size" stores and sections, but I know that most plus-size models are actually smaller than me. And all straight-size models are significantly smaller than me. When I'm shopping online, looking at a model in the size-2 version of the top I'm interested in gives me no idea how it might look on me. But at least her face is ridiculously pretty.

I’d definitely like to see more body diversity among models. Gap currently has at least four different models in the women’s section of their website, but they all seem to be about a size 2. How about one 2, one 6, one 10 and one 14, since they sell all those sizes? Ridiculously pretty faces can show up on top of bodies wearing those numbers on their clothing labels, too.

And there's actually a recent study in the European Journal of Marketing that supports the idea of brands trying some body diversity with their models. Researchers at the University of Kent asked women 18 to 25 if they preferred size-0 models or average-size models (their statement didn't define what they deemed "average"); with familiar brands, women were cool with models of any size, and with fictitious "new" brands, women preferred the average-size models.

You’d think, if brands took this into consideration, it would be a means for plus-size models to really, truly, finally make a breakthrough into the mainstream. And yes, perhaps it would be for the the size-10 models who’ve been inexplicably assigned to plus-size campaigns and catalogs that don’t even carry their size; it would allow them to gain exposure in straight-size campaigns. 

But for plus-size models who are actually plus-size, it wouldn’t make a dent, because, for the most part, fashion continues to be size-segregated. Model size diversity at Zara means nothing to plus-size-model exposure when Zara carries nothing larger than, well, a Large.

In order to hit mainstream recognizability, a model has to be all over the place. But if a model is exclusively in ads and catalogs of plus-size retailers, she doesn't hit that "all over the place" quota. Even in the more broadly visible Lane Bryant I'm No Angel lingerie ads, she just barely starts to saturate, because of how each individual consumer has been conditioned to see ads. The plus-size woman sees an ad for herself; the straight-size woman sees an ad for "other"; but because marketing for straight-size clothing is much more predominant, it registers as being aspirational for everyone, even if you can't shop there. 

So while plus-size women may be able to easily rattle off the names of straight-size models because of sheer critical mass, straight-size women may not be able to put the names to the faces of plus-size models. And why would they? They never sell them anything.  

This is why I feel that the real bridge to plus-size model mainstreaming is not via the fashion industry, but the beauty industry.

Yes, they are very closely linked, but there are enough differences between the two that it could make all the difference in size acceptance for everyone—not just models—in the future.

I would love to see a plus-size model like Tess Holliday—whose current popularity I'm hoping isn't just a flash in the pan and is being noticed by more than just one demographic—land a campaign with a big, accessible makeup brand or hair brand. One like Maybelline or Pantene that uses career models (as opposed to celebrity spokespeople) in their ads. Ads that run everywhere: TV, magazines, public transportation, drugstore coupon flyers, etc.  

Because there’s no such thing as plus-size cosmetics. 

Tess Holliday by Catherine Harbour for MiLK

Tess Holliday by Catherine Harbour for MiLK

A makeup consumer of any size would arguably look at Holliday's incredible face in a Maybelline Great Lash ad and think, "Damn, I want that mascara," just like they would if they saw that mascara on the beautiful face of someone 150 pounds lighter. Her hair is enviable to anyone who subscribes even the teensiest bit to the notion of conventional beauty, and it could sell a kabillion bottles of conditioner.

So while Madewell isn't going to hire a size-22 model for one of their ads and Torrid isn't going a hire a size-2 model for one of their ads because they don't sell those respective sizes, we've been sold cosmetics on the faces of only very thin women because—well, just because. 

But like I mentioned, ridiculously beautiful faces come on top of all different-size bodies. And when one on a larger body is paid to be the face or hair of a cosmetics campaign, that's when, I believe, we'll see a shift toward the mainstreaming of plus-size models and toward greater size acceptance.