Erika Harwood: 'Plus-sized' models and the weight of labeling

By Erika Harwood, Daily Style Columnist
Published November 19, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, the internet was in a fury — as it usually is — about Calvin Klein’s newest model, Myla Dalbesio. In the “Perfectly Fit” campaign, Dalbesio poses as Calvin Klein underwear models typically do: in her underwear. It wasn’t until her interview with Elle magazine where they described the size-10 model as “plus-sized” that everyone on the Internet came out in hordes, wielding their fiery fingertips against their keyboards.

More recently, size-16 model Candice Huffine has been added to the roster of women included in the 2015 Pirelli calendar. For the unfamiliar, the Pirelli calendar is highly exclusive, not only in its distribution, but for its choice of photographers and models. In short: it’s a big fucking deal to be a part of it.

I’m not going to pretend that I have something groundbreaking to add to the narrative of “plus-sized” models in the fashion industry. A lot, maybe too much, has already been said on the topic. By doing a simple Google search of the women or companies above, views on the matter are ubiquitous and very, very loud.

The debate over the term “plus-sized” has been around longer than I’ve been interested in fashion. Issues like who can be defined as plus-sized and whether or not the term should even be accepted into the industry’s vocabulary are constantly part of the dialogue. New pseudo-scandals regarding the size of female models pop up a few times each year. They’re too skinny, they’re too fat, they’re not thin enough to be high fashion, they’re not big enough to be plus-sized. It’s the constant discussion that will never go away, but dear god I wish it would.

This column is in no way an attempt to make some poignant statement about the topic of weight in fashion, and believe me, I’d be the last person interested in reading the thoughts of a self-righteous undergrad on basically anything. Sadly, I pretty much am a self-righteous undergrad and I have a few grievances to air.

Body image is a nuanced concept that we’re constantly trying to generalize; models must be skinny, athletes must be bulky, Renée Zellweger’s face must always look like Renée Zellweger’s face circa 2003. Unfortunately (and maybe this is my inner-cranky grandma speaking), we live in a time of heightened self-importance, where every thought is entertained with a “like” or a “favorite” and dignified with additional comments of support or fervent disapproval.

Calvin Klein never described Myla Dalbesio as a plus-sized model, and they shouldn’t have. The more we see different kinds of women in magazines, on billboards, walking down runways with no qualifiers, the faster it will become “normal.” Elle made a mistake by labeling Myla “plus-sized,” and not just because a size 10 isn’t actually “plus-sized” — but because they shouldn’t have been labeling her in the first place. But even after they took down the tweet with the erroneous adjective, people were still fueling the hell-storm with tweets, think-pieces and other fluffy bullshit that was shouting very loudly but saying close to nothing.

Chrissy Teigen, another model who is no stranger to conversations about weight responded to the controversy by saying “I saw the photo, (Myla) looked beautiful — who cares?” and added that “the Internet is full of fake outrage.”

Fake outrage that hinders the progress to the issue at hand. Dwelling on mistakes and continuing to point fingers isn’t going to make fashion a more accepting place. Applauding and supporting brands that strive for change, take risks and find beauty beyond the conventional will.

Fashion is constantly evolving and changing its perceptions of beauty. There were the ’70s bombshells with teased, bleach blonde hair, the All-American girls of the ’80s and of course, the waify heroin chic models of the ’90s. As the concepts of beauty continue to be challenged — as they should — fashion will hopefully continue to become a more inclusive space.

In an interview with “The Today Show,” Dalbesio expressed her excitement about being in the Calvin Klein campaign, saying she was “right alongside all of the other girls of varying shapes and sizes, and (Calvin Klein) didn’t make a fuss about it.”

And neither should we.