Welcome to the Learning Curve, a monthly column where we unpack the complicated experience of accepting your own body in a world that just doesn't seem to want you to. This month, in our first-ever installment, staff writer Nicola Dall'Asen ponders the lack of fat people in beauty campaigns — and in the industry at large.
The pull tabs rarely made it all the way to the top of the zipper. The size 13 jeans, the largest in the store, crept so far up my crotch that I could taste denim. T-shirt fabric stretched taut across my belly and the back fat that always hung over waistbands. Thanks to a lack of larger sizes in mainstream girls' and women's retailers, this happened almost everywhere I shopped for clothing — but never, ever in the beauty aisles.
I was lucky to have discovered the magical world of beauty products as early as I did, around the age of 10. My size never dictated whether or not I could curl my hair with my coveted Mary-Kate and Ashley curling iron or douse myself in Viva La Juicy (forgive me, it was the early 2000s). I could swatch dozens of eye shadows, free of unflattering dressing-room lighting — and would consistently throughout my life until I became a beauty journalist. When I bought these things in person, I could see other customers around me who had bodies just like mine shopping alongside those who had bigger and smaller ones too. Surrounded by beauty products, I finally felt accepted, hoping that fashion might one day catch up.
This is a familiar tale for many fat people, women especially. "Beauty was a way that I could feel pretty when I didn't have clothes that I could afford or that would fit me, so I always used makeup as a way of expressing myself," says Jessica Torres, beauty and fashion content creator and cohost of the Fat Girl Club podcast. "Once I discovered red lipstick, I literally was wearing it all the time. I was like, Wow, this makes me feel sexy and powerful, and I can do what I want." I've heard plenty of similar sentiments from other big babes throughout my life.
With this in mind, consider all the beauty advertisements you've seen in your life and combine them into one image. What do you picture? Here’s what I see: A thin, white woman. Her skin is taut, tan, and free of blemishes, stretch marks, and scars. She’s either giving a "smize" or is happily displaying virtually flawless teeth. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being white and thin, but when you consider the purpose of a beauty advertisement — for a brand to convince you that their product will make you more beautiful — we run into a problem. Because when you’re consistently taught to believe that the only definition of beautiful is white and thin (or proportioned in a very specific way), it can really mess with a person's self-image if they don't fit that mold (and many, many people do not fit that mold). Meanwhile, the people who are actually buying those products represent the full range of body sizes and shapes.
So you would think, given the special place beauty holds in their hearts and all that unlimited potential to market toward them, that brands would feature more fat people in their advertisements, on their social media pages, and on their retail websites. Yet I rarely if ever see hands with thick fingers in a brand's official photos of nail polish or eye shadow swatches. Or big, unedited thighs that rub together in advertisements for hair removal products. Or faces with double chins in sponsored contouring tutorials. To those who are underrepresented or are simply paying attention, this statement is as obvious as "the sky is blue." And it's only one of the many ways that systemic anti-fat bias negatively impacts people's lives, but it still warrants a conversation. Lots of them, actually.
I don't ask this question because I want to see more people who look specifically like me in the industry. I might write from personal experience to form a connection, but it's important I note that I'm a white, cisgender, able-bodied woman who's tall, wears a size 14/16, and has somewhat of an hourglass shape. (Some might call me midsize, most call me plus-size or even "small fat." I just tell people I'm built like a brick shithouse.) I am better represented and served in media and advertising than other plus-size and fat people, the result of multiple types of privilege. In fact, I'd argue that the beauty industry is featuring too many people who share my characteristics in lieu of more diverse plus-size body shapes, sizes, and faces.
Yes, the beauty industry is much more inclusive than it was when I was growing up, but consider these examples if you don't get what I mean. Ashley Graham is currently a spokesperson for St. Tropez. Precious Lee continues to appear in magazines and on runways (including Versace, Etam, and Christian Siriano), where hair and makeup trends are born. Glossier featured Paloma Elsesser in its 2017 Body Hero campaign, which included a larger-than-life billboard openly depicting stomach and back rolls. Dove, on the other hand, continues to cast everyday women instead of professional models in its campaigns as part of its "real beauty pledge." So when people think of plus-size models, the big names mentioned above are likely who they picture. They're undoubtedly gorgeous and totally valid, just not fully representative of the plus-size population (more on that in a minute).
Many industry insiders, including Torres, agree. "I have seen plus-size people and brown faces like mine being shown in campaigns as of late, but still not at a pace that represents what America looks like," she says. "The fact that we still don't have representation, even in beauty campaigns, seems a little bit off." On this note, Katie Sturino, the founder of body-care brand Megababe, would argue that the beauty industry has been making good body-diversity progress in the past three years or so, specifically because its products are sizeless. It's definitely more inclusive than the fashion industry, she says, but that isn't exactly a high bar to meet. "Picture a fragrance commercial," Sturino asks. "I don't think there's ever been a woman over a size two in a fragrance commercial."
Sarennya Srimugayogam stars in a campaign for Kulfi Beauty.
Priyanka Ganjoo, the founder and CEO of recently launched makeup brand Kulfi, says that beauty has significant work left to do in terms of accurate fat representation. "For so long in the [beauty] industry, we've seen plus-size representation as an exception," she explains. "But Gen Z doesn't conform to the outdated ideas of beauty [that millennials and older generations] grew up with and are actively rejecting them. We're at the cusp of that shift."
Others in the industry, including Glow Recipe cofounders and CEOs Christine Chang and Sarah Lee alongside Glory Skin Care founder Alisia Ford, respond with similar sentiments. All tell me they have witnessed improvements in the industry in regard to fat representation. However, they also agree that there's work left to be done.
Even when fat people are represented in beauty, they are usually expected to adhere to some type of aspirational look, one that still holds people, fat or not, to a rigid and, for many, impossible beauty standard. People in the fat-activism community agree that for the most part brands are still beholden to plus-size models and influencers who can be described as "acceptably fat," which means they have hourglass figures, flatter stomachs, no double chins, and/or other thin-presenting features.
Plus-size folks larger than size 20, especially those with features like double chins and round stomachs, simply have not been given enough love by this industry they help to thrive. Roseline Lawrence, a model (size 18) who's starred in numerous beauty campaigns, notices this too. "I would love, love, love to see midsize and super-fat models doing a beauty campaign," she says. "I want to see round, chubby faces and triple chins." Torres concurs: "I really want to see someone who has a double chin…Someone that you can tell is fat by their face," she explains.
And then there's the glaring fact that lots of these "acceptably fat" models are white or have a light skin tone, among other Euro-centric features. Lawrence credits Rihanna and Fenty Beauty for raising the bar when it comes to the representation of deep skin tones in the makeup world and therefore heightening her ability to book makeup campaigns. However, she still finds that being a Black plus-size woman plays a heavy part in whether or not she is able to book a beauty gig. "My identity definitely plays a huge role in landing jobs. It's a bittersweet relationship," she says. "My shade is more likely to be the darkest one [in a beauty campaign], but it shouldn't be. I don't think I should ever be the darkest shade for any makeup company I work for, especially if they are trying to be inclusive."
Roseline Lawrence stars in a campaign for Glow Recipe.
When we start analyzing other plus-size people's bodies (or anyone's body for that matter), it can feel like an invasion of privacy and autonomy (something that makes me hesitant to write this story at all), but what Torres and Lawrence say brings up an important reason as to why we talk about bodies like this so much. With the exception of body-care campaigns, most promotional beauty content is shot from the shoulders up. Because the beauty industry has a habit of booking these "acceptably fat" models exclusively, it's often hard to tell if a brand’s campaign or social media page is body diverse at all. A brand could cast a slew of plus-size models for its shoot, but if they all appear similar to straight-size models from the angle at which they're shot, is that campaign really doing much of a service to fat folks? Personally, I don't think so.
On a greater scale, we wouldn't have to have these hyper-analytical conversations about bodies and representation if industries were actually doing the work to show that they see and care about people with all types of bodies as opposed to just one. Maybe one day, we'll progress past the need for this, but for now, here we are.
As Sturino thinks, this lack of body diversity and fat representation remains simply because many people in the industry begrudgingly hold onto the idea that being fat is the worst thing a person, a woman especially, can be. "You have to get into something a little darker, which is that [some brands] know they're not casting plus-size women because they don't want to. Because they don't think that it's pretty. They think they're promoting obesity. They think they're promoting an unhealthy lifestyle," she laments. "That comes from a mentality that is so deeply ingrained into our society that you can hardly blame them for not really realizing it at this point."
This could also be due in part to the fact that beauty, while sizeless, is still deeply connected to the fashion industry. Sturino points out to me that luxury brands are far less likely to be inclusive of fat folks than mass-consumer brands. Most fragrance houses, as she mentioned earlier, appear to have strict beauty and body standards for their spokespeople and campaigns — and fragrances are often tied to fashion houses. Those same fashion houses also stamp their names on plenty of blockbuster makeup and skin-care brands. Their plus-size clothing and diversity of runway models vary from designer to designer, but the crop of plus-size runway and campaign models they tend to feature (if they feature plus-size models at all) are ultimately the same "acceptably fat" ones previously mentioned. Maybe if designers allowed even bigger sizing in their clothing lines they'd be more open to featuring visibly fat models in their beauty brands' campaigns too.
A more simple explanation for beauty's missing fat representation, Ford says, could be that beauty brands just want to stick to what they're familiar with, which is thin people. "I think what contributes to less body diversity in brand campaigns and social media is the fact that some companies are too afraid to move away from what they think works. They want to feel safe and secure," she explains. "But what I have found is that people resonate with representation. I think some brands are slow to recognize that they are choosing to isolate themselves by not including body diversity in their campaigns."
I can hear the words on the tip of so many people's tongues right now: "But Nic, I have seen fat models in ads before! How could anyone possibly feel this way?" That's a great question and it leads me to my next point, which is that the key to genuinely good fat representation always comes down to consistency. "It always feels exploitive if the plus-size model was only there for one campaign or two.…It seems to me that they're jumping on the bandwagon of body positivity and not really making an actual change in their company and their imagery to represent people," Torres says.
Sturino's opinion is that any progress made toward better body diversity in the industry is good, whether or not the intention is genuine. Still, she would also like to see more consistency: "If a business is going to go ahead and join the [body-positivity or fat-positivity] movement, then I can't punish them for that," she says. "I think that any steps they're taking are only good steps as long as they stay consistent. You see it a lot where they'll do one season or one campaign with any type of diversity and then in the next campaign they go back to whatever they were doing before and that is disappointing."
For Lawrence, authentic fat representation ultimately depends on whether or not brands are willing to depict racially diverse people with wide varieties of visibly fat features. "Great fat representation would be actually seeing visibly fat faces and bodies of different shades and skin tones," she explains.
A brand's social media channels, in my opinion, are the best places to gauge this kind of dedication to body diversity and fat representation. It's the most democratic form of brand promotion and the potential for collaborations with fat beauty experts, influencers, and fans is virtually limitless (with the exception of paid advertisements, which I'll get to in a second). Glossier, for example, created that amazing Body Hero campaign, but a long, leisurely scroll through its Instagram, its most-followed account, showed me only three people I could identify as plus-size (with the exception of the images from that one campaign) in the past two years of posts. We reached out to Glossier, who declined to comment.
As I said, that Body Hero campaign was great — and the brand's TikTok feed does feature lots of different body types, both thin and fat, upon first impression. However, it begs the question about all beauty brands: Even if a brand's casting agents have body diversity on the mind for campaigns, what about its marketing directors? Its social media managers? Its production leads? If only a few people working for or with a brand are dedicated to the inclusion of fat people, it could result in a situation where fat representation is seen only in short spurts and in specific locations. Any inclusion of fat folks by a brand is great, but I should never have to go intentionally searching just to find visibly fat people when interacting with a brand. They should just be there like they are in real life.
Something more brands might want to consider is asking customers and people in the fat-activism community where there is room for improvement — or even better, factoring body diversity into their hiring processes. In response to 2020's Black Lives Matter uprising, Glow Recipe created a diversity advisory board made up of five people from different parts of the beauty industry who represent a variety of backgrounds and body types. There was a visible uptick in fat representation on the brand's social media channels after announcing the creation of this board. And Glow Recipe's first-ever body cream campaign, shot shortly after the board's creation, includes Tess Holliday and Lawrence among other plus-size and visibly fat models.
As Chang tells me, body diversity is just one type of diversity this board aims to prioritize — and being able to collaborate with the board has been a learning experience for the entire company. "We believe the work to amplify diverse voices and bodies is ongoing and we'd highly recommend this approach for other teams," she says.
And because this board isn't a one-off project, we can all expect Glow Recipe to continue delivering the same if not a greater degree of diversity in all its promotional content. "Our diversity advisory board will continue to work with us to ensure we're serving our diverse community in our products, marketing, and content," Chang says. "Additionally, we're focused on how to best leverage our own platforms for social impact and to ensure we’re representing underserved minority groups as we test new products and feature and amplify diverse stories on our social media platforms."
A diversity board like Glow Recipe's is just one of many ways a brand could and should hold itself accountable in terms of body diversity (and, more specifically, fat representation). But the bottom line is that they just have to try — and then keep trying.
Those who do create brands with fat representation in mind, alongside existing brands that generally want to make an effort toward bigger and better body diversity, are sometimes met with resistance from retailers, social media platforms, traditional media, and fatphobic online audiences. For example, one of the first products Sturino created for Megababe, a chafe-resistant balm stick called Thigh Rescue, was initially written off because it addressed inner thigh chafing, a specific plus-size need. "I had a very large luxury beauty retailer look at me and say, 'I don't think this is a category that is very mass. I think that this is more of a niche market thing,'" she recalls, of her conversation with the retailer representative, a thin woman. (By the way, Thigh Rescue, which debuted in summer 2017, sold out before it even launched.) Ganjoo recalls a similar experience when preparing for the launch of Kulfi Beauty. "One incident that stands out to me is when a senior industry executive expressed her disapproval for our campaign images before we launched," she says. "I dismissed that as being woefully out of touch."
An advertisement for one of Megababe’s most recent launches, Le Tush Butt Mask.
Social media has also played a role in the lack of fat representation in advertisements. In 2016, an Australia-based, body-positivity activism group claimed that Facebook's ads team rejected their promotion for an event, which featured a photo of Holliday in a bikini. After the group appealed the decision, according to The Guardian, Facebook reportedly referred them to its "health and fitness guidelines" and in posted screenshots, wrote, "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable. Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike." Not long after that, Facebook issued a statement: "Our team processes millions of advertising images each week and in some instances we incorrectly prohibit ads. This image does not violate our ad policies. We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad." In addition, a Facebook spokesperson told BBC that "Our team processes millions of advertising images each week, so we occasionally make mistakes.…To be clear, the image complies with our advertising policies. We have now approved the image and apologize for any offense this caused." The group was allowed to keep the image on its page but was not approved to use it as a paid promotion for their event, according to reporting from The Guardian.
Facebook changed some of its ad policies in 2020. The "health and fitness" policy section is now titled "personal health" and specifically bans side-by-side, before-and-after photos and images that show only specific body parts instead of the entire body. These definitely sound better than the policies that were presented in 2016, but there's no denying that social media has historically enforced these policies with more vigor against images of fat folks versus thin ones. I reached out to Facebook for comment on their ad policies and didn't get a response prior to publication.
These struggles to better represent fat people on the front end are likely due, at least in part, to the fact that this lack of inclusion goes far beyond the models that brands hire to promote their products. It spans the entire beauty industry — among brand founders, corporate brand employees, publicity firms, content production companies, and, yes, even the journalists such as myself that are hired by completely separate media companies to write about those brands.
When asked how many fat folks they come into contact with in their day-to-day professional lives, Sturino, Lawrence, and Torres — who all occupy different corners of the industry — told me that they are often the only fat person in the room when on the job. "Back when we were all living lives and we were out at beauty events, the first thing I would always notice was that I was always the biggest person, or there would be two or three other [plus-size] people, tops," Torres recalls. "Everyone else was a white, thin, tall, Barbie doll-looking person." While shooting most of her beauty campaigns, Lawrence has felt similarly: "I've actually never seen a fat person in production. There have been a couple of times when I worked with a fat photographer, but usually I'm the fattest and darkest person in the room," she says. "And there are always the few sets where they don't have the proper clothes to fit me. I'm a size 18 currently, but before COVID I was a 14/16, and if the clothes barely fit, I knew I was the biggest size they hired out of 10 to 40 people."
Before Allure staffers started working remotely due to the pandemic, I saw this play out daily in my professional life. I'd meet with various brand founders and their publicity teams to discuss product launches. I attended high-budget promotional beauty events packed to the brim with people. I worked in studios to shoot editorial and advertorial beauty content. I walked the same halls and took the same elevators as countless other employees from various publications. In all of these circumstances, I'd come into contact with few people my size or bigger than me — and experienced the same thing at other companies. I don't mean to imply that current employees in these spaces aren't deserving of their jobs or capable of understanding fat representation, but when the lack of inclusion is laid out visibly in front of you it's easy to see how the beauty industry can get wrapped up in a singular idea of what "beautiful" or "aspirational" really is.
If you, reader, care about this issue enough to have read this much about it, I sadly have to assume that you are also plus size (regardless, thank you). For anyone who isn't, take a moment to consider what it feels like to be ignored (or worse, actively outcast) by communities you are in or hope to be part of. "It always makes you feel othered and it makes you feel subconsciously not included," says Sturino. "There's no barrier for size in beauty. However, not seeing yourself in those campaigns definitely makes you feel like…is it really for you?"
Torres began her fat-positive content-creation career specifically in retaliation for this lack of representation. "I always thought I had to lose weight to be thin or to be successful, to be allowed to wear makeup, to be allowed to experiment with fashion. [Not having fat representation] creates this idea that you have to not be yourself to participate in the world or in life," she explains, "I didn't see fat people like me wearing cute clothes or makeup. It always felt like something I could never even look at or touch and it made me feel very isolated from everything."
For me, it's a never-ending cycle that starts with dejection, continues on to anger, then sadness, and ends with hesitant acceptance before it shortly starts all over again. And it's infuriating that these feelings are something I have to explain. And all of this emotional turmoil is for what? So that I and other big people might one day physically, mentally, and emotionally exhaust ourselves to attain a body type that's simply not built like the ones we already have? I'm good, thanks.
Say what you want about "glorifying obesity" or "unhealthy lifestyles" (that's a conversation for another day), but you cannot and will not ever change the fact that fat people are here, existing. And contrary to popular belief, they're doing just fucking fine in their totally valid bodies! And they always will. Whether or not you view plus-size people as pretty or even worthy of respect, we still make up a sizable portion of the population in the United States and therefore drive markets, create trends, and shape culture as a whole (that especially goes for our fat Black women). Those of us who use mascara to feel more awake, find relaxation in our skin-care routines, or express ourselves through our hairstyles have long been paying dues to the beauty industry. It has certainly paid back some of that debt, but many of us are still waiting on our bonus checks.
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