A twenty-something woman in gym shorts walks by and yells “I love you. You are amazing!” and La’Shaunae Steward blushes, smiles that delicious smile of hers, and a small ‘thank you’ escapes her lips. We’re shooting in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, where a syrupy, orange-creamy film settles over the hills on a nightly basis. Behind us is a white and green stuccoed building where the words ‘Queens Arms’ hangs proudly. Steward, in a sheer green skirt and matching crop top, moves quietly through poses. The occasional break to laugh reminds us that fashion can—and should—be fun. The fierce silence that bookends it reminds us that Steward is here to capital-W Werk.
The 22-year-old model and aspiring designer is quieter than I expected. Especially so because the space that she primarily occupies—on our screens and in our feeds—has become a platform for outspoken vulnerability. Forget embarrassment, Steward says whatever is on her mind, your mind, their minds, our minds, and without polish, because it’s about fucking time we stop wrapping our self-hatred and insecurities in filtered euphemism.
She is unapologetically gorgeous, and why be anything else? Steward has starred in national campaigns for brands like Universal Standard, designed her own line for footwear giant Jeffrey Campbell and has a 90k and counting social media following. Even so, she is significantly under-hyped, and a case-in-point for plus size models and women of color who don’t get the visibility and recognition they deserve. So, Steward is using her platform to call for action against inequality in the fashion and creative spaces. “I’ve been super vocal about how black women and fat women are treated in the modeling and fashion industries,” she says. “We’re left out, and we’re underpaid when we don’t look a certain way, and no matter how hard you fight for being paid what other girls are being paid, you still get less if you’re not conventionally attractive or lighter.” She does her job of identifying the on-paper statistics of inequality, but the emotional tax is really where Steward dives in.
She points out that people are always quick to label her as what they see—an influencer, an Instagram model—and that her title needs an introduction. And it’s true; as an industry, we’ve perpetuated the use of language to modify the status of something—or in this case someone—and all because of pre-conditioned notions that the word model comes in one shape, size, and color—that being tall, skinny, and white. You might feel the urge to cry out, “But inclusivity! Diversity! What about body positivity?!” I applaud your use of fashion marketing’s favorite buzzwords, but when was the last time you saw a size 20-plus model on the cover of a magazine? In a national campaign? A high-end editorial? Steward reminds us that though fashion’s sea change is apparent on the surface, its intentions might be skin deep. “I still feel like the industry is mainly accepting ‘acceptable’ fats. And I know a lot of people think that these aren’t real terms,” she explains. “Fat privilege is a thing; if you’re a certain plus size, you’re accepted. But if you’re a size 24—like me—or bigger, people will have a problem with you wanting to have this career because they aren’t used to seeing people who look like you in magazines.”
Her ability to confront issues head-on is uncanny, as, at so many points in our conversation, I find myself drowning in the self-realization that my thin privilege has kept me blind to so many struggles that are a daily reality for many, and, change is possible, but it’s not happening. “There’s no representation. There are so many people posting these magazine covers and saying that they’re ‘iconic’ and stuff. But why not put a fat black model or a size 20 girl on a magazine cover? What if? I just keep thinking about it and I know it will be major whenever it happens.” ‘Whenever’ hangs heavy in the air above our heads before trailing off in a cloud of smoke. I swallow my fears and doubts and hopes and dreams and reply, “It will.”
Is there an upside? Yes. Despite career setbacks, Steward’s activism and trailblazing spirits have been a beacon of hope for so many young people who know the struggle too well. “I’ve talked to a lot of women who are younger than me, who are still in high school and they’ll message me and tell me how much I’ve helped them—even middle schoolers—and that is super special to me.” She’s been a voice for those who don’t feel they have one—other models, included. Because just as we celebrate only certain types of bodies and beauty outside the conventional norm, those same parameters exist for activism, and instead of being celebrated for their voices, many are in turn ostracized. “Other models have dm’d me about what I’ve said and they’ve thanked me. They’ve literally told me that they have been too afraid to speak up because they’re personally afraid to lose job opportunities. So, they thank me for being brave, just for speaking out; for risking my career.”
The necessity for anonymity, for keeping quiet, for perpetuating the status quo shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s a narrative we know well, the laboring of public and private identities, of how insecurities manifest in self-hatred, eating disorders, matters that exist mainly behind closed doors. The all-too-familiar nature explains why we’ve comfortably, cognitively distanced ourselves from it. And it explains why Steward’s warm embrace and vocal acceptance of her natural self make the internet just so mad: we’re unsettled by the public confrontation of our private selves, conditioned to believe that confidence, self-love, and acceptance are the domain of the thin and healthy.
Steward, with tact, says fuck your beauty standards. “I’m just fighting for my dream super hard because I was always told I could never be what I wanted to be,” she posits. “But I never gave up, even when I wanted to.” ‘Tempo’ by Lizzo plays in the background and her mood peaks, recalling the time that they became mutuals at fashion week, noting that “she is doing so many great things for fat black women.” Spoken with conviction, her words, and her presence surround us and the grace with which she handles such strife is astounding. Excuse me, Miz Steward, while I process that the woman next to me is indeed the same who signed off a caption with “I really am a bad bitch and you really can’t kill me,” your quiet confidence is mesmerizing.