From the days of trailblazers like Kate Dillon and Sophie Dahl onward, plus-size models have occupied a unique position within fashion. Challenging expectations on the runways and broadening the industry’s view of beauty, these women do much more than sell clothes. Often enlisted to speak about body image, representation, and the politics of being in front of the camera, they inspire debate and change.
With opportunities that extend beyond sample sizes currently at an all-time high, this new generation of models is shaping the business of being beautiful—through means as diverse as TED talks, global activism, or their honest and uncensored Instagram accounts. Here, five standout stars who are at the forefront of a movement.
While she’s currently best known for gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s latest Swimsuit Issue, Ashley Graham has strived to challenge perceptions since the beginning of her career. Speaking extensively about body image in interviews and think pieces and candidly tackling misconceptions regarding size in her TED talks or onstage at SXSW, Graham has dedicated herself to continuing the dialogue regarding size, both in and out of the fashion industry. Though she rejects the traditional “plus” label and its connotations, Graham has been instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling when it comes to the type of work models larger than sample size are asked to take on, particularly in the lingerie and swimwear sectors. Her pioneering spirit doesn’t stop there—when she had difficulty finding the sexy, stylish garments she wanted to wear herself, Graham took matters into her own hands, launching an eponymous lingerie collection and joining the ranks of model entrepreneurs.
Being unfiltered online is practically a given these days, but no one does it quite like Barbie Ferreira. Posting unretouched photos and candid Snapchats and sharing her eclectic personal style has made Ferreira one of social media’s rising stars but she’s more than just another Instagram girl. Using her platform to spread a message of confidence and body positivity, Ferreira has struck a chord with indie publications and hundreds of thousands of followers.
As a model, humanitarian and writer, Philomena Kwao isn’t afraid to address the issues of body image and race. From penning autobiographical essays about self-acceptance to challenging the plus-size industry to feature greater diversity, Kwao continuously pushes for a message of inclusivity. In 2014, she started The Lily Project, an open forum for young women to discuss issues pertaining to image, politics, and feminism in a safe space. Beyond fashion, Kwao’s advocacy for global healthcare access and work with Women for Women International makes her a multifaceted rising star.
In the age of virality, a single Instagram update can get the entire world talking. When Clémentine Dessaux posted a video of herself enjoying Christian Louboutin’s Rouge Louboutin lipstick, she started an online frenzy. Viewers were moved not only by Desseaux’s perfect French girl style and an enviable crimson pout, but also by the sight of a voluptuous model starring in her own impromptu self-fashioned beauty campaign. Despite the fact that cosmetics advertising often has little to do with weight, the rarity of plus-size faces within the space is notable—but Desseaux’s success may soon change all that. As a blogger and a creative agency founder—Desseaux runs Les Mijotés, a brand-strategy firm in Paris—she hopes to impact not just the ads but the way in which they’re made.
As arguably the most visible plus-size model within the high-fashion world, Candice Huffine’s frequent work with photographers like Steven Meisel and Camilla Akrans represents a different ideal within the world of rarified editorials. Landing on the cover of Italian Vogue and posing for the iconic Pirelli calendar made Huffine a star, but her reach extends beyond the pages of glossies. Huffine has been vocal about her desire to change the way plus-sizes are perceived. Case in point: With stereotypes failing to acknowledge that size doesn’t dictate health or fitness level, Huffine recently took to the Internet to share her training practices for the New York City Half Marathon. Her recent post—taken after crossing the finish line, medal in hand—sent a powerful counter message.
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