Becoming a Plus-Size Model

Refinery29/January 2014

For as long as I can remember, I have loved models. In fact, I still own the 2004 September issue of American Vogue that marked the beginning of my love affair with the top models of the world. Covered by Daria, Natalia, and Gisele, along with a fold-out of Isabeli, Karolina, Liya, Hanna, Gemma, and Karen, the “Models of the Moment” issue did to me exactly what it what was designed to. Those images created a story that made me want to be one of those models. In the photos, the models appear ethereal, desirable, and fashionable. Amongst those qualities, and despite their small differences in appearance, the models are all unmistakably and overwhelmingly thin.

The problem with message I received from that issue, and nearly every fashion image I have seen thereafter, was that thinness is the key to being like the models—or better yet, one of them. In my mind, thinness was their commonality, so that’s what set them apart from average people and made them models. The problem with me was that I was young, impressionable, and took that one measly theme of the fashion world to heart. At the time, there was no Tara Lynn, Robyn Lawley, or Candice Huffine. I hadn’t read Crystal Renn’s Hungry or heard of Gary Dakin. In essence, thin was all I had to look up to.

What I later experienced is what I assume many young aspiring models are familiar with. It began with endlessly researching famous models’ body measurements, weights, and career paths. Then, in an effort to emulate them, the dieting, calorie counting, over exercising, and self-induced brainwashing began. Eventually, I was fourteen years old, 5’10”, and a size 4. Still, in my mind, I was not thin enough. As disciplined as ever, I wasn’t yet ready to make my debut into the world of fashion modeling; so, when my mother finally took me to Elite Model Management in Toronto, I refused to get out of the car. Ironically, that may have been the best decision I ever made for myself.

Over the next eight years of high school and university, my body made its way to womanhood and naturally filled out. There wasn’t much I could do to stop it, and I never went back to Elite. I went through weight swings multiple times, and constantly wished to get back down to my pre-pubescent sample size. During that time I developed into an elite basketball player and successful fashion writer, and while modeling got put on the back burner of my mind, my preoccupation with thinness did not. After all, my body image idols were still the models in the pages of Vogue. Though my realistic interest in modeling had dissolved, it left me with some serious and seemingly permanent body image issues.

What I didn’t know in the time between buying my September 2004 issue of Vogue and growing into my body, was that there is—believe it or not—more to those models than a thin frame. I later learned that Daria Werbowy is a laid-back sailor who would eventually take a break from the modeling business to travel the world. I was inspired by Liya Kebede’s philanthropic foundation for mothers and children in need. Gemma Ward seemed more human when she gained weight after her famous friend Heath Leger passed away. Hell, did you know that Karen Elson has enough wit and spunk to throw herself a divorce party? Really, I discovered that they aren’t just models—they’re women—and that was the first step to healing myself of my unrealistic body goals.

I had to realize that women are worth more than their weight or beauty, whether they’re models or not. Contrary to what some of us learn, a woman’s value is not rooted in her appearance. As I progressed in the world of athletics and writing, I was lucky to have inspiring female mentors who showed me that women can be strong, smart, and successful—no matter what they look like. Having role models like those women changed my mind about what kind of person I wanted to be and what traits would make me value myself. Those pesky body image issues slowly went out the door and I began to focus on my intellectual achievements, personal relationships, and good health.

Perhaps if I had known those things earlier, in lieu of losing weight, I would have set more substantial goals to be captivating like the models—but that, I’ll never know. I was lucky to evade teenage years of straight-size modeling and develop other interests; but ten years later, I have not stopped wanting to be one of the models on the cover of Vogue. I still find inspiration in models, whether they’re the supers of the 1990s or the new faces of Fall 2014. However, instead, of hinging that admiration on an image of thinness, I take interest in models as women.

As it goes, I have finally embraced my size 12 body, and now, I am a plus-size model. In one short year, I’ve worked with amazing clients including major powerhouses and smaller start-ups. I’m thrilled to work with both types of clients, because I never fail to learn something important. It’s exciting to be involved in what the big brands are doing to set the stage for plus-size fashion. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how the smaller companies interpret that and strive to create something innovative to make their own brands unique.

While the high-fashion industry is on the verge of a plus-size breakthrough, I could not feel more empowered to be delving passionately into the worlds of modeling and fashion while remaining true to myself. I celebrate my body, treat it well, nourish it, and stay active. I am not lazy, unhealthy, or unmotivated, and I think I speak for a number of plus-size women when I preach that. Every day that I don’t scrutinize my body, I am proud of myself. Every time someone else does, I am strong enough to pay no mind.

Speaking of scrutinizing, I think it’s important to avoid indulging in a battle between sizes. Some women are built like straight-size models, some are built like me, and some are built bigger. All women are beautiful. Don’t take my message the wrong way. I am not on a crusade of defaming thin models, nor am I on a mission to push plus-size fashion onto people who want nothing to do with it. My message is this: We should celebrate all women and treat them equally; you should love yourself independently of how you look; and everyone is different but all people should strive to be healthy. I have a positive body image now, but I had to teach myself that and unlearn unhealthy habits over ten years. I wish that young girls could see more size diversity in fashion, so that straight-size isn’t their only idea of beauty. I think we’re getting there.

I used to worship the thin bodies of models. Now, I admire their bodies of work, personalities, and individual beauty—regardless of size. I will never discard my beloved issue of Vogue, but now, it sits beside an Italian copy covered by plus-size supermodels, Tara, Candice, and Robyn. It’s the perfect reminder that there’s room for more than one size in fashion.

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—Lauren Chan