The fashion industry couldn't ignore them forever.
An estimated 41 percent of U.S. women are larger than a size 14, making up a critical mass of buying power eager to covet clothes and, maybe, despite the recession, splurge on style. In this economy, what sense would it make to ignore millions of consumers?
Yet just 10 percent of retailers cater to them. Only 16 percent of all retail sales come from the plus-size market, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. And plus-size women rarely grace high-fashion runways, glossy magazine covers or major ad campaigns.
No wonder, then, that when Glamour magazine published a nearly nude photo of plus-size model Lizzie Miller, who bears a belly not a six-pack, who wears a girl-next-door grin not a high-fashion glare, they were flooded with letters of praise from readers. According to Miller, models like her and others in the industry, the attention generated by the 3-by-3-inch picture proves that it's time for plus-size women to move up to fashion's forefront.
"I remember when I was younger, looking through magazines, and I would feel so out of place and so self-conscious because I didn't see anyone who looked like me," said Miller, 20, who wears a size 12 to 14. "The fact that this picture caused such a frenzy, it says that this is, obviously, something that people need to see. I'm not trying to promote obesity, and I'm not obese, but I'm also not stick thin."
Miller, who signed with Wilhelmina Models as a plus-size model at age 13, posed for the September issue of Glamour as part of a story on women who're comfortable in their own skin. While she and other plus-size models appreciate the attention showered on the shot, they say it should be normal to see images of beautiful, full-figured women in pop culture.
"The fact that Lizzie is in this beautiful picture should not have raised an eyebrow at all," said Kate Dillon, who has been a plus-size model with Wilhelmina for 13 years and was the first plus-size model to appear in a U.S. Vogue photo spread. "It's always so surprising that these pictures are such an anomaly. I feel like people are craving more of those images."
Fashion magazines often portray plus-size models as anomalies on the rare occasions that they do at all, as Dillon realized when she posed for U.S. Vogue in 2000.
"They shot me looking like a giant and this 5-foot-2 actor looking like a mini guy," she said. "It was funny but it was like, this is how American Vogue is going to be comfortable shooting a plus size model for the first time -- making it a freak show."
"That said," Dillon, 35, added, "it was still a huge step in the right direction. After my stuff was published, the magazine said they had gotten more positive mail about that story and that issue than anything else they had ever done."
Given the potential praise and publicity, many people wonder why more designers, publishers and advertisers haven't embraced plus-size models and the market they represent.