Today the 19 worldwide editions of Vogue Magazine announced a pact to work only with healthy models. It’s sparked a lot of discussion about whether the fashion industry can wean itself from ‘unhealthy’ body ideals.
I always wanted to be an agent. As the daughter of top Australian fashion model Nola Clark and actor Tony Bonner, our lives revolved around ‘The Agent.’ The most exciting part of the day in our house was when this magical person rang and gave my parents the good news about which jobs they had booked. The excitement it generated was amazing, and I knew I wanted to be the person who made that phone call.
I began working as an agent in my mum’s own model agency in Noosa when I was 16. I became a junior booker at a top model agency in Melbourne when I was 19 and by 21, I was running their commercial division.
Around that time I noticed that ‘plus size’ clients only used older mumsy models. As a young fashionable size 14, I couldn’t identify with those models, so I asked my boss if he would put me on the books as a plus size model. Within a short period of time, I was modelling all over Australia and internationally.
I took time off to model full time but I missed the excitement of helping creative people fulfill their dreams. I was approached to manage a top photographic agency, which I took up. I loved it and was privileged to help start the careers and represent some of our most well known photographers, hair and makeup artists and stylists.
The one thing I hated about my job was that I witnessed so many disturbing habits that models formed to keep them from eating, from drugs and purging food, to excessive exercise and binge-ing. However it was only when my own sister began a five-year battle with anorexia and bulimia that I realised what I was a part of and how it affected women, not just in the industry, but every women who saw these images.
In the worst grip of her illness, my sister at 5’7 and 45 kilos looked me dead in the eye and said she would kill herself if she was as big as me at size 14.
It wasn’t long after that that I had my epiphany. I could combine all my knowledge as an agent and a model and focus it on helping women, by changing the perception of beauty, to help to redefine what was considered attractive and fashionable.
And so I started BELLA, a fashion model agency for healthy, realistic sized models starting from a size 10 and ending at what we considered a maximum healthy weight was for each individual model, normally a size 16. The term plus size is a way to differentiate the kind of model we represent. Just like a petites or commercial division, it’s a descriptive term the industry uses, but many people don’t understand that a plus model is size 10 plus. We are not talking about morbidly obese women. Most Vogue readers would be considered plus size by the modelling industry, but not at all in every day life. And so my goal was to provide models that represent the majority of Australian women, not the minority.
My hope was that by introducing the fashion world to the idea of using models who are still extraordinarily beautiful, in proportion and most importantly healthy, that no women will ever feel that they would rather be dead than not look like the majority of the models in our magazines, who represent at best one per cent of the population in dress size and who, for the most part, struggle desperately to stay that size themselves.
In the beginning the biggest obstacle was how to make plus-sized models fashionable, when they had only been seen as thirty-something size 16 women modelling in catalogues. How could we prove that a plus sized model is just as capable of producing the same awe-inspiring images of their smaller sisters when it was rarely, if ever, done?
I gathered together the talented photographers and stylists to help me shoot test shots in the same style they would shoot for the magazines they worked for. Although I think they thought I was a bit mad for trying, they did it anyway. This allowed us to send out images to clients of plus size models shot in an editorial style, something they were unlikely to have seen before.
Tara Lynn and Crystal Renn on the cover of The Times magazine (Photoshopped image)
The other obstacle was sample sizes, which are still our enemy. Having worked in the industry, I understand that for cost reasons, retailers and clothing designers need to sample in a particular size. However the sizes are always eight or sixteen. Where is the middle ground? Why not sample in a size ten or a twelve? We want clients to look at their bestselling sizes and use a model or sampling in that size. Using a size four or six to sell a line of clothing whose target market is a size twelve to fourteen just doesn’t make sense to me.
People in general are getting bigger, and I don’t mean fatter, I mean taller and broader. When my mum was modelling, 5’6 was considered tall for a women and a model was considered extremely tall at 5’9. Now that’s the minimum height requirement for a model, but the sample sizes haven’t changed!
Recently I was at my niece’s graduation and most of the girls at 17 were taller than I am at 5’9. Most were sized between a healthy 10 and a 14. These are the women of our future, and the average size will naturally change.
Why does it matter to the fashion industry? Designers and retailers want to sell as much product as possible? Then marketing it to the eighty per cent of women who exist between eight and sixteen makes sense.
By using fashion models that best represent their customer demographic, they are attracting more sales dollars, they are encouraging women not to wait until they look like the tiny size of the model in the campaign ad before buying that perfect little black dress. Women will buy it right now, because they can identify with the model and don’t feel judged when they try the garment on and look nothing like that image.
Without healthy role models in fashion, we will end up with another generation of women with shocking self esteem who can’t identify with the models surrounding them every day, or live up to the expectations that come with those images. The cycle of self-abuse, of abuse of food and drugs, binging and vomiting will begin all over again with our daughters. We must try to represent a broader view of beauty, we must. For the sake of the bottom line – as well as women’s health and self esteem.
It seems perceptions are finally changing. Clients and magazines have given us a chance to show what’s possible. Readers have used their voices through social media and other outlets to spread the message of health over size. Curvier women like Kate Winslet, Beyonce and Christina Hendricks show off every curve proudly to the world, as does someone like Adele with a voice more important than a dress size. The perception of laziness and size is changing as more women succeed beyond the sample size and refuse to identify with the idea that you must be sitting around eating all day if you can’t fit into a size ten. And we maintain that body acceptance and healthy weight management is one and the same thing. If you are a healthy weight for your bone structure, then you should feel fantastic about yourself. It would be very difficult to feel good about yourself if your body is unwell or unhealthy.
Over the years we have broken so many barriers I thought we would never get through. Every job, every model has been a success and a stepping stone to the next amazing success. We have signed models to some of the biggest agencies in the world, including Ford, Storm and Wilhelmina, and even had Robyn Lawley on the cover of Italian Vogue.
But nothing could beat standing on the set of the Australian Vogue shoot with Robyn last year. I tried to stay as small and out of the way as I possibly could, but I ‘felt’ the history of what was being done that day in every cell of my body.
Robyn and I are very close and we just rode that feeling together all day. We finally felt accepted by fashion. When editor Kirstie Clements visited the shoot and said ‘After watching Robyn for only a minute you totally forget her size, she is just an amazing model’, it all fell into place. I thought to myself, every minute of every day over the last ten years, every frustration, every person who thought I was mad, every bowl of 44 cent chicken noodle soup I had to eat in the beginning to afford to keep my ‘crazy idea’ of healthy high fashion models going and for all my beautiful models who believed in me, that was the shoot that was worth it.
My hope is for inclusion, not the separatism we have had in the past. We are all women, we all love fashion, we come in all sizes, we all have money to spend. I see my young models and their friends unashamedly playing up to their curves and not hiding under the sacks that used to be offered to young women. When I was 19 I could hardly find anything to wear on the high street. Today, many stores cater to all sizes, yet they still don’t accept them as models. I hope this changes in the future.
When the biggest most powerful voices in fashion unite, fashion will change. I hope everyone is listening – because women are demanding the change.
What do you think of the Vogue announcement?
Chelsea Bonner is 37-years-old and the owner and director of BELLA model management, a model agency that specialises in plus size models, models who are size 10+. Chelsea and her team are passionate advocates for the use of more realistic sized models throughout the fashion and media industry and hope by introducing clients to the idea of using models who more closely represent the nations size average they will improve women’s health and self esteem. You can follow them here. And on Facebook here.