“Please fit … please fit … please fit …”
This was the prayer I sent up, standing in my underwear, eyeing the rack of gowns that had been chosen for me. After years of modeling, it wasn’t an unfamiliar scenario, but this was different. I wasn’t being fit for a retailer’s catalog or campaign, but for one of the biggest nights of my life. I was fitting for the Grammys, as a first-time nominee.
My trusty stylist had managed to procure samples from a few known designers—difficult for an unknown artist—but would they fit? At the time, because of a restrictive diet and rigorous daily gym habit, I was a size 6 (a lifestyle choice that ran contrary to my ongoing career as a plus-size model). It was the smallest I’d ever be as an adult. But even at my smallest, after years spent in the modeling industry, I also knew that my average-black-girl proportions—thick thighs, wide hips and a voluptuousness that wouldn’t be exercised into submission—weren’t an ideal fit for high fashion.
Nearly eight years later, my diet is far less strict, and my steadfast hourglass has returned to a luscious 12-14. But when Leslie Jones was recently denied by multiple designers while searching for a dress for her Ghostbusters premiere, I intimately felt her pain. Like Leslie, I was forced to have an outfit custom-made because even the samples I managed to fit were sadly devoid of personality and often ill-fitting.
No amount of success or self-care could shield either of us from the humiliating fact that when it came to high fashion, our size somehow made us unworthy of inclusion. Instead, our bodies were somehow expected to offer an apology to an industry that refused to accommodate us instead of recognizing each and every body’s right to look and feel good.
As it turns out, Leslie and I weren’t alone in taking matters into our own hands. After decades spent watching designers largely ignore even their own body types in their collections (see Anna Sui and the formerly full Donna Karan, among others), it’s no surprise that models and celebrities alike have begun to capitalize on a market that remains underserved even while the press praises a more body-positive climate. For lack of better options, Ashley Graham, Melissa McCarthy and, soon, Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco—who just took body positivity to new heights by attending a runway show in a thigh-baring bodysuit—are among those channeling their fame, experience and frustration into creating fashion that flatters figures like their own.
But what of the established designers, who have long possessed the resources and influence to be more inclusive? The party line is that fuller figures are more difficult to design for, but occasionally, the truth is far more brutal: They are simply not interested. We not only don’t fit their clothes; we don’t fit their brand.
As I write this, New York Fall Fashion Week is in full swing. Early in my career, walking the runway for pioneering retailer Lane Bryant or for a smattering of department store events were among the rare opportunities offered full-figured models during NYFFW. But this year, Christian Siriano—who both famously came to Leslie Jones’ rescue and created his own capsule collection for Lane Bryant—did the unthinkable: He cast several plus-size models in his fall presentation, with neither fanfare nor kitsch.
“I am just trying to show you that you can do it, you can celebrate everyone. … The clothes looked just as amazing on [the plus models] as everyone else,” he noted in an interview with Refinery29.
While perhaps the most visible, Siriano isn’t the only designer featuring a diversity of bodies on the runway this season. Designer Tracy Reese upped her #BlackGirlMagic quotient by announcing that she’ll now offer at least a portion of her line in extended sizes (up to a size 18/2X), and backed it up by casting a range of people of varying ages and sizes in her show. Legendary designer Byron Lars celebrated the 25th year of his eponymous label (now available in sizes 0-22) with a show themed “Exclusive Inclusion,” featuring models and personalities up to a size 18. And sportswear designer Chromat continued a commitment to diverse presentations by featuring not only a variety of body types but also differently abled and transgender models.
So, yes, the body-positive movement is progressing, and obviously I’m here for it, having invested my career in helping to forward the narrative. But are we really expected to pat designers on the back for acknowledging the obvious: that not only bigger bodies but bigger dollars await them on the other side of inclusion? And for black and brown women in particular, is it fair to ask us to ignore the fact that the bodies the fashion industry consistently seems so incapable of acknowledging most often resemble our own, and our mothers’, sisters’ and friends’?
No one needs to tell any marginalized group how much representation matters. Being represented honestly and positively in the public perception is something we fight for every day. For the 100 million plus-size women in America alone, our exclusion from the aspirational market that is high fashion is nothing short of defeminizing. Diversity of bodies on the catwalk is a beginning, but without a broader diversity of options in the stores, it’s an empty gesture at best.
As Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn notes in an op-ed for the Washington Post, the fashion industry’s dismissal of bigger body types is not only a “disgrace” but also downright delusional. He states, “[T]his is now the shape of women in this nation, and designers need to wrap their minds around it.”
He’s right. But as a black woman who’s spent the last two decades of my life advocating for respect and representation not only for my race and gender but also the particular body I inhabit, the words that most often come to mind are instead Sojourner’s.
After all, “ain’t I a woman?”
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.