Jessica Vander Leahy is a bombshell, in every sense of the word.
The Sydney-born model has been in the business for over ten years, and is happy being seen as plus-sized, curvy, and just a model, plain and simple. Now based in New York, Leahy has also established herself as a writer for Cosmo and Elle. Perhaps most impressively, she’s the founder of Project WomanKIND, an online platform championing women from all walks of life.
But for Leahy, empowering women of all shapes, sizes and creeds hasn’t always been easy.
She’s written at length about the lack of representation of diverse figures in the modelling industry, and the “sluggish” struggle she’s endured trying to shift the needle.
One of the biggest misconceptions about curvy models is, undoubtably, how healthy they are.
Not only are models like Leahy going up against long-held beauty standards that reward thinness above all else, they’re also forced to deal with deeply unwoke misconceptions about their health.
This ugly reality was thrust into the spotlight late last year when American supermodel Ashley Graham shared some of the ridiculous responses she gets when she shares videos of her workouts:
With comments ranging from downright disgusting (“you’ll never be skinny so stop trying”) to simply confusing (“don’t workout too hard, you’ll get skinny”), but the common thread is this: these women can’t win.
PEDESTRIAN.TV got Leahy on the blower to ask her about what it’s like to work as a size 16 model in 2018, how she deals with self-doubt and insecurity and, of course, her favourite ways to work up a sweat.
You’ve been working as a model for a decade now. How have you found the industry in general over that time?
I found that the industry was at first very closed to size diversity; and my biracial heritage made it even harder at times to get me over the line for some clients in Australia.
Have you witnessed a clear shift in the industry in terms of diversity over that time?
As the years have gone on, the powers that be have certainly changed. We’re at a real turning point in terms of the body positive movement, but there’s still some way to go before including a curvy girl in a mainstream campaign is not unusual but 100 per cent normal, and expected.
I think the casting process is key and clients really need to understand that the imagery they’re projecting is indicative of their brand. If brands aren’t outwardly projecting a diverse array of people then they’re really showing how irrelevant they are in the current conversation going on around them. Australia is a multicultural place so all fashion and beauty campaigns should reflect that. End of story.
Did you ever have a ~moment~ where you were just like, ‘Screw it, I’m not going to try to look like Miranda Kerr, I’m going to embrace my body for what it is’?
I feel like the important thing about what I try to get across to people is I’m sure there are even days where Miranda Kerr doesn’t feel like Miranda Kerr and is like, ‘stuff this! [sic]’.
Social media has been a great way to connect with people over the years and I often get people—mostly women— asking me how I love myself sick everyday. But the truth is I don’t always.
We all have moments of self-doubt and insecurities that creep in and people should be aware that that’s life. It’s human to have down days and as women it often manifests as physical attacks on ourselves. But the key is just knowing, ‘this too shall pass’.
I feel like if you have good routines in place where you’re taking care of yourself then you just push through those moments of doubt with your fitness and healthy habits and eventually you know you’re doing your best to be balanced. That’s all you can control really. Slowly, you create this habit of accepting and appreciating yourself and anytime you feel negative I feel like it gets easier to flick the switch to say, ‘Yeah I might feel like shit today but I’m worth loving and taking care of myself.’
What’s your favourite way to workout?
I try to do something physical everyday. I was a pretty hyper kid and I discovered early on that I’m happier if I burn off that excess energy happening inside me. For me, I do feel like exercise calms me.
I don’t always go crazy, most days it will be a walk and maybe 4-5 times a week at the gym lifting weights, boxing and swimming.
I do want to be more gentle on myself though too because I want to have a working body for 100+ years. So I’ve tried to do more Pilates and things that don’t require me slamming my body into a boxing bag and wondering why I ache.
People have (in recent times, at least) started to associate looking strong and toned as the ‘new sexy’ – have you seen this reflected in your industry?
I definitely think the 90s waif thing is done. I know some people naturally have really thin bodies, and it’s important to showcase them within the diversity movement, but I think we can all agree for a long time a lot of people were being forced to starve themselves into a beauty ideal that was simply not natural for them.
Nowadays, I think the strong and toned aesthetic is a lot healthier and realistic.
For sure I’ve seen a real change with the kinds of models I’ve seen on set; less protruding ribs and more ripped Michelle Obama arms. And I do think healthy is sexy, but it’s important to remember that health looks different on everyone and you don’t need a visible six-pack to feel like you’re living your best, healthiest life.
And finally; who’s your biggest idol?
I worship at the feet of all the OG supers [Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington] but for me Cindy Crawford will always be queen because she’s smart, elegant, articulate and hot as hell.
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