At the beginning of the first episode of the first season of MTV’s reality show Supermodel of the Year (SOTY), host Anusha Dandekar announced what the search was all about: “Beyond a face, beyond a body, beyond any kind of model. We’re looking at an icon that redefines beauty!”
As contestants and alleged beauty re-definers sashayed down the ramp, a rapper belted out lines like ‘No need for validation when you know you irreplaceable’. We saw some skin colour diversity. We spotted a tiny bit of flab, we saw tight abs, and small variations in heights.
One contestant, Anushka Sharma, was an ex plus-size model who used to be overweight.
She told the judges how she never felt respected equally as a plus-size model, quit, and decided she would only get back when she ‘improved’ herself. She explained how hard she worked at the gym, to which Milind Soman asked her to show him how many push-ups she can do. And she did more than eight.
She was met with approval and applause. “On any kind of modelling show or beauty show, we look for certain types of beauty and whatever,” Dandekar began, impassioned. “But that doesn’t mean starving yourself or becoming anorexic, or bulimic. We don’t promote that…This is what we want. We want a person who wants to lose weight in a healthy way and be fit!”
“Supermodel is all about breaking these norms and stereotypes!” gushed judge Malaika Arora, who is the embodiment of golden ratio slenderness. “We’ve got heavy-hipped girl, heavy-thighed girl, not so tall girls. But that’s what it’s all about!”
As she says this, the beaming, otherwise eloquent Arora falters a bit. To my untrained eye, heavy-hipped girl and heavy-thighed girl appeared to be the same, singular woman in a lineup of 10. Anvita Dixit, the ‘Yogic Rapper’ seems to have what internet culture would refer to as ‘thicc’ thighs, but otherwise, almost every other woman in the lineup was objectively, conventionally ‘perfect’ shape. Not one of the models was plus size, or curve.
“This is a problem. Within the first half an hour of the show, it fails to uphold its promise.”
This was the show’s biggest problem. Within the first half an hour, it failed to uphold its promise. Eventually, the petite Manila Pradhan from Sikkim won.
To the viewer, the new definition of beauty the show claimed to uphold seemed to be quite narrow, considering it conspicuously excluded plus sizes. It’s as if the ‘heavy’ hips and ‘heavy’ thighs are about enough representation. We saw no fit women who are above a certain waist size. The idea of losing weight was considered an ‘improvement’, antithetical to the progressive ideas of positivity and inclusion. In all this, the whole thing felt slightly like “wokewashing”.
Where are the plus size models?
The show is not the only example where plus-size models have been left out. They face rejection on a near-daily basis, including at open-call auditions.
“I went to audition for an open call, and it said that all bodies are welcome. But funnily enough, there was no inclusion of plus-size models,” recounts model Neelakshi Singh.
“Like maybe, there were a token 2 or 3 models selected from Delhi, which I noticed from their social media page, but otherwise when it comes to including all sorts of body types–and I’m not just saying plus-size, but also much, much taller, much, much shorter women, or just even plump people between the body sizes of, say 10 to 12? None of them were really selected.”
Even in campaigns and runways that do include body diversity, representation leaves much to be desired.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of these other brands like Shivan and Narresh jumping onto this (bandwagon),” says model Swati Sucharita. “And their brands don’t even go up beyond an XL-oh, sorry–L.” Sucharita pointed out that it was also infuriating to see the brand employing influencers — who are far from plus-size — and misrepresenting them.
“I don’t think I can relate to them,” she said.
Interactions with various agencies indicated that diversity is almost a gimmick most brands indulge to push products during a big sale day ― like Women’s Day. While most agencies and promoters claimed they were all for body diversity in fashion, none of them could specify plans of spotting and grooming plus-size models so that they are ready for work.
For example, Gunita Stobe, director and co-owner of popular model management company Anima Creative Management, signed their first ‘curve’ model in 2019, 11 years since the company was set up. She told HuffPost India that she has got very few requests for plus-size or curve models in her 12 years with the company.
Though Stobe said they ‘do not source models when shoot requests come up, but only if (they) feel (they) can create a career path for them’, the fact that they have just one curve model in their organisation shows how an unfair number of odds are stacked against plus-size women.
The conversations with casting agencies and people who are responsible for providing models with work revealed that there is little empathy or understanding about what stops plus size women from taking up modelling seriously. Shamed all their lives for their body size, with no role model in fashion, television or films, most plus size women make peace with their bodies against a variety of odds.
Many women have articulated how the popular culture they have consumed growing up has only slotted their bodies as unattractive and definitely not meant for modelling. And there is little evidence that grooming agencies have made strident efforts to include women of various body types in their scope of interest or work.
Bangalore-based fashion consultant Anubhuti Verma, who has worked on ad and editorial shoots for a range of well-known mainstream brands in her eight-year career, said while casting plus size women, most of the times they get profiles of women who ‘are not models yet’.
“Agencies right now do not have a big number of plus-size models. I think there must be about 4-5 plus size women, not more than that. And I don’t think I know a single male model who is plus size,” Verma told HuffPost India.
Stobe added that the industry in India is still in its ‘infancy’ as far as curve models are concerned. “The discussion about this has only just started in the last year or two in the mainstream, so naturally it will take time for these opportunities to develop,” she said. She added that unless designers start designing for bigger bodies, there was no point signing plus-size women to the agency as they would not be able to offer them work.
“I think there must be about 4-5 plus size women, not more than that. And I don’t think I know a single male model who is plus size,”
Nikhil Dudani, who runs modelling agency Feat, told HuffPost India that they pick models ‘that stand out, have personality, something to say or add to what exists in the world’. However, rhetoric aside, he clarified that they follow a ‘set criteria of height and body stats for international runway models’. Feat cast models in the plus and curve category in Lakme Fashion.
Sanju Sreshtha of Inega, a talent management company, however added that there is a disparity between what petite models and plus-size models are paid. “As the market is used to a certain look, the idea of ‘plus-sized’ models rarely existed. This is however changing,” Sreshtha said.
It’s very common to see brands “street casting”, or scouting for people who are not trained models to feature for lifestyle shoots. “I actually look out for people all around us, especially Instagram, online, social circles, people’s friends, friends of friends,” says Pranav Misra, co-founder of Huemn. What better way for campaigns which aim to be relatable to their audience?
‘Real women’, however odd-sounding, is a go-to term in relatability campaigns for streetcasting.
“At a fashion week, a regular size model came up to me, touched me and said, “Oh, is this what being real feels like?” It’s kind of degrading to both of us. She was obviously joking, but then I’m sure there was some truth even in that joke. I was speechless,” Singh recounts.
“This happened seconds before we were to get on the runway. That made me actually think, ‘Why can’t we just be addressed as models?’ Just like petite women and tall women are still considered models? Why did we have to be a part of that, I don’t know, “real people”?”
Most curve models that Huffpost spoke too, have careers apart from modelling, even after measurable success. Singh, for instance, is an educator and brand consultant.
Popular influencer and content creator Sakshi Sindwani, whose big break came with modelling for Shivan and Narresh’s swimwear, says modelling accounts for about 30% of her income. She acknowledges that as wonderful as the new wave of body positivity in fashion is, there is still a long way to go.
“I feel like we should accept the fact that there can be a plus-size model participating in the show and not just one just to prove a point.”
Sabyasachi’s first plus model and muse Varshita Thatavarthi, too, was in a way, street cast. He spotted her at a jewellery exhibition in Chennai, while she was an aspiring actress, hoping to be cast in a Mani Ratnam film.
A successful trial shoot and a memorable campaign later, she’s in the ‘big leagues’ now. “I’ve honestly not had any unpleasant experience working with anyone after my breakthrough with Sabya. Everyone’s been extremely nice to me and I’ve had a great working relationship with them,” she said.
When Singh flew to Bangalore for a shoot in December, she discovered that the collection she was supposed to model for began at size 1X for plus size people and ended at 2X.
“I don’t know how they were calling themselves plus-size because I’m a size 16 to 18, which is possibly the starting size in a plus chart, and it was a snug fit for me too. They shot like, five pictures and when they looked at them, they were like, ‘you know what, I don’t think you’re working’.”
Size is a major and sensitive issue for many women in India. “We do not have any Indian body sizing standard at all, leave aside for the plus sizes,” says Dr Noopur Anand, an academician who is currently Project Director for INDIAsize, a government initiative to conduct a national sizing survey of India. “As of now, we are using US and UK size charts. We tweak them as per the data of sales and returns.”
In the US, the definition of a plus-size is about 34-36 waist and above.
She explained that there was a need for solid India-specific research for body sizes. According to her research, there are currently fewer than 30 brands offering clothes for plus sizes, and virtually no dedicated brick-and-mortar-stores.
Hyderabad-based Gulnar Virk Krishna, who owns Hashtag Marketing, has worked with luxury brands for more than a decade. She was even on the panel to pick models at Lakme Fashion Week around 2007, while she was with IMG Reliance, and notes that the standards have relaxed. “Earlier, if a model’s measurements were off even by an inch, we would have to reject her, but now, standards have relaxed quite a lot.”
Stobe explains that designers and brands make only one sample size collection to use for runway shows and shoots, adding, “It would be impossible for designers to make each of their runway outfits to each individual model size since it is extremely costly and time-consuming.”
There is a huge market for plus size wear, but many plus women feel underserved by the available options.
Big market, little representation
In 2018, a spokesperson from Myntra said the plus-size clothing segment will account for $5-6 billion in the $40 billion Indian online fashion apparel market by 2020, which is approximately 10-12% of the overall market.
However, many plus women that Huffpost spoke to, including models and non-models alike, felt vastly underserved by their current options. “The clothes that are available make me look bigger, and they’re not trendy–they’re very matronly looking. Sometimes I model for clothes I don’t feel like myself in, because I don’t feel confident in them,” Sucharita said.
“Designers clearly know there is a market for plus-size people, and a widening market means better business,” observes Shefalee Vasudev, editor of The Voice of Fashion.
“What they send out in communication may not be inclusive, but when you go to a designer for bespoke wear, they make garments for anyone, whether that person is a 100 kgs, or 53 kgs. So it’s not that they don’t make clothes for bigger people. They may just not be owning up to it in public communication campaigns or fashion shows, and that’s why it seems that the definition of the fashion aesthetic is still by and large dependent on very few body ideals,” she explained.
Which naturally begs the question: how is it justified to want the business of plus-sized persons but not have them represented in brand campaigns?
But Vasudev explained that change is a ‘work in progress’.