Photography, Production & Art Direction: Les Mijotés
Styling: Harrison Karabaccio
Make-Up: Colleen (Kate Ryan Inc., Pat McGrath Labs)
Hair: Eloise Cheung (Kate Ryan Inc., Aveda)
Model: Robyn Lawley (Wilhelmina Models)
Top: Asos, Underwear: Only Hearts, Earrings: Jennifer Behr, Necklace: Erickson Beamon
When Robyn Lawley was a teenager, her eldest sister used to take her to model castings. At a casting one day, Lawley’s sister turned to her and said: ‘If only I had your face and if only you had my body.’
Lawley hails from the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. During her adolescence, “skinny” was all the rage. “That was a horrible time,” she says. “Because everyone was really endorsing anorexia… It was a really big thing in my teenage years–which sucks. You’re a teenager; you should be worried about growing and eating accordingly, not starving yourself.”
The youngest of three girls, Lawley’s eldest sister was–effortlessly–”super, super skinny”, while their middle sister struggled with her weight, at one point hitting obesity as she wrestled with overeating and an addiction to fast food. “She’s the nicest human being you’ll ever meet,” Robyn says of her sister. “And that also made me pissed off about the industry not representing everyone that needed to be represented… She’s still beautiful and in developing her body confidence, she found her natural size and it’s still curvy and it’s still beautiful but it’s in a healthy way. Our other sister is just her; she never had to do anything.”
The fashion industry has long promoted an impossible ideal; one in which a female model serves as a “coat hanger” (rail-thin and as shapeless as possible). That’s great if this is your natural body type– however, most girls enter puberty and find themselves suddenly growing hips, breasts, and some perfectly healthy body fat. The age when most girls begin puberty also happens to be the age when most start paying attention to the media, the fashion industry and to the ideal they see constantly blasted in their direction. And, of course, this is also the age when most eating disorders begin. Ironically, at the very age girls should be focused on healthy eating, most learn dietary habits to try to suppress the natural progression of their bodies and retain their prepubescent frames. Most models begin their careers at this age; casting agencies seem to seek a body frame that is mostly found among young teenagers and as their shapes change, they fight for ways to retain their adolescent bodies.
According to the Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association, 40% of teenage females have eating disorders and 91% of female teenagers have attempted to control their weight through dieting. Imagine already being in the thick of this and throwing in modeling on top of it all.
It can happen at any age and with any body type. In my early 20s, I went through my own hellish 2-year battle with anorexia. At 5’8”, my naturally thin frame fell to a mere 92 lbs. That experience feels like decades ago, almost like something that happened to an entirely different person. But because it feels relevant and hard to ignore, I share my own experience with Lawley. Her voice is supportive, urging me to sit with the seriousness of what I’ve just shared. “Well, first of all, I’m so sorry that you went through that,” she says. “It’s an actual disease. It’s a horrible thing that happens to young girls.”
There was a point of time in which Lawley briefly tried to control her weight: “I was trying to do a model competition and trying to be skinny–and it just was a horrible experience to me because I love food so much and I’m a great cook; I prefer eating to starving. It just kind of went nowhere.” Lawley’s refusal and near inability to accept these unfortunate norms is sadly quite rare. As is her outspoken approach to the subject. “Whenever something ridiculous comes out about me,” she says. “I’ve always been vocal and I try to think of ways that I can reach out.” In 2013, Ellen Degeneres invited Lawley on her show after Lawley wrote an article about being expected to have a thigh gap. It was a moment Lawley was really grateful for. “She read it and she got me on the show and I think that was really cool,” she says. “I think it’s definitely helped to be honest. I’m Australian and Australians tend to be quite honest anyway, but my life’s too short to not be honest.”
Lawley’s career began in straight sizing before switching to plus modeling. And in plus, she has accumulated an impressive number of firsts: S ports Illustrated’ s first plus-sized model to be featured in the annual Swimsuit Issue, the first plus-size model to be shot for Australian Vogue, the first plus-size model to appear in a campaign for Ralph Lauren and the first plus-size model to be on the cover of Australia Cosmopolitan.
The cliche about the modeling industry is one of superficiality and unrealistic expectations. “It’s behind closed doors. They get told flat out that they’re fat, that they need to lose weight and it’s ridiculous. It happened to a friend last night– she texted me and she got told she’s horribly fat… And she’s a curve model! It’s still happening today and it’s like, ‘Really?’ But it is.” I relate to her a conversation I overheard between a model friend of mine and a casting director. Listening to the casting director tell my extremely thin friend she could stand to work on her thighs seemed so absurd, I felt I was participating in a scene from Zoolander. “I haven’t been in the real fashion world for so long,” she replies. “But sometimes when I dabble in it and I go to these castings, I see stuff that’s like, ‘What is going on? Are you human? Are these just horses to you that you’re grading?’ It kind of makes me sick. That’s one element of modeling that I hate the most. The fact that they criticize your body openly and in front of you.”
But not everyone in the industry promotes this behavior. Lawley found support in her management at an early age: “My manager made me feel the best. She represents all body types. I met her and she said, ‘Don’t do a thing; you’re perfect.’ And that was the first time I’ve ever had an agency say that to me… I was 18 or 19 and I was just shocked. She said ‘I love you just the way you are.’” It’s something that encouraged Lawley to continue modeling and ultimately paved the way for her to speak out for body diversity and the need to represent all body types in the fashion industry and the media in general. “I just want representation of all heights, all sizes, all ethnicities, all ages,” she says. “They all have something, they all can be photographed, it all can be captivating and I just don’t understand why it’s taken so long to get there but it is, I think, finally getting there.”
Lawley has an easy, natural way of speaking. She feels down-to-earth, warm and completely sincere. She loves gardening, cooking and years ago, she ran a cooking blog called “Robyn Lawley Eats”. Photographing her meals for the blog sparked an interest in photography and soon Lawley began photographing friends. I mention the need for more female photographers and she responds, “I could count how many women have shot me–which is sad… and which also motivates me to do more of my own.” She clearly views modeling as only a component of what she does. “I want to be a film director,” she says. “I like getting taken out of my situation and put into a new situation. You can forget about your own life.”
I can’t imagine this person participating in any world that would promote anything but the embracement of the natural self. And this is why it makes perfect sense that Lawley stands out in an industry of body shaming and false imagery. “It’s a really grown up world that young teenage girls get thrown into and they don’t know how to handle it so they just do what they’re told,” she says of modeling industry at large. “But it has changed quite dramatically because now we’re seeing younger models emerge and straight off the bat they’re curvy; they’re embracing their natural size. I think that’s a big indicator that it’s changing: just the sheer amount of girls of all ranges and sizes coming through to agencies now and demanding to be represented at their size.”
“It is hard,” Lawley says of modeling. “You have to suddenly be a poster girl and you have to embrace your size but you may not have embraced it yet mentally. It literally took modeling to help me embrace it both mentally and physically.” While experience may have helped, Lawley is also now 28. She’s no longer a teenage girl; she’s a woman and embracing your femininity–especially in maturity–is so rewarding. There’s a certain freedom in finding that. I mention this to her and she agrees, noting her 2-year-old daughter. “Well, now I can’t care,” she says. “Because I don’t have the time and I have a daughter. I’m covered in stretch marks, I’ve got cellulite… You know, I’m just a woman!” Thanks to people like Lawley, the fashion industry is slowly finding what a beautiful, gorgeous, incredible thing that is–at any size.
By: Hillary Sproul
Bra: Blush, Bodysuit: Maison Close, Coat: Mola Walker, Necklace: Erickson BeamonBodysuit: Maison Close, Jacket: Christian Siriano, Left Earring: Swanti Dhanak, Right Earring: Closer By Wwake X Tome Shoes: MartinianoLeft Page: Pants: Christian Siriano, Fur: Georgine, Earrings: Jennifer Behr, Boots: Maison Margiela / Right Page: Coat: Victoria Hayes, Necklace: Erickson BeamonLeft Page: Pants: Christian Siriano, Fur: Georgine, Earrings: Jennifer Behr / Right Page: Top: Asos, Underwear: Only Hearts, Earrings: Jennifer Behr, Necklace: Erickson Beamon