“I think I’m literally the biggest, blackest model at IMG,” plus-size phenom Precious Lee says plainly, referring to the persistent lack of bodies and skin tones like hers at the world-renowned agency that represents her.
In anticipation of another New York Fashion Week, Lee joined a bevy of models of varying races and sizes to speak with the New York Times video team about the racism, ageism and abuse still prevalent within the industry in which we’ve made careers.
I can relate. At the advent of my own career as a plus model, I was frequently the biggest and, despite being light-skinned, often the darkest model on sets and runways and at castings—the token black girl in most shoots and campaigns. Rarely was more than one woman of color considered “necessary.”
In the nearly two decades since, it’s been refreshing to see that paradigm shift somewhat—though not enough—as darker-skinned models, like Lee and Philomena Kwao, have not only found work but have also been massively successful in a market that was easing into the mainstream with my generation of models. Today the plus-size industry has, in many ways, eclipsed the fashion industry overall in its diversity and inclusivity. I’m proud to have been a part of that.
But as I watched these fashion week interviews, I was struck that despite the range of women, there was not one model featured who appeared to be—or admitted to being—over the age of 35. As one white, “straight-size” (size 0-2) model confessed:
I was at a casting yesterday that felt like a cattle call, and I was looking around, and I felt like everyone must’ve been 16, 17, 18. And here am I, like, past 25, really questioning: Am I still beautiful? Do I still hold worth?
It’s a question I’ve only recently begun to ask myself. When I started my modeling career in 1998, I was 22 and newly graduated from college. In the mainstream fashion industry, 22 is an age at which some models are already well-established, if not winding down their careers. But at the time, the targeted demographic of the plus-size industry was women 35 and older. And for good reason, since this is an age not only when many women are both willing and able to make larger investments in fashion, but also when many women begin to find themselves wearing larger sizes as their metabolism slows.
Most plus-size models of my era were already adults when we began our careers—bold enough and confident enough to press the fashion industry to include other body types. Inadvertently, we also compelled it to include models older than those traditionally considered marketable.
As sociology professor and former plus-size model Amanda Czerniawski noted to The Cut:
In terms of age, many plus-size models are much older than straight-size models. Many begin in their 20s—the age where straight-size models are retiring. There’s definitely a greater level of racial diversity among plus-size models, but there is also a hierarchy. The more prestigious agencies tend to represent plus-size models who are on the smaller end of the spectrum, and they also tend to be lighter skinned.
I’d be lying if I claimed that my light skin hadn’t contributed to my personal success as a model, though it’s equally true that my success, however marginal, helped pave the way for the success of more black models in my industry. Because at every level, representation matters.
But as is true in so many aspects of life, inclusion ironically often begets exclusion. As the plus-size world has gained more traction and inspired inclusion within the fashion industry overall, it has in some ways begun to model itself after the same industry that marginalized it. Whether or not the fashion industry acknowledges it, designers have long been aware that the average American woman is a size 16 or larger.
When brands like Torrid began to emerge, targeting a much younger full-figured customer than in previous generations, there was a collective sigh of relief among those of us who had full-figured bodies long before adulthood. Finally, there was recognition of the plus-size teen, and the modeling industry was eager to accommodate them with younger models.
Curiously, somewhere along the way, the industry that spawned the “body-positive movement” seems to have forgotten that body positivity includes aging, too. Even though the average woman—size 16 or above—is also over age 30, the plus-size industry has become increasingly youth-driven, much like its straight-size, high-fashion counterpart. Increasingly, the industry that inclusion built is excluding its base, an irony not lost on still-working models like myself or veteran model and actress Liris Crosse, now in her 30s and currently appearing on the size-inclusive season 16 of Project Runway.
“As I mature as a model, I think it’s sad that models get anxious about even revealing our age,” she says. “We simply don’t want to be counted out of jobs. I take great care of myself and can slay a camera or runway! I should be judged on my skill level and look, not the number of years I’ve been on this earth. It’s hard enough fighting for jobs as a black plus model, so don’t even bring age into the equation.”
While the career longevity enjoyed by models like Crosse and myself might glibly be credited to the adage that “black don’t crack,” there’s still something bittersweet about an industry that claims to be for all women but is all too eager to put its pioneers out to pasture. A strange irony during an age when high fashion is beginning to recognize the value of its veterans.
As Crosse points out: “Some of the most fabulous women I know are in their 40s and 50s. They should be represented. … Model diversity should transcend size, race and age.” The plus-size industry has always prided itself on being progressive. Isn’t it time that it breached the final frontier?