Friday, September 30, 2011

Nancy Upton and Plus-Size Modeling

Earlier this year American Apparel decided to expand their line of clothes to larger sizes, and publicized the plan with an open competition to be their new plus-sized model. It's exciting that they're expanding their size selection a bit (though they could certainly expand it much more), but at the same time they announced the change and the competition in terms that one woman, at least, justifiably found condescending:

"Wow, they really have zero respect for plus-sized women. They're going to line them up like cattle and make puns about them until they're blue in the face" -- Nancy Upton, via Jezebel

In response, Upton and photographer Shannon Skloss created a series of photographs of Upton eating and/or covered in food that are both clearly satirical and utterly beautiful. To her surprise, American Apparel accepted her entry, and her photographs were voted to the top by viewers, technically winning her the competition.

Possibly because Upton made it clear during the competition that she would not model for AA, the company declined to award her the prize and instead sent her a chastising email telling her that she does not "exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out." Later they offered her a trip to tour their facilities in LA, which she accepted, and I think she's there now.

While I understand and support Upton's disinterest in modeling for American Apparel, I really would like to see her in a high profile modeling career. Not only is she both incredibly beautiful and modeling-industry "plus size," which I would like to see more of in fashion pubs, but the nature of her debut has given her a real voice.

I'm not much of an historian, but if you remember the 90's, you may remember "supermodels." They had actual names, names that we knew (Cindy Crawford! Christy Turlington!), and their public persona was an element of their modeling. And those elite few, at least, got paid enough to live on.

These supermodels were all fairly young, mostly white, and quite thin. I am not even remotely of the opinion that 90's era modeling was all that it could be. But it seems to have just gotten worse since then. The fashion industry has trended towards even younger, even thinner models, and a large number seem to be teen girls from Eastern Europe -- coincidentally, a population already hit hard by sex-trafficking. These models are nameless (they are almost never cited in fashion photos) and even faceless; eyebrow-bleaching may be interesting-looking as a style, but it essentially removes one of the most distinctive facial features on an individual. Most earn so little that they end their careers at the beginning of their adulthood actually indebted to their modeling agency.

Simultaneously, we have the problem that almost all fashion and most ready-to-wear clothing is made only for women size 10-12 or smaller. If you are larger than a size 12 (like about half the women in this country), you are limited to department stores and a few specialty retailers like Lane Bryant, and are effectively shut out of the fashion industry. And though I still have the luxury of fitting into "straight sizes," my clothes-shopping is hindered by the fact that there are almost no models of my size, and so I often have no idea how to make an article of clothing work for my body, because you guys, I am not a fashion genius.

Occasionally, though, there's a bit of a fuss and a small line of clothing is designed for a plus-size woman. Yes, lads and gentlewomen, I am referring to Beth Ditto, who is so fashion-y and punk-rock-y and connected-y that she was able to convince UK retailer Evans to create a plus-size fashion line. It wasn't for everyone, but it was pretty cool regardless, and I certainly got some ideas from it.

Similarly, recently plus-sized model Crystal Renn made a splash by not just being a fantastic model but by talking candidly about her experience in the modeling industry and how it triggered her disordered eating. She has since lost weight, but I still have this celluliterrific shot to treasure forever:

I am currently rooting SO HARD for plus-sized models with personalities because it seems these are the people who can succeed introducing larger sizes into the fashion industry, and because their success involves their names and personalities, which I would like to see much more of in modeling. So I was delighted when reader Karen alerted me to this post by Amanda Palmer who, tickled to see Upton's Dresden Dolls tattoo visible in some of her shots, is communicating with Upton about modeling her merchandise, and may possibly design something for her. YES PLEASE. The more plus-size clothing, the better, and I'm sure as hell not ready to see the last of Nancy Upton.


  1. That is a stunning picture of Upton. It's incredible.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. As a plus-size gal myself, I would really love to see some brilliant, charismatic, gorgeous plus-sized models. Sadly, plus-sized models with strong personalities may have double trouble making it in fashion modeling because they break molds of hegemonic notions of femininity with both their large bodies and their large personalities, a stark contrast with the ultra-thin, whited-out, nameless supermodels you mentioned. All of which totally sucks.

    I used to love Lane Bryant. But, I have grown frustrated with their models being overly airbrushed (cellulite and stretch marks and extra curves are natural and wonderful) and often being on the small side of the "plus," or even possibly smaller. Seems like poor representation to have women smaller than size 14 modeling clothes designed for women size 14+.

    Torrid is also a great plus-sized clothing company. Since I found them (they used to have a store in the local mall), I have really loved their fun, young, and sexy clothing options--and the great models, too.

  3. Yes to everything here!
    Thanks Kyrie!