LEADING LADIES INTERVIEW: JESSICA LEWIS, PRODUCER OF STRAIGHT/CURVE
Interview By: Liron Davis
Photos By: Lily Cummings
It’s difficult to imagine a world where you could scroll through Instagram and see advertisements featuring people of different sizes, races and ages. When sending diverse models down the runway doesn’t get described as “trendy” or “boundary-pushing” simply because it has become the norm. Jessica Lewis, a film producer and model, is working towards fostering this inclusiveness in the fashion industry. Her newest film, Straight/Curve, is a documentary about body image, the unrealistic standards of beauty, and those championing for more diversity and body positivity (Canadian premiere in mid-February). She and photographer Lily Cummings collaborated on a photoshoot for Fortnight, centred around Jessica — who was pregnant at the time — and the portrayal of pregnant women and motherhood in media. Lily shared her artist statement with us and her words were so powerful and inspiring, that we wanted to share it in its entirety with all of you:
“Pregnant women are such a complex and wonderful blend of feminine strength and vulnerability. There is something so beautiful in the natural shape and form; the physical transformation of the body as well as the emotional core. I try to strip away the social pressures on beauty when I photograph any subject, and I find it especially important to showcase new motherhood without this burden. I think there is a serious lack of honest imagery in the media on mothers. There is this idea of a ‘perfect’ mother who has it all, does it all, and manages to look absolutely flawless. This is not a reality for most women. There is beauty in the imperfections, and that it what I attempt to capture in my photographs.”
– Lily Cummings
FORTNIGHT: Who are you and what do you do?
JESSICA: I’m Jess Lewis. I’m a model, producer, activist and mom, not necessarily in that order.
FORTNIGHT: How did you become involved with the film Straight/Curve?
JESSICA: After modelling internationally for 17 years as both a straight size and curve model, I became inspired by the women I was meeting who didn’t fit the social norm of beauty and their incredible self-confidence, despite what society was telling them. I thought this messaging was quite profound and beneficial to nurturing both physical and mental health in our societies, and in turn found myself advocating for more diverse and inclusive size, age and ethnic representation in the industry. By way of this advocacy I met the film’s director, Jenny McQuaile, and Straight/Curve was born.
FORTNIGHT: Why do you think it’s important for everyone (especially young women) to watch Straight/Curve?
JESSICA: Media and imagery have had an increasingly powerful impact on how people view themselves, especially with the rise of smart devices and how readily available marketing platforms allow brands, magazines, etc. to advertise so pervasively. Unfortunately much of this imagery isn’t (yet) reflective of the diversity that exists in our society and this promotes the idea of there being one image of beauty and health. It’s my hope that Straight/Curve can challenge this train of thought and beyond that, set a new, more inclusive standard for the next generation of people to view as the norm.
FORTNIGHT: What are ways the fashion industry can create space for representation of marginalized bodies?
JESSICA: The fashion industry is a very visual, creative industry so my immediate answer would be to just keep shooting diverse content. It’s the most effective way to begin shifting perspectives internally on what beauty is and looks like. The film explores this question much more in depth and looks at corporate, runway and retail aspects. Without giving too much away Straight/Curve introduces some intriguing new proven blueprints on how everyone from big box brands to smaller start-up designers can incorporate diversity into their brand to benefit not only themselves, but broaden their customer base as well.
FORTNIGHT: Body positivity has become a popular hashtag on social media for people posting photos celebrating their own bodies. Critics claim it has depoliticized and individualized the movement. Do you think there is space for both to exist harmoniously?
JESSICA: I think that social media has given individuals a voice they didn’t have before and beyond engaging and provoking conversation surrounding this by utilizing hashtags, it’s put the ball in the consumer’s court. Whereas brands historically could in a sense dictate to their customer what was on trend for that season, the customer can now speak directly to the brands and tell them what they want to see. I think the usage of hashtags and the BOPO movement on social media has unified and empowered people.
FORTNIGHT: During your press tour you were pregnant. Did you receive attention around that? If so, how did the media represent you as a pregnant person?
JESSICA: During the filming of Straight/Curve I was pregnant with my first. While we were in post-production and at our NYC premiere I was pregnant with my second. I did receive attention, though it was always very positive. I think by virtue of working on a film by women, directed at women about empowerment and body love, I was in the right spot to be a working mom (to be). I also received incredible support, not only from my coworkers, but the people participating in the film as well. I will say though that the pressure to deliver, both personally and professionally has never been higher. When you’re freelance and working on time-sensitive content there isn’t much room allotted for maternity leave, so the turnaround with both my babies was very quick. The phrase “it takes a village” took on a whole new meaning — support is so critical to working moms.
FORTNIGHT: How would you like pregnant bodies to be portrayed in media?
JESSICA: This conversation actually holds some common ground with that of curve models. We need to use real bodies and start being more honest about what pregnant women look like. Just as curve models are often asked to pad up on set to enhance their curves, oftentimes maternity wear is shot on a model who isn’t even pregnant, and if she is, she’s wearing shape-wear to give her the “perfect” pregnant body, which is ridiculous. Pregnant bodies come in all shapes and sizes too and just as with any other imagery, maternity imagery has the power to uplift a woman…or bring her down. I feel that maternity retailers especially at this time in a woman’s life have an added responsibility to empower women by showing them relatable not aspirational imagery.
FORTNIGHT: As someone who has worked in the fashion industry, what guidance would you give to a young woman who wants to pursue a career in modelling?
JESSICA: I think the definition of what a model is has evolved in recent years. It used to be that you could have a pretty face and a cool personality and you would have a successful career as a model. Now I think brands and publications are looking for someone who is more intriguing, with opinions, a voice and a cause. We’re in a great period of change right now and the talent that you see today having long-term, wide-reach successes are reflective of that change. Some would say we’re entering the era of the “Role Model.”
FORTNIGHT: What’s a really good piece of advice you’ve been given?
JESSICA: Drink a lot of water and that self-care is critical. You can’t help others before helping yourself.
FORTNIGHT: Beyond work, what is important to you right now?
JESSICA: My family is number one for me. I’m still learning how to be a mom and balance work at the same time. Breastfeeding, pumping and freezing, doing conference calls with a screaming baby in the background, finding the balance of enough caffeine to write emails, but not too much to squeeze a nap in here and there….if anyone has any advice I’m all ears!
FORTNIGHT: What’s on the horizon for you?
JESSICA: The Straight/Curve Canadian premiere, more diversity collaborations and our educational campaign!