Photos: Elisabet Davids
Text and Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
The aesthetic and body type of the supermodel archetype cycles through every decade’s accompanying trends—we remember the big-haired bombshells of the ’80s, the waifs of the ’90s—but the look is always, for the most part, unattainable by laymen. These days it’s no different, but luckily things have changed (a little): there are, at least, some more models of color, a bit more room for gender fluidity, and more variations in body type. Social media, too, has changed our relationship to inaccessible celebrities—now we can keep tabs on all the mundane details they choose to share; in turn, sometimes it’s those platforms (like Instagram) that launch them to fame.
Such is the case with curve model Barbara “Barbie” Ferreira—initially an American Apparel model, her work with friend and photographer Petra Collins has rendered her something of an internet celebrity. Ferreira has 214,000 followers on Instagram, which is not uncommon for a model—nor is it unusual that she’s incredibly outspoken. The difference: in constantly taking down her haters, in defending her curvy body not as a one-off phenomenon for the industry but something that ought to be considered normal (why separate “plus” clothes from others?), she’s helping to shift common perceptions of what more normal-sized girls can wear (the edgier looks reserved for thinner models) and how they can feel (beautiful).
Ferreira is gorgeous, yes, and proudly flaunts it—but she’s a true badass and completely real, unafraid to put naysayers on blast or speak candidly about her own insecurities. We talked to her about both of these topics, as well as her navigation of the finicky and difficult modeling industry.
The story of how you became a model has been told already (you sent in photographs of yourself to American Apparel), but what inspired you to send your photos over that day? Had you been thinking about doing it for a while or was it more spontaneous?
I remember I was so bored, sick at home, and someone on Tumblr sent me a message saying I should send pictures to American Apparel, since they had an open call email. I immediately was like, I’m not skinny enough to be a model, but someone else linked me to a curvy girl who ended up being a curve model for them. Seeing that made me have the confidence to send it in, because I didn’t want to feel stupid for thinking a brand would ask me to model when I thought I was chubby. Imagine my shock when they asked me to come in for a shoot! I wanted to be an actress and I was already getting told to lose weight so I definitely didn’t think I could model. The only models I really saw were a size 2.
Once you sent in those images, did you start getting tons more work very rapidly? How did it all unfold?
Not necessarily. I was 16 and really didn’t have an interest in modeling. I was going to high school and working at the American Apparel retail store, just living a normal suburban life. I moved to the suburbs from Queens and went to high school in New Jersey. It was very chill and I was focusing more on having a normal teenage life. I started getting more work through Petra Collins when I met her a year later and was consistently shooting AA. I would shoot for them a couple times a month, so I was known for that and that only.
Petra and I met at one of her show openings and she asked me to shoot for Rookie. Then for the next year I worked with both AA and Petra for editorials and art projects. I was still in high school and working, so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I finally wanted to make it a career after I graduated high school and realized I could do it even though my body type wasn’t really expected. Through all the work I’ve done before this, I was never classified as a “plus size” model. I modeled all [types of] clothes for American Apparel, and for Petra I modeled all clothes as well.
I fell into this niche that I discovered through the industry—because I was a size 12, companies would only want me to model their curvy lines. I loved doing the curvy lines and I know it’s needed since a lot of women are told they aren’t beautiful or they’re not “normal,” having to go to a different store or different section for clothes their size. It’s important to represent that as well, because not everyone fits into stores’ clothes, including myself. It makes us feel ashamed of our bodies and excluded from wearing “trendy” pieces. At the same time, though, I felt as though thick girls don’t always need to be separated or put into our own section. We should be represented with other body types. I felt the term “plus size” was inaccurate and kept all these beautiful, stunning women, with the widest spectrum of body types I’ve ever seen—mind you, curvy agencies start at a size 6 and go up to a size 18—from being seen and resonated with. Since then I’ve done the best of both worlds. I have clients that I love and shoot with regularly who are exclusively for curvy girls, and some that aren’t. I think the balance helps girls feel as though they are as worthy as any other woman they see in the media.
Though a lot of people see you as a role model, you often say you’re still sorting it out like other teens—you’re just willing to be supportive to people who need you. Can you tell me about being a role model for other girls? It must be awesome to know that you’re helping them develop a more positive body image. I know your photos have given me inspiration to wear certain clothes I’d been shy about wearing before.
The funny part about all of this is that I was probably THE most insecure human being growing up. I hid my body in huge men’s T-shirts starting at age 10 and started dieting in first grade, when people would call me fat. I struggled with my body so much and so deeply that I finally gave up on fighting it. My boobs would never grow, my love handles will probably still be there—even when I lost 30 pounds they were still there!—and my hips will never not be wide. I suffered so much and I didn’t want to do it anymore. It breaks my heart thinking about women feeling not good enough when the media ensures no one does. Even supermodels get Photoshopped and told every day to change their bodies.
It’s not your fault your body doesn’t fit a crazy mold society puts on it. It’s the irresponsible media and sexualization of women. I get scared with the title “role model,” because I’m genuinely flawed and very real about it to everyone. But if there’s one message I hope to convey, it’s that you are dope, and throw out those tabloid magazines, unfollow body-shaming Instagrams, stop watching shows that put every single ounce of worth of a woman on whether her abs are out or not. These things subconsciously affect you. There are so many types of beauties out there that no one sees because it isn’t seen as profitable to companies. Stay woke on how you treat yourself and how you interpret messages through the media.
It’s empowering to see you put yourself out there confidently, but it’s also really vulnerable and brave. Was there a time you weren’t as comfortable with your body? What do you do on days when you’re feeling low? Your haters bum me out.
As a kid I was, but I would even venture to say that I’m pretty insecure about my body a lot of times now. Self-confidence isn’t something that is a constant state. Life happens, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, we read something that might affect us a little more than usual. It’s important to not beat yourself up for feeling down. Whenever I’m feeling like I’m not good enough, it’s always about my body and I have to think of what I would say to my mother if she was upset that she looked bigger, or if I had a sister what I would say. I like to turn the script around because we tend to be hypercritical of our bodies and bully ourselves. I would never want to hear a woman pick apart her features because they don’t necessarily look like Hollywood’s bodies. I have to treat myself with kindness because I deserve it.
You’re often referenced alongside your friend Hari Nef, who’s helping to change not only perceptions of body image but ideas about gender norms. How important are topics like these to you, especially when it comes to challenging certain facets of the fashion industry?
I think as a whole, the mainstream media has failed a lot of people by lacking representation in race, gender identity, ability, and sexuality. For a long time, the ideal actor or model was a thin, tall, cis white man or woman who fit a very Eurocentric look. There are so many people not being represented and it hurts kids growing up who are not able to identify with anyone, or worse, [become] identified improperly due to stereotypes. With body diversity has to come diversity in every aspect. With the age of the internet, I think a lot of models are given a good platform to reach out and show that yes, there are people who identify with this and it’s important. It’s helping people push the envelope and become aware of a variety of beauty out there, because we’re bored with only seeing one type over and over again.
It’s irritating that the industry is set up so that beautiful, curvy girl is seen as revolutionary, but it’s true that you’re part of a small revolution—you are helping to change a billion-dollar industry. Do you think about how you’re challenging all these complexes?
I do only because I’m very passionate about not being denied something because of something I can’t change. If people tell me I can’t do something, I work even harder to do it. I want to be able to break this stereotype that curvy girls can’t be chic, edgy, or fun. We are, and I know so many gorgeous women of all shapes, sizes, and colors who embody a powerful, sexy woman but are seen only as commercial, instead of having access to both worlds the way thinner models are.
What do you like to do when you’re just with your friends or by yourself? We get to see most of your life on Instagram, but what’s a typical day for you?
Usually I hang out with my best friends if I’m not working, or hang out with my mom. I like trying new restaurants in the city a lot so I’m always out and about for some Korean BBQ. I’m a big homebody so I just lay cuddled in bed most of my days off, watching Nathan For You.
Tell me about a shoot you did recently that you loved?
I did a shoot for Aerie, which was absolutely amazing. We went to Palm Springs and it was so beautiful. The best part was the fact that the models were all so different and it portrayed an accurate image of what lots of young women look like.