‘Why is plus a dirty word in fashion?’

I started modelling when I was just 13. I was shooting sexy before I even kissed a boy. That’s something the industry doesn’t warn you about – that you always have to be what someone else wants you to be, whether that is a sexy seductress or a curvy girl-next-door.

As I got older, my body began to change. In my last year as a “regular” model I was a size 8 teetering towards a 10, and I made myself miserable trying to keep my weight down. I tried everything – every diet, every exercise. I did that lemon-cayenne “not eating for two weeks” thing, telling everybody I was detoxing, but obviously I was just trying to be thin.

As a model, dieting is what’s always on your mind – it completely takes over your life and it’s all you can talk and think about. You can’t just have breakfast and eat bacon and laugh because you’re hating yourself all the time. I didn’t want it to take over my life any more. I took a break and then started to model plus sizes at the age of 22.

Plus-size modelling starts at size 12 which obviously I thought was crazy. But I see now it’s just the language. It just means “plus” in comparison to the super thin. There were fewer girls doing plus size, so I started making more money. I felt so free. I liked having boobs and hips and a butt. I grew up in hip-hop culture and that’s what we all wanted to look like. So now I could be who I wanted to be and it felt good. I fully embraced it – everything I did before I did the opposite of. I even made a cookery show. I wanted to be the poster girl for eating and enjoying it, because I had always been so passionate about food. I felt this wave of energy and expression.

‘In plus, they tell you to tone it down. Being unusual looking often works against you’: Naomi Shimada. 

Now I feel frustrated. I’m 28 and a size 16, and “plus” still feels like a dirty word in the fashion world. There’s such fear and paralysis and shame and confusion associated with anything size-related. And within the plus industry, too. For instance, I’ve always worked more when I’ve put on more weight. When I moved to New York, 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.

It didn’t feel right at first. 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? A lot of the time I am the “right size” for work, but that’s because I look thin compared to their customers. I was working for brands whose lines usually start at size 18. I slowly realised that if I wanted to make any money I had to play the game. The padding allows you to work more, because you can be any size they need you to be. 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.

There’s a documentary coming out next year called Straight/Curve that a few of my friends are taking part in. It questions whether size zero will remain the norm and talks about plus models as pioneers. I would love this to be true.

‘This isn’t about hating on skinny girls, but there’s room for more variation at the table’: Naomi Shimada. 

We’re used as plus-sized models, but most of us are size 12, 14, 16. That’s the average size of women in the western world. Yet it feels like there’s no room for us in fashion. When I shop, all the shops are always sold out of my size.

It makes me realise how much money there is to be made. There are so many people who want to spend but don’t know where to go. In the United States alone, plus-size clothing is now a $17.5bn market [£707m in the UK], but nobody in fashion really wants to be seen actually being involved in it. In fashion it’s usually money that talks, but when it comes to bigger bodies it doesn’t.

A huge proportion of Asos’s revenue now comes from the plus division, because it is one of the few retailers that has finally figured out that size 18 girls just want to buy what all the other girls are buying. We’re not all after a 50s-style dress or a baggy tunic T-shirt. Brands need to stop thinking that everyone who is bigger wants to hide it. Boohoo did a collection with a blogger named Nadia Aboulhosn and it sold out within days. It was body-hugging with crop tops. And its success proved that not everyone wants to put on a giant bin bag. Maybe I want to wear neon colours and short skirts. Maybe I want to shine.

When casting a plus model, it’s all about the big “A” word: approachability. For high- fashion models, self-expression is how you stand out from the other girls. In plus, they tell you to tone it down. Being “interesting looking”, or unusual, or even mixed race often works against you. To get the regular work, you need a commercial look. More often than not they want the girl-next-door. Which means we’re not in the big leagues, because we look so straight and we’re not considered equals with other fashion models.

‘There’s such fear and shame and confusion associated with anything size-related’: Naomi Shimada. Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer

When I’m not shooting I make sure I have a lot more fun with the way I look. I guess we all play roles at work in one way or another, and this is mine. I walk in with my game face. Then I walk out and I put my trainers and my funny hat back on. I step into the shoes happily and step back out of them, too.

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. 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. This conversation needs to be opened up, not just with the brands and the magazines, but with all the decision-makers and influencers of the fashion industry. A lot of the time it feels as if the creatives aren’t necessarily making the decisions – it’s the advertisers and others with money at stake. You can see that everywhere, from fashion weeks to magazines.

The only way to normalise the representation of people of colour, people of different ages and sizes, is to stick with it. To take risks. Why aren’t we thinking about how people feel when they look at models? Not only her blackness, whiteness, age; not only “She’s too skinny” or “She’s too big.” People should say: “This is a beautiful woman. I connect to her.” But someone has to go first.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, and this isn’t about attacking skinny girls, but there’s room for more variation at the table. It’s true that there are changes happening, but more often than not it feels like lip service. It’s just not enough.

Let’s not make plus size a token thing. It shouldn’t be a trend. It shouldn’t be a joke. I’m not talking about an annual “body issue” with big hair, or 1960s-style “glamazons”. Clichés like this are used so often they’ve become pretty patronising. We need creativity. We need diversity. People are doing great things, but their voices are drowned out by all the other shit we see, by the Kendall Jenners of the world. There’s no lack of interesting role models in fashion, but the industry isn’t giving them the platforms they deserve. There just needs to be more of everything and more of everyone.

I always think of H&M as an example of a retailer which could really change things. They have the money to do whatever they want. There’s no risk for them (as if designing for the real population of the western world is a risk). They used a size 12 girl, Jennie Runk, for a swimwear campaign in 2013, and people loved it. And then… they stopped. They’d got the press they wanted and there was no need, they must have believed, to carry on. Brands just dip their toe in. No one goes for a swim. Nobody commits. What are they so scared of?

The world would still keep spinning if the big fashion retailers improved their output. In fact, they’d definitely sell more. Women are ready for a change.

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As told to Eva Wiseman

Source: Guardian UK

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