Pretty & plucky but not ‘plus size’ models

On the ramp with women who do not fit in

Culture

February 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Pretty & plucky but not ‘plus size’ models

In the recent past, modelling industries across the world have attempted to launch campaigns that cater to models who are at the periphery of ‘ideal beauty’, or called ‘plus size'

The narrow idea of slimmer women being attractive is gradually fading away and at the forefront of this fight, are hundreds of fashion models who are called attractive but plus-size, a term they do not agree with.

“What does it even mean when you say plus size? What is ‘plus’ here? Is there a ‘minus’ too? What is the neutral size model? Is there a need to use such terms,” asks 32-year-old Niharika Achalkar, a Delhi-based model and Instagram influencer.

“People laughed at me throughout the 12 years of my school and even a few teachers made sure that they reminded me of how fat I was. My relatives mocked me when I told them that I was interested in doing makeup and even wanted to make a career in the fashion industry. They would say “moti pagal ho gayi hai” (the fat girl has gone mad). I would end up hating myself more and more every day because people around me had made me believe that I was ugly,” says Achalkar, who has been working as a model for the last seven years for different brands and from big ones like Lakmé to smaller, local ones.

Gautami Shukla, 26, who lives in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, is an entrepreneur and a fashion model who only works with clothes’ brands that have a huge range of different size options available. “I have been rejected more than a hundred times I think. Wherever I went for auditions, the security guard would stop me at the gate and confirm that I actually came for a screen test or modelling audition. It was embarrassing and it only happened with me while all slimmer girls were allowed,” she says.

For both Shukla and Achlakar, fashion is not just about looking and feeling good. It is political, polarising and a fight to be accepted for who they are: a size 20 model who want to catwalk their way into the elite circles of India’s fashion industry that has narrow definitions of beauty.

They want to be more than the labels of ‘sample size’ or ‘plus size’. This is their way, they say, of asking people to love their bodies and making designers notice the gap between the realities of women’s body types and the variety of apparel available for them. Though hundreds of kilometres apart, both of them have faced similar obstacles, struggles and have similar experiences in past; because they share similar kind of bodies, a ‘plus size’ one, according to the popular fashion terminology, but ‘regular’, according to them.

Plus size: The problematic phrase

In the recent past, the modelling industry all across the world, clothing brands and magazines ranging from Harpers’ BazaarDolce & Gabbana to Sabyasachi have attempted to launch campaigns that cater to models who are at the periphery of ‘ideal beauty’, or called ‘plus size models’.

In a bid to expand their marketability, social appeal and become more inclusive, many of these brands hire models who are chubby, plump or not skinny enough to fit into the popular perception of beauty. While it helps them to keep an appearance that understands subjective ideas of beauty but is doing little to actually erase the stereotypes, according to Achlakar.

“While I appreciate the efforts made by industries and brands to incorporate women of varying sizes, in terms of their physical features, I find the phrase and tag of ‘plus size models’ highly problematic. To me, it is simply a token attempt to publicise inclusivity, that in reality only discriminates. The phrase, in turn, disempowers women by strengthening the already existing segregation,” she says.

Achlakar’s views echo true with Nitara Sinha, a fashion student from Delhi who questions the purpose of such tagging. “Though I am happy that brands are making clothes that fit women of the broader frame and heavier bodies, is it truly empowering for the women they hire or for the women who see them on magazine covers, TV shows and brand advertisements? Perhaps not. The tag of ‘plus size’, is contrary to the idea of inclusivity,” she adds.

Bigger sizes, bigger market & bigger revenue

According to statistics portal Statista, India’s fashion market was USD 12.54 billion in 2019 and set to grow annually at 20.8 pc, making the market worth USD 26.72 billion by 2023. The largest segment of this market – which also includes leather goods, shoes and accessories – is apparel, with a market of about USD 10 billion in 2019.

The ‘plus size’ category of customers becomes important here because about half of the total consumers in India are beyond the standard ‘size 0-12’ bracket. According to Forbes India magazine, ‘plus size’ consumers constitute about 67 pc of the total population who buy clothes regularly.

“Model sizing – the sizes showcased on the ramp – constitutes just 10 pc of sales. Nearly everything is a size beyond, usually between 12 and 16. Designers also concede this fact,” says model Shukla, who also runs her own line of apparels for all sizes.

“Even five years ago, inclusive sizing was seen as a risk, but today more and more designers and labels are seeing it as par for the course. It does not only help regular women experience the trend in their perfect size, but also creates positivity among the young people who are growing up, watching people of all sizes being models,” she adds.

Catwalk towards social acceptability

While there are numerous stereotypes and struggles that models like Achlakar and Shukla face every day, they admit that being in the fashion industry has given them an elevated platform that is out of reach for many because they do not fall into the mainstream idea of beauty.

Fashion designing student Sinha says that she also wants to become a fashion model but even today, at a time when body positivity is promoted actively by big brands, her way is not easy.

“Along with learning how to design flattering clothes, I also want to walk on the ramp in them. I go to several auditions weekly. I am used to being a laughing stock for most of the people I meet. From designers to those who take auditions and even other candidates who audition with me suggest that losing weight would make me look prettier. At one point in time, I also believed them and used all kinds of unhealthy tricks to do so. While it did not make me any prettier, it sure made me unhealthier,” Sinha says.

Sinha says that she is aware of the way people notice her, even when she walks on the ramp in college. Not many girls who look like her get this opportunity. “I also know that many sitting in the audience would still laugh at me if they had seen me anywhere else, she adds, but I have to ‘catwalk’ my way through these,” she adds.

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