Fashion brand Universal Standard has been at the forefront of efforts to create a more inclusive fashion industry, whether through its design collaborations, exchange policies or extended sizing. The brand, which has always offered sizes 6 to 32, has recently expanded that range to cover sizes 0 to 40.
La’Shaunae Steward is a size 24 model who appears in Universal Standard’s campaign to launch the new range. A striking photo shows her wearing just a tank top, socks and underwear. In a post sharing the image on her personal Instagram page, the 5-foot-3-inch model called it the “most powerful” picture she’d ever seen of herself.
Despite the stunning result, Steward told HuffPost that the idea of the shoot originally “terrified” her.
“Of all the models I shot with that day, I was the biggest and I was just really intimidated,” the 22-year-old said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,’ thinking that I was going to get up there and start crying or something.”
Steward’s trepidation was directly correlated with the treatment she is used to receiving online. As a model with a social media presence and a large following, she is vulnerable to trolls. In addition to blocking individuals from commenting on her page, Steward said she has blocked comments with certain upsetting words.
Shooting this underwear image, however, was an entirely empowering experience.
“If you look at that photo, all my emotions were showing. I felt really powerful, really good about myself,” she said. “There was no one picking on me or judging me, and I don’t come by that often. I was expecting everyone to give me dirty looks or make side comments about how I look compared to everyone else.”
Seeing this photo makes me realize how important it is for me to be visible and not hide myself like I was always taught to do. La’Shaunae Steward
For all its benefits, the body positivity movement has not extinguished the impulse among many of us to compare ourselves to others. While the fashion industry has taken strides to become more inclusive, the plus-size models most often celebrated are those with perfect proportions who just happen to have larger bodies than traditional models. There is still little visibility for people with different shapes and curves ― or, put another way, people who look more like the average American customer.
Plus-size models with diverse body types have a lot more difficulty breaking into the industry, Steward said.
“As a plus-size model over size 20, I think it’s unfair that companies use the same plus models for everything,” she said. “There are a ton of girls over a size 18 who are not being chosen for anything. We don’t have perfect curves or a perfect shape, or we’re bigger in one spot or don’t have fat in the right places. The other models don’t understand and don’t have to deal with the same things we do.”
Steward said she cried the first time she saw the Universal Standard photo. Despite her positive experience on the shoot, she didn’t immediately appreciate the way she looked in the picture. She said she “usually sticks to angles that are more flattering,” and she anticipated backlash to the photo. But encouragement from a friend changed her perspective.
“Something one of my friends told me is that there’s no such thing as flattering. At any angle, any woman will be beautiful,” Steward said. “Flattering is just a bullshit word to make bigger people feel worse about themselves. And it’s a word I don’t use anymore.”
Steward also soon recognized how affirming a photo like this one ― showing a confident woman with a larger body that is not hidden, photoshopped or filtered ― could be for others.
“Seeing this photo makes me realize how important it is for me to be visible and not hide myself like I was always taught to do,” she said. “All of the feedback and DMs I’ve gotten from girls saying our body types are similar and how important this is to them makes me feel a whole lot better.”
Indeed, the more people are exposed to different body shapes and sizes in fashion and media, the less groundbreaking it will be and the more normalized it will become. For now, Steward plans to continue to push that point.
“I have the platform to show the world what it’s like to be a plus-size model at size 24,” she said. “I have to do this. I shouldn’t be scared to show the world what it’s like.”