White models and slim figures have been synonymous with fashion runways and campaigns for years. Recent efforts to demand diversity from brands and fashion houses have led to a number of positive changes, from Chanel and Gucci hiring diversity chiefs to the superstardom of plus-sized models like Ashley Graham. The Spring 2019 fashion weeks across New York, London, Paris, and Milan in February were the most diverse in the industry’s history. A landmark number of people of color were cast in shows.
But have we reached the pinnacle of these efforts?
Critics such as London-based photographer and body positivity coach Michelle Elman are calling out the so-called diversity the fashion world appears to be embracing. Elman, who is half Chinese, took to Instagram this March to condemn the UK’s plus-size community for excluding the Asian demographic.
“You can’t call for diversity in terms of size and then claim to be color-blind when it comes to race,” Elman wrote on Instagram.
“Inclusivity has to be intersectional,” she told Glamour UK.
Elman believes that despite the inclusion of people of color, there is still a lack of representation when it comes to skin color and size. She notes that Asians are particularly missing in the plus-size front. Representations of Asian models in plus-size campaigns and even body-positivity events, where Elman is frequently a speaker, is often inadequate.
She also spoke out about breaking our assumptions of what being “Asian” is—how the look of one region should not represent the entire continent. For instance, including a Chinese model doesn’t take away from excluding an Indian face.
And so she and fellow photographer Linda Blacker took it upon themselves to reveal what Asian diversity can look like. The resulting project was unveiled this July, featuring seven plus-size models from a range of countries, including the Philippines and India. Clad in purple and nude gowns, the models were chosen to represent the diversification that the fashion industry is missing out on. Many of the initial castings came from Elman’s Instagram followers, who reached out to her following her lament on inclusion and misrepresentation.
“Plus size Asians exist,” read her Instagram caption for the photoshoot. “Being Asian is not one look. Being Asian is not one culture.”
Blacker, meanwhile, acknowledged that "whilst even this shoot isn’t perfect representation, it shows just a small sample of diversity within Asia," through her own post on Instagram.
Media outlets like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post featured the shoot, calling the campaign “kickass” and “stunningly diverse.” Across the internet, Twitter and Instagram users applauded the project. Some thanked Elman and Blacker for bringing Asian representation to the forefront of the powerful images.
One user wrote: “Love this so much!! Even in Asia plus size Asians aren’t represented as much as they should be. here’s to more diversity everywhere!!”
Another said: “Thank you so much for this….honestly as a plus-sized woman of Japanese and African American heritage….it really means a lot to see this kind of representation. I hope more people will trend in this direction and stop using our weight as the butt of their cruel jokes.”
There is obviously an audience for these images. The project was born out of a need to raise awareness to the fact that Asian representation is still greatly misconstrued. The inclusion of Asian women in fashion is, sadly, perpetuating stereotypes of said women. So even when a person of color is cast on those Spring 2019 runways, they are standing as representations of just a sliver of the collective Asian population—not the continent in all its diversity.