Truth be told, I admired Elianah Sukoenig from afar long before we ever spoke in person. At the time, she worked at The Break, a boutique vintage shop on my block—one that offers curated, diverse clothing at an affordable price point. I’m in there more often that I’d prefer to admit. Our relationship went from chatting in the store to DM’ing on Instagram, a very modern way things tend to flourish these days, I suppose. Not soon after, I noticed she’d often post about her difficult experience in the modeling industry.
Let me be clear, Sukoenig is stunning. And she has a beautiful body by anyone’s standards. Hard stop. There is nothing about her physical features that would ever lead me to believe she’s been subject to judgment and exclusion. Though, perhaps that’s the point—the fact that anyone, anywhere, who looks any type of way, has dealt with negative experiences in relation to their shape. Surely, involvement in the modeling industry amplifies things, but it’s true women of any profession are exposed to cruel, discriminatory criticism. It would be impossible not to internalize it in some way or another. Sukoenig is outspoken about the size gap—how when you’re not a “straight” size (a term the industry uses for models who fit the traditional sample size) or “plus” (an often controversial word for sizes above a 12, though models in this category can be as small as a size 8), you’re all but banished from the industry. It’s like no one knows where to place you, so they forget your existence entirely. And let’s not forget this dilemma is in reference to women who fit a size 4 or 6. With the average U.S. woman wearing a size 16 to 18 (according to this 2016 study), that is purely ludicrous.
Inspired by Sukoenig’s candor, I reached out with a few questions about her experiences. Below, she shares her thoughtful words on representation and empowerment in the face of perceived failure.
What has your experience been in dealing with the industry as a woman who doesn’t fit into a size “box”?
It has been a ride. It took me two years to find representation (that I no longer have). I had lots of interest from agents, but my size always turned them off—they didn’t know what to do with me. Even at a size 2, I had multiple agents turn me down and encourage me to shave inches off my hips. I was at a point where I was trying to conform and lose weight when one particular mother agent took a special interest in me. Once I got them down (my hips, that is), she sent me to a test shoot—after which she told me the photographer had relayed I would never get any work because I was too big. That I needed to lose more weight before she submitted me anywhere else.
An agency offered me a contract in the spring of 2016, but abruptly retracted, noting, “I didn’t fit with the direction they were taking anymore.” A few months later, to my excitement, a well-known New York agency offered me a contract. I had been on my feet constantly that summer working retail and was the smallest I’d ever been post-puberty—a size 0. I was elated to have been signed, having been rejected for two years, and as a woman with large breasts—ones that don’t fit seamlessly into clothes without a bra, look particularly dainty or point upwards.
The agency sent me to the first test shoot. When I arrived, the photographer looked at me and said, “Hmm, you’re not plus size.” He thought the agency was sending a girl from the curve division. Flash to the next test shoot, and the same thing happened. And on and on. Every single one. My book went up a few weeks later online, and there I was, on the curve division. At a size 0.
One of the first castings I went to was for a plus-size clothing brand (such an isolating label). The models I mingled with were confused as to why I was there, as was I. Whenever they would take my measurements, they would measure my hips around my (bulky, vintage) jeans, adding to my true hip size. My measurements online were incorrect, with inches added to my bust, waist, and hips. They continued to send me to castings, often telling me to “dress heavy” and “say you’re a size 10.”
Of course, I could not book any of these jobs. I was soon dropped by the agency. Soon after, my body went up a few sizes without any changes to my diet or fitness regime—my doctor diagnosed me with hypothyroidism. As I lost control of my size, I panicked. Even having gained weight, I still wasn’t big enough to be considered plus size, but now I was much farther away from being considered “straight.” I visited other agencies with curve boards and was met with surprise by how much smaller I was than they had expected from my photos. Yet again, I didn’t fit into “plus” (or “curve”) but wasn’t small enough to be considered “straight.”
Since then, I’ve used the power of networking and social media to book jobs on my own and am getting more work than I ever did with my agency. I still submit my digitals, reach out to and visit agencies, but never fit into the box of being on one or the other end of the size spectrum. It’s disheartening when I meet people who think of me as bigger"—I am a size 4. Oftentimes when I’m on set, they’ve hired me because I am in between or simply because they like my look. I’ve talked to several people involved with casting who say it’s what the customer wants to see, but they cannot find it at agencies. The mindset of agents in the New York market is antiquated.
You’ve been very vocal on your Instagram about these issues. What made you decide it was important to be outspoken about it?
I’m fed up that the representation of women’s sizes in media is so inaccurate, and from knowing the pain and hatred I’ve felt in the past for my own body, I am so passionate about helping to prevent other people from feeling that way.
What I’ve experienced in the modeling industry, particularly with agents, is not right. It’s not. There is a huge disparity—the majority of models “have to” fall under the (unnecessary) labels of straight or plus. There is (almost) no representation of people in between those sizes. Even then, we are also lacking representation of people without “ideal” proportions. I just think, what about all the women out there who also have large breasts? Or any height deemed not right for modeling? Or unable to label their size with a single number because every body is different. What about all girls who cannot find themselves represented in fashion and the media? Why can’t we find every single size represented fairly? When will it be about the ability to model instead of about nit-picking numbers? When will we represent reality and not exceptionalism?
It is important for me to be outspoken because the media lacks that which is real—and Instagram is a platform where I have the privilege to speak out about it. I want to acknowledge all the progress that has been made, but it is still such a fight to find representation and get treated equally when you don’t "fit."
I used to be scared to speak out, for fear of agencies not liking it. But I reached a point where it became more about trying to make a difference and helping other women in whatever way I can. If agents don’t like my desire for change, I don’t want to work with them. My desire to keep modeling stems from a desire to help everyone else, as does being vocal. The industry standards are not okay. It’s 2018. Having flaws and being human makes us exceptional.
How has the reception been?
I’ve gotten so much positive feedback. I didn’t expect my followers on Instagram to care so much about what I had to say. It makes this cause even more important to me when I find out that my experiences affect people, that they too are angry and fed up with what is depicted in fashion and the media. People have reposted my stories, messaged me and chimed in about what they’ve experienced, women have come to me saying it’s helped them to feel better about themselves, and thanked me for being so real about it. All of this gets the ball rolling, even if it's small. I’m trying to at least create some level of awareness. The public wants to see inclusive representation, so for me, it is about figuring out how I can make that happen.
All in all, the reception has shown me that we are all hungry for true inclusivity. People of all genders, people of all sizes and proportions, want true representation of all the amazing and different people that make up our world.
You work in the fashion industry—both through The Break and your modeling jobs. Do you think that changes the way you look at/feel about your body?
One hundred percent. Working in the fashion industry has been a roller coaster of impacting how I view my body. Before I started modeling myself, I assisted a fashion stylist. On shoots with the stylist, I’d see the models and feel bad about my shape. It made me realize I wanted to be in front of the camera, but I felt like I wasn’t good (or in this case, small) enough.
I first met The Break when I modeled for the company two years ago. It was one of the most positive shooting experiences I’ve had, and they were so kind and celebratory of my body (and different sizes). When we shot again, I had gained weight and had been picked apart by agents. I was pretty down on myself. Those shoots helped me stay motived and keep believing in myself.
The support of these brands, people I meet on set, and the women at The Break have helped me to love my body and truly accept it for the first time. I dealt with an eating disorder in high school, and this past year is the first time I’ve been able to look at myself with not only pride but happiness. It hit me one day this past year that I had stopped picking myself apart, weighing myself, and fixating on my size. Instead, I have been working to book jobs and do what I can to promote a message of body positivity, inclusivity, and change.
Has being surrounded by women at a female-run company like The Break changed things for you in positive ways?
Yes! I think since we, as women, are catering to other women, we don’t want to only see “perfection.” We want to see something we can relate to, and what our customers can wear no matter their size.
My co-workers and the customers come into the store and have access to clothing for all shapes and sizes. It fills me with such joy to see any woman find jeans that make them feel hot and be unable to look away from their butt in the mirror. (Get that booty bumpin‘, girl.) I’ve worked in retail where women came in unable to find bridal dresses in their size. At The Break, women leave beaming. Being surrounded by women who want to celebrate and cater to all sizes creates a feeling of acceptance throughout the entire space.
It’s also been an awesome opportunity to meet so many female professionals who kick ass—the women who shop and work at The Break kick ass. My co-workers and our clientele are so inspiring. We come to The Break not only to find sustainable, cute, size-inclusive clothes but for a community of strong, inspiring women. I had the pleasure of co-casting our first fashion show, and it was an honor. I made it my mission to cast men and women who weren’t necessarily models, who weren’t necessarily tall, who weren’t all stick thin. (I tried to get some “plus” men in there but didn’t get any responses.)
What do you think about the impact of Instagram and Facetune?
I think [these apps] reflect society’s pressure and drive for exceptionalism. Instagram often shows a curation of a small percentage of our lives. I think the impact of constantly consuming all of this curated content, some of which is fake and/or Facetuned, can be very detrimental. Scrolling through your feed immediately invites comparison and takes you away from the moment you are living in—I experience it myself.
That being said, I’m all for doing what makes you feel your best. Hey, if you took a selfie and you want to edit your pimple out, what’s wrong with that? If you don’t want to edit it out, what’s wrong with that either? It’s your choice! It’s a tough one. Are we trying to sell perfection or sell self-acceptance? I think retouching like that helps brands create fantasies of perfection in images that is unattainable in real life. It is more important for me to be vulnerable and maybe uncomfortable with the portrayal of my unedited self for the sake of portraying reality. I believe we should follow the saying, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
In a perfect world, what would the modeling industry look like to you?
It would be all-inclusive. All genders, all body shapes, and sizes, heights, races, all varieties of humans. It would be a celebration of humanity, selling products depicted on and that can be worn by everyone. And no labels. No more “straight” and “plus” boards, no more asking for people’s weights. Equal treatment for all models of all sizes, male and female. Highlighting the realities of humanity. With fair and equal pay and laws regulating all of these things, including meals on set and sexual harassment prevention.
What do you think the size revolution would/will look like exactly?
I don’t know for sure, but I think it would have to be an industry effort. I’ve thought a lot about it; maybe if sample sizes were made to be inclusive and that system was broader, and if clothing design wasn’t taught off of the same slender mannequins, and if agencies took in wider ranges of people and body types—it would create an environment of inclusivity.
Everyone seems so on board for change, so I struggle to understand why not all major brands and agencies have embraced that 100%. Imagine the waves it would create if Victoria’s Secret used women above size 2 and beyond, all sizes. That is the most-watched fashion show, aired globally. We tune in across America and stare at their chiseled, almost fat-free bodies. Major props to Aerie for their power move of realistic casting and dropping retouching.
I think change is happening slowly, and conversations are starting. I appreciate the work The Model Alliance is doing, but at the same time, the regulations they are fighting for focus on agency-represented models, when there is so much talent out there right now working regularly without such representation.
What advice would you give other women who find themselves in your position?
Keep the conversation going. Don’t give up, and don’t conform. If we all speak up about it, who knows what we can accomplish. Maybe we won’t immediately land agents, but we will create awareness and hopefully inspire self-acceptance, love, and change.
The idea that I’ve helped other women feel better about their bodies or buy clothes they didn’t think they could pull off, brings tears to my eyes. The pain that people go through because they are not what is depicted in the media isn’t necessary (and should be changed). We are all beautiful, no matter what size we are. I know the pain they’ve felt, and to hear that I’ve made an impact in relieving that and turning it into celebration means the world to me. I want EVERYONE to be able to find themselves in the media and draw inspiration and love themselves. Being human is beautiful, and it is a waste of life to beat yourself up over not fitting in.