Where are the Models in the Middle?

Ashley Graham, a 28-year-old size-16 model, recently graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. As might be expected, there was significant controversy over a plus-size model being one of the three cover models chosen for a self-identified 'sports magazine.' Cheryl Tiegs, a former supermodel and two-times Sports Illustrated cover model, was one of the many to criticize the magazine's decision to give Graham such a coveted position.

“Her face is beautiful, beautiful,” she said, “but I don't think it's healthy in the long run.” Nicole Arbor, a model and comedian, best known for her fat-shaming YouTube video “Dear Fat People,” also commented on Graham’s cover in another video, “Dear Fat People 2: The Second Helping.” She noted that Sports Illustrated models are “supposed to be the mecca of perfection,” which she claims Graham is not.

When I read this news, I was torn. As a former model, I have a vague understanding of where Tiegs and Arbor come from. Arbor states, “If any other model showed up to the shoot looking like [Graham], they’d be fired.” There is truth to this. 'Straight models,' or models that are sample size 0-2, are expected to maintain their weight or be let go from jobs and even their agency. While modeling, I managed to starve myself down to a dress size 2, but once my weight fluctuated back up to a healthy size 4/6 (I was a varsity tennis player and gained weight in season), I was rejected from an agency because of my size.

This isn't really news to anybody—almost everyone you ask will tell you that models are very tall and very thin. Perhaps that’s why women like Tiegs and Arbor, both of whom have discussed the rigorous lifestyles that they lead to maintain their figures, are slightly bitter at the sight of a full-figured model on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It doesn’t seem fair that some women are pushed to their mental and physical limits in order to achieve a tiny frame, while others are free to indulge.

However, I’m not personally bothered by the fact that there’s a plus-size model on the cover because I believe the magazine handled any potential backlash very well; of the three cover models, one is Ronda Rousey, an uber-fit MMA fighter; the second is Hailey Clauson, a stereotypical, sample-size, blonde bombshell; and the last is Graham. This collection of ladies makes a clear statement: sexiness is not cookie-cutter; it is not a body fat percentage or perfect, subtle muscle-tone. Any size and any shape can be sexy.

The controversy surrounding Graham’s appearance was reminiscent of one of my own great frustrations while I was in the industry. I constantly asked myself why it is that women in the modeling industry could only find work when they maintained a size 0-2 or 12-18. Especially when many young, healthy, athletic women rest around sizes 4-10, one would imagine that designers and brands would want to represent them. Women classified as underweight and overweight in terms of BMI are already well-represented.

If equal representation of all body types is the goal, where’s the happy, healthy medium? Resolving this discrepancy is the next step in the journey to creating a truly diverse set of role models for girls and women.

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