Supermodel Ashley Graham is many things — a fashion designer, a judge on America's Next Top Model and, most recently, a published author. But one thing you should not call her is "plus-size."
Seriously, that label? R.I.P.
Graham, 29, will be in Dallas on May 18 to sign copies of her just-released memoir, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty and Power Really Look Like, at Barnes and Noble, 7700 W. Northwest Highway.
The book is a collection of essays that establish "her perspective on how ideas around body image are evolving — and how we still have work to do," according to HarperCollins Publishers.
"It's true therapy writing a book," she said, speaking by phone May 7 during a ride back to New York from the first signing on her tour.
Writing a memoir — especially at such a young age — is a challenge, Graham says. One has to think about what she wants people to know and, perhaps more importantly, why she wants to share it.
Graham lays bare her insecurities and accomplishments alike. She describes receiving unwanted sexual advances at 10, when men began noticing her developing body. She recounts how her size, and years of bullying because of it, affected her self-esteem to the point where she "slept around and stayed in an abusive relationship for affection and validation, because I thought I was too fat to find anything better," she writes. And, she details how she and her husband, who she met at church, chose to abstain from a sexual relationship until they were married.
"I mean, I get down to the nitty-gritty of it all," she says.
That willingness to be both strikingly glamorous and unmistakably human at the same time is part of what makes Graham so popular with her fans. She wears and creates high-end clothing and attends to-die-for galas; she shows off her cellulite; and she discusses feminism, another label she doesn't care to embrace, she says, because of its shortcomings when it comes to intersectionality.
Defying convention has been central to Graham's professional success, and doing so has never seemed more en vogue. Her generation's preference for quality over logos has thrown retailers into a tailspin. Millennials spend money, that's for sure, but economic patterns have meant that the largest generation in U.S. history has less than previous ones, according to Born This Way: The Millennial Loyalty Survey by consumer research company Aimia.
Unlike consumers in the 1990s and 2000s, adult millennials don't seem swayed by social status in the form of a designer's name emblazoned across handbags or $35 cotton T-shirts. Nor are they as willing to accept unrealistic body standards in the form of a one-size-fits all clothing mentality.
They look to trendsetters, like Graham, but those social influencers must pack additional substance with entrepreneurial savvy and professional self-reliance. That point was reiterated throughout the most recent cycle of America's Next Top Model — the first for Graham as a judge — with episode titles like "Business, Brand, Boss," "Platform Power" and "Brand Like a Boss."
That's part of the reason why "plus-size" is so passe.
Sure, the phrase has been useful for breaking barriers. Graham holds the distinction of being the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit edition, among her growing list of groundbreaking cover spreads. But throughout the industry, plus-size is a major problem.
In the modeling world, it has been used to describe women such as Stefania Ferrario, who wears a size 6. When it comes to retail, Graham's current size 14 is actually smaller than the majority of American women, who wear sizes 16 and 18, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.
In theory, "plus" means added, extra or larger; in America, it means department store sections that can feel othering, overlooked and stigmatized, filled with clothing cut from a one-size-fits-no-one mentality. Haute designers like Karl Lagerfeld have said that's because curvy women don't count. But, fashion consultant Tim Gunn called that prevalent attitude "a disgrace" in an op-ed last fall.
As for Graham, well, she's over it. As a teenager, she cut and reconfigured frumpy, ill-fitting clothes she bought off the rack, and that's informed her work as a designer who hopes to expand her efforts into a full apparel line.
But, body-positivity as a political movement is controversial. Its proponents are criticized for advocating obesity or for narrowly ignoring discrimination specific to people of color, trans people and genderqueer people.
Graham shares her generation's passion for fitness: She has shared her food diary and exercise plans, even creating a workout video series called Curvy Fit Club. But she's not interested in starving herself to fit into clothing made by people who have never lived in her body.
"I've just told my story about how labels are divisive," she says. "They make you feel that you don't belong when you're the equal of the woman next to you at any clothing store."
On that note, she realizes that her platform is valuable, but her activism is far from revolutionary, and that's something she confronts in her book's closing chapter.
"I'm fully aware that I'm being praised for something a lot of women of color have been put down for, simply because I'm white," she writes. "I hope that my work will help break down all the barriers we put up around other people — whether it's because of their body type, skin color or any other external trait."
That's perhaps another clue to Graham's appeal.
Like other changes ushered in as millennials came of age, so, too, did America's racial and ethnic landscape change. The Brookings Institution notes that younger generations are increasingly diverse, with demographic trends leading toward a "majority minority" nation by 2044.
That doesn't mean cultural attitudes have changed across the board — writers have recently pushed back against the notions that white millennials are "less racist" or represent a dramatically different voting bloc than their older counterparts.
But, it does seem fair to wonder how demographic changes will affect the fashion industry's calcified definitions of physical perfection.
As with her teenage wardrobe, Graham thinks it's time to cut up and reconfigure ill-fitting mainstream standards of beauty.