I was a teenage plus size model.
I was also 200 pounds heavier than I am currently, and since I am a now size 14/16, you know I wasn’t just curvy. Innocently, my modeling career began when I went to buy clothes at a now-popular plus size store. This was back in 1998 when “curvy” wasn’t even a term people used. These were the days before empowering beauty hashtags and Tess Holiday.
But the fact that I was a plus size model wasn’t something I wanted to scream to the world. In fact, I was offered a chance to go to NYC but turned it down, namely because I didn’t want to be known as the chubby model. Because in those days, if you were modeling and not a size zero, you were just that, a chubby model.
Perfect Standards in an Imperfect World
17 years and 200 pounds later, the world is a much nicer place when it comes to size acceptance. But still, I was surprised when I turned on my TV and the new season of Top Model in Scandinavia is filled with exclusively plus-sized women. An entire show, in the land of beautiful, tall, thin, blondes, dedicated to larger models. Amazing.
But I had questions. Was this going to be cheesy? Had body acceptance made a giant leap in status, so much so that we are now normalizing it? And what did that mean for the American culture as a whole?
The format for the show is similar to the American version (hopeful models from Norway, Sweden and Denmark come together to compete for the title of Scandinavia’s Next Top Model), so I could easily follow along. I sat down, I watched, and I learned a bit about how we view people and how, despite the show’s unique premise, not much has actually changed.
The challenge this episode was to see how quickly the women could model two looks on a time-sensitive assignment. As they completed the exercise, the judges’ comments, much to my delight, addressed the women’s energy, eyes and attitude. Sure, their bodies came up once in a while, but the judges mainly focused on what made them excel in the competition.
I was greatly encouraged at this point in the show, but then came the winner’s reward. It was a date with one of the judges. The girl had a chance to sit down, have a few snacks and ask whatever she wanted.
Her question? “What advice would you give a girl just trying to break into this industry?”
His answer? Though the industry is changing, there’s still an emphasis on having “the right curves.” That translates to small waist, round bum, and tall. His advice confirmed the idea that some diversity is acceptable — but even then, there’s an ideal diversity.
You can’t be skinny — you should be fit. You can be curvy — if you also have a small waist. You can be bigger — but people still have to view you as healthy. You’re almost there — but not quite.
Our Tendency Toward Sameness
As he was describing the beauty industry, which hasn’t progressed nearly as much as reality TV, I realized how much our culture as a whole models these outrageous standards. We have firm expectations of what makes someone fit a particular mold, and we don’t allow deviation in that.
We do this with people all the time. We pigeonhole and too quickly judge. A best friend goes into the friend zone due to a lack of chemistry, even if he would make a wonderful husband. We may expect the girl who didn’t do well in school to end up in a dead-end career, even if she might thrive in less structured environments.
We peg people as interesting or boring, talented or inept, godly or ungodly; and in doing so we undervalue their ability to change — and we overvalue our ability to judge them fairly.
My adventurous spirit and the fact that I’ve spent 12 years abroad has had men, from around the world, question my willingness to put down roots. But if they got to know me or simply asked the question, they’d realize how desperate I am to settle down; I’m just waiting on someone to ask me.
Despite the judge’s advice, shows like Top Model are breaking the mold. They’re forcing us to question what we see as the norm — or at least they’re trying to. So I challenge us to rise to the same standard. We should often (and eagerly) examine our own thinking: What harmful standards for physical attractiveness or ideas about gender are we normalizing? Where are we accepting a false ideal? Where are we passing judgments when we should be offering grace?
And, once these answers are parceled out, we begin again.
Michelle Plett, a regular contributor at Boundless, is a writer, communicator and adventurer. She’s is happiest when surrounded by her friends and family and good coffee. She’s lived in London, England and Stockholm, Sweden and wherever adventure takes her next must have good coffee and snow.