Elle’s ‘Talking Body’ Interview Series Tackles Race, Body Image & Perception Of Women

Over the past few years we have seen a huge rising tide of voices, activists, models and both industry insiders and outsiders dismantling insular beauty standards that have been present in the fashion and beauty world for decades. Whether it is the rise of plus size models, clothing brands choosing to create imagery that is outside mainstream sensibilities, or studies exposing the lack of diversity at some of the major global fashion week events, it’s clear there is a change in the air.

But it is not happening fast enough, and what we are seeing today is great, yet not fully representative of people in the real world around us. The Fashion Spot examined the Fall 2017 Fashion Week season (241 shows and 7,035 model castings from New York, London, Paris and Milan) and while they did see the biggest improvement yet, the numbers show we have a long way to go:

-For all four cities combined, 72.1 percent of the models cast were white and 27.9 percent were women of color.
-Overall, plus-size models made up just 0.43 percent of castings.
-In total, 21 models over age 50 walked the runways of New York, Paris, London and Milan, comprising 0.29 percent of all castings.
-Transgender women made up just 0.17 percent of all model castings, or 12 appearances, the least represented group this season.

The conversation and push for diversity must continue. Which is why Elle Magazine’s ‘Talking Body’ interview series is a must-read, especially coming from an uber-popular mainstream fashion publication. Launched in early February, over the past couple of months we’ve seen powerful essays from women within the fashion industry such as models, but also athletes, social media influencers and beauty pageant winners to share candid insights into their own struggles to accept the body they had been told was wrong in some way.

They also teamed up with JAG, a revolutionary modelling agency representing models of all sizes, and featured a number of prominent plus size models who are fast becoming household names. The series also focuses on race, with essays from ballerina Michaela DePrince and model Philomena Kwao talking about an important intersection in fashion.

Michaela DePrince’s story is nothing short of inspirational. A survivor of the Sierra Leone civil war, she was abandoned as a child for having the vitiligo skin condition and sent to an orphanage. She was eventually adopted and moved to America with her new family. Today, she is a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet and is the face of Jockey’s ‘Show ‘Em What’s Underneath’ campaign.

She spoke about her own body insecurities and how being part of the professional ballet world at times has made it worse.

“I’ve definitely felt pressure [from ballet to look a certain way]. I remember one time I was in Amsterdam before I moved there. I got the stomach flu, so I lost about five kilos [11 pounds]. And I came back and was accepted into a company because they liked how my body looked. But, I had no energy. The fact that they didn’t like my body with five more kilos on it, obviously [made me realize] that’s not the place for me. Sometimes places will support even anorexia. They might say they don’t, but you see dancers who stop eating and nobody says anything to them and they start getting praised for being “in shape” is what they call it. I think it’s very sad. Our body is our job, it’s our tool to be able to dance, and we shouldn’t butcher it,” she wrote.

But it is people like her, and US Soloist Misty Copeland who are thankfully breaking down barriers around body type and race within the industry to show critics and aspiring dancers that the standards be damned. Having vitiligo was an added source of anxiety for her at first, thinking it would deter her success.

“I asked my mom if she could see my [vitiligo] spots from where she was in the audience when I was on stage and she said no. She lied, I found out. But because of that, it gave me the confidence to think, okay, I can become a ballerina because my spots are not gonna stop me and people are not gonna hate how I look on stage because of my spots. I’m really grateful she did that. That gave me the confidence to push on and to work hard. I think [my spots] make me very unique and I really used to hate it. People recognize me and they also really like the fact that I don’t cover up my spots, I don’t try to hide who I am. And that’s the most important thing: to just be who you are,” she wrote.

UK native Philomena, who has been seen in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition, and worked for brands such as Torrid and Beth Ditto Collection, says being a plus size black woman came with its own set of barriers she faced in the industry.

“Growing up, I had body confidence issues not really so much because of size, but my skin color. I had trouble recognizing that the depth of my skin tone is really beautiful because whenever people referred to a beautiful black-skinned woman, you’d see Beyoncé and Rihanna. So, you’d do harmful things to try and get to that color, like skin bleaching. I once tried those whitening soaps,” she wrote.

“My mom, who is a lot darker than I am, always taught me to celebrate my color. But I was impressionable. I would read magazines. I would watch music videos. And I would never see my tone represented, so even when my mom was constantly telling me ‘You’re a beautiful girl,’ I still felt like to be accepted by society, to be seen as beautiful by everyone around me, I needed to be a fairer skin color.”

She says the industry has been making great strides on the plus size front, but not in equal measure with skin color, especially for larger women who are black.

“Skin color has been one of those things we haven’t really, really addressed on a large, widespread scale…I didn’t understand why there weren’t more black plus-size models with darker skin tones. It feels like the final frontier of beauty is to be black, to be plus, to have natural hair. It’s the final acceptable form of beauty, whether it’s in modeling or TV or film, and it’s something we need to talk about,” she said.

Philomena also wants to see a continuation of the plus size conversation because it can help break down negative narratives commonly touted about health and body size.

“One misconception I think is wrong is that being a larger size means, somehow, that you’re neglecting your body, or you don’t look after yourself, or you don’t love yourself enough to lose weight. We’ve been saturated with the idea that to be happy you must be thin, or to be healthy you must be thin. So if you’re not thin, you must despise yourself or not want to look after yourself,” she wrote, adding how social media has been a powerful antidote to this, where plus size models post about their health and wellness routines.

Some of the other highlights in the Talking Body series include JAG model and full-time med student Chelsea St. Claire who says diversity is important because women feel confident when they see themselves represented. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman candidly talks about being bullied and teased about her muscly physique growing up, but is now proud to stand against her childhood haters because the body she is in has helped her become one of the most powerful gymnasts in the world.

Model Candice Huffine says she wants to break barriers, but also doesn’t just want to be defined by what she looks like, rather what she is capable of. A message we can always get behind. Australian model Bree Warren says discussions about whether the term “plus size” is relevant or not isn’t the root problem – supporting women in all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities should be.

The whole series it worth checking it, especially because we are seeing powerful mainstream fashion publications give voice to people other than just industry decision-makers. From our personal point of view, we’d love to see even more inclusive messages such as transgender models, older women, and differently-abled models to show that diversity isn’t just about replacing one overly-represented demographic with one new group. There should be room on the fashion runway for ALL bodies, so let the conversation and breaking down of barriers continue.


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  1. Pingback: TLC Star Whitney Way Thore Fighting For A World Where Beauty Isn't The Measure Of Success - GirlTalkHQ

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