The four top models seated on stage for Vogue's "Don't Label Us: The Models Reflecting Today" panel during its Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday have a combined 148 million Instagram followers among them. If their subscribers congregated to form their own country, the land of Paloma Elsesser, Ashley Graham, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner would be the ninth-largest nation in the world. Impressive, but not the point, at least if you ask the models themselves.
It's impossible to discuss the rise of today's league of supermodels, the aptly-named "Instagirls," without referencing social media. Which is why moderator and Vogue Runway Director Nicole Phelps was quick to bring up the topic of ownership that now comes along with such viral fame: I follow you, and I know you, so you owe me intimate details of your life by way of content. How does an "It" model navigate that dangerous expectation when Instagram has helped to give them their platform in the first place?
"I feel like I live a very public life," answered Jenner, she of mega-, monster-, unfathomable-fame. "My family has a TV show and we're all in this position. For me, it's always been a huge thing to keep that private aspect of my life. I almost feel power in having that, and I think there's something really beautiful to be said about that. I've strived for that almost my whole career, but I've realized recently that having so much privacy leaves room for people to create a narrative for you, and for people to assume something of you that could be completely untrue."
Hadid referenced an occasion in which her reality — the one behind the glossy walls of Instagram — was misrepresented.
"It's been a really interesting journey for me in terms of body positivity and body activism," she said in reference to her Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid. After months of fielding judgment from body-shamers, she opened up about her diagnosis this past February. "I loved my body and when I came into the industry, I didn't want that to change about myself... Regardless of what you say, you get pushback, and that's what's hard. I loved my body when I was curvier."
As Hadid expressed her frustration with the chorus of anonymous negativity that's now made possible by social media, Graham chimed in.
"People feel that they have ownership over your body in society today. And I think that it's really ridiculous because you don't. My body is mine," she said. "I work out because I want to stay healthy. And if I happen to gain 10 pounds or lose 10 pounds, it's none of your business."
Of course, as the world's most famous, and beloved, curvy supermodel, Graham has experienced this brand of resistance fully, notably coming from those (many) segments of the fashion industry still stuck in harmful, sample-sized ways. She recalled an editorial she shot as recently as four months ago when the project's creative director told her that if she lost weight around her hips, she would fit into certain, unnamed clothing brands. "I was like, 'You know that's not going to happen right?' All this right here is a part of me," she said.
For Elsesser, whose "big break" came thanks to Pat McGrath (and later, as a face of Fenty Beauty), fashion will only become more diverse when it overcomes tokenism — including the tokenism she and Graham routinely face as curvier models.
"We're supposed to be the pillars of the actual norm in America," began Elsesser. "Ashley and I are in the same industry, but we represent very different women, different identities, different experiences. Obviously, we have a connection, but it's hard when we're supposed to represent all of those identities in one. That's why it's important that we need other identities incorporated into this imagery to make everyone feel validated in a real way that can shape the narratives for people to come."
As modeling becomes more democratized (again, hugely thanks to social media), that's changing. The #MeToo movement, the floodgates of which opened a year ago to the week, has granted models — especially younger, less experienced ones — more autonomy in an industry in which predatory behavior and customs were once the norm. But according to Graham, modeling can still stand to educate itself on what #MeToo actually means, more holistically.
"I've had people working on my hair say, 'Oh, I don't want to #MeToo you.' First of all, that is so insensitive and awkward. You don't know what whose hair you're brushing has gone through, and their experiences, when you say a disgusting comment like that," she said. "If you don't really understand the #MeToo movement, go look it up. I mean, it’s literally everywhere now! I have to say that I am so glad that it happened because men are becoming more sensitive, and women are taking action and having those conversations."
It's these conversations, and personal collections, that, for the foursome perched on that stage at Milk Studios, give the modeling industry so much promise. In an Instagram caption, Hadid wrote (to those 43.7 million followers) that sharing ideas and experiences as a group is "the epitome of the camaraderie we share." There's room to grow, certainly, but there's also amble ground upon which to build.
"[It's] the conversations that we get to have with each other that are really broadening fashion," said Hadid. "A lot of people would be surprised to see the warmth and support that we all feel for each other."