Where My Sistas At? The Underrepresentation of Black Plus Size Models in Mainstream Fashion

Something is lacking in the current push to include plus-size models in mainstream fashion publications (or “separate-but-equal” media outlets such as Vogue Italia’s “Vogue Curvy”). What’s lacking, specifically in the fashion establishment but less so in the satellite world of “fatshion” blogging, is representation of models/women of color. I want to speak specifically about black plus size models/women because there is a very particular perception of blackness conflated with female fatness as compared to other races, and it’s an identity I inhabit on a daily basis.

A popular (white) misconception is that fat is more acceptable in the black community. This is patently untrue. Hip-hop culture is often pointed to when one is making this argument. If you watch any hip-hop music videos at all, it’s clear to see that the fat on the women featured is in specific places. Booty, hips, tits. As the inimitable Sir Mix-A-Lot stated, “When a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist and a round thing [booty] in your face, you get sprung.” (emphasis supplied) There is definitely a line between acceptable fat and unacceptable fat. Those fat women who are fortunate enough to be considered “thick” are subject to an even more extreme hypersexualization of their bodies than average sized or thin black women are. As the features considered sexually desirable not only by black men but also white men are exaggerated on a fat female body, these women are often portrayed as more sexually available, yet can also be portrayed as ghetto princess or hoochie — “Jezebel” and “Sapphire”. But cross that line dividing “thick fat” and “just fat” and you quickly enter the territory of the desexualized fat black woman: the Precious, the mammy. Let’s take the recent example of Gabourey Sidibe, who portrayed Precious, and who basically served as a dumping ground for all the issues people have with fat, specifically, black female fat. This is the type of fat black woman continually mocked by black men in drag. Namely, characters like Eddie Murphy’s Rasputia in Norbit, Tyler Perry’s Madea in any number of his movies, Martin Lawrence’s Shanaynay and Big Mama, and Jamie Foxx’s Wanda on In Living Color. These characters are either considered too old to be sexual and are subject to the mammy stereotype, or their sexuality is portrayed as a joke, something disgusting to be avoided. Clearly the black community is not the utopia of body acceptance white America often believes it to be.

Of course, the way fat is treated in the black community only reflects how fat is treated in mainstream culture and the fashion community. However, as “curvy” — not too fat, now — is becoming more acceptable in the fashion world, it’s clear the main shade of acceptable curvy is white. When Glamour magazine featured 7 nude plus size models in their November 2009 issue, only one — Anansa Sims, daughter of straight size supermodel Beverly Johnson — was black or even of color. This despite the fact that there are many more black plus size models out there, and despite the fact that the fat fashion blogosphere — an engine driving the plus sized clothing industry — is filled with examples of fat black women interested in fashion and modeling their clothes. In fact, one of the first and most popular fat fashion blogs, Young Fat & Fabulous, is run by a black woman.

So why are black, female, fat fashion bloggers, many of whom drive considerable income towards the plus size fashion industry via their blogs, not seeing themselves adequately represented in this new curvy trend? The “fatshion” movement has made it obvious to the mainstream fashion establishment that there is a market out there for fashion-forward clothing in larger sizes. Any survey of the fatshion blogosphere will tell you that a great percentage of that market is black. Why are mainstream fashion mags so reluctant to include black plus size models in their spreads, and why do the “high fat fashion” retailers use all white faces as their representatives? It definitely has something to do with the aversion to using black straight size models on runways and in fashion spreads. Unless you’re Alek Wek and the photographer needs the color of the clothes to “pop” against your dark skin. If thin blackness is unwelcome, imagine a double-whammy of fat blackness. Since black women’s bodies tend to have an exaggeratedly feminine shape, it could be the tendency of fashion designers to pick androgynous shapes to model their clothes. Plus size white models don’t usually have a very exaggerated sexualized shape. So this goes back to society’s issues with black women’s bodies in general. Since black women are stereotyped so often as being loose or hypersexual, any emphasis placed on sexualized body parts due to their size compounds the problem. Better to leave that can of worms alone and just work with the non-black models.

Until the straight size world fully accepts their black models, plus size black models are unlikely to achieve any more success than their thin sisters. Unfortunately neither of these things seem likely to happen soon. We as plus size women are expected to be happy with what we’re given, sighing “At least we’re making some progress.” Yet in the fashion world progress is so often followed by regress. We as fashion consumers and drivers of commerce need to continue to work to represent our diversity in the hopes that mainstream fashion will take notice, and that this won’t just be another trend. Hopefully the increasing popularity of blogs such as Young Fat and Fabulous, Musings of a Fatshionista, and on the Latina spectrum, Fatshionable will send a message to the plus size fashion establishment that we want representation of all plus size women, not just the white models we see all too often in plus size spreads. Tokenism is not acceptable. Throwing one model of color in there to satisfy all people of color is unacceptable. Real diversity needs to occur before the typical plus size fashion model truly reflects those who drive the industry’s commerce. Retailers need to recognize the power these plus size blogging titans wield. Just by posting an outfit they threw on, these bloggers can inspire hundreds of fat women to go out and buy the exact same outfit.

This is an ongoing problem mirrored by the lack of meaningful inclusion of straight size black models, and like that problem, it will only be solved if we continually critique the fashion establishment and in the case of fat fashion, unpack the privilege that white plus size models (and white plus size women) enjoy at this point. Until the facts of the situation are laid bare, no work can be done to change it. With this, I’m attempting to lay down a foundation and start a dialog.

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  • http://fryingmineinbutter.wordpress.com/ msjacks

    Tasha Fierce, this is really awesome. Good writing, good article. I love it!

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Thank you!

  • http://thecurvyfashionista.mariedenee.com The Curvy Fashionist

    I love how you addressed very pointed issues on this! Bravo!

    As a Fatshion blogger myself, I find more inclusion, acceptance of, or celebration of the plus size woman OUTSIDE the US, rather than here! Many of these international publications reach into the US and fancy bloggers like Afrobella, Myself, and Gabi for Vogue Curvy and Vogue Black.

    We shall see what happens, as bloggers of color speak out and about this… great job TASHA!

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Thank you! As far as I can tell, fat acceptance by retailers outside the US is much more prevalent. I find myself ordering from UK shops all the time due to their superior selection rather than US shops like Lane Bryant.

  • http://www.bbwcupid.com/blog/ BBWCupid

    This is a really great post. It's one of those things that stares you in the face and is so obvious but we don't really think about it until you write a post like this and then you have people like me going "D'oh! That is so true… I can't believe I never thought about it more". Really great stuff….and so well written! :)

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Thank you! I'm glad it got you thinking.

  • http://www.thefatandskinnyonfashion.com thefatandskinny

    This is an excellent article. I wish there were models of color in all of the fields of modeling. I hope one day we will see all types of models on the runways.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I totally agree. And diversity is needed in every aspect of the fashion industry, from designer to makeup artist to photographer and beyond.

  • badhedgehog

    I think a lot of people are pretty damn useless about intersection. So, all the plus size models in the top mainstream mags are white, and all the black models there are thin. They can only deal with one thing that they consider "other" at one time. Or they believe they can only deal with one difference at a time.

    Hopefully, people will wake up to the money that can be made from properly advertising to all the fat women out there.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I know, when people feel represented they're more likely to spend their money on your product. It's sad that it has to be explained to retailers in monetary terms instead of just plain human terms, but they only listen to their bottom lines.

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  • http://fullfigureplus.com Glen

    Tasha,

    I have been in the fat fashion blogging game since 2004 and agree with Mariee that the majority of love that fat fashion models and bloggers get is from outside of the US. When it comes down to it internationally blacks are accepted more than in our own country.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I definitely hear that. It's pretty sad. And you've been around since 2004! That's a long time, props to you for that. I haven't been writing about fashion for that long, but I've been doing some form of journaling since 1997, usually involving identity politics. It's nice to see another fairly early adopter.

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  • http://www.thesharkguys.com sharkguy

    Interesting…

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Sorry sharkies, you got caught in spam queue. Don't leave one word comments!

  • GR

    So very well said!
    It's creepy the way some (though not all) of the stereotypes about black and latina (though not asian) women and fat women overlap: over-sexual, out-of-control physical appetites, earthy (as opposed to fashionably "elegant"), etc.
    (An aside about how "internationally blacks are accepted more than in our own country": I would sadly remark that that's if they're perceived as American – for example, in that bastion of racial tolerance, France, there's still plenty of hatred for Africans from the former french colonial possessions in North Africa.)

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I've heard a lot about the French and their bigotry towards North African immigrants. No matter where you go, there you are, I guess.

  • http://teendracula.blogspot.com roxy

    maybe none of the fashion editors are feeling benevolent enough to tokenize two groups at the same time. i think fat will have to go 'out' again before non-white is 'in'.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Seriously. It does seem to cycle like that.

  • http://www.axisoffat.com cutselvage

    I really enjoyed this post, and it's good for me as a fat white woman to just shut up and listen too.

    I was linked here by the little link-project definatalie is doing on her blog at the moment. It got me thinking about representations of women of colour in Australian plus-size fashion (we're both Australian), and it's pretty limited. We tend to have a higher proportion of Asian models in straight-size catalogues than the US does, I think, but generally speaking in plus-size fashion it's white white white. Very frustrating.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. :)

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      That's funny that you're in Australia, an Australian online magazine asked to reprint this article! I'm glad it provoked thoughts for you.

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  • http://twitter.com/mizztcasa mizztcasa

    never thought about the underrepresentation in the fatshion world of women of color… so true. great post as always.

  • PlusSizedWomanist

    I'm going to have to disagree with you about Shanaynay on Martin being a mammy, because Shanaynay is actually portrayed as being a sexual being, with Martin commenting on her having "the ill nah nah" when Jackie Chan comes to visit her for Christmas unannounced.

    That being said, I agree with everything you posted.

  • Sky

    (Sky here) Good Afternoon Miss Tasha. A big thank you from this 49yr college student who was searching for womens positive body images for the young, middle and older females, as my final term project. Which by the way has to be done as a Zine, how kool is that for a final.
    I’m writing to you this afternoon in asking permission to quote some of your thinking within my Zine. Also, I’m not sure if my professor knows of you. She is a 31-year-old woman of color, queer, feminist who teaches woman of color studies. I know that she is always looking for fresh approaches that apply to today’s women, and third and fourth wave feminism. I would like to be able to pass on your web links and possibly have the two of you chat on this very subject which you elegantly wrote in the above article.

    As for myself, I would like to get to know you better, in my world, “you’re cool chick.” I too am writing on positive body image, a concept I’ve been working on for over a year, personally, and socially. It’s a personal issue to the core of my essence, identity, womanhood, feminist thinker. I wholeheartedly believe that young women need and should have healthier images that contradict mainstream images to a unattainable illusion of; faults perception of health or healthy images.
    In your above article and other articles which you have written within your blog speak to these issues in the most profound realistic, rational, logical manner. To be quite honest, I’m quite proud to see a woman writing on issues of sex and of size by not bombarding my eyes with the idea of Las Vegas chubby chaser weekend, which in my opinion seems to play into the stereotype of sexualizing her or worse de-sexualizing her. Whoops, just about to go off on a rant, my apologies. Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks again for such a wonderful article.

    Be Well and Take Care To You
    Sky

  • Sky

    (Sky here) Good Afternoon Miss Tasha. A big thank you from this 49yr college student who was searching for womens positive body images for the young, middle and older females, as my final term project. Which by the way has to be done as a Zine, how kool is that for a final.
    I’m writing to you this afternoon in asking permission to quote some of your thinking within my Zine. Also, I’m not sure if my professor knows of you. She is a 31-year-old woman of color, queer, feminist who teaches woman of color studies. I know that she is always looking for fresh approaches that apply to today’s women, and third and fourth wave feminism. I would like to be able to pass on your web links and possibly have the two of you chat on this very subject which you elegantly wrote in the above article.

    As for myself, I would like to get to know you better, in my world, “you’re cool chick.” I too am writing on positive body image, a concept I’ve been working on for over a year, personally, and socially. It’s a personal issue to the core of my essence, identity, womanhood, feminist thinker. I wholeheartedly believe that young women need and should have healthier images that contradict mainstream images to a unattainable illusion of; faults perception of health or healthy images.
    In your above article and other articles which you have written within your blog speak to these issues in the most profound realistic, rational, logical manner. To be quite honest, I’m quite proud to see a woman writing on issues of sex and of size by not bombarding my eyes with the idea of Las Vegas chubby chaser weekend, which in my opinion seems to play into the stereotype of sexualizing her or worse de-sexualizing her. Whoops, just about to go off on a rant, my apologies. Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks again for such a wonderful article.

    Be Well and Take Care To You
    Sky

  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    I remember MODE magazine, I was sad to see it go. It wasn't perfect, but it definitely filled a void.

    Good luck with your search!

  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    Thanks! Good blog entry!