New York is no stranger to this artsy blend-into-the-background aesthetic: Lupita Nyong’o did a similar cover for them back in February 2014. Ashley might technically be serving up stronger face (she is a model, after all), but I think Lupita’s is overall more breathtaking. And I think that’s partly due to the pattern, which is gentler, and the fact that Lupita was allowed to emerge gracefully from within it like the Lady of the Lake proffering Excalibur. Ashley is squatting in a leopard-print den.
And there’s the part where I’m of two minds about the cover and the story itself. Make no mistake, it is powerful to see a “curve model” — the term Graham is trying to make more common than “plus-size” — featured prominently and confidently on any publication, but especially one that isn’t a swimsuit issue. Most of the photos inside are stylistically silly and giddy, evoking a pin-up girl’s calendar shoot, and one is an intriguing exercise in artistic framing (she’s just curling out of child’s pose, the rise of her rear end visible behind her head like a landscape). The messaging there is powerful: She is hiding nothing, and you shouldn’t, either.
Multiple times, she goes over to the monitor, points out areas she’s worried might get Photoshopped, and asks us not to do it, for her sake, her fans’, and ours. She would like us to highlight the “thigh brow,” a crease near her groin area that forms when she’s doubled over. On shots where her thighs look particularly bumpy, she tells us, “It’s better to keep the cellulite if you can. You can make it bigger!”
Graham’s main mission, even more so than proving curvy women can be beautiful, is to show the world their sex appeal, that they don’t need to be draped in “dowdy clothes, dowdy lingerie.” She tells me that one of the best emails she’s received was “a husband who was thanking me because his wife finally felt comfortable enough in lingerie to have sex with the lights on.”
But here’s what I keep wondering: Doesn’t New York feel late to this party? At what point does Ashley Graham’s story transcend the condescending aura of “She’s Bigger, But She’s Still A Model”? And at what point is she allowed to transcend it? Graham is a screaming success. She can model her face off. The camera loves her body and all the many angles hard and soft that it provides. Much of Ashley’s message is about positivity and rising above the labels and boxes the industry would like to put people in — so when does that happen for her? Right now, she’s embracing being a harbinger of change and a self-proclaimed body activist. But she’s been on this climb for a while now, through several magazine covers, and is now a household name. And yet consider the marketing of the story: “Ahead of the Curves” is the cover line, and the actual page featured a subhed explaining that Ashley is not a sample size — as if this is news — and the page is titled, “Now, This Is a Supermodel.” (Note the placement of the italics. It’s not, “Now This Is A Supermodel,” which would convey a sense of, “Finally.” Instead, the word “now” is weighted, as if to imply something temporary, or fleeting, or unbelievable.)
My question there is twofold, then: When does Ashley Graham get to achieve what she seems to want — that being, a model, full-stop, rather than a model with size qualifiers — and when might she get to do it in a straight-up fashion spread, without the mandate being to underline her sexuality? At least in that sense, Vogue got it right with a more athletic-skewing cover shot even though it hugely messed up other aspects, including covering Graham up. But New York lists in detail Graham’s struggles to be taken seriously by fashion insiders, both on magazine shoots and at the Met Gala in 2016 (which, not for nothing, have been reported heavily enough elsewhere to add to the feeling that New York missed this boat), and then frames those words with photos and a cover that aggressively cast her as less of a fashion force than a sex object. Consider this description, which immediately preceded one of the above quotes:
In front of the camera, Graham comes even more alive. Rolling on her back with her legs in the air, she proves incredibly flexible. Given a gigantic fake Champagne bottle, she rides it like a bucking bronco.
As if it’s so surprising, still, that curvy women can be strong or flexible, or straddle something and gyrate. But why does she have to do those things at all here? Look, it is wonderful and inspirational and true that women of all shapes and sizes look beautiful in lingerie, or sprawled on a bed, or with red-painted lips and a Marilyn wig (although why she looks like a Singing Telegram or cigarette girl on the cover, I’ll never understand), and as long as Graham is a willing participant, perhaps I shouldn’t fret. But most curvy models seem to face the burden of proof that they’re sexually attractive before they can be taken seriously, and that makes me nuts. Imagine how potent it might have been, in the Fall Fashion Issue, to give her actual fall fashion. To give her the Lupita treatment, rather than swaddling her in animal print, which often carries vixenish, seductive undertones. What if she’d gotten the cool florals and bright hues afforded Lupita? What if, instead of Ashley throwing her legs in the air while wearing a bedsheet, she’d finally been clad in the real clothes that have been rudely denied her? If they’re still unavailable, then that’s a strong peg on which to hang this, but that is not mentioned. Ergo, what remains is a story about a woman who deserves to be taken seriously on a number of levels, but is only allowed to embody one. The same one.
I respect Ashley Graham so much. She’s worked hard, she’s great at her job, and she’s had to endure that weird commodification where her success in a brutal industry makes people feel a certain ownership of her form; she’s taken heat from people who think even the slightest change is a betrayal of her brand, and her message, and her fans. It can’t be easy to flatten those generally immovable obstacles, only to be treated like you’re beholden to some social contract you never actually signed. Women are complicated and many-faceted, and can be moguls and sex kitten and fashion icons and intellectual giants all at once. I have no problem with Ashley representing each and every one of those things, and enjoying herself in the process. She should. It’s her time. What this made me wish, and which I apparently could not say in simple terms, is that the magazines would be a little more eager to help her tip the balance in a few of those other directions, and a little less lazy about landing on, “Well, boobs, of course.”