We’ve talked about embodiment and the importance of maintaining a healthy body image. And we’ve talked about how difficult that maintenance is given the lack of positive reinforcement we’re surrounded with. But some may argue that that positive reinforcement is on the rise. Look at influencers like Erika Hart and cultural corner stones like Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show. Body diversity is on everyone’s mind. Influencers, advertisers, and fashion juggernauts are all responding. So, is body diversity still worth talking about? Is every body really represented? And if not, where are they?
What’s the (I)deal?
Before understanding what bodies are missing, we need to know which bodies are present and why. The “ideal body type” has evolved throughout history, consisting of every shape, size, and height across the spectrum. And yet, the most unachievable variety has stuck. Super slender yet athletic, athletic but not muscular, muscular in just the right places...the list of contradictory expectations goes on. Despite the contradictions in this unattainable body standard, it's the one that runways, magazines, and Instagram accounts continue to champion. While looking for diversity in body sizes is hard, seeking racial diversity proves to be just as, if not more, challenging.
Enga Domingue, a model and body-diversity advocate in the beauty and fashion industry, can attest to this reality. Throughout her youth and before her first big campaign (Glossier in November 2018) she remembers loving fashion but feeling “distant” from what seemed like an unattainable industry.
“‘This is the Devil Wears Prada, and I’m more like Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire.’”
“I was a young, black, chunky girl. So, it felt very distant from me in the sense that nobody looked like me and there was no representation for people who looked like me,” Enga said. “Even the black women that were depicted in fashion were still unrealistic looking and I could never relate to that; their hair was usually straightened, they were usually never dark-skinned, or represented in a way that was close to my community, close to home.” From the outside looking in, Enga described the fashion industry as “a white person’s world”. “[I thought] ‘This is the Devil Wears Prada, and I’m more like Fresh Prince of Bel-
As we know, patriarchy and Eurocentrism define these skinny, white, cis/het-normative, Devil Wears Prada beauty standards. With beauty in the eyes of the colonizer, it’s only natural that white, cisgender people continuously get the editorial spotlight. While current events have made the celebration and visibility of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks a hot button topic, that doesn’t mean the nature of body diversity in the media has changed. In runway modelling – where much of the commercial fashion industry takes its cues—there are numbers to prove it.
“Even racial diversity, which was at an all-time high in Spring 2020, saw decreases in New York, Paris, and Milan this [Fall] season.”
The Numbers Shape The Norms
According to the Fashion Spot’s diversity report, race, size, and gender diversity in the fashion world all regressed in Fall 2020. Across 194 shows, castings of plus-size and non-binary models dropped by nearly half compared to last year. Even racial diversity, which was at an all-time high in Spring 2020, saw a decrease across New York, Paris, and Milan this season. Yes, despite these slips the numbers are substantially higher than they were as recently as three to five years ago. But if body diversity is on everyone’s mind, the numbers shouldn’t be slipping at all. Not to mention that numbers aside, models still struggle with the consequences of inequity and exclusivity behind the scenes, regardless of what diversity reports indicate.
While high fashion drives much of the beauty and fashion world, we’d be remiss to neglect the role of social media influencers. With the rise of e-commerce during COVID, the lines between influencers and models continue to blur and said influencers continue to shape beauty and fashion norms. Quantitative diversity and inclusion reports have yet to emerge in the influencer space. However, it’s no secret that it severely lacks diversity thanks to the stories shared by Black content creators and e-commerce models, like Enga.
Although she entered the industry during a pivotal shift towards more body diversity, Enga’s still experienced her fair share of exclusivity, from people mistaking her for “the help” and misgendering her trans colleagues, to simply not feeling catered to on set. Her worst experience involved a white stylist getting defensive when Enga noticed that he laid her edges incorrectly and she shared what she knew to be the correct styling method for her hair type.
“A lot of people in the industry...they don’t know everything and they don’t take the extra time to go the extra mile and it really shows. Especially after the outstanding conversations we’ve had this year, it’s surprising to me that people are still not showing up on their A-game,” Enga said. “It’s surprising to me in such a free-spirited, welcoming industry, that there’s also so much ignorance and stupidity.”
While negative experiences have taught Enga a lot about advocating for herself as a curvy Black model in a skinny white-dominated industry, so have the positive experiences. Enga's encounter with Lacy Redway, the first stylist to come prepared with extra braiding tools after seeing Enga's hair on her call sheet, taught her that there truly is no excuse for the industry to remain unprepared for true body diversity.
“[Lacy] was kind enough to relay to me [that] when you’re in beauty school they do teach you how to do Black hair. She said it’s a choice when artists come to set unprepared to work with [women of color], because they are not doing their due diligence,” Enga said. “As a model, it changes your whole experience when you get to set and you are not welcomed with someone who understands you because you start your day at a deficit. You start your day feeling uncomfortable, you start your day having to advocate for yourself.”
And if there’s anything marginalized people have become familiar with over the last six to eight months (and beyond), it’s the importance of self-advocacy. However, non-white, non-normative models advocating for themselves won’t change their absence from campaigns and runways. The incessant lack of truly holistic diversity in fashion, beauty and media begs the question: where is everybody? Whose responsibility is it to make every body welcome in the fashion and beauty spaces?
"The new age model has an obligation to have a voice, and social media has given models a platform. Before, it was all about what you look like, but now it’s really about who you are.""
Including Every Body
According to Enga, the effort to advocate and include all marginalized bodies and experiences should be a collective one. However, there’s no denying that it’s the brands who decide which models get the camera time to begin with.
“It should be the brand’s job to make sure the people they’re hiring are aware. It should be the brand’s job to communicate to the hair stylists, the makeup artists, etc. That, ‘Hey! We’ve casted, XYZ people, and here’s what you should expect’,” Enga said. “If you’re going to go out of your way to make a really diverse campaign, you have to go out of your way to make sure you are responsible for it.”
Until brands pull up the way their various diversity & inclusion statements promise, models themselves will continue advocating for their own representation. “This industry is at the forefront of a lot of the change happening in this world. If you’re going to be a part of it, you should be involved” Enga said. She also spoke to us about how the increasing importance of a social media presence has shifted the “traditional” model’s role within the industry. “I do feel like the new age model has an obligation to have a voice, and social media has given models a platform. Before, it was all about what you look like, but now it’s really about who you are,” Enga explained.
And while models continue using social media and their own networks to amplify body diversity in the industry, we as consumers can support them! By following and engaging with models and content creators who resonate with our beautifully multiform realities, we bring them to the forefront. We can continue holding brands accountable by letting them know we want to see people who look like us. By exposing ourselves to rising stars like Enga, we begin to normalize the diversity of our world. The celebration of every body may be influenced by brands, but it can start with us and who we create space for in our own media consumption.