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.
"When you look at the most popular size of women's sportswear, it's considered plus size," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. "But the industry ignores it and doesn't go out of its way to supply it. You've got a very underserved market with a potential opportunity to be greater."
"The sweet spot is 12, 14, 16, 18," said Emme, the plus-size supermodel now hosting "More to Love," a reality dating competition featuring full-figured female contestants. "Michael Kors has incredible jeans for full-figured women, but no one knows that. No one knows that Calvin Klein has a whole plus-size line. They're afraid of what will happen [to their fashion-world credibility] if they publicize the fact that they're not just marketing to size 2s. If the designers do it right, they will make great amounts of money. But they have to own it. They have to accept that this woman exists."
Designers Discriminate at Their Own Risk
The other side of the argument holds that fashion is about fantasy. Yes, bigger clothes exist on the back racks of department stores, but consumers want to see flimsy scraps of fabric hanging off flesh-and-bone hangers on the runway, on magazine covers, in advertisements. (Count how many plus-size models appear on the runways of New York City's spring 2010 Fashion Week later this month; see if it takes more than one hand.)
"Society right now, at this point in time, has decided that a certain shape is beautiful," said Kelly Cutrone, founder of fashion public relations firm People's Revolution, which produces runway shows for a host of high-end clients. "The fashion industry gives people what they want to see."
But, Cutrone concedes, designers in denial of diversity risk the death of their lines.
"The fashion industry is having to get very crafty about who they appeal to from a size point and a price point," she said. "They need to sell more clothes. They can't be elitist."
More images. More plus-size women landing major covers and campaigns. More options in the mall for sizes above single digits. For Miller, Dillon, Emme and their crowd, these are immediate goals, with a greater overhaul to come.
"I don't want to see it as a one-shot deal," Emme, 46, said. "I want full-figured models to be used in magazines, in catalogs, in department stores, in advertisements, along with the diverse beauty of other models out there. Diverse ethnicities, diverse shapes. Women who represent who we are. It's not one size fits all, absolutely not, in this country."