The plus-size business is taking off—brands are launching, models are breaking out, and people are finally paying attention. This is part of a series of interviews with players in the industry; let us know if there's anybody you want to hear from!
You've seen it play out a million times: A "plus-size" model appears in a gorgeous, flattering advertisement or editorial, but the reaction is bewildered and often downright angry—"THAT'S supposed to be plus-sized?" And so a woman like Robyn Lawley or Myla Dalbesio lands smack in the middle of a controversy not of her own making, caught between a fashion industry that considers her larger-than-average and a public that sees someone beautiful and decidedly mid-sized. It puts plus-size models in a tough spot, because most of them aren't relegated to shopping at Lane Bryant, but they're nonetheless the outliers in a tough business.
Curious to hear more from one of the women making a living at this job, I sat down with Naomi Shimada. You might recognize her from her InStyle UK column, her cheery social media presence or—as I did—from years of close perusal of the Asos Curve offerings. She pops up all over the place. Born in Tokyo, she was first formally signed as a model while finishing out her schooldays in Spain. She's worked in Europe and Asia but these days she lives in New York, and this Fashion Week she rode a scooter down the runway for VFiles. You might spot her in the Free People catalog, or advising The Fader on date-night outfits.
She's a busy woman—she told me she's working on a zine and a 2016 calendar featuring "women that I would consider pinups or just in terms of why they're inspiring," she explained. "Range of sizes, range of ages," she noted, adding that, "There has to be a way to exhibit cool, strong women in a positive way." She's passionate about promoting healthy body image, as well as supporting her colleagues: "There's like so many interesting girls out there," she told me. "There needs to be more about them, more profiles out there, because they're all really strong, interesting women."
We discussed how she came to her career as a "plus-size" model, why photographers shouldn't be afraid to shoot plus-size models edgier and what's different about working in plus.
So you started out working in straight sizes, right?
I started out doing straight size, because I was really young.
Tell me how you made the shift.
To be honest, the transition—there was no way it couldn't have happened. My body completely changed because I was just older and my bones were different and my structure was different. But I had an awful in-between, because I was still in my paid job as a straight-size model. It was a struggle for a while, because there was nothing I could do to lose the weight.
How old were you at that point?
That can be a rough period even if you're not dealing with something like that.
Yeah, and as well I've always had a standard of like the way that I would like to live, and not eating was never going to be a part of that. I get majorly hangry.
And I really tried! I did everything. I spent so much money working with every kind of trainer, doing every kind of diet. But you can't fight the physical structure of nature, you know? And at no point did any agent of mine really even know I was struggling. And when you're depending on paying the rent by how skinny you are, it's just never going to be a healthy frame of mind. You'll never forget the first time you get sent home from a job, too. I can't even tell you how many times that happened. Most of the time you'd already have your hair and makeup done but then it came to putting on the clothes and you don't fit—I'd be in full hair and makeup in my tracksuit crying on the train leaving my job. It's demoralizing.
So I decided to take a break, and I happened to meet a makeup artist who worked with a lot of plus-size models. She put me in touch with a plus-size agent and, as they say, the rest is history.
There's been a lot of talk and very heated opinions about the term "plus-size," especially as plus-size modeling is getting more attention.
Definitely there's a problem with the whole grey area. Basically, we're talking about anything—as humans I don't know what's the actual range of sizes that we are, but basically anything above a size 6, in industry terms. We're talking about industry terms. That is the smallest bracket of humans that are that small! And that's what the problem with the industry is—they're only using this tiny representation of what people are.
Of course I feel like there is confusion between what it is from a retailer perspective and a sizing/in-store perspective and what the industry is. And I don't blame them, because no one's ever explained it to them, either. It's also confusing to us, let alone people who aren't in the fashion business or industry, because it's just such a big generalization. At the same time, people always feel like they need to be able to compartmentalize and put things into categories and be able to put a name on something.
I guess that's the retail business, too.
But it just doesn't fit. The label just doesn't fit over everything. You know? But it's the only label we have at the moment. So I think it's the language that needs to be changed.
Do you consider yourself a plus-size model?
I mean I do, but in the sense that I'm about six sizes off being a "normal" model. I'm plus compared to them. But also I do feel uncomfortable with the tag sometimes. People look at me and they're like, "What are you talking about?" The general public. And I'm like, I'm average sized. I'm like a US size 14, I go up or down, and that's my personal weight and size and that is what average women are. I'm, like, the norm. But nobody seems to be down with the "normal size" term. I'm not pretending to be something I'm not, either, but it's just the paradigms of what I'm trying to work in. It's just the term that makes people understand. Because sometimes you get it the other way around—if I say I model, people are like, "Oh, oh really?"
I wish it could just be all models, full stop. We're doing the same job, at the end of the day. Whatever size we are, we're being hired by a brand or a company to sell products, to be a representative. It's the same skill set. We're doing the same kind of job. It's the same kind of ethos, whatever size we are. But I think the only way that's going to change is when more brands are using more of a variety of women. Because otherwise it's always going to be this huge stark difference. And people aren't used to seeing any variety. Then we stay stagnant. There's just so many little things that need to change to become part of a bigger thing.
Is there a term you'd be more comfortable with? Or just, like, "models."
Yeah, I feel like that's what it should be. Now there's this whole in-betweenie term, but to be honest, I also struggle sometimes to fit into a bracket because at my size, especially in the US, they book a lot bigger girls and I don't really fit in anywhere. There really is an in-between. Because how can there be this huge gap from a 4 to a 16? That's a lot of people in there that we're missing out on. Also, most brands serve up to, what, a 12, 14? Then there's that huge between. How many sizes is that? And there's nothing to say that if the shots look good, that can't sell product. There's a size problem, an age problem, a race problem.
It seems like plus-size models are carrying a lot of people's expectations on their shoulders. Do you feel the weight of that?
I feel everyday how important it is. But I don't feel pressure, necessarily, because it's something that I can see exactly how things need to change and what needs to be done and it feels like an exciting movement to be a part of, because it's needed now more than ever.
So it's energizing?
It's definitely energizing. I'd never think "God I wish I was skinny so I could be a straight size model" ever again. I've never thought that since. Because doing this has felt so much more important. I get letters from girls around the world and it's so sweet and it makes me realize how important it is, you know? Not necessarily just in jobs but a social media presence and trying to be a happy, rounded person. I feel like there is a huge lack of role models that exist in our media today. You know? And I feel like we focus on people for all the wrong reasons and we're more vacuous and we see more photoshopped images on a daily rate than ever before. I was just today like, I cannot see another photo of Kendall Jenner. I can't do it. It's not like before—in another era we would have had to pick up a magazine at the hairdresser's and flip through it. Now we are accosted with it 24/7. It's so intense.
But I have a problem when people photoshop my images too much. I hate it. Recently people have been changing my nose, people have been changing my face, and i feel uncomfortable with that because I don't think there's anything wrong with my nose and I don't want to be spreading the message. We have what we have and we work with it and don't change my face! At least I'm in the business and I understand that happens. And everyone knows. But people don't understand how badly it happens.
So, you know, it's intense. I already know the reality of living up to such a false ideal of beauty. That's why I feel like projecting how I am in real life and who I am as a person. That's why my Instagram, my blog and things are important to me because it's the only way I can really express myself. Working for clients, you're always a different version of what they want you to be that day, or your hair is a version of what they want you to be that day, or your makeup. That is the nature of the job, but at the same time, to be that real role model and to be that person that I would look up to, I want to see someone that lives their life in a 360 joie de vivre way to the max.
There are so many new options that I sometimes forget just how overwhelming the number of straight-size options still are. Are you seeing more opportunities, though?
Yeah, I think things are getting better, but I still think it could be a lot better, and it could be going faster. You know, why are there no more main retailers who already have the infrastructure to be creating plus lines? Why aren't they doing stuff about it?
There are slowly more editorials, but it still feels like quite a token thing. It's only slowly now that they're just putting a plus model into Pirelli or CR Fashion Book. But still, let's remember it's 2015 and if they do a full plus editorial it's always like, the CURVE issue.
And half the time they're naked. I love beautiful nudes but…
But come on. Call in some bigger samples. Hello, make the call, it's fine, they'll make an exception. Or if they do it's like one girl with 12 others. Come on.
I'm not going to sit and complain about it, but I think there can be more, and I feel like they always tend to focus on the same girls and there could be more variety. But it just feels like it's still very early days. It's in its infancy. Except it shouldn't be, you know?
Yeah, larger women have always needed clothing. It's not new.
And like, let's teach photographers that they don't have to be scared to shoot us. I feel like sometimes, even when they do, it's very exactly how you think it's going to be. The big hair, sexy girl. It's never edgy, like they would shoot the other girls. There's no equality there. Very pre-Raphaelite, Venus de Milo vibe.
And I think—they shoot 16-year-old skinny Russian models all the time. If you're going to shoot young, there must be some younger plus thing going on, too. Let's start it early instead of just focusing on the more mature look. It's not just like older bigger women that want someone else. It's everybody. Who doesn't love a voluptuous woman? Everyone does. But I feel like, there needs to be some more cool teen stuff too, because first of all, being a teenager is the most awkward time ever, let alone if you're uncomfortable at your size and you're looking out there and there's no one in the media that's like Rebel Wilson. There needs to be more! Like a cool younger model, maybe. There's so much that could be done with it. Why aren't they shooting, like, cool young plus girls for Seventeen or Teen Vogue?
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed with how lost I feel in it, because I'm like, "What should I be doing?" I have this column in InStyle UK now that I've been writing every month. It's really cool, they let me do whatever I want with it. It's purely style-based. The fact that they're just letting me do anything is great, because that's what it should be about. It's style, at the end of the day. I'm always style over fashion. Style is forever and style is what we learn for life.
Like, what am I supposed to be doing alongside of it in a positive way? Am I supposed to have a busy fashion blog? How can I be making this a bigger thing or how can any of us be moving things along in a positive direction? I think we have to do anything we can. Everything. We should be out there in the public domain in a positive way.
I feel like we just need to be throwing ourselves into every dynamic because it's almost like we're proving our worth, just to show that we can be just as good, we are just as interesting, we can dress just as well. I feel like I'm fighting this upstream battle because people aren't giving us a chance. I'm sure we can both name the only five editorials that have been done off the top of our heads. Why is this so far behind, still? Sometimes I just feel like it gets so depressing that I just want to quit, because I'm just like, things aren't changing enough. But then I remember that what I'm doing is important. I know that it is. I just want it to be moving faster.
It does seem like a lot of brands worry that plus-size options would degrade the brand or something. Do you think that impression is true?
Yeah, sometimes I feel like that. I wish I could say that I don't. But there are obviously financial gains to be made—like, a lot—in a country like America. I mean, we're only getting bigger. Everyone is only getting bigger overall. Everyone's drinking more milk. We're not getting smaller.
Is there anything you've learned or realized about the market while working on your column for InStyle UK?
You know, it's been kind of a challenge because I'm obviously not sample size, but I shoot the column on myself. Luckily they let me use a lot of my own clothes—which is cool, I would have wanted it that way whether I was sample size or not because I feel like it's a real relay of how I would wear it, my personal style, because I feel like I have to express myself in the way that's who I really am. And I really have to play around with, like, trying to borrow from in-store, but then you can't get preseason things and it's been a challenge trying to balance it. But it always comes back to that sample problem, you know?
What's the market look like as a plus-size model? In terms of the opportunities and operational stuff, is it different in any major way from working as a straight-size model?
I think the biggest difference really is that there's less clients, less range. But there's a lot less models, too. There's more models than there's ever been, but in the grand scheme of things there's a lot less models. So a lot of us all know each other because as a whole, in the world, there's not nearly the amount of clients that exist in the straight size world. Less agents, less of it all, less variety of clients, too.
I've heard it tends to be a comparatively supportive group in terms of the models—you all know each other. Do you find that to be true?
Yeah, I think so. We've all gone through the same struggles, a lot of us, and at least we're all bonded by the fact we feel like it's important to be us, trying to be us and not lose faith and trying to work towards more diversity in the world. At least we have that, that union bonds us as women.
Is there a specific set of body pressures that come with plus-size modeling?
It becomes actually sometimes more problematic, because at least with straight size you just have to stay skinny. But with this, because of the consumers, because of the angry bloggers, because of this, because of that, they always start switching things around. Because they're testing things all the time. They post a photo on their Facebook group and there's lines and lines of people like, "This girl is WAY too skinny." You know? And then, it feels less secure. Because they'll be like, oh, she's too this, or she's too that. They're constantly trying to test the waters of what they can and they can't use. Not all the brands, but it comes with the territory, especially when they're trying to do younger stuff. There's a bigger gap. And there's no right or wrong because they don't really know what they're doing either.
Not that I think that anybody with a plus-size brand should be using anybody smaller than me.
Do you think there'll come a day when we see bigger models?
I think it's already getting bigger. I see a few models who are like 18s now, 20s. I think there is more of a demand than there has been, especially because the way that the Internet's being used and the way that like the blogosphere for plus, they have so much power because there's no fashion journalists, they are the fashion journalists.
I think anything could change at this point.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photo courtesy Naomi Shimada.