In 2005, Amanda M. Czerniawski was a sociology grad student with a scholarly interest in “idealized bodies.” She was also a former child actor, a background that came in handy when she decided to research the world of plus-sized modeling.
Armed with her notebook, some headshots, and a thorough understanding of research methods, Czerniawski “went native” as a working plus-size model. While she vied for jobs at casting calls and agents’ offices, she met and interviewed 35 plus-size models about their careers, their ambitions, and their relationships with their bodies.
The result is her book, Fashioning Fat. Its scholarly tone makes it a bit less fun to read than something nonacademic, but if you’re a Tess Holiday fangirl or really interested in how plus-size modeling actually works, then Fashioning Fat absolutely worth reading. You’ll even learn some nifty new sociology terms, like “affective labor” (acting like you feel things as part of your job).
I asked Czerniawski a few questions about her modeling experience, the contradictions of the industry, and of course, America’s Next Top Model.
What was the most fun part of becoming a plus-size model? What was the scariest part?
Walking the runway is an amazing experience. I felt a thrill the moment I stepped out on that runway and hit each mark, while photographers snapped away on their cameras. I felt the gaze of the audience follow my every move. The energy was intoxicating. Plus, professionals did my hair and makeup!
There is a certain level of fear involved in every casting because you are being judged without knowing the criteria. I did panic before one particular casting for a potential fit job, which my booker described as a client for lingerie and swimwear. The thought of parading in underwear for strangers while being poked, prodded, and pinned roused all of my bodily insecurities. Fortunately, at the casting, I was only asked to try on a pair of pajamas. I was beyond relieved, but this casting illustrates the unpredictable nature of fashion modeling.
One thing I really liked about Fashioning Fat is how it explains what good modeling is and how plus-size modeling actually works as a job. Do you think that America's Next Top Model has helped people understand the labor of modeling, or just made the industry more mysterious?
America’s Next Top Model helps the average viewer understand that modeling is, indeed, work. A model works by maintaining strict bodily proportions, crafting a look amid fluctuating market demands, and learning to pose and walk the runway. A model may have a pretty face and perfect proportions, but if she does not know how to use her body, she will not be successful. The show also introduced us to “smizing,” a great example of affective labor.
Plus-size modeling seems full of contradictions. In your view, what’s the most ironic or contradictory thing about it?
Plus-size models want to change the way people think about beauty, diversifying its definition to include curvy bodies. They courageously champion for size acceptance by baring their flesh for all to see. They fight to get out from the margins and into the mainstream fashion market. Ultimately, however, these models are simply bodies—voiceless dolls—dependent on agencies to direct their careers and clients to mold their image. In order to succeed, these models alter their bodies according to others’ specifications and preconceived notions of beauty.
If we want to seek out those with the power to challenge hegemonic beauty standards, we must look beyond plus-size models. Instead of the objects in the billboards, we must look to the designers of those billboards.
- What have you always wondered about the plus-size modeling industry?
- Have you ever considered pursuing a career in it?