News & Runway

Plus-size Model Jordan Tesfay Says There Is Still a Lot of Work to Do When It Comes to Body Diversity

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Plus is seen as a place that you’re in after you have a baby and you’re trying to lose weight, or that if you’re plus-sized, you’re not trying to be there. The plus woman is not seen as someone who is embracing her body, who loves herself, who wants to be fashionable.

We’re only in the beginning of 2015 and it’s already proving to be a banner year for the plus-sized market. Target, which had been criticized for its lack of plus-sized options, particularly when it came to designer collaborations, has included plus-sized options in its forthcoming capsule with Lilly Pulitzer and will soon launch an entire plus-sized range aimed at larger women who want stylish clothing options. Sports Illustrated just made history by including Robyn Lawley, who is considered in the modeling world to be a “plus-sized” model, in its famous swimsuit issue. Ashley Graham, an outspoken plus-sized model, also appears within the magazine’s pages in a swimsuit ad. Late last year, Calvin Klein featured a plus-sized model in an underwear campaign.

Though the fashion industry has made strides in the interest of plus-sized people and clothing, there is still much left to do — and model Jordan Tesfay agrees. She was the first plus-sized model to become a CoverGirl spokesperson and has posed for Bloomingdale’s, Levi’s, Macy’s and more. She’s a seasoned plus-sized model and knows a thing or two about breaking barriers in the mainstream — even if people don’t make much of a fuss about it. “We shot the Queen collection and we also shot the commercial which came out in about 2008, 2009,” she said of her stint with CoverGirl. “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.'” But Jordan knew she was involved with something special when she took the high-profile gig.

Years later, Jordan admits that some brands and publications have made great strides in being more inclusive, which she credits with the rise of plus-sized fashion bloggers and social media. But how well are they doing and how much ground still needs to be covered? We chatted with Jordan to get her feelings on the state of the plus market today.

theFashionSpot: A lot is going on right now with mainstream retailers dipping their toes into the body diversity pool. Why do you think they’ve only just starting to open up?

Jordan Tesfay: I think more people are trying to do that because they want to speak to their customer and connect with them in a different way. I think that using images that more closely resemble the average woman in terms of shape and size helps. We’re living in a very congested commercial time right now. There are a lot of things vying for your attention, between social media and reality TV. If you want to occupy your time, there are tons of things to do; if you want a product, there’s a lot of competition in the market. 

tFS: The Calvin Klein underwear campaign caused a bit of a controversy because some people were upset that the size 10 model was labeled as plus-sized. 

JT: If you go to Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s, they have a very large plus-sized section. In those sections, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors — all of these designers have large spaces in the plus-sized sections, but they don’t advertise plus-sized models. When they’re asked about these issues, they often come back with responses like they’re scared that their brand might be put in a box as a plus-sized brand, or they’re concerned about the ramifications of their actions at the straight size level, that straight size women wouldn’t want to wear the same thing plus-sized women wear, which is ridiculous. It doesn’t even look the same on your body! Who would know? Who would care? And it’s a shame because they make a lot of money from the plus-sized consumer, but they don’t talk about it. And I think it’s still that sizeism thing in the industry. That Calvin Klein model, she’s fuller than the straight size models, but she’s not a size 16. She’s not like 

That Calvin Klein model, she’s fuller than the straight size models, but she’s not a size 16. She’s not like really full. What then should the conversation be? Are they playing it safe by using a girl who is not super large? Brands are always concerned about their overall image. That associating with the plus community on a large platform and saying that they sell and cater to that demographic would take away from their mainstream customer — I just don’t see it.

tFS: It comes from this false idea of plus not being aspirational. Like, what does that even mean?

JT: You’re right. Plus is seen as a place that you’re in after you have a baby and you’re trying to lose weight, or that if you’re plus-sized, you’re not trying to be there. The plus woman is not seen as someone who is embracing her body, who loves herself, who wants to be fashionable. She’s seen as someone trying to lose weight. That’s not aspirational, so why would they sell to that? And it’s not the case. And depending on what culture you’re in, fuller figures and plus sizes are seen differently and it’s embraced. 

tFS: Like with Kim Kardashian, for example, even though she’s not plus-sized, she does have a fuller figure.

JT: Yes, I think we’re also seeing a bit of a cultural shift between the old guard and the new guard. The old guard is still holding on to this notion that all women want to be a size 0, and that’s what’s appealing from a fashion perspective. And then there’s this new guard, a new wave of social media stars and bloggers who are having voices saying, “No way, we like the way we look.” And their voices are strong and their voices are powerful.

tFS: And a lot of women are listening.

JT: And a lot of companies are following as well. What we’re seeing is a lot of large companies trying to emulate or trying to get these bloggers and celebrities to sign on with them. But I also think women need to be more active and start speaking with their pocketbooks. It’s not just about saying what you want over and over and companies don’t respond. At some point, if people aren’t speaking to us, if our bodies aren’t celebrated — and this is a woman thing, not just a plus thing — and we’re not made to feel good and the images that we’re seeing aren’t positive reflections of ourselves, we need to start talking with our money. And that’s when people change. When they see money moving in one direction and they see sales going to companies who are representing their brands and the tones they’re taking with their customer, things really change. 

tFS: Right.

JT: It’s about women standing up with other women, with their girls and even young boys and saying, “I like how I feel, I feel good about who I am. I’m open to buying products, but you don’t have to make me feel horrible about myself or push a certain agenda or negative image in order to sell me a product.” You can sell me a product by celebrating me. You can sell me a product by celebrating my size, my ethnicity, my everything and I’ll still buy your mascara.

tFS: Fair point. What salesperson goes up to a customer and says they look horrible in those jeans? You simply won’t sell jeans like that.

JT: I think things are starting to change because of articles like this, of blogs like yours, because of the landscape of media today. There are more voices and they’re free to say what they want to say. So I think in our generation, we’re going to be seeing a lot of change.

tFS: Which brands in fashion, retail or beauty do you think are doing the best job in promoting body diversity?

JT: I think Dove does that quite well with their campaigns. But besides them, as far as what’s out there, I don’t see anything quite as real and authentic as that. What I do enjoy is shopping via Etsy because I love seeing images out there being put forth by up-and-coming designers, bloggers and people like that. But I can’t say that one major mass retailer stands out to me. Although, there are some retailers who I think do a good job of engaging with their customer on social media. They don’t necessarily sell a lot of plus size, but Nasty Gal does a very good job of understanding their consumer and speaking to them. As far as plus size, Eloquii is active on social media, you can find them speaking and engaging with their customers really well and understanding what we want as women. Torrid also does a fantastic job. I think some of the larger powerhouses don’t really know how to use social media quite as well sometimes, so they’re not able to figure out what that woman wants. I love ASOS plus. I love Gabifresh also. She knows exactly how to pull pieces together and speak to the modern girl. And that’s what I mean. Now we’re getting out fashion information from individuals who are blogging.