H&M's NBD Approach To Plus-Size Model Shocks, Astounds World

We're starting to normalize the appearance of plus-sized models in fashion as just a natural variation of human bodies, rather than something shocking and awful.

May 16, 2013 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

So, in case you missed it, H&M did something pretty radical with their swimwear catalog this year.

They hired a plus-size model and didn’t make a big production out of it.

Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers (with modeling experience of her own under her belt) noted that when shoppers landed on the swimwear splash page last month, what they found was a bunch of pictures of Jennie Runk in swimsuits. Jennie Runk in bikinis. Jennie Runk in sarongs.

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Love this beachy braid, by the way. 

Pretty standard swimwear advertising fare, right? I mean, you’re a company that makes and sells swimwear, obviously your marketing materials are going to include pictures of people wearing it, preferably in exotic and enticing locations that sell a lifestyle along with the product itself. The whole goal here is for customers to see the clothes on someone else and think about buying the garments for themselves.

But Jennie Runk is a size 10, which equals plus size for the purpose of the modeling industry.

And as Sauers said, the big deal here is that there was no big deal. H&M didn’t stamp a big “PLUS” brand on all of Runk’s images, they didn’t isolate them over in a plus size section, they just included them in the swimwear section, as if to say “Here is a lady, wearing our swimwear, perhaps you should buy some of our swimwear, which comes in a range of sizes.”

And as with the reception to Justine LeGault’s “Elle Quebec” cover, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are really excited to see Runk appearing as the face of H&M and she’s been deluged in new Facebook fans, letters of praise, and more.

Are we seriously starting to see a revolt, a sea change, when it comes to the perception of larger women in popular culture? Because this kind of remarkably positive reception really is astounding, and it’s heartening -- people are starting to talk about size, culture, social pressures, and how these things intertwine. And we're starting to normalize the appearance of plus-sized models in fashion as just a natural variation of human bodies, rather than something shocking and awful.

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Women like LeGault and Runk are being celebrated for their beauty, and viewed as role models by women who have been struggling to find representations of themselves in fashion and pop culture.

In fact, Runk is a little bowled over by all the attention, as she wrote in a piece for the BBC:

I had no idea that my H&M beachwear campaign would receive so much publicity. I'm the quiet type who reads books, plays video games, and might be a little too obsessed with her cat...suddenly having a large amount of publicity was an awkward surprise at first. I found it strange that people made such a fuss about how my body looks in a bikini, since I don't usually give it much thought.

In response to the attention she’s getting, Runk has taken the opportunity to reach out, which I think is awesome. She’s really connecting with her fans, many of whom are writing to tell her she’s given them the courage to think about wearing bikinis and other revealing garments. (I’m reminded of our fabulous fatkini gallery, which showed some equally splendid plus size women in their bikinis.)

She talks in the BBC editorial about feeling awkward in her body when she was a teen, constantly comparing herself to others, and hating who she was before she was discovered by a modeling scout. Which just goes to show you that you never know when someone will spot your potential -- even if the scout did present her with the bizarre choice of losing weight and maintaining a lower size, or gaining a bit and being plus size.

There’s limited room for the “in betweenies” of the fashion industry (let alone larger women and women of color -- I don’t see many women wearing a size 24 on the runways, and fashion still has a big race problem). And we have a long way to go before larger women are readily accepted in society, given the amount of fat-hate we need to work through.

We’re mid-revolution, not celebrating the end with champagne and cake, but we're getting there. And women like Runk are helping us get there. 

Having finally survived [childhood], I feel compelled to show girls who are going through the same thing that it's acceptable to be different. You will grow out of this awkwardness fabulously. Just focus on being the best possible version of yourself and quit worrying about your thighs, there's nothing wrong with them.

She aptly pinpoints the stigmatizing of plus-size women, and, fistbump, notes that size doesn’t equate to health (not, of course, that you have an obligation to be healthy):

The only problem is the negative connotations that remain stubbornly attached to the term ‘plus-size.’ There shouldn't be anything negative about being the same size as the average American woman, or even being a little bigger. Some women are perfectly healthy at a size 16 (a UK 18 or 20).

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With those of us in the Northern Hemisphere gearing up our beach bodies for the summer, I think it’s worth leaving you with Runk’s advice on how to look good naked:

How to be beautiful naked: stand in front of a mirror, naked, and say to yourself, ‘My body is as unique as I am. It does not, and will not ever, look like any other body on earth, and that's why it's my favorite.’