As huge advocates for the body positivity movement, we love seeing the careers of models like Ashley Graham and Laura Lee take off as they book notable advertising campaigns and pave the way for other curvy ladies to succeed in the industry. While we certainly still have a long way to go to achieve fair and realistic representation for models who are curvy, disabled, muscular, queer, and/or people of color, there’s one subset of models that you may not realize are being shut out of the traditional fashion industry. They’re called middle models, and they represent the average American woman, typically wearing a size 4 to a size 12.
Neither sample-size nor plus-size, these models are often excluded from booking traditional modeling gigs. As a middle model herself, Katie Willcox quickly learned the struggle of being too small for plus-size gigs and too big to audition for sample-size jobs — in fact, the experience irked her so much that she launched the Healthy Is the New Skinny campaign and opened up her own inclusive modeling agency, Natural Model Management. We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Willcox about life as a middle model and the shocking reason why they have historically been excluded from the industry.
Brit + Co: We want to be correct here: Is “middle model” the right terminology? Is the term widely used in the modeling and fashion industry? Would you feel comfortable if someone called you a middle model?
Katie Willcox: Yes, that works… There really isn’t a name that the industry uses.
B+C: Even though more curve models are being successful and gaining notoriety in the industry, middle models are still being excluded from booking print, digital, and runway gigs. Can you explain the history of how and why middle models have been excluded in the industry?
KW: Until recently, all women other than a size 0 to 2 were excluded from the industry. Then, the plus-size market was born due to a high demand for clothing in larger sizes. Social media created a platform for plus-size consumers to speak out against plus-size brands using models who weren’t actually plus-size. That movement created more opportunities for fuller-size models, size 14 to 16. Unfortunately, we as women haven’t voiced that we want to see average healthy sized models too. And so companies continue to use the small size models that they have used because, frankly, it sells. If there’s no demand, then there is no incentive for change.
B+C: What’s the current state of middle models in the industry?
KW: We are seeing changes for sure. For example, Express recently launched a new campaign showing three different size models, and their website now shows small, medium, large, and plus-size models. There are new opportunities popping up — but that being said, as a size 6 to 12 model, it’s still difficult to work full time and pay your bills.
B+C: You’ve mentioned that during your early modeling days you weren’t considered big enough for plus-size modeling but were too big to be booked for a typical runway. Is this a common struggle for middle models?
KW: It’s uncommon for the majority of models to fit industry-standard size. Most women who are 5’9” and taller are not naturally 110-120 pounds, nor are they naturally a size 14+. Like most women, their natural healthy size is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But when you only have the opportunity to succeed in two size options on opposite ends of the spectrum, some make a conscious choice to put their health on the back burner.
B+C: What kind of message does the exclusion of middle models send to young girls?
KW: When you only show two extremes (being an unattainable skinny beauty ideal and an equally unattainable plus-size ideal), the harm it causes to young girls is the same. We are telling young women to choose the ideal they want to be the most like, knowing that they won’t ever achieve it. By showing the middle size range, we take away the power of the skinny and curvy ideals. By showing big, small, and everything in between, we normalize having a female body. It won’t be shocking anymore! It will be normal to see a variety of women without labeling their bodies based on size. Hopefully, this will tell girls they are good as they are, and we can provide them with the opportunity to choose what shape and size is healthiest for them.
B+C: What is your company Natural Model Management doing to help promote middle models and lobby the industry or specific brands to change their ways and become more size-inclusive?
KW: Well, we represent them, so that is a great start! People think that agencies have the power, but we don’t. Clients have all the power by who they choose to hire. For a long time, agencies wouldn’t represent models who didn’t fit sample sizes because they couldn’t get them work. We went with the “if we build it, they will come” mentality. We represented these models knowing we wouldn’t be able to get them a ton of work but believing in them nonetheless. We are now seeing change on the horizon.
B+C: Do you think that grouping models into categories (sample-size, curve, middle) is helping or harming the industry’s push to be more inclusive?
KW: I think women are ready to drop labels altogether! The reality is, this is a complex conversation that involves so many aspects of the apparel industry that the average consumer is unaware of. There is such a wide range of sizes in the apparel industry, not having labels isn’t an option. Plus-size apparel requires a different fit and pattern than standard sizing. And it isn’t realistic to expect every clothing line to carry size 0 to 32, because that wouldn’t be feasible from an economic standpoint. I don’t think the issue is with size — I think the issue has been how thin women have been portrayed as superior to everyone else. That is what we need to change, because that is harmful media messaging that also happens to be untrue.
B+C: Many middle models and celebrities — including Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling — have faced backlash for appearing as curve models in campaigns (sometimes without their knowledge), with critics saying that they are taking the spot of a real curve model. What’s your take on this?
KW: Mindy Kaling once said being a size 8 in Hollywood is viewed as the equivalent of being so enormous you need to be buried in a piano. The people in the fashion industry and in Hollywood have been programmed one way: They believe that in order to be an “it girl,” you have to be skinny. I think that is why women like Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling being brilliant and successful offends them. To call either of them plus-size is a direct reflection of our idolization of underweight women and why we all have a distorted view of our own bodies.
B+C: Can you shout out a few companies and brands who are using middle models in their campaigns?
KW: Yes! Show Me Your MuMu, Express, Darling Magazine, and ModCloth are a few amazing clients that are using middle-size models in the standard size range, as well as plus-size models! It looks amazing!
How do you think the fashion industry is doing at representing all shapes and sizes of women? Tweet us by mentioning @BritandCo.
(Photos via Bradford Willcox)