With the end of 2008 rapidly approaching, I thought I would for go my usual “Model Behavior” series and leave a little bit of “food for thought” with you to chew on to nourish and fortify you for the new year.
At the beginning of 2008, a few of my close friends got special invites to a very exclusive meeting at an undisclosed location. I found out later from these friends that this meeting included most if not all of the African-American movers and shakers in the modeling industry. It was a resurrection of the Black Girls Coalition, an organization determined to change the status quo in the fashion industry. This particular meeting’s mediator was none other than one of BGC’s founding members Bethann Hardison.
“It’s been the biggest fashion story of the year and it’s had nothing to do with harem pants, the coat versus the cape, or the alluring comeback of the brogue. An industry not known for its crises of confidence has been forced to ask itself some uncomfortable questions. Might there be something nearing apartheid inside the pages of the glossy magazines and on the runways of the international designer collections? Is fashion racist?
The debate – some say long overdue – would not have been kick-started without a woman called Bethann Hardison. The first black saleswoman in the Garment District of New York in the Sixties and a runway model in the Seventies, she spent the Eighties and Nineties as one of the few black women with her own modeling agency (for black and white clients). She’s so celebrated in the business that she’s known mostly by her first name only, like Naomi and Iman, to each of whom she also happens to be a long-time confidante and mentor.
Over the past 14 months she’s held campaign meetings in New York to speak out about a subject that has been largely taboo in the fashion industry. These are protest groups like no other – a cross between a rambunctious church service and the coolest party you have ever been to. Here, the likes of Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Iman, Tyson Beckford and Veronica Webb squeeze into a room with some of the fashion world’s biggest players such as André Leon Talley, editor-at-large of American Vogue and designer Vera Wang, as well as casting agents, stylists and representatives from the modeling agencies.
At each meeting, Hardison sits at the front and beckons people she knows to stand up and speak. ‘I knew I could make things happen,’ she says. ‘I knew I could make the rest of the industry feel self-conscious about what was going on.’
I wholeheartedly agree on the need for the BGC, I saw the need when it was conceived and I see an even more urgent need for it now! Someone HAS to monitor the “shot callers” who consistently send out the ridiculous message to the majority of the population that “beauty begins at a size zero”. Black models have long been discriminated against in fashion but plus-sized models are literally ignored across the board in fashion, music and media. It’s as if we don’t even exist and (if we are seen at all) the bigger you are the fewer opportunities you are allowed. But what really puzzles me is that I know for a fact that there were several representatives of the Plus Model industry in attendance at that meeting; yet whenever someone tried to bring up the issues concerning plus-sized models– I am told that at every turn the conversation was abruptly shut down and after several attempts; they were told quite rudely that no one was interested in hearing the plight of plus-sized models at this meeting.
It is interesting that the last paragraph of the above excerpt says that “she sits at the front and beckons people she knows to stand up and speak” but what of those people that she DOESN’T know, those whose interests include subjects that hold no interest for her. Do the voices of those that they represent not deserve a moment to have the floor?
This puzzled me. Black women are known for their diversity and most of all for their luscious curves – Statistics show that over 2/3 of the population is a size 14 and larger, therefore how can you NOT include plus models in a coalition for models??? That doesn’t make sense to me at all – to exclude a certain group of models from a so-called “coalition” of models IS discriminatory in itself…. Isn’t it? Perhaps a name change to “The Skinny Black Models Coalition” is in order.
Initially, these reports incensed me but once the stories had a chance to marinate within me, it got me to thinking…
Is it time for a Plus Models Coalition?
Q: Is it time for us to step up to the plate and form a group that monitors the fashion/entertainment industry and calls them on the carpet for discriminatory practices?
Q: And if it is indeed time, how do we do it and do it correctly so that united we become a force to be reckoned with?
I have tried to touch on the subject of “Unity in the Plus Community” in several online forums, usually in the form of a posting that I believe might ignite anger and/or disgust amongst us. (i.e. a certain celebrity interrupting his concert to ask women who weighed over 200 pounds NOT to come up and join him on stage – for fear of breaking it”). Unfortunately, that rarely happens – what I find is that most of us will take the attitude of “Oh well, he or she is not talking to me, so I won’t pay this any mind.”
Where is the anger? Where is the ire? Why do we not immediately unite to boycott the artist(s) who made the slur? If someone makes a homophobic or anti-Semitic remark, those groups will close ranks immediately and SHUT THINGS DOWN immediately if an apology and/or some sort of retraction doesn’t immediately follow! They threaten to boycott businesses and go right for the offender’s pockets because they know that a unified organization targeting their money can hurt them. They respect their power and go out of their way not to offend. We as a community don’t react like that. If I had been in that audience I would have taken my 200 plus pounds straight to the box office and demanded a refund! No one in their right mind should have to shell out their hard earned money to see their favorite performer(s) and then be insulted. Remember that the plus-size apparel market reports numbers upwards of 45 billion annually spent on clothing alone. There is power in our spending dollars – but only if we choose to wield it. Q: How do we begin and who will be amongst the organizers, the mobilizers and the Board of Directors of such a group?
Several people have mentioned to me (and others) about a need for this type of organization because of the rampant discriminatory practices in the plus modeling industry. But the problem is that no one person wants to take on the responsibility because it’s extremely time consuming and has the potential to become a financial burden on a single person. I think that the founding board should be a diverse mix but ALL members should have a following and or connections in the industry.
Q: How do we get the veterans and/or models that are actually working steadily to get on board and unite with the coalition?
No one ever wants to rock the boat when things are going well, so it will be hard to get the models that are working to get on board because they are fearful of being blackballed and losing the few crumbs that are being tossed to them. It’s easy to join a group if you are not working and feel like you are being slighted, but if you can’t get the successful girls to unite and join their “sister models in the struggle” to make the situation better for all – then we might wind up not being taken seriously by the industry or worse yet–written off as a bunch of disgruntled fat girls.
Q: How do we stop the in fighting amongst ourselves long enough to get the job done?
I don’t believe this is the time to argue about “Who is plus enough to be in the plus model club”. The fact is that in fashion plus-sizes begin at 10-12 and there is definitely strength in numbers, so perhaps we should begin with what is within the parameters of “plus-sized” and then work our way from there. The foundation has to be built first and then the expansion can come. If we cannot come together for the common goal – the plan will never work.
As the New Year approaches, a groundbreaking new President is about to take office and change is most definitely on the horizon. It has been a pretty decent year for plus-sized women in Fashion (Whitney wins ANTM, Toccara in Vogue Italia), Film & Music (Jennifer Hudson Wins Oscar for Dreamgirls and then releases a hit debut album) and Television (word has it that Kim Kearney AKA “Poprah” from VH1’s “I Want To Work For Diddy” will get her own dating show!)…And that makes me happy! Things are looking up for my curvy divas but they can always be better.
Perhaps it’s finally time to fight for more realistic changes to take place in the business of fashion. We no longer have the luxury of being complacent in where we are – comfortable is dangerous in this business – it’s usually a sign that you are not progressing. Perhaps it is time that we begin to create our own heroes and celebrities and no longer wait for someone else to proclaim them for us.
As 2008 comes to an end, I ask that you take this “food for thought” and chew it slowly and as you chew, savor and taste every single bite. Let these thoughts inspire and motivate you into paving new ground and blazing new trails for the plus community in the coming year. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.
Finally, Happy Holidays Family, I thank you for all for making this column a phenomenal success! I love reading all of the wonderful emails of encouragement that you send me regarding this column. It has been a wonderful year for me and I look forward to sharing a successful and prosperous new year with everyone!
Please be safe and enjoy your holiday season and continued success into the New Year!