By publishing images of her body and self in differing truths — sometimes crying and other times being so strong and happy, Barbie Ferreira made it out of the endless scroll and into our dreams. You’ve probably seen her posing in her regular underwear on Instagram, or in real deal campaigns for brands like feminist lingerie label It’s Me And You — it was this shoot with Petra Collins, and their other collaborations, that eventually landed her a contract with IMG. Since then, Barbie has become one of the leading voices in a push to transform fashion industry norms. Whether she’s interviewing friends on her Vice docuseries, How To Behave, or sharing unpretend captions on social media, the 21-year-old multi-hyphenate is an unapologetic champion for body positivity, self-love and telling idiots on the internet to get bent. The Queens-native uses her platform to share lots of photos of her hairless cat, Mort; to encourage radical honesty among her nearly half a million followers; and to initiate a total reclaiming of the word “fat”.
Alexandra Weiss: How did you get into modelling? Did you have the traditional get discovered, get an agent kind of path? Barbie Ferreira: Oh, absolutely not. I never really even thought about modelling as a thing I could ever do. I mean, I’ve always been into acting. As a kid, I was always into theater and was definitely actively trying to make acting happen for myself. One day I got a message on Tumblr like, “You should send your pictures to American Apparel.” I was 16, so I sent in some photos, and actually got called in for a test shoot. The entire time I was thinking, “This might be good for acting, but nothing’s going to come of it except maybe a retail job, which would be cool.” I definitely never thought of it as something I could make a career, because it just never even seemed like a possibility. I’ve always been super aware of how extremely thin you have to be. So, I just thought it was cool and it could maybe distract me a little from high school life in Jersey. And somehow, it’s turned into this.
Those standards — of how thin you have to be — have started to change a little over the last few years. How much have you seen the industry’s attitude evolve?
I see a huge difference. When I started really getting into the plus-size world when I was 18, I was very aware of the fact that I was one of the youngest models on jobs and had a significantly different body type. Before it was kind of like, “Oh you’re sexy, you’re a bombshell, you’re classically beautiful” — and it wasn’t just me, there was Paloma [Elsesser] and Diana [Sirokai] — but slowly, it just started happening and then it blew it up. It’s amazing how people have decided to give it a chance because so many people are benefiting from it. In the industry now, there are so many brands that have made clear they are open to inclusion, and agencies are seeing that, so they’re signing more girls who are bigger, or darker, or different, and we all don’t have to play this sexy, bombshell role anymore.
Do you feel like there are a lot brands who are being inauthentic with their diversity, though? And does that ever make you feel pigeonholed?
It’s hard because I love everyone who’s speaking out, and I respect all of the brands that are doing it. Even if it might not originally come from a genuine place, at least people are seeing it and embracing themselves and loving their bodies. I can’t hate on that. As far as being pigeonholed, it’s almost like, who cares? That’s what modelling is. You’re the sexy girl, or you’re the girl next door — you’re always getting put into different categories. But I definitely have never seen myself as any one thing. So, I’m constantly trying to reinvent myself.
But you know what I mean. You go on Instagram and see a brand like Eckhaus Latta or Gypsy Sport, and you know they’re just being completely authentic to who they are as a brand by having incredibly diverse casting. Then you keep scrolling and you see something where it just feels totally forced.
Sure. I mean, even on a personal level, there are a ton of girls on Instagram who I feel like are riding this body positivity train for money, or likes, or whatever. But with brands, this this isn’t something that’s just going to go away, and they need to be held accountable for keeping up with changing views of diversity. Of course, tokenism is a thing. Companies are trying to avoid backlash by adding just one person, and I’m very often that person, as are a lot of plus-size models, and that’s a big fear for us. Things are going so well now, but is this just the season’s trend? Are brands not going to be into diversity for spring?
“I mean, I had 10,000 strangers on the internet telling me I look like I eat Taco Bell all day every day when I was actually like a size 8 16-year-old. That was really traumatising.”
When did you start feeling more comfortable with your body?
I was actually never comfortable with my body until I started modelling.
Yeah. I think because the hate and backlash were so strong at the beginning, and frankly, so traumatising, I just had no choice. I mean, I had 10,000 strangers on the internet telling me I look like I eat Taco Bell all day every day when I was actually like a size 8 16-year-old. That was really traumatising. But I truly do believe that in the toughest times, you’re reborn. You learn, you change and you’re not the same person you were before. When I started modelling, I realised how silly and crazy social media really is, and that really just changed my perspective entirely. Before I started, I wouldn’t even wear high-waisted pants because I thought they would show my love handles too much. Now, I basically show up to fancy parties wearing floss as a bikini and hope for the best. But that’s also partly because I’m able to detach myself from my body. The way you look changes so often — you age, you change your hair. I don’t define who I am based on how I look, because that’s only going to change again tomorrow. That’s why it doesn’t offend me anymore when people make fun of me.
So, you see yourself as more than your body.
Absolutely. And I feel like, as a model, I don’t remind myself to feel that way enough. Literally my job is how I look, and I have to change it based on what people want or don’t want. Like, “Oh this hair is in right now so you have to cut yours,” “No you can’t get a tattoo.” It’s such a weird thing because it’s my body. But in a strange way, it’s helped my self-esteem, because I learned to see myself as more than it.
How else do you think you’ve grown since you first started? I’ve grown so much, even in just the last two years, because I’m still so young. I mean, the person I was then is the completely opposite of who I am now. I’ve just learned how to put things into perspective and how to not be afraid of change while making decisions for myself. Also, asking for what I want and demanding what I need, and being more confident in who I am and my ability. Before, I’d always felt like I’m just some stupid girl. But now I know I’m here for a reason. The way I move, the way I think, the way I handle myself — it might be by accident, but it’s who I am, and I’ve just learned to own that.
You’ve chosen to be really open about your journey — both in terms of modelling, and your life in general — on social media. Why is that?
I grew up on the internet. I was an only child and didn’t have many friends. I was always online, and I used the internet as sort of a way to connect with people who were like me. So, the internet has always been a place where I’ve been able to be vulnerable, open and communicative, and a place where I could find people who understand. I know some people look at the internet in a totally different way and think, “Okay how am I going to present myself today? How do I want to look? What time am I going to post?” but I never think about social media like that. It’s just all very organic. But I choose to be vulnerable because I’m constantly overwhelmed by these images of perfection and airbrushed bodies plastered all over Instagram, and I know people want a breath of fresh air and to see something they can relate to. Plus, I don’t have the energy to look perfect all the time. So, it’s part laziness, but also, I think people need it — because life isn’t perfect. To sell them this unrealistic dream just sets them up to fail and be disappointed.
On set we started talking about AI Instagram sensation, Lil Miquela. While yes, Instagram is largely made up of what you’re referencing — these curated images of perfection — there’s also been a huge backlash to that, where women like you, have rebelled and decided to show the opposite. That’s almost become its own movement. I mean, Miquela is a digital construct of basically everything that’s cool in the world right now, and she’s got freckles, a gap in her teeth and cellulite.
It’s not just about showing your cellulite, though. It’s the story behind it. As a generation, we’ve gotten to a point where we’re all just so sick of all the fake everything and sick of feeling like we’re the only ones who have zits or a big butt. So, it’s become more common for us to put our real selves out there in an attempt to connect with each other. That’s all it really is — people looking for community, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow. Especially now, where we’re constantly bombarded with pictures of girls looking perfect in their bikinis at a never-ending party. That affects people’s self-esteem and makes them feel inadequate. Even though that’s nothing new, it’s so much more accessible now. But instead of just having to be alone in your room feeling bad about yourself, people have started to share it.
Do you think that’s important, especially considering our current political climate?
100%. The thing is, the internet can be fantastic, because people can get together and share ideas, share trauma and understand each other so they feel not alone. In this political climate, that’s crucial, because people are feeling alienated, they’re feeling scared, they need people to talk to because their country doesn’t seem to want to hear what they’re saying. In that way, the internet is incredibly powerful, because it’s a space where we can all come together and share ideas, share information and rebel. When your own government singles you out because of ignorant ideals, that’s incredibly difficult and makes you feel like you have no power. But the internet erases all of that because it creates an opportunity where people all around the world can come together and have conversations that matter.
You obviously have a sizable following across social media. What do you think it is about what you do, and how you communicate on the internet, that’s been so appealing to people?
I think about this all the time because honestly, I don’t even know if I’d follow myself. I don’t do anything special, I don’t say anything new that no one’s ever said. I just share pictures of myself and my cat, and occasionally a modelling photo. But I think it’s just the realism of it all. I don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m just me. Of course, I keep a lot of things private. But I think when people look at my page, they feel like they’re getting a real insight into my life, and that’s exciting for a lot of people because they’ve been following me for so long. I mean, they’ve seen me go from having less than $5 in my wallet, complaining because I was living at home in New Jersey just wanting to move to New York. So, they’ve really seen me grow, and I think that’s inspiring — to see this normal girl on the internet that you used to follow because she posts funny memes is now actually doing something cool.
Right now, we have older generations calling us completely narcissistic and the ‘Me Me Me Generation’ because of social media. But there’s also the argument that taking a selfie can be a political act, especially if you’re someone whose body rejects traditional beauty standards. Where do you stand?
Selfies can be one of the most powerful things in the world, especially as a woman, because it’s very rare that we ever get to capture ourselves in our own way, and away from the male gaze. Usually, women are represented very differently from how they actually are. Particularly in the media and magazines, we’re usually seeing a male idea of what female beauty should be. So, taking a selfie takes all that power back and says, “It’s okay to feel good about yourself.” I think there’s such a stigma surrounding that for women because they want us to feel bad. That’s why we need feminism — because we’re socialised to feel inferior. We’re told to always want to be small and quiet, and that the perfect woman is agreeable and demure. We have all these rules. So, telling us selfies are narcissistic, or conceited, or whatever is just another way to make sure women hate themselves and never have any fun. God forbid we actually like who we are.
Last year, you launched your show, How To Behave on Vice. What made you want to pursue that project?
I just love humans and I love trying to understand humans. But I also think it was really important for me to branch out and give people the chance to hear me talk, instead of just model, because I have a lot to say. So many people only interact with me via photos I share on social media, where they’re just projecting what they think of me. This was the first time people could actually see what I’m like and what I’m passionate about.
Were you nervous about moving into a new medium?
Definitely. When I was growing up, I was really self-conscious all the time, like, “Oh I could never do that! Maybe when I’m 50.” But honestly, why can’t I just do it now? You don’t have to get the okay from anyone to just go out there and create. But as women, I think we’re judged a lot harder — everything we do is under a microscope. If a woman directs a film and it doesn’t do well, it’s because she’s a woman, and she won’t get to work again. So, it’s hard to get over that fear that you’re just going to disappoint everyone. But it’s cool, I’m working on it. We all are. And I’m never content with anything that I’m doing — I always want to do more.
How do you feel about the term ‘plus-size model?’
I go back and forth with this. When I first started modelling, I really didn’t care about the term because I just thought of it as a category, like blonde, high fashion, commercial. Now, I just want to transcend it. At this point, though, I don’t think it matters what word you call it, because the goal here is just to normalise all different types of beauty and body types, so that they’re no longer categories, just ‘beautiful’ and ‘model.’ Until that time, I don’t really care what people say. I call it fat modelling.
But that can ben a loaded word itself. I know some women are interested in reclaiming it, while others still find it incredibly offensive.
I call myself and my friends fat all day, but that’s because we’re all using it lovingly, and understand the total shit we’ve all had to go through. Of course, if you’re using it in a derogatory way, that’s terrible. But we are fat. Plain and simple. We’re fat in an industry of size zero girls. So, it’s fun to let go of that heaviness of this word that has had so much weight to it — no pun intended. I mean, fat was a terrible, terrible word for me growing up. When I was able to reclaim it and call myself fat, and identify with it, that was the best moment ever. That was the moment I really started to feel free. Like, all those times those kids made fun of me and called me fat — well, I don’t care. I’m making money off of being fat. What are you doing?
photography Natalia Mantini, creative direction and production Alexandra Weiss, styling Miyako Bellizzi, hair Ledora Francis, makeup Caitlin Wooters, manicure Natalie Pavloski, fashion assistant Ebele Anueyiagu, makeup assistant Jeana Pisani, model Barbie Ferreira @IMG. Shot at TriBeCa Journal. Originally published in Oyster #114.