“You Can Be Fat, But Not Too Fat” – One Plus-Sized Model Speaks Out

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Sonny Turner 3
Photo: Courtesy of Sonny Turner

It’s early in the afternoon and I’m sitting on the sofa at the airy, light-flooded modeling agency Milk Management, waiting for Sonny Turner to wrap up a meeting. The agency is every bit as lively and frantic as you’d imagine from seeing it in the Channel 5 two-part series Curvy Girls Stripped Bare, which aired in the UK last December and went behind the scenes of the agency’s booming “curve”, or plus-sized, model board.

Turner greets me with a hug; we’ve met once before, but not since she starred in the documentary that brought her, and the world of curve modeling, to a wider audience.

I never tell people I’m a model, because I just feel like they are going to look at me and be like, “Really?”

Having secured campaigns for ASOS, Primark, and Aerie, become one of a handful of curve models to appear at both London and New York Fashion Week last season, and clocked up an Instagram following of over a quarter of a million (more on that later), it’s indisputable that this 20-year-old’s star is most definitely on the ascendant. And yet Turner, who is of Swedish and Jamaican heritage and grew up in Birmingham, tells me in her unmistakably Brummie accent, “I never tell people I’m a model. I always say that I’m a school teacher, because I just feel like people are going to look at me and be like, ‘Really?’” She pauses. “Though sometimes people guess it now without me saying, especially the younger generation.”

The fact that it’s no longer implausible that a size 16 woman could earn a living through modeling shows how far people’s perceptions have changed, helped in part by the show’s popularity. “I think that, because there’s never really been a TV show about plus-size models, it’s been everyone’s first insight into the industry and I feel like as a result we’re being taken more seriously.” It’s about time, given that Milk’s curve models can earn up to £20,000 in a single day. “There’s definitely been a shift in the industry,” says Turner, “and I feel like being different is being celebrated more. There’s also more of an emphasis on personality now.”

She’s warm and refreshingly down to earth, and it’s not hard to see why brands and audiences engage with this “5’10″ free spirit” (as her Tinder bio reads). “I know – so cringy and cliché!” she laughs. Turner’s entrance into the industry came two years ago after Milk’s owner and curve booker Anna Shillinglaw stumbled across her Instagram and asked her to come into the agency. “I didn’t really know about modeling and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a plus-sized model,” she recalls. “Fashion’s not really a thing in Birmingham.” At the time, Turner was volunteering at a care home for boys aged 16 to 25 and was planning to become a social worker – though she says that social work is still what she wants to do later, “when I’m old and ugly!”

Although she’s had to temporarily press pause on the volunteering, Turner is managing to juggle the modeling with university, where she’s in her final year of studying for a sociology degree. “It’s been really difficult,” she concedes, “and for a while I was sad about not getting a First [due to low attendance – time spent on modeling jobs], but now I’m like, ‘well, I’ve achieved other things.’” As well as the constellation of campaigns under her belt, Turner has also made a name for herself on Instagram with her body-positive messages and unedited selfies, which offer a refreshing antidote to the litany of models and influencers all selling an augmented and glamorized version of reality.

Photo: Courtesy of Sonny Turner

On her YouTube channel, she speaks frankly about everything from breast reduction surgery to the pressure to be a “baddie”, someone with curves in what society dictates to be the right places. “Even within the plus-size industry there’s still pressure to look a certain way, and a preference to be hourglass,” she explains. “You can be fat but not too fat, and you can be plus-size but you’ve still got to have a flat stomach. It’s annoying because plus size is supposed to mean being whatever size you are – but within that, there are still restraints.”

You can be fat but not too fat and you can be plus-size, but you’ve still got to have a flat stomach.

When Turner first joined the industry as a size 12, she was asked to wear special padding on her hips to castings to appear bigger and found that she was booking more jobs as a result. Once, she was even told “to pad up twice,” she says. “There was no in-between sort of model then – you were either a size 6 or a 16. Whereas now, I feel like there’s more of a place in the industry to be whatever size you want to be.”

In her experience, the common assumption that plus-sized models aren’t “in shape” is a false one. “I’ve still got to be cautious and watch what I eat, and I still have to go to the gym,” she says. “Especially with jobs like e-commerce, you need be able to move around quickly and change outfits rapidly. I think the misconception is that we’re all unhealthy, but if I were, I wouldn’t be able to do this job.”

Not content with simply being a canvas for brands to display their collections on, Turner has also used her platform on Instagram as a vehicle through which to share the struggles of shopping on the high street as a plus-sized woman. One selfie of an ill-fitting bikini came with the caption: “We need cups that actually cover more than our nipple… It’s not fair that we can’t wear cute swimwear just [because] we are built differently.” It received almost 30,000 likes and sparked an important conversation about sizing and inclusivity. I ask if she thinks anything has changed since that post almost two years ago. “I feel like it’s completely changed online. I wear some things that, two years ago, I wouldn’t have even known that I could wear, or known was available.”

Despite the fact that London often gets lauded as one of the more progressive cities when it comes to catwalk diversity, Turner – who was one of only three curve models to walk in London Fashion Week last year – thinks it’s “terrible” in comparison to New York. “I did one show last season where the designer made the clothes to fit me, rather than just having varying sample sizes, which I think is the easiest way to exclude bigger girls – you’re basically saying, if you’re not this size then you can’t be in the show. Whereas in New York, there are bigger girls, smaller girls, more dark-skinned girls… New York is 100 percent ahead of us.”

For somebody still so young and working in an industry where constant scrutiny and rejection are an unavoidable part of the job for models of all sizes, Turner comes across as incredibly self-assured. “I definitely think that it’s something I’ve always had, but I do think that modeling has given me a confidence boost,” she tells me. She adds, however, that there are also a lot of things that are considered “flaws” in the industry that she didn’t know were flaws until someone pointed them out to her; “Things like cellulite, stretch marks, and even having broad shoulders. People will say to me, ‘Oh, you’ve helped me overcome my broad shoulders’ and I’m like, ‘I didn’t even know that was a bad thing!’”

In her experience, the common assumption that plus-sized models aren’t “in shape” is a false one.

As well as helping her fanbase feel more empowered in their own skin, Turner has used her clout to partner with brands on social causes close to her heart. Last summer, she teamed up with Nando’s on its campaign to fight Malaria, flying out to Mozambique to spray down homes with insecticide to stop Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. She also recently returned from a trip to Tamale in Ghana with The Body Shop, where she visited the  women who have been supplying the brand’s shea butter for 25 years. “The trip was amazing,” she beams. “I learnt so much, especially about their ideas around beauty standards. They literally have none. What makes them feel beautiful is a piece of jewelry or wearing a nice outfit.”

Between jet-setting around the world and working on her dissertation, Turner has her work cut out. Whatever she does, she hopes to continue being a body-positivity advocate. “I always want to somehow make a change or put a dent in things and just inspire someone. I think I’d probably still be doing and talking about this stuff even if I didn’t have followers!”