We talked to Emme about just how far the movement has come since her days of fighting for acceptance in the 90s—and what needs to comes next.
Plus-size models have more opportunity than they ever have before, thanks in large part to social media and the force that is the body-positive movement. But before Instagram, there was Emme—the first plus-size supermodel.
After decades in the industry, her list of accomplishments is lengthy: She's written five books, designed clothing lines, been twice selected as one of People's "50 Most Beautiful People", and even had a doll created in her likeness. And now, at 54, she's back walking the New York Fashion Week runway as a plus-size model—the category that she helped to create in the 90s. She flaunted her confidence in Chromat's spring 2018 NYFW show—something, even at the height of her career a few decades ago, she couldn't have even imagined was possible. Emme has also recently appeared in several spring campaigns, on top of advocating for body positivity through her podcast and work with groups like the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Most recently, Emme partnered with Woman Within, a clothing line focusing on size inclusivity, for their summer campaign, #LoveWhatYouWear. Ahead, we spoke to the model who paved the way for today's generation of models. Emme opened up about her start in the industry, why it took so damn long to get where we are now, and what comes next. (Related: The Best Size-Inclusive Activewear Brands)
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On getting her start in the modeling world:
"When I first started in the industry, people were shocked that someone of my size was being shot. Photographers would walk away from jobs because of my size. I had a photographer say ‘I’m not going to shoot this fatty.’ I’ve had someone say ‘Where’s the model, where’s the model?’ as I was sitting right there in the hair and makeup chair. As a strong and curvy woman who was a size 14/16, it sent reverberations through the fashion industry. It was like, 'Oh, horror of horrors! ' And it was really lonely. There were a few of us doing the real bread and butter jobs all around the world and doing catalogues, but there weren’t many opportunities until MODE magazine came along and started putting women of all different sizes and races on their covers and stylists like Susan Moses and Kendall Farr created clothing for us—because there was nothing to pull. Very few designers even wanted to admit that plus-size modeling was a gig going on. Honestly, I really don’t understand how I hung in there! But I was trying to increase the aperture in which we view beauty. It was so closed; so very, very narrow." (Related: Model Katie Willcox On How She Made Space for Herself In the Modeling World)
Why it’s so important to see plus-size women working out:
"One of my hashtags for fitness on Instagram is #PlaySweatWin. I want to show that if a body-positive person is working out, it’s not that because they don’t feel good about their body. You actually feel really good about your body! You’re accepting yourself as you are right there. And when you’re excited about fitness, there’s endorphins flying and serotonin flying, and that makes you feel good. That’s so empowering to me, especially as an athlete. I was a rower in college and was invited to the Olympic trials, and still use my erg at home today and love to do things like go snowshoeing with my girlfriends. I have to accept my body as I get older—it does change but it is still my beautiful vehicle that allows me to play and jump and see. So I can’t wait for more companies, like Women Within, to continue to provide activewear that’s fun and bright and fits well to encourage that. People still think that just because you’re a size zero it means you’re fit—but there is research that proves that there are a variety of body shapes that are ‘fit’. I think the more light shed on that alone will help a lot more people get out and feel that they’re not going to be made fun of or be ostracized. Any time that you can move—whether it’s dancing, swimming, hiking, whatever it is—you’re going to feel better about yourself." (Related: What People Don't Realize When They Talk About Weight and Health)
Why fashion and self-esteem are so intertwined:
"In the past, the brands who decided to make clothes for plus-size women just to make money haven’t put the same thought into it as their smaller sizes. There was no fashion involved. We have to turn the page. We cannot just lean on the size of a woman’s dress to determine her value in the society. That’s starting to break down and be dismantled, which is very, very important. There are one hundred million women in this country that are a size 14/16 and we need to give them what they’re asking for because what you wear affects your life—if you love what you wear, it improves your day and the outlook that you have. Fashion can make a huge difference for a person."
Why the body-positive movement took so long to get off the ground:
"Back in the 90s when I got a Revlon contract, I was working Cindy Crawford and Halle Berry, but I kept on looking around wondering [where the other girls were who looked like me]. But I think it’s all about the timing. When I would host TV shows and ask for clothing, people were like, ‘What? You want a size 14/16 dress?!’ It was like I slapped them across the face. It took time for the culture to wake up. It was frustrating to see that momentum lost, especially because women were struggling with body confidence and eating disorders and all of us were like, Wait a minute, why can’t we be happy? Why can’t we just own what we have? And love the unique bodies that we have? There was a lull and then the voices of the next generation came in and were loud, and social media is a huge contribution to the fabric of this movement right now. Now millions of women can feel that connection with each other and it’s beautiful." (Related: Ashley Graham Just Landed Her First Major Beauty Gig)
What comes next:
"I think the body-positive movement that’s happening today is so monumentally important for the health of all women. I’m very, very proud of the work of the women like Ashley Graham and Julie Henderson, and the whole list of ladies that are really kicking it right now. They’re loving what they’re wearing, they’re loving themselves, and it’s so refreshing. I’m so excited about what these young ladies are doing and about being part of it again, without pulling that heavy rope that I used to. And it’s not just about girls that are curvier. It’s not just a size issue; it’s a women’s issue and about owning who you are, no matter your age or size. We are moving in a very good direction and need to continue to hear more voices. The more we see diversified body shapes, skin colors, age ranges—the more we see of ourselves as a culture in media and on the runway, the more comfortable we'll be as a society with widening our definition of beauty."