Interview: Lauren Karaman of Project Runway and the Project #MorethanMeasurements Talks about Body Positivity, Loving What you Are and Living in the Now
Lauren Karaman Credit: Don Nixon
Interview by Suzanne Ordas Curry My first question is what is up with this crazy world? Why is someone your size considered big?
Lauren Karaman: Ugh! This world is crazy! It’s extremely frustrating to live in a society obsessed with categorizing and ranking bodies. It's like the fashion industry created a false 1-10 hotness scale we all must magically abide by!!
For what feels like forever the fashion industry has functioned like an exclusive club, granting entry only if you fit their very specific physical requirements. For females that's: Height: 5’9- 6' and Weight: 110 to 130 pounds, from minimum to maximum height respectively. Any woman above that weight limit, or above a size 0-4, is considered 'big' in the industry.News flash, by those standards, the majority of the women in the world are big, so why are we hiding them?
Despite the rise of the plus size fashion industry and visibility of curvy models, there is still a lot of stigma around the word ‘big.’ Though ‘big’ and 'plus' have been used as a bad words, they are not. Though plus size models have been an afterthought, we are not. The fashion industry has marginalized plus size women, yet we are the majority. The “plus” qualifier in front of my title is not a negative, it’s a term of pride. It’s for everyone who has worked for more visibility in this industry, and for everyone who has refused to be invisible.
I've also witnessed reticence in casting models larger than the industry's sweet spot sizes of 12-14.A study done in the US a few years ago found that 67% of the women in this country are a size 14 (my size) and above, yet we make up less than 2% of all images in fashion and media. Imagine how much that percentage would rise if we change the qualifier went from a US 14 to a 4? I think it’s time the fashion industry stops ignoring nearly the entire female population. It seems bad for business and society.
Lauren Karaman, Target Ad
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It astounds me that you were bullied for your size. What lasting affects has that had on you?
Lauren Karaman: What has affected me the most is how young I was when I started to hate my body. I started my first diet when I was 8. In my formative years I developed the ideology that I would never be happy or reach my full potential unless I was really skinny. It crafted the way I lived my whole life. I yo-yo dieted for 15 years, yet was never satisfied with the weight I lost or how small I would get. Weighing myself was an obsession and a punishment.
I finally got to a point, ironically after a professor handed me a South Beach Diet book my senior year, that I couldn’t diet anymore. I was tired of living my life like I was 30 pounds away from being the “real” me. No. I was the real me then, and I was tired of believing a thinner me was a better me. Obsessing over my weight kept me from stepping into my potential, not my actual weight. Imagine who as women could become if we weren't taught to make ourselves smaller in every way?
We live in an Instagram world. Everyone is snapping pictures and then photoshopping them. What can be done to help young women understand that size should not matter with women? It’s what’s beneath the skin that counts.
Lauren Karaman: Did you know that there are brands that will ask you to write how many Instagram followers you have on the sign in sheet? I hate that! There are literal squirrels with more followers than me. Instagram is a weird world with fads, filters, freaky algorithms and a platform that can easily be used to perpetuate toxic standards.
But, it also can be a platform for good. There are so many pages promoting ideology like body positivity, literally changing people's lives. The growing body positivity movement on social media absolutely changed my life. It’s where I started to actually see diverse imagery. We have to keep using Instagram’s powers for good, and showing the world there are many kinds of beautiful. All bodies, including the standard, are beautiful. I just want to normalize that our current standard isn't the only kind.
Tell me about your experience on Project Runway. That is so cool.
Lauren Karaman: It was a different kind of excitement I felt when I walked into the workroom for the first time. I felt giddy and grounded at the same time. The typical don't-look-at-the-camera-oh-my-god-I’m-gonna-be-on-TV! nerves were there, but they were accompanied by the deep satisfaction that I was among the second group of plus size models ever to be on the show. Plus size models weren't introduced to the show until season 16. It took 16 years for us to be invited into the workroom, and now here I was a part of this change. To be part of this step towards inclusivity in my industry, on a show whose casting decisions could start conversations on societal beauty standards internationally, is a deeply satisfying feeling.
Though nothing quite compares with Project Runway’s iconic cast, the new mentor/host/judge line up is pretty epic, and filled with industry game changers when it comes to social consciousness.
I loved working with Christian Siriano.I’ve been a fan girl since his season and have loved to see his star rise in this way, especially considering the good he has done for the industry, designing for people of all shapes, sizes and gender identities. We worked together a few years ago for his line in collaboration with Lane Bryant and he's always great because he truly designs for the person. The impact he’s had on the fashion industry speaks volumes not only to the quality of his work, but to the quality of his character. Time and time again he has shown us actual diversity on the runway.
I recently read a quote from Siriano on this subject that made me swoon. Explaining his love of diversity, Siriano recently told Teen Vogue: "All people are beautiful. There is no correct size, shape, color, or age. As a creator of fashion, I celebrate the body that wears my work. What an honor to be chosen, to be appreciated, and to be seen. That honor extends in both directions." The mentor/judges deal way more with the designers than the models but, Siriano did say “You did good” to me right after one of the runways. It was off camera, but I promise it happened. Honestly, I’m glad it was off camera because my “Oh!..Thank you!” was a little more exaggerated than it should have been (in volume and enthusiasm).
If only more people looked toward Siriano for inspiration, both on and off the runway.
My first designer was Bishme, and god I loved him. A. Because he was fun. and B.Because he took great care to measure and remeasure me, making sure the clothes were made perfectly for my body. It's not uncommon for a designer to be intimidated by curves. He wasn't.
I really loved my second designer Jamall, too. Side note, his SS19 collection at NYFW was amaaazing. He made me feel like fire.
The rest you'll just have to wait and see.
Tell me about your photography.
Lauren Karaman: I never intended to step behind the camera, but my life took a cool twist last April when I found myself creating a large scale body positivity photo series. Since the project began last April, and the invitation for participation opened to the public, 85 people have been photographed in New York, with many more reaching out from across the world. The series, called ‘The 36-24-36 Project,’ is named from numbers coined ‘the perfect measurements’ for a female body, and explores beauty the guide.
Our hashtag, #MoreThanMeasurements reminds people of their beauty and worth beyond societal guidelines
The mission of the project is simple: to encourage self acceptance just as you are. We do this by giving women of all ages/body types an opportunity to share their stories, while bravely exploring them behind the camera. Naked or in underwear, women allow body parts they typically keep hidden (i.e. stomachs, rolls and scars) to be photographed. They're then invited to look at them as works of art.
Our first installation of images debuted at Superfine! Art Fair in Washington DC last fall, followed by our first NYC exhibition at Gallery MC. The 36-24-36 Project was chosen by international art organization re:artiste as the special feature project in their group show “TRANSFORMATION,” allotting us the opportunity to showcase all 68 people (now 85) who had been photographed thus far. Many of the people photographed were able to see themselves in person on those gallery walls. That was my favorite part of the experience.
In addition to the photoshoots, each participant is also asked a series of questions, one being “Who would you be if you really loved your body?” Answers range from: "Myself at my truest, most powerful form.” "Powerful. A leader. A guide for women to come.” “Unstoppable." Though the answers vary, the conclusions are the same: Loving our bodies leads to fuller lives. Though vulnerability and painful truths are explored, the questions and photo shoots result in healing, positivity, and love. The project is just as much about the exploration and experience of the participant as it is the photograph. We are actively creating imagery that promotes the beauty of each individual body, all diverse and unique.
Behind the Scenes at Project Runway
What is something that you have learned that you want to share with young girls so that they can live unashamed and unaffected by their body size?
Lauren Karaman: Our bodies aren’t the problem. The stigma around them is. I’d like young women to start challenging the ways they have been systematically taught to feel about their bodies. It's a toxic and totalitarian mentality to expect all women to look the same, and then to reward them with success, status, and clothing options if they do. The more we normalize size-inclusivity and celebrate diversity in mainstream media, the happier and healthier our society will be. Just think of how much time women would have on their hands if they stopped systematically hating their bodies? Think of all you could do and accomplish if you let go of that learned bias and start living? Not ten pounds from now. Now. Start stepping into who you would be if you really loved your body.
Taylor A. Purdee and Lauren Karaman of Killian and the Comeback Kids, a soon-to-be released film
about millenials, a band, and a mission.
Aside from Project runway I’ve heard you done some acting. Tell me about your role in the new movie Killian and the Comeback Kids. I’ve also heard you have a "special" relationship with this movie - can you dish?
Lauren Karaman: A perk of dating the filmmaker is getting a sweet cameo at the climax! I had a lot of fun on set that day for Killian and the Comeback Kids. It’s a music movie set in some rolling hills I was not mad to be filming in. The crew was talented, the people were fun, and the music jamming. The soundtrack and songs were written specifically for the movie, which is awesome. It was really cool to watch the way Taylor (Purdee) worked that day. He has so many roles in this film: writer, director, actor, composer and it was great to see him work that way on set. He and the cinematographer were great together, as were the crew and production team. (For info on the movie visit: https://www.killianandthecomebackkidsmovie.com/
Tell me who some of the women are that you admire.
Lauren Karaman: I’m inspired by the women in my life. My 87 year old mimi (strong, honest, quick-witted, and still a better driver than me); My mom, who taught me to call out bullshit, stay dedicated and to love unconditionally; My female best friends, who are all AMAZING women who show me what real support looks like; My team of badass ladies for The 36-24-36 Project, a small group of former participants who offered to give their time and efforts to build the #MoreThanMeasurements community.
I’m lucky to get to learn from women like them every single day. They make my world and the world around us a better one to be in.
How would you spend a day that you would consider the perfect day?
Lauren Karaman: Ok going to dream world. It’s warm and fall (just a perk, not vital). I wake up for an early call to set, filming a new series for (literally anything) in the city. In between takes I’m working on gallery submissions for my photo series and get an email from my modeling agent about a print job next week in LA. Then, once wrapped, I meet up with my friends for some food by the water at the park near my apartment. We’d hang out there with a bottle of wine and talk about how days like that never happen, but when they do, it’s hard to feel anything but good.
If that’s asking too much I’d also take a day on a nice yacht.
Favorite restaurants in New York City?
Lauren Karaman: My favorite food stops are the spots I have the most nostalgia around. Like that coffee/pastry shop across the street from my first Brooklyn apartment where the baristas knew me by name. (Tarpit-Williamsburg) Or the pizza place with the waiter who surprised my best friend with balloons on her birthday. (Carmines-East Williamsburg) Or the restaurant on a boat in Hudson where my boyfriend and I had one of our first dates. (The Frying Pan-Chelsea). They may not be the highest ranking places, but in NY you seem to find your spots.
What's Up Next for you?
Lauren Karaman: The 36-24-36 Project will be hosting monthly body image workshops at Devi Collective in Greenpoint, Brooklyn beginning this May! For more information about those workshops and our future gallery shows and events, follow us on Instagram @36.24.36project or on our website www.362436project.com.
My next print spread is coming out soon for Swedish clothing brand Ellos showcasing their new collection for spring. You can also check out my latest acting creds when a three part short film I shot: “Lis is Fine” which releases next month.
I’m also currently working with a few screenwriters on some projects set to film next year.
Follow Lauren on Instagram or her website:@laurenkaraman