Tess Holliday, Jessica Torres, Stephanie Yeboah, Scarlett Hao, Sarah Chiwaya posing and smiling


Claiming Space: 26 People Talk Being Fat And Working In Fashion

"There's definitely a sense of being automatically othered or left out of the conversation, simply because you're sitting there doing your job"

by Gianluca Russo

My childhood wardrobe consisted of baggy sweatpants, ill-fitting graphic T-shirts, and heinous argyle sweater vests. Needless to say, fashion was not my forte. My parents, who had immigrated to the United States in their teens, placed a high emphasis on thriftiness, and didn't want to spend money on expensive clothing, especially as my weight rose at a rapid rate. Why spend hundreds of dollars on back-to-school clothes, they thought, when I'd outgrow them by the end of the quarter?

Soon enough, though, how fast I was growing didn't matter. By the end of middle school, my weight was pushing 240 pounds, and I had reached a size 38W. Suddenly, it wasn't a matter of how expensive the clothes were, it was a matter of no longer having options at all. I had sized out of straight sizes and was squeezing into XL shirts every day, the ones that emphasized parts of my body I hated most: my chest and my stomach. When you're suddenly sharing clothes with your 45-year-old father—and when you start to weigh more than him—there comes a point where you begin to wonder why you've been cursed with the plague of obesity. After all, society teaches you early on to hate fatness, and breaking free of that mentality is near impossible. That point came for me during sophomore year when I was 16 years old.

I took solace, then, in two things: theatre and fashion. Performing gave me an escape route, whereas fashion gave me the chance to layer myself with the confidence I desperately craved. As I passed through high school and college, my passion for theatre lessened as my love for fashion intensified. I went through all the stereotypical style phases: scarves and leather jackets, hats and boots, skinny jeans and sneakers. In fashion, I discovered myself, as cliche as that may be. Because if the world wouldn't accept me for my weight, maybe it would tolerate me for my style.

I began writing in college, first focused on theatre, then entertainment, then practically every topic under the sun. The summer before my junior year, Gabrielle Korn—former editor-in-chief of NYLON—found me on Twitter and sent me to New York Fashion Week to cover the lack of plus-size menswear. It was my first time attending fashion week and suddenly I was seated in the front row.

Soon after, fat fashion became my beat. I covered everything from plus-size brand launches to Victoria Secret's hatred for fat people to Dolce and Gabbana's racist chopsticks ad (a piece I'd later find out that Anna Wintour herself even praised).

In the year since NYLON sent me to fashion week, I've dug deep into the small yet booming world of plus-size fashion. I've connected with hundreds of influencers, editors, and media folk who are constantly pushing for size inclusivity. I've watched brands get diversity right, and I've witnessed them get it wrong. But most of all, I've seen the power that being a proud fat person working in fashion can have.

Pushes for body diversity in fashion have not gone unnoticed: More brands than ever offer extended sizing, curvy and plus-size models can be found every season at New York Fashion Week, and fat women occupy more space in the industry than ever before. But that doesn't mean we are where we're supposed to be. That doesn't mean fashion gatekeepers are treating us with the respect we deserve.

Now more than ever, we choose to expand

This was something I experienced firsthand last season, when a thin publicist attempted to give my front-row seat away to a thin fashion editor (who I'd later learn is one of the most prominent in the industry). With the confidence I've acquired from my year working in fashion, I politely claimed my spot in the front row to the publicist's surprise.

Then there was the major modeling agency that refused to offer talent for this piece unless I revoked the word "fat" for terms like "curve" or "brawn" instead. I politely declined.

As much progress has been made in terms of body diversity in fashion, waves of change have yet to hit. Leading the tide, however, are a growing group of fat trailblazers with a hunger for shaking things up—and this fashion week, we're honoring them.

Elaine Welteroth, former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, says that when the world asks you to shrink, expand. Well, the fashion world has never been shy at asking the plus community to shrink before. But now more than ever, we choose to expand. Even further, we choose to take up as much space as possible, to remind society that our worth is reflective of who we are, who we fight for, and what we stand for, yet never based on what elite gatekeepers believe we should look like.

While a majority of people may live in constant fear of fatness, we live in a constant state of pride, because we choose to rebel, to expose mistreatment, and to wreak havoc on the outdated beauty ideals that this industry continues to promote time and time again. These 26 trailblazers are not only claiming space both figuratively and literally at New York Fashion Week but are changing narratives within the industry as a whole every day. Here's how.

Photo by Clint Spaulding/WWD/Shutterstock

Hunter McGrady, model and advocate

I've gotten asked to do a lot of runway shows this season and my first question is are the size-inclusive? Do they offer larger sizes? And if the answer is no, then I'm not going. I truly believe in supporting people who are understanding this movement and understanding the need for it, and I want to be a proponent of their success in that. What I want to see in New York Fashion Week is true diversity. I don't want to just be the token plus-size model; I don't want to just see the one-off.

I always kind of equate it to feeling like I'm screaming all the while being suffocated... New York Fashion Week is always something for me where I'm kind of like, Okay, let's see who's really truly doing it. And not just saying they're doing it, let's see who's really putting diversity on their runways, because it's 2019 and anything less is archaic.

Photo Credit: Sara Jaye Weiss/Shutterstock

Tess Holliday, model and activist

Even in the shows that I've attended that have plus size-models, the plus-size models are no bigger than a U.S. 14, and maybe 16. I want visibly different body types. I want more diversity. I'm hoping now that there's more diversity and representation in the media and mainstream that will bleed over into who is invited to the fashion [shows]. I feel like brands nowadays, they're listening, and if they're not, I truly believe that they'll be left behind.

Photo Credit: Lexie Moreland/WWD/Shutterstock

Denise Bidot, model

We not only have the power to be seen in the campaigns and walk in the runways, it's also our power and responsibility to wear the clothes, to sit in the front rows, to not just be a model but be that icon and role model for that younger girl. How you present yourself on a daily basis matters, and it's how people will start to see curvy girls.

I think it's so important to just live your truth in the most authentic and strong way, and that I truly believe somehow encourages other people to gravitate towards you—that energy sucks people in and so you gotta just keep living and keep pushing forward and keep having the conversation and keep being unapologetic and just live the damn thing.

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Torres

Jessica Torres, influencer

Fashion Week and [working in] fashion in general makes me realize that there was a place for me all this time. It just really sucks that I had to fight for it harder than other people. And even though we are in it now, it's still an internal battle within the fashion community...It just always makes you feel like you're the other.

It is extremely empowering [when you] see women with bigger size bellies, a big ass, jiggling all over the runways. It just reminds you how normal that is and how normal it should be. Just a fat body existing in these spaces is a huge thing—no pun intended.

Photo by Allison Specketer

Amanda Richards, editorial director at Universal Standard, previously senior editor at InStyle.com

I don't think a splashy campaign or a headline that espouses inclusivity necessarily means that the overall mindset towards fat people in fashion is changing. A lot of designers still put plus women on their runways, and in their campaigns, and don't make a clothing range that actually fits them.

I wrote a story for InStyle last year about how it's hard to find fat women operating at a high level in this industry—in fact, the majority of plus representation in fashion comes from a few models and a ton of really incredible influencers. I was the only plus-size editor at InStyle.com. There weren't any plus editors working in the fashion department on the print side, either. Where are the fat editor-in-chiefs, or fat editorial directors, or even the fat senior fashion editors? We barely exist. It's also really hard to sit and watch designers send things down a runway that you know for a fact absolutely will not fit you. If you're fat and you go to the shows, there's definitely a sense of being automatically othered or left out of the conversation, simply because you're sitting there doing your job.

Photo by Heather Hazzan

Kelly Bales, Creative Video Development at Condé Nast Entertainment

Designers like Chromat and Christian Siriano were really pioneers who we have to thank for bringing these demands to the fashion industry. When it comes to the majority of fashion houses, it's still missing. Most of those designers still don't want bigger bodies in their clothing. I've been so happy as of late to see designers like Marc Jacobs making custom pieces for Lizzo. We need more of this. We need the shows in Paris and Milan to have diversity down the runway across size, race, and gender.

What the world considers plus (typically over 12) is not what the fashion community considers plus (which is over a 4-6). So there is still very much a narrow definition of beauty here, and those are the bodies that most of what's coming down the runway is designed for... There needs to be someone at the table that is speaking up and pushing the brands to evolve. The media needs to support these initiatives with who they are showing in beauty and fashion shoots. I hope one day it's not simply separate "plus" events, shows, and shoots where we see bigger bodies. But that more people can see themselves across the luxury space without us always calling it out. I hope it becomes a new norm.

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Mull

Amanda Mull, staff writer at The Atlantic

The idea of aspiration is enormous in those [higher] tiers of fashion. And for a lot of the people working within those tiers of fashion, being skinny is second only to being rich.

Being a plus-size reporter on the ground is very weird... It is genuinely strange to be in an environment that so obviously values people who do everything they can to not look like you. [However], whether it's because of weight, because of skin color, because of gender presentation, I think that there's an enormous advantage in the perspective that gives you on how the industry works. Because when you're in a space where you're not being catered to, you automatically see behind at least one set of curtains to understand, I think on a deeper level, what is being bought and what is being sold by these companies.

Photo by Carter Fish

Lauren Chan, founder of Henning, former model and fashion editor

I think more than anything, I'm using my experience as a plus-size customer, rather than as a plus-size model or an editor, to inform [my new brand] Henning. And to me, that's an incredible advantage in a world where not all of the plus-size brands are designed by plus-size people. And so with Henning, my goal is to fix things from design issues to representation and marketing because I know what I haven't liked as a consumer.

[We need] to continue using our voices, to continue to be demanding, and continue to make room for other people to get involved in the conversation so that they have a seat at the table as well.

Photo Credit: Gregory Pace/Shutterstock

Nicolette Mason, writer and co-founder of Premme

I think broadly, yes, the attitude has shifted around inclusivity. That said, I do think high fashion and the very elite of the market are still the slowest to catch on to inclusivity… [But] when we do see inclusivity, it's hard to know if it's coming from an authentic place, and if it is going to have staying power amongst those brands, or if it's a play for relevancy because it's such an important conversation happening in fashion right now.

I think the one downside... is seeing some of the erasure that happens. And knowing that a lot of the people who have paved the way for these moments to happen are kind of like left out of the conversation and aren't really being given credit when we finally do accomplish these things as a community. And I think, by and large, that's women of color and fat activists and queer women who have kind of been excluded from the narrative where other people who are kind of having these moments are being centered in that as the first to accomplish it.

For me, it's really exciting to see all of the shift that has happened for there to be so many more opportunities for there to be broader conversations, not just about fashion and about casting, but about access in general, about stigma and discrimination in general. We're in a place now where hopefully—and I think this is happening—we're diving into much deeper conversations around size, inclusion, and diversity.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

Kellie Brown, influencer and creator of #FatAtFashionWeek

The entire purpose [of #FatAtFashionWeek] is not just to be seen, but it's really to encourage people, especially younger people, to join us. And so if you are an amazing makeup artist, or you love event production, or you love PR marketing—all the jobs that exists beyond just being a model on the runway, I want them to feel like they can be a part of the fashion industry, and that is not something that's closed off to them because of their size.

Photo by Karya Schanilec

Sarah Chiwaya, influencer and founder of Curvily

[At shows like Chromat, there's] that really strong sense of community celebration of all people, and that includes people not as an afterthought, but as part of that community. That's often not the case at other shows where there are no plus-size people on the runway, and there's almost no expectation that plus-size people should be involved at all.

Photo by Heather Hazzan

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Teen Vogue

I make a personal commitment and I really do make an effort to only wear clothing that has a variety of sizes, that has extended sizing... [But] I don't think the responsibility is on us. Us existing and being in these spaces is change enough. I think it's time for our straight-size allies to step up... I think it's the same for any type of discrimination or any kind of diversity. We can only do so much. We are the impacted community, and it really is going to take the kind of broader interest in plus fashion to see it move forward.

Photo by Youn Jung Kim

Lydia Hudgens, photographer

I still see photographers that see a fat person walk towards them and lower their camera. I shouldn't be a minority in what I'm doing or pushing for.

There is a level of experimentation and hustle as a plus woman that I think that we don't get enough credit for because it takes so much more for a plus person to be stylish and fashion-forward than it does someone who's a straight size person. Having that representation [in street style galleries] and showing people that like, yeah, we're fat, but we're fashionable too, and really having a gallery exclusively for us, I think was huge.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Standard

Alexandra Waldman, co-founder and creative director of Universal Standard

We're really, really keen to represent a broad spectrum of women. And we're very keen to do that in a way that really explores access rather than continues to segregate [based on size]. We think that the change that is coming in as a much bigger, much more important broader change than simply offering more plus size to bigger women. We really believe that as long as you're the other, you're going to be the lesser. So for us, bringing a change to the industry means not othering people.

Don't take advantage of this huge change that is happening in a performative way. Be part of this wonderful new change to establish the new normal. And really think of the consumer as not just someone with a new wallet for your business, but as someone who [deserves] access to the same broad, wonderful range of products that you produce for everyone else.

Photo Courtesy of Dia & Co

Nadia Boujarwah, CEO and Co-founder of Dia and Co

One of my most formative memories was needing to design my own prom dress in high school because there was nothing in my size. Being able to have my own journey with style and fashion and being able to see the things that I wanted the most come to life through Dia & Co [has been remarkable].

Photo Courtesy of Whalar

Stephanie Yeboah, writer

A lot of higher-end and luxury brands still have this assumption that bigger parties cheapen their brand. And I don't think that they want their clothing to be associated with fat bodies because to them, fat bodies symbolize laziness, it symbolizes not looking after ourselves, it symbolizes the very antithesis of what luxury is supposed to mean… Equally, it forces us to be a lot more creative with what we find and how we choose to wear certain things. So there's a positive in that aspect.

Photo by Rob Eves

Bruce Sturgell, founder of Chubstr.com

You're definitely told if you're a fat guy [that] you're not allowed to have anything good, you're not allowed to care about your style. The only thing that you're worth is losing weight. You're worth ridicule if you don't lose weight [and] you don't deserve to have options.

I want to make sure that these people know that there are resources, know that there's a community out there, and know that it's okay, and that you deserve to find clothes and wear things that make you happy and make you feel good.

Photo Courtesy of Bridge Models

Kelvin Davis, menswear influencer

I remember when I first started my blog in 2013, I remember there was a lot of guys, a lot of people that just didn't understand what I was doing. They were very negative about the whole thing... And I've noticed that it shifted from that to being [appreciative of] you being who you are, representing people who are marginalized, people of color, people of size, men who want to talk about their insecurities and voice their opinions about emotional disorders or body positivity or anything of that sort.

Photo Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

CeCe Olisa, co-founder of CurvyCon

A lot of the plus-size community happens online... but being a plus-size woman is still, in some ways, a very isolating experience. And so our community rallying around us and our vision, the way that they have, it has created a platform for [us] to not only be champions for fashion but to also be champions for women. We see body positivity as an extension of the women's movement, we see fashion and inclusivity as an extension of the women's movement.

Photo Credit: Mark Von Holden/Variety/Shutterstock

Chastity Garner Valentine, co-founder of CurvyCon

Now we've started incorporating voices and allies in the body-positive space [into CurvyCon]. Just to be able to have those sort of allies in the community and people who really believe in body positivity and fashion inclusivity and just being awesome women, in general, is how we've kind of seen our community grow.

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Conley

Sarah Conley, writer

Seeing a size 14 model on an e-commerce site is just not good enough anymore. We need to see more body diversity because plus size women are not all built the same way.

If you aren't making at least a size 24—and you damn well better be making size 28—I don't want to give you the benefit of exposure to my audience, the time and attention because you have not earned it. It's tough for me because I want to continue to encourage the plus-size industry, I know what it's like behind the scenes for these brands... but I think that it's time that we start doing what's right, even when it's not immediately profitable.

Photo Courtesy of Fascinate Media

Marie Denee, founder of The Curvy Fashionista

I didn't realize just how much I could do; I didn't realize just how far we could grow and how we're still growing; I didn't realize how much I would be challenged as a person, as an individual, as a business owner, as an OG in the plus-size fashion space. If these brands don't adjust and recognize, at the minimum, a $23 billion industry... it's sad to say that it kind of shows how they feel, or that's where they may not see us as important.

Photo Courtesy of Scarlett Hao

Scarlett Hao, influencer

There's really a misunderstanding or stereotype that all Asians are skinny. [Since coming to New York], I want to be the bridge between the west and the east world. I want the whole world to see more Asian diversity, to see Asian people in different ways... Asian culture is not friendly towards fat people, especially women. I really want to support Asian designers [because] they are my own people. But they're not making clothing in my size at all. [I keep hustling] to find my voice as an Asian plus-size woman in the fashion industry [and] to educate the industry that Asian women can have a diverse look.

Photo Courtesy of Ashley Nell Tipton

Ashley Nell Tipton, designer and winner of Project Runway

I think that not only did [my Project Runway win] mean a lot to me, but also for those who have lived their lives compensating for what we don't have—not enough choices and a culture that doesn't recognize the potential of this market.

Photo by Denise Kokinis

Meaghan O'Connor, stylist

The biggest challenge I face as a plus stylist in this industry is in advocating for my clients with brands, designers, showrooms etc. I've gotten a lot of "NO"s, and I'd be lying if I didn't say there were moments where I want to scream. But those challenging conversations can sometimes have positive outcomes. You just have to be brazen enough to push for better outcomes!

Approaching designers and discussing inclusivity can be difficult but I am, and continue to be, hopeful. Because among the sea of "No, we'll pass at this time" responses, there are brands who are ready for change, designers who want to do custom pieces, and showrooms who start to carry more size options. An open mind and a willingness to change is a beautiful thing.

I think the biggest challenge is in helping others understand that style is not defined by size. And that fashion is about celebrating uniqueness, embracing diversity and inclusivity for all. And there are days where that feels like a steep uphill battle... Then there are the days where I need two hands to count how many plus models grace a runway during NYFW, or the days where I am buying one, two, three magazines not just because I like them, but because I [finally] see myself represented in them.

Photo Courtesy of Nabela Noor

Nabela Noor, activist and founder of Zeba

We need to continue to use our voices louder than ever. We have to support each other. We need to continue fighting for representation so that future generations can grow up in a world that reflects them and affirms them that their bodies are beautiful. And as we fight for that future, we need to practice self-care because this fight can be emotionally and mentally draining.

Being plus-sized and advocating for size inclusivity is a tough battle. Especially online. The types of messages I receive on a daily basis are hateful, fatphobic, violent, and aggressive all because I dare to advocate for self-love as a plus-sized woman. Thankfully, I receive so much love on a daily basis that keeps me going and reminds me of my purpose, but I'd be lying if I said that the verbal abuse hasn't affected my mental and emotional health.

When you're fat and advocating for self-love, it is often labeled as promoting obesity. When you're slim and advocating for self-love, it's often considered ground-breaking.

We need to continue to use our voices. Louder than ever. We have to support each other. We need to continue fighting for representation so that future generations can grow up in a world that reflects them and affirms them that their bodies are beautiful. And as we fight for that future, we need to practice self-care because this fight can be emotionally and mentally draining.

I am plus-size. I am Muslim. I am South Asian. And I live within the intersection of all of my identities. It may take me longer to be seen or heard but trust me, sooner or later, you will see me and girls like me and you will hear us loud and clear.