Another fashion shoot in a stuffy downtown warehouse, with generic techno echoing through a cavernous space as a model does her thing. Pursing her lips and twirling her hair, she jumps on command as a full-steam photographer barks, “Lift your butt, head back, curve your hips!”
The scene plays out across L.A. daily, except for one thing: The model, Jennifer McDonald, isn't a 20-something aspiring to be the next Kate Moss or Agyness Deyn. She's different – about 150 pounds different.
Pasadena-born and -bred, the 250-pound McDonald is a plus-size burlesque model, aka “full-figured model,” “extended-sizes model” or “outsize model.” She's also a part-time primary schoolteacher.
McDonald boosts her feeble salary as an educator by posing for Web sites and magazines specializing in plus-size, burlesque-style lingerie and fetish outlets. Her shoots include work for burlesque labels such as Fairygothmother, Figleaves and XoXo, and fetish Web sites Dr Sketchy, Mookychick and Etsy.
Before she began modeling, McDonald says, she was ashamed of the figure she's had for most of her life. Now she's proud of her rotund physicality, boasting that she's a “real woman” who commands as much attention from men as her emaciated, “coat-hanger” counterparts.
“I sound like an infomercial, but it's true. I was an obese child and indoctrinated with the stereotypical notions about body image. I submitted to them earlier in my life,” she says. “I was reclusive, unconfident and lonely.
“I seldom dated, resorted to men I didn't like and avoided social outings during high school.
“One day,” she adds, “I met a woman who helped me to realize I shouldn't be ashamed of my body. I went to a burlesque-themed event and met Karen, who is also a plus-size model. She suggested I try out for a shoot, and the rest is history. I now have renewed confidence and absolute pride in myself. I enjoy it – it's very empowering, and fun.”
Defying the stereotypical notion of what is deemed catwalk-worthy, McDonald's modeling career could be championed by many, particularly those proud of their brazen bulkiness.
There are even unlikely supporters, such as designer Karl Lagerfeld, who illustrated his endorsement of all things plus-size with his photographic contribution to V Magazine's January/ February 2010 Size issue. Lagerfeld photographed burlesque dancer Miss Dirty Martini for Day 4 of the editorial, “Coco a Go-Go.”
Still, fashion-industry pundits and academic studies suggest plus-size models aren't exactly empowering womankind or releasing women from the bondage of body-image stereotypes.
Welsh designer Julien MacDonald called plus-size models a joke. He defended Britain's Next Top Model — on which he's a judge — and its decision to not follow America's Next Top Model by featuring some curvier contestants.
“There were no plus-size models,” MacDonald reportedly said of the show's sixth season. “This is a serious show. You can't have a plus-size girl winning — it makes it a joke. It's not fair on them — you're setting them up for a fall. I know what would happen to them. They are looked down on.”
A new study by researchers at Arizona State University supports the designer's view. In the study, women were chosen on the basis of their BMI (Body Mass Index), and divided into three groups: low BMI, or underweight women; normal BMI; and high BMI, or overweight women.
The study found many women experience lower self-esteem after seeing plus-size models. The normal- and high-BMI groups both felt lower self-esteem after looking at thin, normal and plus-size models. Only the women with a low BMI felt just fine after seeing all of the ads.
The explanation? Those with a normal or high BMI identified with the plus-size models and saw themselves as different from the thin ones, and then felt bad about themselves. Those with a low BMI identified with the thin models and saw themselves as distinct from those who were plus-size, and then felt good about themselves.
“We believe it is unlikely that many brands will gain market share by using heavy models in their ads,” says Naomi Mandel, associate professor of marketing in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU. “We found that overweight consumers demonstrated lower self-esteem — and therefore probably less enthusiasm about buying products — after exposure to any size models in ads (versus ads with no models).”
Normal-weight consumers experienced lower self-esteem after exposure to moderately heavy models, such as those in Dove soap's Real Women campaign, than after exposure to moderately thin models, the study found.
Mandel and her colleagues performed a series of experiments based on the popular idea that looking at extremely thin models can negatively affect consumers' self-esteem and possibly lead to eating disorders in young girls. That belief is why fashion-show organizers in Milan and Madrid banned superwaif models from catwalks.
Such research means little to McDonald, whose transformed life suggests she's not about to slim down anytime soon. “I think we are now in an age of diversity. … I think the lines of beauty and body image are increasingly blurred and there aren't any real do's and don'ts — it's really a matter of individual perception after all.”