do plus size models actually represent real women?
As size 16 model Naomi Shimada reveals that ‘plus size’ models must routinely wear padding in order to get work, should we question our blind celebration of the plus industry?
The story goes that, many 'standard size' models -- that is, size 6 to 8 -- are not representing 'real women' because they have to keep their weight unnaturally low and are photoshopped to look even thinner in post production, whereas 'plus size' models -- size 12 and above -- are representing the bodies of 'real women', reflecting more closely the size 16 UK average.
It's a seductive narrative, embraced by women's empowerment and body confidence talking heads the world over, but today, size 16 model Naomi Shimada has questioned the validity of this interpretation by revealing a little-known but ubiquitous aspect of 'plus size' modelling: padding.
"When I moved to New York," Shimada tells the Guardian, "the first thing the agency asked me to do was buy a set of padding. Hip pads, butt pads, stomach pads, foam mammary glands basically. It turns out that most plus models have a set. Every job you go on, they ask you to bring it to work. I've even heard of some girls having full fat suits. They're to make you look more in proportion, or bigger, or just to make you look the particular kind of plus they need you to be that day".
Are artificial layers of fat any more 'real' than photoshop-sculpted bodies? "The padding allows you to work more, because you can be any size they need you to be," Shimada explains. "It made me wonder: what is real? Even in a section of fashion that is meant to embrace diversity, our bodies still aren't quite right. Nobody glorifies the regular middle," she adds, echoing the words of fellow model Natasha Culzac, who told i-D that "size 12 in the modelling industry is a bit No Man's Land-ish" -- too big to be 'standard', too small to be 'plus'.
"I had a real moral dilemma about padding myself -- surely the benefit of modelling plus was that I didn't have to change my body. We're the ones who are supposed to be 'redefining beauty', right?," she says. "A lot of the time I am the 'right size' for work," Shimada, who is a size 16, adds, "but that's because I look thin compared to their customers. I was working for brands whose lines usually start at size 18".
Calling for more diversity in the industry generally, Shimada says, "As a size 16 woman -- and as a model -- I want to live in a world where models of all sizes are used for all brands," she says, explaining that, "When I was growing up I felt like fashion wanted to be different. The advertising campaigns in the 80s and 90s were exciting and diverse, but now everything is so safe. Which of course means thin". She calls for the fashion industry to take risks, saying, "The only way to normalise the representation of people of colour, people of different ages and sizes, is to stick with it".
Shimada mentions the Jenny McQuaile documentary Straight/Curve, which is set to come out next year: "It questions whether size zero will remain the norm and talks about plus models as pioneers," Shimada explains, lamenting, "I would love this to be true".
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Grace Pickering