Plus-size model and body activist Iskra Lawrence is waging war on impossible beauty standards

British model won’t let clients Photoshop her and promotes her message that women are ‘good enough as they are’ in schools and across social media, joining other proud, curvy woman such as Beyoncé and Ashley Graham

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 7:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 September, 2017, 3:39pm

For years, images of incredibly slim, gorgeous, blemish-free women have filled fashion magazines, billboards and television screens.

Now, 26-year-old British model Iskra Lawrence is waging war on unattainable beauty standards in the fashion world, flexing her might on social media which as a medium is increasingly helping to fuel diversity.

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Lawrence is among a growing number of plus-size models finding fame and calling themselves body activists who are promoting health and well-being. She also refuses to allow clients to Photoshop any of her images.

“The whole concept of Photoshop is an illusion,” Lawrence says. “They’re not flaws. They’re part of your body. We were just convinced by society and the media that there was something wrong with them.”

According to 2014 figures from Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, around 57 per cent of women in the UK have a body mass index above the “normal” range. In the United States, that figure rises to 62 per cent, with the average American woman between size 14 and 16.

Lawrence averages a US size 10 to 12, yet for years was told she was too fat to model. A sample size on the catwalk can be as small as zero.

But change is afoot. Ashley Graham, who last year became the first “curve” model on the cover of the Sports Illustrated’s annual “Swimsuit Issue”, is on the cusp of becoming a household name.

In February, Graham became the first curve model to walk for Michael Kors at Fashion Week. This season she hosted a fashion awards night, and last Sunday she walked again for Prabal Gurung in a show with Gigi Hadid.

It is not just models. Popular culture is suddenly full of strong women proud of their curves, from singers Adele and Beyoncé to comedians Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy and tennis star Serena Williams.

Following repeated scandals about anorexia, French holding companies LVMH and Kering, which own dozens of top labels from Christian Dior to Saint Laurent, just days ago pledged to ban size zero models from their advertising and catwalk shows.

Every day on social media, I get these DMs [direct messages] from girls saying I’ve saved their lives from eating disorders or suicidal thoughts. It’s a wonderful, positive movement
Iskra Lawrence

Now based in New York, Lawrence jumps on a plane multiple times a week, has starred in campaigns for American Eagle and its Aerie lingerie line, and has close to four million followers on Instagram.

Six years ago, she says a London booker laughed in her face and told her she would never get to New York to work.

“That hurt,” she remembers. After that, she was signed by JAG Models, an agency set up in 2013 to represent larger models, has walked in New York Fashion Week and featured on an unretouched hoarding in Times Square.

“Seeing those images raw and real really helps people understand they don’t need to be perfect and they’re good enough as they are,” she says.

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Lawrence has also taken her message to schools in Britain and the US to promote good physical, emotional and mental health.

At least 30 million men and women of all ages suffer from an eating disorder in the United States, according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

“Every day on social media, I get these DMs [direct messages] from girls saying I’ve saved their lives from eating disorders or suicidal thoughts,” Lawrence says. “It’s a wonderful, positive movement.”

Yet if seeing curvier models is more common, it is still relatively rare. This is particularly true in high fashion, where few of the most prestigious labels adequately cater to the plus-size market.

“There’s still such a long way to go,” says Jaclyn Sarka, who co-founded JAG Models in 2013 after recognising a need to represent beautiful women of all sizes. “A lot of people don’t want a ‘fat girl’ in the show. That’s just horrible. I’m having a daughter pretty soon and ... I don’t want her to look up to people who aren’t attainable.”

JAG now represents around 65 girls, the largest of whom is a size 20.

Lynne Webber, managing director of Marina Rinaldi, a leader in the luxury plus-size market and part of the Max Mara Fashion Group, says there is definitely a transformation going on.

“I think in great part that is also due to the growth of social media, so it’s a far more democratic channel of communication and that has given a lot more visibility for a lot more types of women.”

But the label, sold in more than 50 countries, would welcome a bit more competition, Webber says. “As champions, let’s say, of female issues, we feel it’s rather sad that premium brands feel they don’t want to address that community of women.”