We spoke to the world’s first plus-size supermodel about breaking into the industry and being “curvy and confident”
Perhaps we still haven’t entered the ultimate “golden age” of body positivity, but there is no denying inclusive fashion is having a moment worth amplifying in celebration. It is the result of a long history of those fighting within the industry for representation of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds.
Among the first to bring the conversation of inclusivity to national attention was Melissa Aronson, known professionally as Supermodel Emme, the first plus-size supermodel. After beginning her career in the 1990s, Emme made waves in ’94 when People magazine named her as the first full-figured model to be part of its 50 Most Beautiful People list. She made People’s list again in ’99, and has since been an advocate for body positivity, speaking on talk shows around the world about “a new type of beauty”; fostering such communities as EmmeNation, where the mind, body, soul connection is nourished; and encouraging young designers to create for curvy women. Through it all, she has continued to use her social platforms to promote messages of positivity and inclusion.
Most recently, Emme — along with Amy Newmark and Natasha Stoynoff — co-authored a Chicken Soup for the Soul book called Curvy & Confident: 101 Stories about Loving Yourself and Your Body. The book is a collection of stories “celebrating all the different body types that women have and how we can all be curvy and confident — fit and fabulous within the body types we were issued at birth.”
In this exclusive interview with Emme, A Plus got to learn more about her modeling career, her work as a body positive advocate, and her latest book “Curvy & Confident.”
What was the hardest thing about breaking into the fashion industry at a time when full-figured women were far from being considered mainstream?
Not being seen as a viable beautiful woman by the industry standards. I was 5-foot-11 and a size 12 to 14 (I’m now a 16), and back then I was yelled at [for] a gap in my teeth. We were paid much less than the other catalogue girls who were size 0 or 2, who ate nothing and smoked cigarettes, but looked longingly at us when we had lunch in the studio. Very sad and surreal at the same time.
How did you feel about being labeled a “plus-size” model when you were first starting out?
At first, I didn’t care since it was only used within our modeling and manufacturing business. Once the media started using it, I didn’t like what the word “plus” was being fueled by and, in turn, the warped meaning to millions of people. Most of the news sources were happy to reflect a new kind of beauty, to show a difference, but those in industry who were tried-and-true fashion die-hards didn’t like to see change coming, and did their best to continue the exclusive speak and attitude that encompassed the fashion industry for so long.
How has the conversation about curvy women in fashion evolved from the beginning of your career until now?
I love that the conversation has grown leaps and bounds, and where those who are for it and those who are against it speak up. It’s not a hidden, hushed conversation anymore. Every day, women are showing themselves in all forms of dress (or undress) on social media where you would NEVER [have seen] this in the ’90s. A revolution of female strength and power — thin, medium, and curvy — is at hand. It’s a time to feel blessed to be in! It begs me to say men also are gaining from this liberation. Body image and self-esteem are not only a woman’s trip. Men are on it and dealing with very similar issues, but feel ashamed to speak up about it. The eating disorder clinics are full with young men, fathers, and boys — reflecting the phenomenon today.
What props you up in moments when you are feeling down about yourself or your body image?
I’m happy to say the body-bashing is on its way out as I get older. However, if I move my body in yoga, spin, get a good brisk walk in, even a good hike, snowshoe or swim in nature, then everything absolutely melts away. I see diversity all around me and think, ‘What’s my deal? Just be happy with what I’ve been given!’ You don’t see a tree complaining about its size or a flower sulking. They just bloom as they should, right next to another glorious flower with their own robust colors and attributes. I giggle sometimes when I think this way … a real reset for me.
Was there a particular turning point when you felt you were really reaching people with your messages about body positivity? How did social media and fostering communities like EmmeNation help?
I did most of my major lifting (work) prior to social media … Man, if social media was around then, we would be leap years ahead today. I put on the miles across the globe, and spoke on every media outlet you could imagine at least twice around the world about this “new kind of beauty,” which was really not so new and had been around since the beginning of time, but no one thought to bring up an inclusive beauty conversation — seeing beauty, or the women deemed beautiful, as a bouquet of beauty, instead of only being forced to choose one flower year after year, decade after decade. It just dawned on me. It didn’t make any sense and I started to speak about it in People magazine and went on from there. With so much frequency on air, other women and men began to think, You know what? I do like other types of beauty, come to think of it. Why are all the beauty ideals in media and on the runway stick thin or blond, Caucasian, and only a few darker-skinned gals? And so it began and has continued today with the next generation of awesome power girls!
What about books like Curvy & Confident? How do these stories empower readers to be more accepting of their bodies?
When the readers get drawn into the book, they will, without a doubt, see parts of themselves in each of the stories, making them feel less alone in their body drama. That we are all on this journey together, and together we can shapeshift where we want to go — into body acceptance or not. I think more will want to opt for more body joy and acceptance!
Is there a particular story from the book that speaks to you most?
You had to ask me that! I had a very difficult time cutting stories because each story spoke to me, and to say [any one story] couldn’t make the book hurt. I know my co-authors and I felt similarly, and at the very end of our edit, we were negotiating between us for the stories we had to have in. So with that said, I really enjoyed An Art Perspective by James A. Gemmell … his recalling the story of how a figure-drawing model, Elizabeth, made him appreciate the female form in such a deeply appreciative way, I wish all of us could be a figure-drawing model, and have the adoration James and his classmates had for his graceful woman. It would change our lives.
What’s the overall message you hope readers are left with after reading Curvy & Confident?
That we are not alone, that millions of other women, young and old, are trying to figure out how we could be more kind and gentle to ourselves and our bodies. That we are much, much more than just a body — although it’s one of the most important aspects of being human — and having a body allows us to experience life in the many ways it uniquely does. The kicker is in order to have an empowering, fruitful, and balanced life, we need to become aware of the mind, body, spirit connection, and not just have an obsession for one’s body, and to finally feel comfortable in our own skin!
By A Plus’ SARAH BARNESS
Thanks to Emme, and like-minded folks in the industry, the road has been paved for a younger generation of models, companies, and brands to cater to consumers of all shapes and sizes. Models such as Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, and Jordyn Woods, and brands such as Lovesick, Torrid, and ModCloth, have given representation to those who may have otherwise felt invisible.
We have a long way to go, and the only way to reach that “golden age” of body positivity is to keep talking openly about the issues, fight for visibility and inclusion, support and love one another, and, most importantly, love ourselves, no matter our shape, size, age, or background.