Is plus-size modelling as body positive as we think?

In 2019 we are all at the forefront of change in the fashion world. Buzzwords like body positivity, representation and diversity are gaining traction. We are making important steps towards representing people of different races, genders, abilities, sizes and ages. Finally, people are cottoning on to the fact that women come in all shapes and sizes—so the plus size modelling industry is booming.

But underneath this inspirational veneer is a commercially driven reality. Despite there being more plus-size models than ever before, plus-size women—and women as a whole— are still being told how they should look. And nobody’s talking about it.

By Elizabeth Harrington

We have always been obsessed with the ideal female body shape

The perfect female body shape has evolved across history, changing depending on the needs, ideals and fashions of different cultures.

The Venus of Willendorf is one of the oldest sculptures in human history. Dating around 30,000 BCE, it shows an apple-shaped woman with large breasts, waist and hips. In prehistoric times, women needed to have large and healthy childbearing bodies as a means of survival.

Plus-size body shapes were idealised during the Italian Renaissance for a different reason. Weight was a sign of wealth, so ‘rubenesque’ figures with round bellies and thick thighs became the pinnacle of beauty in art and high society.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the corset—the stiff, tight-fitting undergarment that literally changed a woman’s body shape. For centuries, women endured pain and lifelong damage in order to achieve the desired hourglass shape in clothes. It wasn’t uncommon for women to have deformed skeletons, as the corset would change the shape of their ribs and put their spines out of alignment.

When women decided to ditch the corset in the 1920s, the ideal body became flat-chested and waifish. And as quickly as the fashion changed, so did the ideal body shape. The 1950s saw the rise and fall of the hourglass frame, then there was the dainty frame of the 1960s, followed by the tall and toned amazonian women of the 1980s, before giving way to the ultra-slim ‘heroin chic’ frames of the 1990s.

If history tells us anything, it’s that we can’t seem to make up our mind about what the perfect body shape is.

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The rise of body positivity is changing everything

Fast forward to today. While the extreme hourglass has been popularised by Kim Kardashian, the rise of the body positive movement has seen more women embrace the body they’re in. Body positivity is about being unashamedly you, whatever your shape or size.

There has never before been more diversity in the media we consume. Plus-size models are everywhere: on the covers of magazines, in advertising campaigns and walking the runway. Models like Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence and Tara Lynn are becoming household names. But what do all of these top plus-size models have in common?

They’re all an hourglass or pear shape.

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Plus-size modelling comes with a long list of requirements

While the current cohort of plus-size models may range in sizes, their shapes are surprisingly similar. They have ‘perfect’ proportions, with small waists, large busts and hips. More than that, successful plus-size models are required to have a sharp jawline, long limbs and not a bingo wing in sight.

How often have you seen plus size models with flat chests? With hip dips? With no waists? With double chins? With pudgy limbs? Despite a few exceptions, the most successful plus-size models are void of most of the above. 

For most plus-size women, this is just not feasible. In reality, plus-size women come in all shapes and sizes. They’re apple and triangle-shaped, they have square and round hips, double chins and stomach rolls—today’s top plus-size models simply don’t represent the reality of being a plus-size woman. 

Is this really a big deal? All models, regardless of size, are held up to near-impossible standards. They’re meant to be a fantasy, a means to an end. The end being: selling products. And beauty sells. In the world of plus-size modelling, the hourglass and pear shapes are the most commercially viable because, quite simply, they’re considered the most beautiful. How terrible it must feel to be apple-shaped!

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So is plus-size modelling at odds with body positivity?

In many ways, plus-size modelling and body positivity go hand-in-hand. They’ve been sisters in the war against body shaming since the beginning. Without the body positive movement, there would be no one fighting for plus-size representation in the media. But the fight is far from over. 

If plus-size models have to fit such a restrictive criteria to be successful in this industry, then it’s fair to say the industry is not as body positive as it seems. Plus-size models are still being held to the same beauty standards that have plagued human history. Hourglass is ideal shape for women, be they a size 2 or a size 16. The apples and rectangles, however, are nowhere to be seen.

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We need to reconfigure our way of thinking about body shapes

Plus-size women are told everywhere how they should dress for their body shape. Society wants to categorise women and force them to fit certain boxes, using fruits and shapes to describe their bodies. Women are told what to wear and what to avoid. Wear a belt cinched in the waist and you’ll create an hourglass figure. Don’t wear horizontal stripes to avoid appearing too wide. Cover your ‘bad’ sides and accentuate your ‘good’. In short, try to look like someone you’re not. 

This way of thinking can be damaging. It’s damaging to women who can’t or won’t ever attain their ideal body shape. It’s damaging to women who are doing anything they can to reach this, going on diet after diet, getting lipo and plastic surgery. As long as women still feel compelled to fit these moulds, then body positivity has a long way to go.

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People like Billie Eilish are pushing back

Billie Eilish, the teenage pop star who’s become a global sensation, is known for wearing baggy and shapeless clothes that disguise her figure. She told Vogue Australia:

“What I like about just dressing like I’m 800 sizes bigger than I am is it kind of gives nobody the opportunity to judge what your body looks like. I don’t want to give anyone the excuse of judging.” 

In a campaign for Calvin Klein she further explained why she wears baggy clothes: 

“Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath. Nobody can be like, ‘she’s slim-thick,’ ‘she’s not slim-thick,’ ‘she’s got a flat ass,’ ‘she’s got a fat ass’. No one can say any of that because they don’t know.” 

When a teenage girl has to cover up her body in order to prevent body shaming, then there’s a serious problem. It’s a problem that affects all women. Slimmer women, too, seek unattainable body shapes. They must have a thigh gap, they must be “slim-thick”, aiming for the exaggerated hourglass shape, despite many finding it impossible to achieve without surgery. 

When body shape is an indicator of what is beautiful, almost nobody wins.

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What’s to be done in the future?

It can be life-changing to see yourself represented in media. It’s validating to know you’re not alone. While we are making great strides in representation, there is still a deficit within plus-size modelling when it comes to representing different body shapes. 

We are lucky to be living in a time where we are challenging beauty ideals. But we need to keep pushing. It’s not enough that we have models of different sizes. We need models of different shapes, too.

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