Ashley Graham is a woman whose reputation these days precedes her. She is a pioneer model in an industry whose narrow standards of beauty are slowly being dismantled by badass babes like her. She is most well-known for her work in the plus-size arena, but her vocalization of how the fashion industry needs to be more inclusive of all bodies has made her much more than just a model hired to sell clothes, shoes, and accessories through brand campaigns.
She recently made history by appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue as the first plus size model, but her latest gig which does not depend on any sort of size specification is even more ground breaking. Ashley is the new face of H&M Studio Fall 2016 and for the first time is not just the face of a special body positive or plus size campaign.
Yep, this is a major step forward, seeing a major consumer fashion brand taking notice of the conversation that is happening in regard to the need for more diverse representation in campaigns. And we are certainly impressed, given the recent viral story from a British woman who shared about her frustrating experience in an H&M store.
Ruth Clemens tried on a pair of size 16 jeans expecting they would fit her (as it is the store’s largest stocked size and she is a size 14 normally) but was shocked when they did not. She was angry that for one of the world’s biggest clothing retailers to have clothing sizes that are realistically a lot smaller than what they say, they are sending an unhealthy message about body image and perpetuating the beauty norms.
While Ashley’s campaign isn’t specifically for a plus size range, the fact that H&M have made a rather progressive body statement means it may potentially have a knock-on effect elsewhere around the industry. In an interview with Harpers Bazaar about the store’s high-end campaign, Ashley expressed how exciting it is for her to be the face of the one of the most internationally known fashion retailers offering more options for curvy women that are also high-fashion.
And because she didn’t grow up seeing any major plus size fashion role models, she hopes she will be able to be that representation for young girls today.
“My hope is that young women who shop at H&M see me in the ads and are reminded that there is not one standard definition of beauty or one perfect size,” she said.
When she started in the industry 16 years ago it was vastly different from what we see today, where the body positive movement has become part of the mainstream fashion conversation.
“There wasn’t social media helping to launch careers, and ‘plus size’ models weren’t considered supermodels. Now we’re seeing curvy women on runways, on magazine covers and in major advertising campaigns alongside ‘straight size’ models. We’re seeing more inclusivity when it comes to size, and we have to continue featuring more and more diversity,” she said.
However, there is already criticism of the H&M campaign as writers from Verily Mag and Racked.com claim the plus size options from the new line are only available online.
“Not selling size 14 in store when your face is a size 14 isn’t really a good thing,” wrote Tiffany Yannetta from Racked.
It is certainly a good point and one we hope to see amended by the brand who are taking a major leap forward in an industry reluctant to do so en masse. But if there is anyone who would not just sell out for a huge gig, it is Ashley Graham. After all, she wouldn’t be the trailblazer she is if she dared to speak out about accepting her body for the way it is and refusing to change to please the fashion elite.
In an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled “shamed if I do, shamed if I don’t”, Ashley spoke about being criticized for allegedly looking “too thin” in an image she posted from the set of a TV show she was appearing on where she posed in such a way that some fans thought she had lost a lot of weight (picture below).
She expressed how the body-shaming is not just reserved to one particular demographic of women, but that it exists in all spheres, as she witnessed it first hand.
“To some I’m too curvy. To others I’m too tall, too busty, too loud, and, now, too small — too much, but at the same time not enough. When I post a photo from a “good angle,” I receive criticism for looking smaller and selling out. When I post photos showing my cellulite, stretch marks, and rolls, I’m accused of promoting obesity. The cycle of body-shaming needs to end. I’m over it,” she wrote.
She did point out that she in fact weighs more than she did a few years ago, and also that she shouldn’t feel the need to justify that to anyone because if she DID choose to lose weight, “it would be no one’s decision but my own”. And this is exactly why we love her and why appearing in such a major campaign sends a powerful message not only to industry power players, but also to the general population of fashion consumers and self-appointed body-police.
“No matter how many empowerment conferences, TED talks, and blog posts are out there, women keep tearing one another down over physical appearance. Body shaming isn’t just telling the big girl to cover up. It’s trying to shame me for working out. It’s giving “skinny” a negative connotation. It’s wanting me to be plus size, or assuming I’m pregnant because of some belly bulge. What type of example are we setting for young girls and their self-esteem if grown adults are on Instagram calling other women “cowards” for losing weight, or “ugly” for being overweight?” she said.
Her message is not just about inclusivity, it is part of a very specific movement that says a woman’s worth is not solely calculated on her physical appearance, but she recognizes the visual platform she has means she wants to use her voice for good.
“Yes, I am a curvy woman. My industry labels me a “plus size” model, and society has labeled me a “plus size” woman. But I am not just here for the size 8s (where plus-size modeling starts) or the size 14s (my current size) or the size 18s (my former size). I am here for all women who don’t feel comfortable in their skin, who need a reminder that their unique bodies are beautiful. I’m very proud of my work as a model, and I’m even more proud of the work we’ve all done to raise awareness for body positivity and size diversity within the fashion industry,” she said.
Everywhere we look – in magazines, online media, TV, film, advertising, the beauty and fashion industry, and even in the fitness industry – it’s easy to find messages geared toward telling us we need to change something about ourselves (for women it is typically something physical) to be accepted in society and to feel happy. This is a horrible and manipulative tactic that has worked for far too long and is now slowly being broken down because women like Ashley aren’t afraid to challenge it head on.
“I understand that people follow me and look at my photos to see a different representation of beauty, one that is often excluded from mainstream media and advertising. When they look at me, they see themselves, and maybe that’s why seeing me eat a cheeseburger makes some people feel good about eating whatever they want. However, I refuse to let others dictate how I live my life and what my body should look like for their own comfort. And neither should you,” she said in her Lenny essay.
We hope this is not just a one-off for H&M and that many other brands will follow suit in portraying models of all different shapes, sizes, ages, races etc to start sending a NEW message of empowerment that every body belongs in the world today.