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 barely 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. 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 are 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 commercialize properly (like any other situation), our voices have become erased and minimized in this game.
Marie and I formulated the list together. 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.
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.”
Unity is the key to furthering this movement!”
Madeline Figueroa Jones
“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“, Figueroa-Jones adds.
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 than their white counterparts.”
And in the vein 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
When Jasmine 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 Chrisette Michele.
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!
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.
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 launch the careers of up-and-coming plus size models.
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 works as an event host around the country and produces a weekly podcast called The Chenese Lewis Show.
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 and 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.
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.
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. 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. She 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 produce events including Full Figured and Fabulous, Dangerous Curves: The Tour and Project Curves before founding FFFWeek in 2009.
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.
With so few independent designers focused specifically on plus size, the fact that Monif Clarke and her brand, Monif C, celebrated their 15th anniversary 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 its 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.
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.
In the same year, she signed to Wilhelmina and went on 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.
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 a model or production!
Gabi Gregg of the blog GabiFresh is one of plus size fashion blogging’s OGs getting her start in 2008 after finishing college interested 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.
In 2011, activist and performance poet Sonya Renee Taylor first shared an unapologetic selfie that 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 intersectional social justice work. And with this global focus on 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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.
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’s currently signed to Dorothy Combs Models, where she regularly works for brands in both the US and the UK, and she became one of the plus models selected to walk in Ashley Nell Tipton’s “Project Runway” finale show at New York Fashion Week.
She then returned to Project Runway season 16 to become one of the 1st plus models to win the model portion.
She uses her industry expertise to give back through her Life Of A Working Model Bootcamp and published her book, Make The World Your Runway, available on Amazon.
Fluvia Lacerda is a plus size model from Brazil who is cited as the plus–size Gisele Bündchen but Lacerda has plenty of accomplishments of her own without comparison. She’s modeled for some of the biggest plus size brands in the world and has been featured in Vogue Italia.
She was named FFFWeek’s Best Plus Model Award in 2011, and most recently, Fluvia has launched her own lingerie line in Brazil!
She’s showing no signs of stopping her reign in the modeling world.
Jennene is a respected leader in the effort to integrate the plus-size woman into mainstream fashion and has been an advocate for the plus-size community since creating her fashion marketing firm/community – The Voluptuous Woman Company® in 1997.
Steadily the plus size business entrepreneur, her successes include a Plus Size Auction website, PlusSizeBiz.com-an online directory of size friendly businesses and services, and her most recent project that mobilized the standard model comp card – MobileCompCards.com.
Because she is ever so innovative, this year, Jennene launched The Plus Size Events App, the world’s first event and news-based mobile application for the plus-size community.
The Plus Size Events App also provides up-to-the-minute news about the community, plus highlights organizations, fitness professionals, stylists, and other businesses that provide services and products for the plus-size customer.
If one person has been knocking down doors and blazing trails, it is plus size celebrity stylist Susan Moses. Susan has been embraced and held high by Hip-Hop, Nashville, Hollywood, Neo Soul, Pop, and R&B royalty.
Her styling talent has been showcased on red carpets, and stages from the Oscar’s to the Golden Globes, from the Grammy’s to the American Music Awards, and all the alphabet events (BET, MTV, Vh1, and SAG), in print and television advertising and on late-night and daytime talk shows.
Susan’s resume is one of dreams, having worked with plus size supermodel Emme, vocalist Chaka Khan, actor Kathy Bates, gospel duo Mary Mary, comedienne-turned-actor, Monique, country music star Wynonna Judd, Hollywood newcomers Nikki Blonsky and Gabourey Sidibe, reality-documentary star, Ruby Gettinger, comedian/actress and The View co-host Sherri Shepherd and singer/actress Jill Scott. And let us not forget, Queen Latifah!
Most recently, Susan Moses released her book, The Art of Dressing Curves: The Best-Kept Secrets of a Fashion Stylist (Harper Collins). Her book is an “empowering and celebratory stylebook for curvy women. It is a contemporary guide to getting dressed–from shapewear to accessories—and building a classic wardrobe closet!”
If you’re reading this list on The Curvy Fashionista, you probably already know that Marie Denee is a total boss. She first started the site in late 2008 while she was finishing up her MBA in marketing.
At the time, there were only a handful of plus size fashion blogs. This is an industry that Denee certainly helped shape and form into the group of trusted voices and influencers that it is today.
Over the years, The Curvy Fashionista has become a virtual plus size encyclopedia and a trusted resource for all things related to the plus size fashion community. Denee continues to create spaces like The TCFStyleExpo and TCFStyle Brunch Series that allow plus size women the opportunity to build community!
These are only 25 Women of Color who have positively impacted plus size fashion, and there are so many more!
One way in which this issue has been amplified in recent years is through social media. Lewis calls attention to social media’s impact on the voices. Those who are considered to be most influential in mainstream body positivity and plus size fashion.
“The biggest change in the body positivity and plus size fashion industry has been the overwhelming importance of social media,” says Lewis. “This can also be problematic when a white blogger or social media influencer publicly posts racially insensitive things with little or no consequence to their brand and still receives mainstream opportunities, while a woman of color is not even considered.
Even though there are women of color in the plus community that are immensely popular, in many instances, they do not receive equal opportunities or support. Despite all of this, there are women of color who somehow break through the hurdles and achieve greatness, whether its grassroots activism or mainstream success, our contributions to the progression of this movement are significant.”
It’s impossible to really do the 25 women of color justice, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But, hopefully, it’s a start to a more inclusive look at body positivity and plus size fashion. Join the conversation by sharing the women of color that have impacted your own body positive journey.
Who has inspired you? We want to hear of those who have knocked down walls and barriers in plus size fashion! Sound off!
Alysse Dalessandro Santiago is a plus size fashion blogger, writer, social influencer, designer, and professional speaker. After graduating with a double-major in Journalism and Gender Studies from Loyola University Chicago, this entrepreneur is best known as the owner/designer for body positive fashion brand and personal style blog Ready to Stare. Her brand has become a haven for those whom fashion has otherwise ignored. It's a space where individual style is celebrated and breaking the rules is encouraged.