Back in 1994, if somebody asked you to describe a model – the kind of model you would see in the pages of Vogue, Cosmopolitan or Sports Illustrated – it’d be a pretty simple exercise. You would probably describe a slim, long-legged, evenly-proportioned and most likely white woman, with long hair, full lips, good teeth and long eyelashes. If she was wearing swimwear or lingerie, her physique would be trim, with nothing hanging out of place; her body easily contained by whatever revealing clothing she has on.

Answering that question today requires a broader vocabulary. The 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition had three variant covers, each featuring a woman of a different body size and shape. While Hailey Clauson is the closest fit of the 2016 women to the stereotypical expectations of a swimsuit model, the other two women – plus-size model Ashley Graham and MMA superstar Ronda Rousey – are distinctively different from what you’d expect to see on a Sports Illustrated cover, given its track record.

Although the mainstream media is a long way off celebrating every body type as equally attractive, the inclusion of Rousey and Graham as cover models is a sign of slow but positive progress. Setting aside the broader and thorny question of whether “progress” and “positivity” can exist within a mainstream media culture that determines a woman’s worth primarily through her appearance, fashion and media has been inching closer to a more inclusive approach to models and what amounts to beauty. So what is causing this shift, and is it something worth celebrating?

James Macari

Much credit is due to the rise of the body positive movement and its transition from a feminist movement to a commercially viable trend. Prior to existing as an Instagram hashtag, the Body Positive organization was founded in 1996 by Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott. Their mission was to enable people to overcome conflicts with their bodies, in order to focus on their health, unique identity and positive contributions they can make to the world, rather than seeking to obtain the impossibly ideal bodies presented by the media.

With its focus on a healthy lifestyle, fitness and exercise, body positivity gained traction as a genuine commercial trend, and became ripe for a whole range of brands to jump on board. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” was one of the first, launching in 2004 after an extensive three-year investigation by parent company Unilever. Taking out huge billboards all over the world featuring “real women” – i.e. not professional models – Dove invited the public to vote on whether the women were “wrinkled or wonderful” and “fat or fabulous”; essentially allowing consumers to “define” beauty for themselves.

Although this campaign received mixed feedback, with allegations emerging that the “real” models had been re-touched “to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage, but not looking unattractive,” there’s no disputing that it was a key turning point in the representation of diverse body types in the media. Through sheer numbers alone, Dove’s campaign put women with more realistic body shapes front and center, as prominent as the thin, blonde, catwalk-ready models the world was used to seeing.

Dove

Over the last 10 years since the Dove campaign, alongside the rise of the body positivity movement, a number of plus-size models have become prominent in mainstream media. The term “plus-size” can be misleading – “plus-size” in a modeling context means size 8 or above, and the average U.S. woman is a size 14. Given how frequently models such as Carré Otis turned to “plus size” after suffering through eating disorders trying to maintain their “straight” sizes, the success and continuing rise of plus-size models in mainstream fashion can only be a good thing for the health of not only models, but also of the women they’re selling to.

Ashley Graham has been the face of Lane Bryant, a major retailer in the U.S. for plus-size women’s clothing, since 2010. English model Iskra Lawrence is one of this season’s “role models” for Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie and swimwear range. Lawrence insists on none of her photos being retouched in any way, which is likely a major influencing factor on the “Aerie Real” campaign that she is currently fronting. Models being able to influence their own appearance shouldn’t sound like a development, but the fact that plus-size models such as Lawrence and Tess Holliday are able to set their own rules in an industry notorious for its all-encompassing control of its personnel is testament to the value – commercial and otherwise – of the body-positivity trend.

A symbiotic relationship has naturally developed between body positivity and the athletic wear industry. Athlete endorsement has been standard since the 1970s, and it is not unusual for female athletes to earn endorsements from major brands. However, what is unusual about the transition of Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey from sports endorsements to more mainstream modeling is that their body types aren’t what the media has traditionally portrayed as beautiful.

The fetishization of women’s bodies in sport has always focused on certain body types – think about the crossover appeal of Anna Kournikova, a tennis player better remembered for her blonde hair, blue eyes and slim figure than for her prowess on the court. Think also back to 1999 and of the hurtful taunts leveled at Amelie Mauresmo, the former tennis women’s World No. 1, regarding her physique and sexuality.

Annie Leibovitz

The body positivity movement’s ascension has coincided with the rise of two female athletes remarkable not only for their excellence in their chosen sports, but for their contribution to women’s bodies being regarded as both beautiful and powerful. Both Williams and Rousey have risen to the top of their respective fields, becoming bankable household names and raking in lucrative endorsements from athletic brands such as Nike, Reebok and Under Armour. With the body positivity movement celebrating healthy, fit bodies, instead of almost exclusively thin ones, it made perfect sense for both women – both exemplars of female physical fitness – to become not only models for athletic clothing, but for more mainstream publications.

2016 saw Ronda Rousey grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, as well as Serena Williams photographed by renowned celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for the 2016 Pirelli calendar, in a pose that emphasizes the beauty of her strong, muscular physique. It is worth noting that the Pirelli calendar is usually a collection of nearly nude “traditional” models. The 2016 edition is the first shot entirely by a woman in the calendar’s history, and the first to feature mostly fully clothed women, more notable for their achievements than their physical attributes. For a company and brand from a country that is relatively conservative when it comes to gender roles and beauty, Pirelli aligning itself with the values of body positivity and female empowerment is a shrewd and interesting PR move.

With Williams and Rousey flying the flag, sportswear and fitness modeling has made some of the biggest strides in body positivity, closely linked as it is with health and fitness. It makes sense that powerhouse brands are leading the way in this area – they have far more of a safety net to be able to take risks, such as chasing a new market in the form of plus-size clothing. Having said that, the bigger they are the harder they fall, and to persist with what is quickly becoming an outdated standard of beauty is going to hurt the reputation and currency of a brand. It is definitely in the best interests of big brands to back body positivity.

Nike recently promoted their new sports bra range with two women who look more like women you might work with or see out on the street. Rousey recently starred in an advert for Reebok, “Perfect Never,” formulated off the back of her loss to Holly Holm last year. In March this year, Lebanese-American model and blogger Nadia Aboulhosn appeared on the cover of Women’s Running magazine, only the second-plus size model to do so in the magazine’s 12-year history. June’s edition of Women’s Running features its first transgender cover model, setting the magazine up as perhaps one of the frontrunners in promoting transgender bodies as equally valuable as those that are plus-size.

Nike

There is no doubt that the body positivity trend would not be as big as it has become without it being commercially viable for brands with huge influence. However, demand fuels supply. A quick search on Instagram for “#strongisbeautiful” and “#strongissexy” brings up almost a million combined results. Body positivity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts – whether enough people making enough noise about a healthy lifestyle and strong female bodies has influenced major brands to take up the trend, or vice versa, there’s no questioning that society’s views on what is considered beautiful have significantly broadened over the last 20 years.

In the “Perfect Never” advert, Rousey emphasizes that being perfect – whether in terms of stereotypical beauty or your performance record – isn’t as valuable as being human. Regardless of the motivations of the brands capitalizing on the body positivity thread, it’s hard to argue against a message like this. There’s still a long way to go until all bodies – fat, thin, trans, non-binary – are celebrated as equally beautiful, but overall, it looks like body positivity is here to stay.

For more in the way of diverse fashion models, check out our in-house shoot with Winnie Harlow.

  • Words:Fern Seto
Words by Contributor
What To Read Next