This story was originally published on December 5, 2014.
Sabina, a 24-year-old model in New York, shows up at shoots with a bag straight out of Mary Poppins. It’s cute and normal-looking from the outside, but stuffed with a physics-defying range of things she needs for a full day of running between gigs. Make-up bags, outfit changes, snacks, and — since she’s a plus-size model — her fat pads.
They come as a set — pairs of flesh-colored butt, breast, and thigh pads, along with a spandex girdle to stuff them in — and are packed in a little, black bag. They’re part of the standard equipment a plus-size model carries. Sabina, who’s about a size 12, often needs pads to fit the size 14 or 16 samples of clothing that she’s asked to model. This is not uncommon: She says she uses pads in about half her shoots, and all the models we spoke to have used them.
The pads have a practical function. On a shoot where a model might wear dozens of outfits, padding is an easier way to make clothes fit snugly — much like the clothespins that are hidden out of view and used to perfect the fit of garments in high-fashion editorials. But, critics say argue that using pads simply creates a different “ideal” body for plus-size women — one that might be as hard to find or achieve as the impossibly tall and thin body of a straight-size model. The plus-size “ideal” is the body, big breasts, and butt of a true plus-size woman, but the slimmer waist, face, and wrists of the model beneath the pads.
Plus-size blogger CeCe Olisa remembers feeling disappointed when she learned about padding. “You think you’re straying away from the media’s “be skinny” mindset by embracing plus-size,” she says. “Then, you realize even that’s an impossible ideal. It’s frustrating.”
The past five years have seen a huge uptick in visibility for plus-size models, from Crystal Renn’s 2009 book Hungry to Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine, and Ashley Graham gracing the pages of Vogue just last month. Even Calvin Klein’s much-discussed decision to cast Myla Dalbesio celebrates a bigger-than-straight-size body in a space where you’d ordinarily only see the slenderest of women.
It’s not a shift confined to glossy magazine covers. Mainstream retailers from H&M to Abercrombie have added plus-size lines to their collections this year, and business is booming. Plus-size clothing sales grew 7% this year, to generate $17.6 billion.
That change brings a host of new gigs for plus-sized models, especially in the world of e-commerce, where industry insiders describe fat pads as just a trick of the trade. “Since all women are not created the same as the samples, sometimes you need to tweak to accentuate the garment as best as possible,” says Gary Dakin, who founded the all-size modeling agency JAG. Especially on shoots for e-commerce, where one model could show 50 outfits in a day, he says padding is quicker and cheaper than an on-set seamstress, and it makes things fit. “I do not think that padding creates the illusion of unrealistic body sizes and shapes,” Dakin adds.
Elizabeth Taylor, plus-size model and industry consultant (with no relation to the movie star), disagrees. “Padding shows that advertisers don’t really believe a woman who really is size 14 or above can sell clothing. When I first started modeling, they told us that women want to see really skinny women sell regular-sized clothing. So, they see a size 0-2 and they’re a 6 or an 8, and that’s aspirational,” Taylor says. By that same logic, a woman who’s a 14 or a 16, she says, would want to see a size 8 modeling her clothes. It’s the same aspirational (or deceptive) fashion industry practice, just geared towards a larger woman.
We talked to six women who work as plus-size models about the state of the industry and what it’s like to try to fit into the new “plus-size ideal.” Then, to get a better sense of the padding phenomenon, we asked them to take some pictures with — and without — their fat pads. The eye-opening results are ahead.
“I gave up straight-size modeling four years ago because I couldn’t keep it up — I was never skinny enough. It just got to a point where I was so exhausted, working out three times a day — not even eating oatmeal just because [I thought it] was unhealthy.
“It was a bit weird in the beginning to switch, going to the gym three times a week instead of three times a day. It feels really good to actually be accepted for who I am, [and] for someone to say that I have the ‘perfect measurements.'”
“I was pretty surprised — I didn’t know padding even existed before going into plus-size modeling. I don’t mind wearing them. As long as I fit the clothes and the clients are happy. But, I always bring the pads to a shoot, and a lot of clients request it as well. I probably use them for every second job, maybe.
“I would prefer us to not have to wear pads. When I was straight-sized, I wasn’t skinny enough, and now I’m plus-sized, and I’m not curvy enough. It would be nice to be like: I’m this model, and this is me. For society to know that curvy models don’t have the same sizes…you can be curvy and a size 12.”
“There is definitely a plus-size ideal, which is why plus girls pad. But, [I] don’t think striving for that ideal by using pads has bad intent. I pad on set because I don’t have a very curvaceous bottom half; the pads make the clothes look better. With any type of modeling, it’s about making the clothes look good. Padding makes me a better model.
“I don’t think it’s any more unrealistic than the normal retouching or the way that straight-size girls pad their bras. It’s part of the whole ideal that the fashion and modeling industry has put forth.”
“When people tell me [that I’m not big enough to be a plus-size model], it always gets said in a way that is supposed to be complimentary. It’s more like, ‘Girl, you ain’t plus-size. No way! You look amazing!’ It’s supposed to be complimentary, but it’s loaded because it uses ‘plus-size’ as a negative thing.
“10 years ago, the girls, the agents, and the clients in the industry never would have dreamed of what’s happening now. And, it’s happening at such an accelerated rate; we can only dream of what will happen in another 10 years. Hopefully, there will be an industry where there aren’t any categories at all.”
“I’d struggled since I was 15 to stay a straight size. I was working in London, and they would keep measuring my hips and saying ‘you need to cut down.’ It was difficult; I’m just not that shape. I was so young and I was a swimmer — I literally couldn’t lose any more weight. So, it was either lose the weight or put on some weight. I knew what the easier one was.
“It was weird to walk into an agency and have them say, ‘You need to put on a little bit more weight.’ It felt so foreign. I learned how to put on inches that aren’t necessarily fat. I find it really empowering now. It’s almost like I can build my own curves.”
“I think padding is about slightly changing the body shape rather than creating a different person. With plus, it’s very difficult to have the perfect proportions, because when you put on weight you don’t put it all over. With shoots these days, you’ll get there and have 80 outfits; you can’t expect everything to fit.
“You’ll be on a shoot, and some garments fit perfectly, and then some might have a waist that’s a little big. If you haven’t got time to take it in or a seamstress isn’t on set, it’s easier for me to just stuff it.
“I get backlash on social media for saying I’m a plus-size model. If I say I’m a model, they say, ‘Yeah right, you wish.’ But, if I say I’m a plus-size model, they’ll say, ‘No way, you are way too slim!’. I’m more of a 12, and plus is more of a 14 or 16. I didn’t want to put on more weight; I wanted to stay really healthy, and I think this is a good size for me. I would love to campaign for girls my size — I’m really proud of the size I am and the curves I have.”
“I started modeling at 14, and did straight-sized for 10 years. I switched because I had children and I just couldn’t travel the world the way I used to. When I did start gaining weight, I had to force it on and keep it on. I’m curvaceous, but I was a 0/2. There’s not much body there as a 0/2. Having kids, I felt like a woman and actually got to look like one.
“I don’t get caught up in what I am supposed to be. The clients go back and forth anyway, like Lane Bryant — sometimes they want an 8 and sometimes a 16. I’m just pretty confident that if they want me, they’ll book me.”
“The whole padding thing started on the mannequins, because the mannequins are all shaped the same. But, it never bothered me. I’m not the one that shows up on set and is like, ‘Am I really wearing that?’ You can put me in anything, and as long as you pay me, I’m good.
“The padding pads me in areas I wish I had. Like butt padding. Everybody does it, surgically or not. What about collagen in your cheeks or lips, which lots of people are doing in the industry? That’s permanent padding. But, it’s all about feeling better about yourself.”
“I started when I was 7, and I was pretty much straight-sized until I was 13 or 14. Then, I started to get hips and boobs. And, I got nitpicked at: ‘She has to be these certain measurements, and she has to look a certain way.’ And, that was just way too much. So, I gave it up until I was 18 or 19. Then, a plus agent reached out. I was like, ‘What is this plus size you speak of?’ It’s really progressed in the past couple of years — so much heat on women with fuller bodies.
It’s nice that a girl who cannot be represented by a straight-size agency is still represented. In a straight-size world, she would not be represented because she’s too big, but then according to the world of plus-size or full-figured, she’s not big enough.
“Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s absolutely true [that no one feels the right size]. These other girls are being pressured to be a size 2 and they still feel too big, and with us its like ‘If you could put on a few, that’d be great’ or ‘You’re losing too much weight.’”
“There’s always some form of padding used — it’s like you’re sculpting your body. Is it realistic? It depends. If you look at it as artistic, then I can respect it. But, as an ideal for women? It’s unhealthy, because not a lot of women are going to look like that.
“Then, sometimes I think people want something unreachable… I think we still have a long way to go. But, as it stands, I’m very proud to be a part of the full-figured community of women who embrace their curves and set a good example for younger women. And, even though you have to do padding and it’s unrealistic at times, it’s a happy medium. Baby steps. “
“I started off plus-size, and I’ve always been curvier. I always had a booty and boobs… Over the years, clients have been going from looking for smaller plus [models] to suddenly they want bigger…they go for more 14/16. And then, sometimes they love a 12. So, it’s been different over the years.
“In the straight-size world, those girls [are often] photoshopped, or their clothes are always pinned in the back. And, the same for us. Our sample sizes range…sometimes they’re just really big sample sizes, and to help out the stylist, it helps to add a little extra on the hips. It just depends. Sometimes you have 50 outfits in a day.”
“There is a big range. Some of us have to wear padding… I, for example, only wear it every now and then — not for every client. But, yeah, my agency [has] girls starting at a size 6. Unfortunately, sometimes the smaller girls don’t work as much. I would hope that does change. That’s the middle range that people are missing.
“I’ve always been athletic, and I eat healthy, but I’m naturally a size 12. Everyone’s naturally different. It’s just how it is. The fashion world hasn’t come around to that yet.”
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