‘Being plus-size does not mean you’re unhealthy’
Two women involved in the Irish plus-size modelling industry believe that retailers are moving towards a greater emphasis on more representative body types
Plus-size model Brianna Connaughton
It’s not silent, nor is it a revolution. But little by little, small victory by small victory, the Irish plus-size modelling industry is gaining traction. Women of a size 12 and over – which is the controversial industry definition of plus-size – are seeking not only to change existing standards of beauty and to educate young women about their bodies, but look good while doing it.
This story starts, like so many modelling stories, with a beauty pageant of sorts. Each year, Simplybe.ie, the Irish plus-size offshoot of British catalogue shopping giants JD Williams & Co, runs a customer-led search for its next catalogue star.
Brianna Connaughton, who has recently returned home to Ireland after a stint modelling in New York, won first prize five years ago, beating more than 6,500 hopefuls. She remembers it as a golden opportunity to meet someone she admired.
“There was an ad on the radio saying, ‘Do you want to meet Gok Wan?’ and I was like, yes,” she laughs. From there, she worked with Simplybe.ie and was quickly signed to the agency Andrea Roche Model, moving from Prima, a smaller agency in the southeast. She travels to New York every month or two for shoots.
Vicki Mooney initially followed a similar career path. She is now the head of V Plus Models, a new model agency devoted to promoting plus-size models. Mooney came second in the competition the year after Connaughton, and was also with the Andrea Roche Model Agency before resolving to push the boundaries of plus-size fashion.
“At one stage in my life I was 28 stone, so I know what it’s like for people to look at you and not really see you as a person, but more as a fat person,” she says. “So, when I lost weight and I started modelling, it was always in the back of my mind that, at fashion shows, the women were always seen as hangers and the actual girls were never represented.”
This lack of representativeness has pushed Mooney to host the Role Model Show, a model showcase taking place in the Mansion House, Dublin, on Friday, which aspires to empower women.
“I want to show that every single girl in our agency is a role model to younger women, to older women, to women who are on a journey, who are struggling,” she says. “The show itself is quite different. The girls will only have one outfit change. As the girls walk out on stage, a video will come up at the Mansion House of each girl’s personal journey.”
Connaughton, although she is not involved in the event, thinks it is admirable. “Anybody or any agency that can encourage women to view their bodies more positively, I am 100 per cent behind. The more that happens, the better.”
While successful plus-size models tend to be as tall as runway models and have the same facial symmetry and are photogenic, they also have a waist-to-hip ratio more akin to the national average than the average model.
Models such as Robyn Lawley, Crystal Renn and Vogue cover favourite Kate Upton (not a plus-size model, but considered slightly larger than the average due to her bra size) are simultaneously upbraided for projecting a supposedly unhealthy body image by some, while considered not to be plus-sized enough by others: Lawley is a size 12 and Renn has slimmed down from a size 16 to a 10.
“The fashion industry would dictate that a size 12 is plus size,” says Mooney. “A girl who is a size 12 probably has a BMI of maybe about 25-26, which is perfectly healthy. To consider that that girl is plus-size . . . I can’t imagine what that would do to a young girl who is feeling good about herself, to see a magazine that says that Ralph Lauren has launched their first plus-size campaign with Robyn Lawley, and in her mind, going, ‘I’m plus-size? What?’ Because people associate – and I know, because I get an awful lot of messages from women – plus-size with fat.”
“In my mind a plus-size woman is maybe a size 12 to 14 upwards and has extra lumps and bumps. As in, she has extra weight on her tummy and hips. Realistically, I think a size 16 is the normal plus-size, and that’s the way it should be. I think a 12 is perfectly healthy and beautiful. It’s not to discriminate against other models.”
Connaughton, who says Lawley is her modelling icon, disagrees. “If you’re not at the larger end of plus-size and you’re a model, you get the ‘you’re not big enough to be plus-size’ thing, and that drives me mad because it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re obese, nor does it mean that you’re thin – it just means that you’re bigger than the average model.
“Robyn Lawley has had a lot of criticism levelled at her by people who say she’s not plus-size. She’s incredibly tall but she’s definitely plus-size. She’s curvy, but because she’s not obese, people are trying to get in her way, trying to block her and trying to put her down.”
Retail is changing
Mooney and Connaughton do agree that the growth of the Irish plus-size industry is due to one thing: visibility.
“It’s becoming more age-related and there is more of a mix and there are more chain stores coming online with it, which is really good,” says Connaughton, who has modelled for chains including Debenhams.
“Things are changing, particularly in the retail sector,” says Mooney. “Debenhams are bringing in plus-size mannequins, Forever 21 have brought in plus-size mannequins and the tide is finally turning.”
Do they have any answers for those who would say that plus-size modelling promotes an unhealthy body type? For both, it’s a matter of self-esteem.
“One thing we don’t do, and this is something I’m very passionate about, is not body shaming any model or any woman of any size, because at the end of the day if you’re a six or a 16 or 26, you deserve to look beautiful,” says Mooney.
“Being plus-sized does not necessarily mean that you’re unhealthy, nor does being a straight-up slim model,” adds Connaughton. “For me it’s about being healthy in your mind, being healthy in your body, heart-healthy, having all those things.
“I have no illusions about my body. It’s not perfect, it’s far from perfect, but what harm? It’s the only one I have, and people who have bodies like mine deserve to see clothes [for them] as much as people who are slim.”
The Role Model show and after-party takes place at the Round Room in the Mansion House, Dublin, at 7pm on Friday. Tickets cost €50, available at vplusmodels.com