Has Fashion's Tokenism Overlooked the 'Inbetweeners'?

For Charli Howard, Kate Upton and other models whose bodies don't fit the mold, working at their size meant dougie or die.
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Charli Howard at Refinery 29's Every Beautiful Body Symposium. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images 

Charli Howard at Refinery 29's Every Beautiful Body Symposium. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images 

In 2010, rap newcomers Cali Swag District premiered their debut single to commercial fanfare, referencing one very well-known Texan dance move: the dougie. Several years after "Teach Me How To Dougie" reached platinum status, a Florida swimsuit model was filmed by friends at a local baseball game coquettishly body-rolling to the smash-hit. The video received viral appreciation and almost overnight, the gatekeepers came a-calling: Kate Upton was to join fashion's most famous faces.

Except, she didn't exactly look the part. Despite Upton's highly-commercial, all-American girl image, there was a reason the model had previously been relegated to Guess campaigns or the pages of Sports Illustrated. With 34DD breasts and a reported dress size of eight, Upton was far from ideal industry body measurements (generally a 36-inch bust, 25-inch waist and 34-inch hips). She could neither be labeled plus- nor straight-sized, and yet, her career upswung to stratospheric heights. Barely a year after the model's dougie injected new life into the careers of Cali Swag District, she landed the May cover of American Vogue. The publication's profile opened describing Upton's work-out session.

It's been long-since realized that how we present ourselves reflects both our fantasies and those of whom we wish to attract — political alignments can be communicated with color, hemlines herald our values. And if fashion is a direct reflection of our society, then the arrival of Kate and co. seemed to indicate we've finally declared an end to the era of body-loathing. Ashley Graham, a woman whose size-16 figure — the U.S. average once believed to fall outside the realm of male desire — covered the 2016 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Only a year prior, British model Charli Howard's response to her agency dropping her because of her weight (she was then subsisting on cotton wool and apples to maintain a US size 0) made her an overnight sensation.

"The more you force us to lose weight and be small, the more designers have to make clothes to fit our sizes, and the more young girls are being made ill," Howard articulated in an open letter on Facebook. "It's no longer an image I choose to represent...I cannot miraculously shave my hip bones down just to fit into a sample-size piece of clothing or to meet 'agency standards.'"

Things began to change. Nike introduced curvier mannequins. Victoria's Secret chief marketing officer Ed Razek — famous for his resolute advocation of an unrealistic female body — finally stepped down from the brand. Many plus models have been gaining on the popularity of straight-sized peers as billion-dollar brands scramble to keep up with their body positive-booking competitors.

"We're sick of seeing the same body type," Upton told Andy Cohen last month in response to the ongoing Victoria's Secret backlash. "You have to be body-inclusive now. Every woman needs to be represented, otherwise it's a snoozefest."

Photo: Mario Testino/Vogue

Photo: Mario Testino/Vogue

As for Howard, she's since covered Women's Health and booked lingerie campaigns at her body's natural size of U.S. six-to-eight, a shape that is, in her words, "in-between" fashion's standards. "I know I’m not fat by any means, even though I'm considered a 'curve' model," she says. "It's taken me a long time to embrace naturally feminine things like my boobs and cellulite."

But Upton and Howard's stories, while stepping-stones and certainly emblematic of a shift, are unfortunately unique. While both women sit in the size four-to-10 bracket, they propelled off the pedestal of social media virality. For similarly-shaped models hoping to follow in the pair's footsteps, this means the same level of success seems somewhat unattainable.

"I've met a lot of girls who say they wish they could model at my size, but can't," Howard reveals. "I know that I'm an anomaly."

And the newfound demand for models larger than Howard has introduced a whole other issue: tokenism. "A lot of the time agencies push models into fitting in one category or the other by gaining or losing weight," she explains. "There's no excuses for [exclusivity], but I think there's still a long way to go before all sizes are accepted."

It's not uncommon to hear of agencies turning to size inflation to ensure their roster is booked for inclusive campaigns, confirms model and former "ANTM" contestant, Liz Harlan, with rumors of 'curve' models arriving to set only to be sent home for failure to fit plus clothing running rampant.

"Modeling is essentially professional catfishing; people in this industry lie," claims Harlan, whose career has encompassed ongoing weight fluctuation. "When I was a size 14 I was 'too small.' When I was a size two I was 'too big.' This industry is funny in how it makes you feel inadequate no matter where you are at."

Liz Harlan at NYFW in February. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Liz Harlan at NYFW in February. Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Casting director and model agent Ricky Michiels says that with the exceptions of brands such as Rihanna's Savage x Fenty, runway, campaigns and editorials still present limited opportunities for girls who fit in the middle.

"Unless the bigger luxury fashion houses start making clothing for all [casting women of medium sizes] will always be a struggle," claims Michiels. "I think what's really important right now is to let those who feel under-represented know that we see them and we're making a space for them that wasn't there before and the best way to do this is through visibility."

But commitment to that visibility is often egregiously hard to find. As reported by The Fashion Spot, Fall 2019 took a step back in curve- or plus-talent representation — the second regression in two years. While New York Fashion Week is known for leading the charge in diverse casting, the outlet noted it's still often the same lineup of designers casting the tens of women walking the runway: the likes of body positivity-champion Christian Siriano, Chromat and Gypsy Sport

The irony is, those falling behind are missing out on a mostly untapped market. Even fast-fashion giants, such as ASOS, are launching ventures to cater outside of straight sizes in response to growing demand. (The e-retailer saw a 37% increase last year across sales of size-inclusive styles over a six-month period.) Rihanna's Savage x Fenty show at the end of last month saw more curve and plus girls cast than straight-sized models.

"Many people in fashion are still stuck as to how they perceive beauty, but to be honest, those people will be out of work if they don't get with the program," Harlan explains. "The general public does not want to see that anymore."

With more and more designers attempting to be perceived, in Harlan's words, as "cool or modern" in their embrace of bigger sizes, the token dotting of the runway with large models to make a point is happening less and less. But the question of who pushed the needle first — agency or designer — is as difficult to pinpoint as the chicken and egg. For Harlan and Howard, this long-overdue advancement has catapulted their careers, to which both credit the investment of progressive agencies. (They are signed to Elite and Muse, respectively.) Their logic is simple: The more accessible agencies make women with non-traditional bodies, the higher the designer-demand will become.

"There will be agents who believe your career should be pushed down one route or another. You just have to stay true to yourself," Howard says. "It's amazing I get to eat and do a job I love. I do believe there's a huge market waiting to be broken where women like me are represented."

What remains to be seen, however, is where exactly the follow count fits in. Social media's delivery of models-cum-influencers sends a clear message, believes Michiels: Models have earned their "voice in fashion." The new generation of models doesn't need 'super' status to be heard by the masses, as evident from Upton, Howard and Harlan's success, but perhaps they shouldn't require a viral platform to be seen by the elite, either. Does it really take a video, or post, or reality television stint, for fashion to recognize an 'unconventional' model is worth the investment? Should every "inbetween-er" have to dougie their way to industry acceptance, only to wind up working out to stay there?

Maybe the general public just does not need to see that anymore. 

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