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Plus-Size African-American Model & Author Erica Collins On Racism, Beauty & Stereotypes

erica-collins

When you look at the three biggest trending topics in news right now, three recurring these will pop up: racism, stereotypes and beauty. The riots, protests and unrest in Baltimore are the latest in a string of incidents showcasing the racial divide between law enforcement and African American men and women.

With Lane Bryant’s latest #ImNoAngel campaign, they threw some major shade at Victoria’s secret claiming the lingerie brand famous for its Angels isn’t catering to the diverse range of women’s bodies in the world.

And with the increased amount of attention on feminism and gender equality in all sectors, stereotypes have become a heavily discussed and dissected issue. All three of these trending topics are important to us, so we found the perfect person to help us unpack some of it: Plus size model, author, and radio host Erica Collins.

Erica started her media career back in high school for her community newspaper, and then went on to work at the KYW (NBC) 1060 News Radio program in Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and started interning in her freshman year at WRC-News 4 NBC and WTTG-DC Fox News. She has also worked for MSNBC, Fox News Channel, HBO, and Businessweek Magazine Online amongst others. Today she is the executive producer and host of Blog Talk Radio’s ‘Enterprise’ show.

During her college years Erica started modeling and subsequently went on to have a very successful career in fashion, modeling for Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Liz Claiborne, and went on to become the first Miss Pluss New York and win the Miss Plus America title.

She has gone on to write 2 books focused on healthy eating which is something important to her being a representative of the plus size industry. So we decided to pick Erica’s brain about the issues affecting our society today and how she as an African-America, plus size woman can teach others to use adversity as a launch pad for success.

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You have been a plus size model for over 20 years, LONG before the recent plus size boom became popular, and you also served on the board for Fashion to Figure, founded by the great-grandsons of Lane Bryant lingerie founder. What have been some major changes you have seen in the industry? 

The first thing to note as far as changes is that the average plus size model was over 27 years old when I started. During the early 1990’s when I was modeling, I was probably one of the youngest at 18 years old. The average age for a plus size model was about 30 years old back then. One of the best changes is the progression in more trendy, stylish and age appropriate clothes. When, I started modeling the clothes were targeted to women over 55. Some lingerie stores were labeled the “granny panty” companies. The clothes lacked a positive fit to the plus size woman’s shape and made women look even bigger.

Now stores have more stylish and trendy looks for today’s young women. Aside from my spokes model and advisory work with Fashion to Figure, I was also part of a promotional modeling tour with “Just My Size” for their “Intimates Secrets Apparel Tour” The tour went cross country to speak to women about what they wanted to see in fashion. What we found is they wanted to look sensual, sexy and comfortable in their under garments and clothes. Now we are seeing that in the plus size fashion industry.

Another major change in print modeling was the notion that not everything had to be conservative. I remember when I decided to do a sensual and sexy photo shoot for an art and wine campaign it was the first time I showed cleavage and everyone was in shock. They tried to say it was too much. What always puzzled me is that a thin woman could wear the same outfit and be considered sexy and beautiful, but when a plus size woman wore the same thing she was considered pornographic or not appropriate. There was an unfair double standard. The plus size fashion and modeling industry is changing everyday with the collaborative voices of social media. Plus size women are recognizing their purchasing power and demanding their voices be heard.

We love promoting women of all shapes, sizes and ages, yet there are far too many naysayers telling those who advocate confidence at any size that they are promoting “obesity”. What would you say to this? 

The naysayers are part of the problem. They are being abusive in body shaming. The naysayers promote a concept of being unaccepted which promotes depression, anxiety, eating disorders and a series of unhealthy negative feelings that cause obesity and other issues. Positive messages can heal the insecurities of little girls to become healthier and happier women. When a person feels good about themselves everything falls into place in their lives. Their negative habits will change, and they will become a healthier and happier person.

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You are a huge advocate of healthy eating as well as being confidence in your body the way it is. How important is it to talk about health along with body confidence?

It is very important to talk about health and body confidence. No one is perfect. We all have a moment where one may slip into an unhealthy habit. The importance of body confidence will bring you back to focusing on your health. Hence it is important for these images to be inclusive instead of exclusive. As a child, I didn’t have the healthiest routines. There was a lack of education in nutrition. In exercise, they promoted competition not healthy exercising routines and making the connection to your aging process.

As a plus size model and role model, my contribution to the cause this year was in creating a children’s book entitled, Eric and Ruby’s Healthy Juice Stand based on my experiences in the specialty food industry adapted for children to help encourage interest and a better understanding of nutrition and healthier choices.

There seems to be a culture of body-shaming in the media lately. Celebs like Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Rebel Wilson and Jaime King have been torn apart on social media for their bodies. Is this helpful or contributing to bullying?

The body-shaming is not helpful, but the response is. I applaud these celebrities who have the resources for plastic surgery and quick unhealthy solutions for not backing down in their responses. It is so important for children to see their positive responses of empowerment. Bullying can cause deadly results. If these images change such as seeing more positive “plus size women” and “real women” then no one would be able to bully. You are enough, you can be a rock star, actress, athlete or anything you want to be.

The reality is bullying is based on insecurity, an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Usually, when you analyze the bullies, there are deeper issues unresolved within themselves. I turned bullying into something positive as a child. As a 9 year-old, I was 5’6″ but ironically probably had a body like Beyonce does now. To children at that age, I looked very different than my mostly white and Jewish peers. They use to call me “Big Erica”. Everything I did was magnified, so I gave them something to look at with unique clothes and became President of the School. I turned all the negatives into something positive with confidence.

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One of the things we love about you is your passion to also talk about race affects women. Given the racial tensions happening in Baltimore, and that have been happening all over the country toward black men, how do women of color get affected by this issue?

It is that same process of exclusion that created negative emotions in the plus size community that have erupted into a desperate cause for inclusion and their voices to be heard. Social media is enabling a social movement to reach new heights with the #blacklivesmatter viral hashtag.

Why is it that we speak so often about America being so diverse and multicultural yet we see these race issues continuing every day. What, in your opinion, is going wrong in every day culture?

A large part of inequality is economics and education in minority communities. For example, women are still fighting for equal pay. African Americans are still fighting for livable wages and earning higher levels of education. On the other side, there is ignorance of what it feels like not to have money and education. Large groups of white America are just experiencing what it feels like to loose a job and be unemployed for long periods of time. Whereas, for minorities this has been a way of life through generations.

For some, this is the first time in their life that what was once considered middle class white Americans are seeking social services maybe because they have exhausted borrowing from their resources. The times we are living in have challenged the middle and upper class. In some cases, struggle is giving up the summer vacation home when there are millions homeless. The struggle is eating out once a week, when others have less money on food stamps. Everyone is struggling in these economic times of hardships. There needs to be more empathy and balance of economics and education.

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You have worked for many big media names throughout your career, how do you think the media plays a part in perpetuating certain stereotypes of women, minorities and people of color? 

We are living in a historical time for media. The traditional big media companies I’ve worked for in the past had very specific styles of delivering stories to the public. A big media company is just a large corporation in the business of media. In school I learned about the journalistic creed, the bill of rights, and left college ready to report on the truth for freedom of speech. Yet, when I joined a media corporation, I was faced with the reality of stockholders, ratings, and competition for viewers. This changes everything you learned in school about being a journalist.

Stereotypes generate viewers, more viewers generate ratings and ratings generate money for the big media corporation. As a plus size African American woman in media, I have been a victim of the stereotypes behind the scenes and silenced when challenging the stereotypes on screen. During the time I worked in big news media companies, there were not a lot of minorities and those working in media were often treated unfairly.

The Baltimore riots and members of the riots are making history in their response to big media companies. The “white male” perspective is being challenged by protesters grabbing the microphones and protesters telling their side of the story. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera who gained fame from perpetuating tabloid style fights on television didn’t appear to be able to handle the new generation challenging his reporting. Fox News is known to perpetuate a conservative “white male” perspective. I smile and applaud this new generation for challenging the stereotypes and using social media to get the truth of different perspectives heard.

The bottom line is America is a diverse population and the “white male” stereotypes projected about beauty of women, limitations of racial groups, and ignoring the concerns of minorities, have resulted in an uprising and have turned into a movement to change our society and inevitably the big media companies.

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What are some positive steps each person can take to do their part to change the negative cultural attitudes?

Negative cultural attitudes come from lack of experience and education. The first step is to get out of the safe little box you’ve created for yourself. Educate yourself about other cultures and people. This means go beyond reading a book or listening to rap music all day. Talk to people who are not like you. Immerse yourself in a culture. If you are Jewish attend a Mosque or Church. If you are a man ask to attend a session on women’s rights. If you are rich, you actually have the money to be poor for a long period of time to understand the challenges rather than just donating and volunteering for water cooler conversation at the next golf game.

I grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ which is a predominately white, Jewish affluent community, but I’ve challenged myself to understand living in cities. I broke out of my safe little box, and it has been an amazing journey of experiences expanding my cultural attitude and cultivating my womanhood. You will learn a lot about yourself through challenge and naturally your negative cultural attitudes will change.

Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?

Embracing who I really am inside and outside. Since, childhood I have never conformed to the norm. What is the norm anyway? I have been blessed with being able to take negatives and turn them into positives. I encourage others to see a different point of view, embrace and respect the differences and learn something about themselves.

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To hear more from Erica you can watch her on ‘America’s Enterprise‘, the video version of her Blog Talk Radio show. Aside from her media work Erica started a non-profit organization called Queendom and Kingdom Transformation Foundation focused on the healthy mind, body image and spirit of children, women and men.

You can follow her on Twitter @EricaCollins + @EnterpriseECAA. See Erica in action below:

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