Q&A with Laura Wells
Plus-Size Model, Body Image Promoter, and Beach Cleanup Activist
It’s a grey and rainy day in October when Laura Wells walks into Barry’s Bootcamp in NYC to meet with Sweat Life founder Aly Teich to talk beauty and body image. But she is in good spirits, used to running around in all different cities and all different weather. It’s the life of an international model, to be adaptable in all situations. Dressed casually in black jeans, a yellow and black checked flannel tied up into a crop, and Converse, and strikingly beautiful — tall, strong, and fit — Laura is just as happy to talk shop, as she is to throw on leggings and try a new workout at Barry’s.
Laura Wells, 30, never set out to be a model. She was studying to be a scientist in her home city of Sydney, Australia when she was approached on a trip to NYC. Her sister, Courtney Wells, is in the modeling industry, so it wasn’t completely foreign — but she was surprised to be solicited within the plus-size category. Today, Laura makes it very clear that plus-size is just an industry term, and that models fall into many different categories. Yet, the widespread negative connotation for “plus-size” outside of the industry is detrimental to women’s body image, especially when plus-size models are closer to the norm than the itsy-bitsy, size 2 models we use as the standard of beauty. We talked with Laura Wells about how the standards of beauty are off-kilter.
You are very confident in your body image. Have you always been this confident?
Good question. I grew up in Sydney Australia, going to all the beaches and the National Parks, with a very active lifestyle, and I played a lot of team sports. I was one of those girls who was super tall early, and I’ve just always had sort of a bigger body frame. When I was 14 years old, I was 5’10”, so I was always just the same size I am now at 13 and 14 years old. It didn’t really change.
I was always bigger than my friends — and not in terms of being large, but I was a tall girl. I used to cut the labels out of my clothes so people couldn’t see what size I was, because I was embarrassed to be shaped like that. In Australia, a size 12 is actually a size 14, so that’s kind of the last size in mainstream clothing, and then you have to go somewhere else. So for me, I was like if I get any bigger, what the hell am I going to wear, where am I going to shop? I was embarrassed by it, and that was probably through high school. But when I started university I didn’t really care that much, I think I was just in a new environment where I was really enjoying the studies, and it was what I wanted to do. So it kind of switched my thought to not even worrying about it so much.
I was very uncomfortable when I first got approached to be a plus-size model, I basically was like Fuck off, are you calling me fat?
I think it was more age, realistically that did it. Just being more comfortable with myself, and not worrying so much about what other people thought. That comes with age, and how happy you are with the other parts of your life. You know, if you’re on the right track with which goals you want to achieve, I think it all comes along with that.
You were offended to be considered plus-size?
Oh yeah, totally. I never heard about plus-size models before, and I’d only really been exposed to the industry through my sister, who is straight-sized, so she’s, you know, tall and skinny. I didn’t consider myself plus-sized. I didn’t understand that plus-sized models are actually average-sized women. But the plus-size terminology has that connotation of a larger person, and for me, I just saw myself as average and normal. So yeah, in a way, it shocked and offended me that I would be perceived in that terminology, in that category.
And does it still?
No, I don’t care. Everyone’s got a label, it’s just an industry terminology. I am a plus-size model, because if you look at the regular models, I am 6 to 7 sizes bigger than them. So within the industry, it’s fine. But in reality it’s really detrimental to men, women, young boys and girls, because they see someone my size that just looks young, healthy, average, and fit, being called a plus-size person, and they don’t equate to that.
Next to the average person, you are a healthy standard. So, are the regular models, what the standard has been set at, an unhealthy standard?
Yeah, I mean, it all comes down to people’s interpretation and what they see as beautiful, as well. But when you are force-fed a certain message and a certain look, and people look to that for their self-confidence, and for who they want to be — that’s when we get into problems. It’s a shame that people my size are categorized as plus, and not just seen as a normal, healthy person. We have this force fed perception of beauty that we get all day every day, in magazines – like the headlines in magazines, Lose 10 Pounds to get Your Best Body, and oh look, one minute Kim Kardashian is amazing and the next minute she’s obese and overweight. So you can never win with any of that, and it all comes down to being internally happy.
So where do you think women your size look to find confidence?
It’s super hard, because all the images that they see are someone they cant relate to. And then all the images of myself, or people my size, are in the plus-size division. So they think, well if I don’t fit in that division, and I don’t fit in this division, then where do I go in the middle. It really is hard, and it definitely comes down to media outlets changing their ways, and including girls that are different body shapes and sizes. I know that when I used to do editorial for magazines and swimwear, they would get the biggest response from people for those types of editorials, because people go, ‘Holy crap, that girls got tits, and she’s got an ass, and I can relate to that, and I can wear that.’ But it also comes down to consumers, the choice to say, you know what, I’m not going to buy this magazine until something does change.
Do you feel a responsibility? What do you think it will take to see a change?
It is changing, but it is changing quite slowly. I see unique change within the Australian market in terms of magazines using plus-size models in their editorials, which is great. But it’s going to take a long time for it to become the norm. And yes, I definitely feel a responsibility to highlight the importance of being happy and healthy, and a healthy body image — I use my social media as a platform to do that. That’s probably the biggest reach, because I don’t always get those opportunities to be in magazines, so by utilizing social media and getting out a healthy message, that really works. And I think that’s probably also where the power lies now, in the social media.
Do you think that there’s ever going to be a point where there are plus-size models walking down the runway?
Well, we were really lucky, this New York Fashion Week that just passed, they had a couple of plus size girls in a few different shows, which was awesome, a couple of my good friends were up there, the Chromat show and the Zana Bayne show, which was amazing because that just doesn’t happen. And when it does happen, everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god that’s awesome.’ But I think one of the reasons why we don’t see it on the runway, the sample sizes are just too small. The fashion industry is seen as an art, and they like to call the straight size models clothes-horses — they are just there to show the garment. And whether or not that’s wearable for people is another story. It went from a time where there were bigger models, back in the ’80s and the early ‘90s, and now it has completely reverted. It would be nice if it would change back slightly.
How do you think we got to this place, where being so thin is “in”? Look at Marilyn Monroe – she was the ultimate sex symbol, and she was a size 12.
Yeah, I obviously don’t know how it got here, because when we look at those supermodels of the past, they are still thin, but they have more meat on their bones. It’s such a strange mentality to have — most people just aren’t naturally thin like that, and cant attain that, so why do we show it as the only one form of beauty out there — because that’s really what we’re doing.
Do you think you’re the norm in your industry? You have found this place where you’re happy, which I think a woman of any shape and size is lucky to find.
I think it’s a real struggle. There are still parts about myself that I would like to change and that I’m not necessarily happy with, but I’m not going to let that influence my life, at the end of day that’s my choice. But you know, models they are amazingly beautiful women, and they are probably the ones that have the most hangups with their own body. You hear it all the time, its really weird.
I don’t worry about what the scale says, I don’t worry about what other people say, I worry about how I feel about myself and how happy and healthy I am — because if I keep going off of the perception of someone else, and try to live up to a standard that someone else set, one that isn’t realistic for myself, then I am going to find myself in a lot of trouble.
It's so strange, when you break it down into all these parts, we are actually changing what people look like to fit a certain mold, whereas everyone in the world is so diverse, and beauty is all about celebrating diversity. So why are we trying to fit all into the same mold? You know if we all looked the same, it would be really fucking boring.
Laura Wells is an international plus-size model, and avid positive body image promoter, and an environmental scientist with an extreme passion for our oceans and protection of biodiversity. Her favorite quote: “Knowledge dispells fear. Always ask questions and everyday do something to blow your mind.”