25 Women Of Color Who Paved The Way for Body Positivity & Plus Size Fashion
If you haven’t rolled your eyes at a mainstream news outlets’ list of body positive icons, then consider yourself lucky that you missed the frustration of seeing one of these stories come across your feed. Every few weeks it seems like another one pops up and not only are the majority of these icons above a size 8, but these lists usually include just one woman of color or sometimes none at all. I am so in favor of drawing attention to women who are challenging beauty standards but not if that list features women who all look the same.
It all begs the question: is a list like that actually challenging beauty standards or is it simply continuing to reinforce them?
In the press, the body positive conversation is being dominated by smaller white voices. Why does Amy Schumer saying she’s not plus size get covered by almost every news outlet while most remained silent on Gabby Sidibe’s sex scene on national TV? And when only certain bodies and voices are celebrated, this does a huge disservice to the community of individuals who worked so hard to get us here.
When Marie approached me to write this piece, we both agreed that a list focused specifically on women of color was necessary given the makeup of other such lists already published. And we also both agreed that this list wouldn’t just include the women that you may know today as leaders, but also focus on the accomplishments of the past that truly paved the way.
“I will note, now that plus sizes is cool and on trend, mainstream media has failed to acknowledge a lot of those who have been grinding and making waves in plus size fashion for it to be HERE today. While we may have lacked access to funds and to properly commercialize (like any other situation) our voices have become erased and minimized in this game,” says Marie.
Marie and I formulated the list together and I also reached out to Plus Model Magazine Editor-in-Chief Madeline Figueroa-Jones and plus model, host, and spokesperson Chenese Lewis for their input as well. When asked about the subject of a lack of inclusion, Figueroa-Jones called for a more unified and inclusive message.
“Body positivity is a lifestyle and much more than what you see on social media,” shares Figueroa-Jones. “There are many ways that we could all promote a body positive lifestyle for ourselves and those around us. I never want people to think that they are not able to participate simply because they are not bloggers or have a platform. The reason why the movement has thrived is because every day women and men are supporting those of us that are putting ourselves out there. We have been able to create change because of the support from the community. Unity is the key to furthering this movement!”
Chenese Lewis shares that this issue is sadly nothing new in the plus size fashion industry.
“Every decade in the plus size fashion movement has had key influencers with defining moments and women of color have always been in the forefront of the community. However, there are very few (if any) women of color in top leadership positions on the corporate level with companies whose brands directly affect the plus size industry, and that reflects in the imagery celebrated in mainstream media. I came into the community in 2000 and as long as I can remember lack of diversity has been an on-going issue, but it is reflective of our society as a whole because women of color make up a third of all working women, but they are scarce in corporate America.
For many women of color that have outstanding accomplishments in the body positive, plus size fashion, or any industry in general had to go above and beyond what is expected and sometimes still get overlooked for someone more privileged. Even though plus size fashion is getting more mainstream media attention, the exposure is less frequent for women of color compared to their white counterparts.”
And in the vain of celebrating that greatness, this is our list of 25 women of color who paved the way for body positivity and plus size fashion (in no particular order).
25 Women Of Color Who Paved The Way for Body Positivity & Plus Size Fashion
1. Mia Amber
The late Mia Amber was a plus size model who also appeared in 2000 film Road Trip. She stood up to Janice Dickinson on her reality show and left a major impact on the plus size community.
At the time of her sudden death in 2011, Figueroa-Jones issued a statement on behalf of PMM saying, “she was much more than just a model, but a role model we could look up to.”
2. Jasmine Elder of Jibri
Back in 2009, TCF of Jasmine Elder and her contemporary plus size brand Jibri and I had the opportunity to interview her just a year ago about her ongoing impact on the industry. When Elder started, she was not only one of the few independent plus size designers, but blogging and social media were just in their infancy. She built her brand from the ground-up on Etsy before moving to her own platform. Her designs have been worn by the likes of Jill Scott, Tasha Combs, and recently got a showroom visit from Chrisette Michele.
3. Stephanie Penn
Since 1998, Daily Venus Diva has been an online resource for curvy women and teens. At the helm, since 2009, is editor-in-chief and Detroit native Stephanie Penn. Living up to its name, Penn ensures that the site is bringing up-to-date content affecting the plus size community. Unapologetic, passionate, and bold, Stephanie delivers and addresses hotly debated topics and celebrity news effortlessly through Daily Venus Diva.
A quick look at the magazine’s cover archive shows how frequently women of color, including Liris Crosse, Christina Mendez, Erica Watson, are featured on the magazine’s cover. Even Marie was a featured cover for the magazine!
4. Jordan Tesfay
Jordan Tesfay got her start through submitting to a MODE magazine model search and from 25,000 entries, she earned a contract with Wilhelmina. But she made history as the first plus size model to be featured in a CoverGirl campaign.
“We shot the Queen collection and we also shot the commercial which came out in about 2008, 2009,” Tesfay shared with theFashionSpot. “Nobody really talked about it, they kind of silently rolled it out. There wasn’t really much discussion. It was more like ‘Oh, you’re the first plus size to be featured by a large multinational, global cosmetics company.” Though the campaign may not have received the discussion it deserved, this accomplishment is certainly no small feat.
Represented by agencies Ford, Next, Wilhelmina, and JAG, Maiysha has had a long career as a plus size model. Though plus size modeling is her day job, Maiysha is also a musician but doing both was not always easy.
An article from ESSENCE shares a quote from Maiysha where she said, “Nobody wanted to sign me and nobody wanted to buy my album. I know for a fact there were deals I didn’t get because I was plus.”
But in 2009, Maiysha was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance proving that plus has a place in fashion and music.
6. Nikki Gomez
From in front of the camera to behind it, Nikki Gomez has been working in the plus size fashion industry since 2004 when she first started working as a plus size model. Her client list includes Monif C, Latina Magazine, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more.
She also starred as one of the cast members of the 2011 TLC show, “Big Sexy.” But these days, her real passion is behind the camera as a photographer. She helped create Bicoastal MGMT’s plus size print division and regularly helps to launch the careers of up-and-coming plus size models.
7. Chenese Lewis
Chenese Lewis has been an active voice in the plus size community since the year 2000 and she first made history in 2003 when she was the first woman crowned as Miss Plus America and she would break barriers again when she became the first size 22 woman to model for the national clothing brand, Torrid.
For six years, she produced the National Organization for Women’s “Love Your Body Day” event in Hollywood which drew in celebrities and garnered international press attention. Throughout her career in the industry, Lewis has always remained relevant and on the pulse of what’s happening. She continues to work as an event host around the country and produces a weekly podcast called The Chenese Lewis Show.
8. Maggie Yumi Brown
Representing for the Asian American plus size models, Maggie Yumi Brown won “Tyra’s Thick and Sexy Top Model Contest” on the Tyra Banks Show in 2006 which earned her a $1000 prize along with a contract with Wilhelmina Models. She appeared on the cover of Bombshell Magazine and Plus Model Magazine following her win and was also named Igigi Model of Month in 2007. In 2008, Brown made regular appearances as a model on Carson Kressley’s show “How To Look Good Naked” on Lifetime.
9. Ragini Nag Rao
Ragini Nag Rao first started blogging in 2009 and her current fashion blog, A Curious Fancy, dates back to 2010. Her personal style is whimsical and vintage inspired and her words on body positivity through her personal essays are beyond inspiring.
Her blog has been featured in Marie Claire India, The Guardian, The New York Times, Teen Vogue and more. In addition to outfit blogging, she also pens pieces for Rookie.
10. Pia Schiavo-Campo
Pia Schiavo-Campo describes herself as a fat feminist, author and writer and you can catch her challenging beauty standards over on her blog, Chronicles of A Mixed Fat Chick. She regularly writes about body images and self acceptance and she has worked to fight for more inclusive representation for women of color and women of size. Her work has been published in People Magazine, Ravishly, Everyday Feminism, Volup2 and The Huffington Post.
11. Gwen DeVoe
We all know FFFWeek, but do you know the founder, what started it all, and why? Full Figured Fashion Week has been a staple of the plus size community and a destination for plus size models, brands and consumers from across the country and the woman responsible for FFFWeek is Gwen DeVoe. No stranger to the community, modeling, or events, Gwen Devoe has always had her hand in the infrastructure of plus size fashion and modeling and has crafted a series of events or programs to help the cause!
In 1999, DeVoe founded The Plus Academy which focused specifically on training for plus size models. She would go onto produce events including Full Figured and Fabulous, Dangerous Curves: The Tour and Project Curves before founding FFFWeek in 2009.
12. Madeline Figueroa-Jones
Just looking through the accomplishments of many of the women on this list, Plus Model Magazine was so often listed on their resumes (even for Marie!) and Editor-in-Chief, Madeline Figueroa-Jones is the woman behind the magazine. Launched in 2006, PMM is a resource not only for aspiring plus models but also a plus size fashion resource.
In 2009, PMM launched a section called 18PLUS which was focused on m representation for models above a size 18 and was edited by Chenese Lewis. This section is certainly groundbreaking considering that so many publications still refuse to acknowledge plus size above a 14. Figueroa-Jones is known as the plus size industry’s Anna Wintour and has made over 200+ media appearances of the years advocating for plus size inclusion.
13. Monif Clarke
With so few independent designers focused specifically on plus size, the fact that Monif Clarke and her brand, Monif C celebrated their 10-year anniversary in 2015 is no small feat. While some mainstream plus size brands only started trying to incorporate body positivity, this is something that Clarke tells Bustle has been at the core of her brand since it’s start.
“For us, it’s ingrained in everything that we do,” says Clarke in that same interview. “It’s not something we do for a time and a season: It’s just who we are. When we did our swimwear campaign and we had models of three sizes and shades, people were like, ‘This is a fantastic body diversity campaign.’ As much as I agreed, I also just really wanted to see a swimsuit on a size 22 woman. This is what our customer looks like, we value our customer, and this is why we make clothes for her.”
Monif continues to push the envelope and proudly incorporates models of size AND color into her campaigns, and we thank her for this.
14. Sharon Quinn
Plus model Sharon Quinn got her started in the 80s and is known as the “Original Runway Diva” for that very reason. In 1995, she became the first plus size model to win the Maybelline Shades of You Model of The Year competition. She signed to Wilhelmina in the same year and went onto to work with brands like Lane Bryant, Avenue, Ashley Stewart and more.
She competed on the first season of Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance and continued working with the show in the seasons that followed. These days, she’s still on the runway as the casting director for FFFWeek, showing aspiring models how to rip the runway.
Most recently, Sharon Quinn launched her show, “Model Behavior with Sharon Quinn” an educational talk show. Her goal is to educate people who aspire to have a career in fashion, be it as a model or in production!
15. Gabi Gregg
Gabi Gregg of the blog GabiFresh is one of plus size fashion blogging’s OGs getting her start in 2008 after finishing college with an interest in fashion journalism. In 2010, MTV crowned Gregg as their first ever Twitter jockey and in 2012, she became a contributor to InStyle Magazine.
There’s no doubt that Gregg’s voice in mainstream fashion and pop culture helped put plus size fashion on the map. And of course, there’s her influence on the rise of the fatkini through both her own blog posts in two pieces and a viral post she wrote for xoJane showing women size 12 and up wearing bikinis.
This all led to her creating her own collection of sexy swimwear for Swimsuitsforall and just look at how many retailers are now carrying plus size bikinis and Gregg is certainly one to thank for that.
16. Sonya Renee Taylor
In 2011, activist and performance poet Sonya Renee Taylor first shared an unapologetic selfie which would serve as the impetus for her to create a radical self love community, The Body Is Not An Apology. TBINAA takes an intersectional approach to body positivity that is so necessary.
In addition to producing written content, the site also acts as a community forum and offers radical education workshops to further their work of intersectional social justice. And with this global focus to advocacy, The Body Is Not An Apology reaches more than 250,000 weekly with website views from more than 140 different countries.
Taylor travels around the globe performing, educating and spreading her message of radical self love.
17. Lisa Scott
I knew Lisa Scott as the blogger behind TheShoppingSlayer but Lewis told me that Scott was one of the first junior plus models. She was the first black model to be featured in a Catherine’s catalog as well as the first plus size model to be featured in Seventeen Magazine.
Scott worked as a model in everything from catalogs to runways for brands like Nordstrom, Macy’s, Lane Bryant. She’s conquered the runways of BET’s Rip The Runway and FFFWeek. You can keep up with her now on her blog or on her Instagram where she posts outfits and the occasional #tbt modeling pic that only further shows just how long she’s been making her mark.
18. Suzanne Ujaque
Figueroa-Jones refers to Suzanne Ujaque as the Maddy Jones of Puerto Rico which is no small feat coming from the PMM chief herself. “She has brought the topic of plus size fashion and the need for acceptance to the island in a very big way,” shares Figueroa-Jones of Ujaque. “She has a radio spot, television and newspaper spot every month.” And looking through Ujaque’s blog, Su-Style which is a mix of plus size news and personal style posts, I can totally see why she’s reached this level of influence in the Latin American plus size fashion community.
19. Qristyl Frazier
While a plus size woman didn’t take the Project Runway Crown until Ashley Nell Tipton in 2015, Qristyl Frazier was the first plus size focused designer to compete on the show’s sixth season in 2009. Frazier brings more than 20+ years of design experience and a celebrity roster of clients that includes Janet Jackson, Queen Latifah, Wendy Williams, Angie Stone, Mary-Mary, Shirley Strawberry, and Patrice Covington. She aims to create designs that are bold and sophisticated and put the sexy back in plus.
20. Liris Crosse
Liris Crosse is known as “The Naomi Campbell Of Plus” and she can certainly work a runway but she actually got her start in the urban market after her modeling agency told her to keep losing weight. She knew that she could get work just as she was and magazines like Essence, Honey, XXL, The Source and Black Elegance were quick to agree with her on that.
She quickly crossed over into music videos appearing alongside 98 Degrees, Jennifer Lopez, Jay Z. P. Diddy and more. She made her mark on the big screen with roles in “The Best Man” and “Baby Boy.”
She’s currently signed to IPM and Dorothy Combs Models where she’s works regularly for brands in both the US and the UK and she was one of the models selected to walk in Ashley Nell Tipton’s “Project Runway” finale show at New York Fashion Week. She uses her industry expertise to also give back through her Life Of A Working Model Bootcamp.