Chromat SS20. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Chromat.

Models and stylists call for an end to unrealistic sample sizes

Thousands have signed @shitmodelmgmt's petition to increase sample size, but is a future of size six models on runways a real possibility or a pipe dream?

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
15 September 2020, 8:00am

Chromat SS20. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Chromat.

In 2013, a series of provocative music videos competed for pop culture’s attention. There was Kim Kardashian’s bare breasts bouncing for Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” then Disney-alum Miley Cyrus scantily clad and swinging on a wrecking ball. But it was “Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke’s comeback classic that was easily the most memorable. Not for Thicke’s own star power (or even the subsequent backlash regarding the song’s problematic concept of consent), but because of the sample-sized models strutting coquettishly around him.

Only one of the three made an instant impression. “Blurred Lines” created a sex symbol of bodacious beauty Emily Ratajkowski overnight, catapulting her to household status with Kate Upton-esque momentum. Naturally, the rumors and rumination about her body began right away. We’d all been hypnotized by the pendulum effect of her proportions, which just couldn’t be real. “Let’s just Google her measurements,” a friend suggested. When we uncovered the circumference of Ratajkowski's breasts, waist and hips (roughly 35”-24”-34” according to — a size two), the comparison began.

We didn’t know it then, but Ratajkowski’s body ascribed to what has long-been fashion’s “golden ratio.” A measuring tape should reveal breasts and hips sized no higher than 36 inches (preferably 34”), and a waist no higher than 25” (preferably 24”). The standard is believed to be implemented after WWII, when a fabric shortage meant designers relied on smaller bodies to optimize profitability.

Over the past decade, the industry has been at its most inclusive yet. Fashion has gradually become a little less sizeist, racist, ageist, even ableist (even if only with a healthy dose of tokenism to impress the digital gen). As such, many curve girls have become supermodels in their own right — an unthinkable prospect at the turn of the millennium. But while the desired height of women on the runway has grown in the meantime (5’9” upwards) and we’re seeing diverse body types in the mainstream for the first time, the sample size has barely fluctuated.

“There is a practical reason that most models are the same size, and that’s called a sample collection,” Tom Ford told WWD in 2018. “You make a sample collection [according to] a standardized selection of measurements for models… Whether we all decide to start making all of our clothes in the next size up, that’s a different thing. But there is practicality, there’s a reason models are a standard size.”

For women who are six feet to fit fashion’s standards, they would have to weigh in at a near-impossible 115 pounds, claims @shitmodelmgmt. The anonymous Instagram-anchored fashion industry watchdog made headlines several years ago when they offered an open call to models who’d been harassed by designers, photographers, agents and casting directors — eventually emboldening models enough to call out predatory celebrity photographers on their own). Now, she’s using her platform to confront a different injustice in the industry. After conducting a poll of 4000 models, 65 percent claimed to have developed eating disorders to adhere to sample size expectations. In response, SMGMT created a petition to raise the sample size from size zero through four, to six through eight. So far, 15,000 have signed.

“I wanted to see how many of my followers were naturally [sample] size, and the majority of them are not,” she writes on its homepage. “In order to cut down to the required measurements/weight, they are having to resort to unhealthy means like starving themselves, restrictive diets, overexercising and other ways that severely risk their health.”

Within the past week, the outcry over too-small samples has reached fever pitch. Stylist Francesca Burns, formerly Fashion Editor of i-D, took to Instagram to reveal she’d been on set with a “tiny” model (no bigger than a US size four), who could not do up a pair of Hedi Slimane Celine pants. None of the Celine looks the stylist had pulled fit the sample-sized model, which made Burns feel like “a creep.”

“This is so unacceptable,” Burns wrote. “It is fundamentally wrong to suggest that this is the norm. It isn’t. We also have a responsibility for those in our care on set and to make sure beauty standards are not limited to a size that is completely unrealistic for the majority... Things have to change in so many ways but how hard is it to size things up?”

Fashionista editor-in-chief Tyler McCall was one of many industry insiders to endorse Burns’ message. While she understands why production of a singular small size is both efficient and cost effective, she describes the standard as a “big stumble block for true inclusivity.”

“Those ‘standard’ measurements destroy girls at such a young age,” adds agent and casting director, Kevin Chung. “Weight loss pills, working out incessantly to the point they are physically and mentally unable to do their job. It's a shame, but it's also not their fault… We need to be more cognizant of different body types and not all bodies are able to achieve those measurements — and that is okay. [Models] shouldn’t have to alter measurements to fit an unattainable standard.”

When Lauren Graves was scouted by IMG in 2002, she was 13. Her younger years were dedicated to high fashion, although now she’s just as frequently hired for lifestyle/commercial, beauty, fit production and showroom modeling. The pressure of working in fashion at a young age meant she was “always hungry,” and she now only works with a range smaller, boutique agencies. While she entered the industry at size two to four, standing over 5’10”. After various eating disorders, now-recovered Graves’ wears a six or eight and models curve.

“When your dream is to model, you listen to your agencies when they say, ‘Hey listen, I need you to lose [X] pounds, you would be so much more marketable,” Lauren says. “Some girls are genetically very thin, but it's not common. I would say a large portion of the girls fitting these sizes are trying very hard to. For fashion, most agencies will tell you to lose weight anyway.”

Kevin agrees that those models are few and far between. “There are a handful of models who are naturally lean at 5’9”  to 5’11” — that's just genetics. But there are even more models who aren’t size zero through four and below 5’9.”

Dylan Wardwell is one such model. Although she faces other challenges in the industry as a trans woman, she is naturally a 5’10” size zero and has never been criticized for her size. Still, she knows plenty of models who aren’t allowed to work until they drop weight. For this reason, despite the potential repercussions for her own career, she acknowledges raising the sample size would be “the best thing” not only for the industry, but for society.

“It can’t be that hard to make a more inclusive show if brands put in the effort,” she says. “I think everyone likes to blame this standard on ‘the way it is’ instead of realizing we all as individuals contribute to this culture.”

“Being a fit model you get to work behind the scenes with production and design teams, and the change wouldn’t be hard,” Lauren adds. “They just haven’t done it.”

“It's a bit of a chicken-versus-egg,” echoes Tyler. “Designers will say they maintain sample sizes because those are the models they're given to work with, and casting directors will say they have to make sure models can fit the sample… we're talking size zero or even double zero, that's a hard target to hit for most grown women.”

Curve model Chloe Vero has walked the runway for Tommy Hilfiger and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, securing magazine covers and major campaigns. Vero is one of the “lucky ones,” a model who’s not straight-sized but remains in demand season after season. While Chloe’s grateful for her success, she still catches herself wondering what professional heights she might have reached if she were smaller.

“I have to remind myself that it is the lack of acceptance that is making me feel this way,” she says. “I’ve been on sets where I’m the only one who is my size working and everyone else is significantly smaller than me and that takes a toll on you mentally. Working on sets that reflect our day to day lives and how we interact with the world around us can allow for a safer and more comfortable space.”

With the exception of your waist being ten inches smaller than your hips (the clothing production standard across almost all sizes), curve modeling has very few mandates. This kind of forward trajectory, Lauren opines, can be credited to the lifestyle realm who capitalized on a missed marketing opportunity:  “A lot of commercial and indie brands are now working with models who represent the consumer because they’ve recognized the money that can be made off large portions of the population.”

When it comes to high fashion, Kevin can’t imagine petitions facilitating a palpable shift without support from the top down. “Until the people in power leave their current roles, we won’t see real change. Bigger people shouldn’t have to fight for clothing in their size range; designers should just have them because diversity should be inherent. People should not have to tell you to be more inclusive — that's inhumane.”

While she “doesn’t want to be a downer,” Tyler shares this sentiment. “There are so many players and so many moving parts in fashion with something like this that it would be almost impossible to get everyone on board. It's more a question of keeping the pressure on to see that representation, and supporting those who are getting it right.”

Dylan just wants a world in which she isn’t measured at castings — “If I fit the clothes, I fit the clothes” — whereas Chloe hopes the future might usher in the same opportunities for curve models as straight-sized. For his part, Kevin is ready to see fasting and diet pills made obsolete, and nutritionists as well as mental health counselors made accessible to models.

Any real change, Lauren says, will have to start and finish with designers. The narrative that clothes “fall better on slimmer figures,” or that “less fabric” or “small breasts” is easier to work with is perpetuated by those at the drawing board. Until they prioritize creating clothes for healthy bodies, we’ll all remain enslaved to measurements.

“They have an opportunity to break the mold they've always worked with, and make the clothes to fit a body — not that a body is forced to fit into,” she concludes. “Designers seem afraid of breaking the old mold, even though in my opinion, that’s what creativity is.”

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