The power of plus

The Asian Age.  | Vandana Mohandas

Plus size modeling is catching up and making an impact on defining public perception about beauty.

A file photo from a fashion show featuring plus size models

In an era of body positivity, the plus-size models are  cashing in on their curves  and making a career out of it, by challenging the pre-established notions of beauty.

The idea of perfection is different for each person. For long, a perfect body had been a flawless figure that fits into the corset of popular desirability standards – tall, skinny, toned and chiselled, but not anymore. Redefining clichéd beauty standards, more and more models break the moulds and show the world what perfectness really means; that it is beyond a certain shape or size, and that it is all about loving oneself for their natural appearance. Embracing their beautiful bodies, walking the ramp are plus-size models who teach the world to celebrate a person’s original fuller figure form, making a bold statement about body positivity.

Plus size modeling is catching up and making an impact on defining public perception about beauty. Explaining how they took the lead in changing the focus of desirability – from flawlessness to accepting the curves, plus size models and designers talk about the metamorphosis of mannequin-ish stereotypes of beauty concepts and the revolution in fashion industry in a fair-skin-obsessed, hour-glass-figure-loving country.

Dipti Bharwani, a fashion designer and plus-size model who describes herself as a body positive activist, recalls how tough the two-year journey has been. “Plus size modeling is extremely tough. People see plus size women as ugly. Even though modeling is the advent of  plus size women, not everyone still understands the concept of body positivity. Fat-shaming has always been there; it will take time for people to accept models like us. On the brighter side, a lot of plus-size models are emerging and making a mark in the industry with different body positive mantras,” says Dipti, who started modeling when a friend recommended her to an agency which was looking for a plus-size model with an edge. “My journey took a huge turn when I got selected to the Lakme Fashion Week to walk for a Plus size store and fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. After that I experimented with a bold boudoir shoot, which became an inspiration for many people with body acceptance problems.”

Dipti Bharwani

Not everyone was receptive; people called her names and saw her as a fantasy, but Dipti learned to ignore the bad and accept the positive. “There will always be someone who sees us as unfit and unhealthy or lazy for not trying to lose weight, but no one knows what we go through if its heredity or medical or hormonal,” states Dipti, who is proud to be a body positive activist. “This attitude came to me after years of insecurity. I didn’t have any Indian personality to look up to and so, I want to be that inspiration I never had, to tell people that beauty is what you see in the mirror and not someone else. If you feel beautiful, that’s enough.”

Concurring with her, Kais Sundrani, the 22-year-old post-graduation student at Jai Hind College, Mumbai, explains how he made his entry to modeling world after facing a series of rejections. “I always dreamt of walking the ramp, but every time I applied to take part in college fashion shows, I was rejected for being overweight,” recalls Kais, who didn’t let down himself and kept trying, till a friend informed him about the audition to the Lakme’s Plus-size show.

Kais Sundrani

“It was two years back. I gave an audition and from the 160-odd applicants, made it to the Top 4. Soon, I grabbed offers to model for major brands. When I went back to college, I could see that the attitude of students had changed. Everyone started looking up to me and in no time, I became an inspiration to people who were unsure about their appearance,” says Kais, who is excited. “I am happy that because of me, many oversized youngsters dared to take part in big shows. That I could motivate people who had been depressed and lonely because of their figure is a matter of honour for me.”

It was even more difficult for Dr Mona Varonica Campbell, who identifies herself as the country’s first trans plus-size super model for making it big in the fashion industry as a model, makeup and styling artist. While fighting to establish her identity, the Andhra Pradesh-born youngster quit her medical course to join the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Hyderabad, and later, completed post-graduation from London School of Fashion and secured PhD in business studies from Florida University.

Mona Varonica Campbell

Having completed seven years in the industry, the 29-year-old runs a makeup artistry in Hyderabad. At the Lakme Fashion Week 2017, Mona was the showstopper for designer Wendell Rodricks, to whom she owes big time. “My favourite designer, his flattering designs bring out the fabulous sexiness in curvy women. He breaks the fashion stereotypes associated with skin colour, body size and gender. Seeing plus-size models on the runway makes people more confident about their body. Each model, from size 14 to size 22, sporting comfortable attire makes bold statements on the ramp,” says Mona, who had cracked the LFW auditions as the top model last year. International modeling offers great avenues for plus-size models, stresses the trans model, who has walked the ramp for elite fashion designers as showstopper.

Etiquette consultant and pageant coach Rita Gangwani is quite hopeful of the body positive trend in the beauty industry. “The pageant industry has realised that they cannot pick contestants from the same mould among all these beautiful women worldwide. People are fed up of starving themselves into size zero and the industry now has contests for different categories like Miss Petite, Mrs Plus-size, etc. Models are accepting themselves and expecting the world to accept them,” she says.

Agreeing with her, Poonam Bhagat, Delhi-based fashion designer, says that with the introduction of plus-size modeling, the concept of beauty changed has become more real and relatable. “You put a plus size person on the fashion ramp under the arc lights and watch people clap as she catwalks, it is bound to make her and all other plus-size persons feel like a million bucks,” she stresses.

Rita Gangwani

Dipti finds the plus-size modeling field becoming more competitive and she is happy about it, “More competition means more people accept their body and step out of the shadows to make a mark in the industry. All you need is confidence and the right attitude and not a size zero body. I am size 26 and I rock every time I am in front of the camera or ramp.”

Having trained many plus-size models, Rita recalls the great time, “While grooming them, I realised that they lack  nothing and are as good as any model. In fact, they are more confident and more in tune their selves. What matter to them is not their shape or size but what is inside their body.”

Influenced by these gritty models who gracefully carry stylish outfits, many plus size stores have cropped up across the country. From uninteresting, parallel-shaped, loose-fitting garments, the plus size apparel industry has started experimenting with unique designs making everyone feel proud about their physique. In Mumbai, Dipti runs a clothing brand  which, for her, is a beautiful hobby that helps her connect to insecure women who were just like her. She also shares a few fashion tips for plus-size women, “Eliminate all your black outfits, because majority of plus-size women tend to hide behind black. Add colour to your wardrobe and your life. Use fabrics that are easy, breathable and more structured. Go for the shape that elongate your midsection and draw attention to you natural waist or your shoulder and neck. Don’t hide your best features, which can be your neck, arms, chest or hips; learn how to make them stand out without being too revealing. Parallel-shaped outfits make you look larger. Loose-fitting clothes don’t hide you, but adds to your size. Use layers to create different hemlines in your outfit rather than wearing something that is two sizes too big for you.”

Neha Dhupia walks the ramp for Poonam Bhagat’s Taika featuring the Miro collection

In her 27-year-long designing career, Poonam has considered herself as her muse. “I have gone from being tall and super skinny in my younger days to being tall and willowy during my 40s to being tall and statuesque (read plus size) in my late 50s. I have always designed for myself and what would look good on my kind of bodies. Naturally, the designs have also changed with the changes in my own self,” says Poonam, who loves designing for plus-size women to make them feel good in their skin. “The trick is to hide the flaws and accentuate the positives. Layering helps! Soft fabrics, asymmetrical cuts and vertical stripes too work. Besides, it’s far more challenging and gratifying to design for plus-size women. Anyone can make a slim woman look good if they have even an iota of aesthetics and design sense,” she opines.

However, she throws a word of caution, “Plus size should not be confused with obesity, which is unhealthy. Plus-size models are normal, voluptuous women as opposed to size zero models who are mostly anorexic and unhealthy… like the gorgeous Neha Dhupia who was always more voluptuous than the standard model.”

Mona too snubs the allegations of promoting ‘unhealthy lifestyle’, “There are different body types, but you can still be healthy and plus size. The industry is booming rapidly and it’s going to be tougher day by day. But all you need to have is a positive mind and a regular regime that ensures taking good care of one’s body and skin.”

Kais agrees, “As long as you are not lazy, it’s okay to be fat and even sport a tummy. Size and shape depends on each person’s body type, which no one can choose. I am a foodie and I make it a point to work out or hit the gym. Being fit and positive is the key,” says the six-feet-tall runway model, who is busy with his ad, TV commercial assignments.

Poonam feels that though zero-sized models are being shunned, there’s a very long way to go for plus-size models to rule the ramp. She states, “We see a lot of plus size models in print and electronic advertising which is already a way forward... Ramp will follow.”

Rita is of the opinion that women should rather be healthier and happier than trying to be slimmer. “A woman is supposed to be a curvaceous, a mother who can hug and offer comfort to her children. There’s no harm in being plus size as long as you know that you are being appreciated and accepted.”

As Dipti puts it, “The success mantra is being YOU. You don’t need anyone’s approval about how you look or how you should dress or how you should do things. No one is allowed to make you feel bad about yourself, and if you have people who put who put you down, please eliminate them from your life. If someone can’t appreciate you, they shouldn’t be allowed to insult you. Confidence and self Love is all that matters.”

Rita adds, “The trend has opened up a huge avenue for a lot of designers who come up with beautiful, creative ideas. In the coming years, there wouldn’t be any more body shaming. If you are happy with your body, you reflect that confidence for the world to remember that we are all diversified creations – happy souls woven.”

Huge fashion leaps
Big Beauties Little Women, the first agency to champion models over size 8 was founded in 1977. A brainchild of feminist fashion expert Mary Duffy, the New York-based agency also represented petite models.
In 1978, another agency named Plus Models was founded by Pat Swift, a plus-size model.
In 1988, Ford Models bought Big Beauties Little Women and rebranded it as Ford+. In 2003 it signed 15-year-old girl Ashley Graham, who became a proponent of the Health at Every Size movement.
In 2014,     Candice Huffine becomes the first plus-size model to be included in the the legendary Pirelli calendar, which features some of the top models each year