Chelsea Bonner on the size of beauty: Why are models so skinny?

Image: ABC/Chelsea Bonner (supplied)

By Lisa McGregor, Australian Story

Chelsea Bonner is on a mission. She wants the fashion industry to change the way beauty, size and body image are represented.

While Australian women have gained weight over the past few decades, the female ideal has largely stayed the same: tall, skinny — and usually young.

In the last five years alone, the waist measurement of the average Australian woman has stretched by two centimetres. That puts the average Australian woman at a size 14 or 16.

But while Australia’s women have expanded, the average size of our models has remained at a six to 10.

This means there is a large and growing gap between the average woman and the woman depicted in the pages of fashion magazines.

Does size matter?

Do you have to be slim to be beautiful? No, argues Bonner, founder of Bella Model Management, a model agency for plus-size, or larger, models.

“We should not be telling women that they need to be skinny in order to be considered attractive,” Bonner says.

But the fashion and media industries seem to think differently.

As Bonner explains, the effect of this narrow ideal of beauty is to make “women feel unworthy”. But is it possible to change such deeply engrained ideas about what is beautiful?

At a practical level it is, according to Bonner. And many in the fashion industry agree with her. It all comes down to the sample sizes made by fashion designers.

Plus-size model Chelsea Bonner founded Bella Model Management in 2002. Image: Australian Story/Ryan Brookhouse)

The problem starts at the top.

Designers send their clothing samples to fashion magazines in order to get advance publicity for upcoming collections.

Editors must then cast models who can fit into the samples. If the sample size is tiny, the model must also be tiny.

Kirstie Clements, editor of Vogue Australia from 1999 to 2012, says high-end international designers often use a size six for their samples.


Harper’s Bazaar editor Kellie Hush agrees that things “did get incredibly small a few years ago” but says that size eight is now the average sample size.

She cites economic reasons for small sample sizes — it is simply cheaper to make smaller clothes — but says “designers still want to present their collections on tall willowy women”.

Chelsea Bonner says photographers and stylists treated her differently in her work as a plus-size model. (Image: ABC/Supplied)


But model Robyn Lawley tells Australian Story the sizes of the samples are “ridiculous”. And she should know — at 183 centimetres tall and a size 14, Lawley remembers going to castings and not fitting into anything.


“They’d go: ‘You’re so beautiful but you’re just not right.’ And then you see the girls that are working and they’re half your size,” Lawley says.

David Giles-Kaye, head of the Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA), also agrees that the narrow image of beauty is a problem for the industry.

“If the consumers can’t engage with the fashion that is shown, then we’re not doing our jobs properly,” he says.

But he adds that the problem runs much deeper than sample sizes. “It’s cultural … It’s so engrained … It’s a complicated process — from designer through to consumer, all parties need to line up for change to occur,” he says.

Chelsea Bonner signed Robyn Lawley to her modelling agency in 2007. (Image: ABC/supplied)

A model childhood.

Bonner was born into the world of fashion. She says her parents “were considered two of the most beautiful people in the whole country”.

Her mother Nola Bonner was a top model and cover girl in the 1960s and ’70s. Her father Tony Bonner was briefly a model and then an actor, catapulted to stardom for his role as the heartthrob chopper pilot in hit television series, Skippy. Her sister Skye was also briefly a model.

But Bonner felt ‘the odd one out’. As a young girl, she was slim and sporty but when she hit puberty she developed curves. By then she was wearing her mother’s clothes and had decided to try modelling.

But Bonner says she was shocked when “they said I was too curvy and needed to lose weight”.

Chelsea Bonner's parents Nola and Tony were both in the modelling industry. (Image: ABC/supplied)


And so began a long period of teenage angst about her weight and self-image — diets and diet pills, drinking and smoking.There were other problems in the family. Her father, an alcoholic, was spiralling out of control. After Tony went into rehabilitation, the family moved to Queensland to try to make a fresh start. Eventually Nola and Tony separated.

Bonner dropped out of school at the age of 15. Her weight gain increased as she drank and partied. After one particularly heavy night, she woke up to herself.

Showing her characteristic determination, Bonner cleaned up her act. She went to Melbourne and got a job in a model agency. There she found discovered a career in plus-size modelling.

Chelsea Bonner was already interested in modelling in her early teens. (Image: ABC/supplied)


Chelsea's mission.

While Bonner learned the trade of a modelling agent, she noticed there was a growing demand for plus-size models (those over a size 14). There were very few local models available, so Bonner decided to earn some money on the side.

But, even though the larger models were in demand, photographers and stylists treated them differently.

“Some photographers refused to even work with us,” Bonner says.

And while the mainstream models were made up to look “young and fresh and glowy”, the plus-size models would be “made up to look old and dowdy”.


Friend and fellow plus-size model Rebecca Turner says Bonner was not always comfortable in her new role. But pride aside, Bonner spotted a business opportunity and has pursued it ever since.

Friend and fellow model Rebecca Turner says Bonner was not always comfortable in her own skin. (Image: Supplied/Sara catalogue)


In 2002 she set up Bella Model Management.

“We need to have different body shapes as part of our normal culture,” Bonner says.


“I think there’s room for everybody.”

Initially working from home with a handful of models on her books, Bonner slowly built her business. She now represents 65 plus-size models, including international supermodel Robyn Lawley, who she signed in 2007.

In Bonner’s eyes, Lawley is the ultimate success story. Lawley’s international success (appearing on the covers of magazines like Italian Vogue and French Elle) demonstrates a growing acceptance of plus-size models.

Despite this shift, a size 8 remains the norm for a model.

Plus-size model Robyn Lawley has appeared on the covers of Italian Vogue and French Elle. (Image: ABC/supplied)

Idealised versions of reality.

At the heart of the size debate is the question of whether we want to see real people in our fashion pages, or idealised versions of ourselves.

At the high end it’s definitely the latter, says Hush. And Clements sees no change at the high-end anytime soon.

“It’s this tiny little coterie of people who dominate everything and their aesthetic is that aesthetic and you’re never going to change that,” she says.

But what about the consumer? Does the average woman want to see herself reflected back at herself?

“Maybe, maybe not,” Clements says. “But what you have to do is give her the choice.”

There is certainly more choice today than there was 20 years ago.

Chelsea Bonner says the average women deserves the choice to see herself represented in the fashion industry. (Image: ABC/supplied)


New brands continue to spring up catering to larger women, meaning more work for plus-size models. Websites, blogs and Instagram are all shifting power away from established fashion magazines and presenting a greater variety of images.

“We’ve come far but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Lawley says. “And it’s now up to the designers.”

In the meantime, Bonner continues her mission to influence the modelling industry.

“I can’t wait for the day where they don’t even use the word ‘plus’ … that’s the-end game, that’s the ultimate goal.”

Watch Chelsea Bonner’s story, The Beauty Myth, on Australian Story on Monday night at 8pm on ABC1.

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