Why are there no petite models?

As inclusivity has increasingly become trendy in the fashion world, we’ve seen designers look to diversify the models showing their clothes. The runway has become more inclusive over the past number of years, featuring plus-sized models, disabled and differently-abled models, more models of different ethnic backgrounds, transgender models, senior citizen models… but the one thing they have in common is that they are all over 5’9″. Even an industry “petite” model will be 5’7″ and up.

Designers argue that it’s because their designs ‘hang’ better on taller models. But that’s backwards thinking. If they are designing for tall women only, then of course only tall women will be able to pull off their designs. What they’re really saying is, they think short is ugly, and they don’t want to design for short women because they’re prejudiced against them. There’s a long-standing theory that fashion designers are designing clothes for more masculine-looking women: Tall, broad shoulders, small hips, small bust. Not to denigrate the femininity of women who look like that — we’re all legit, regardless of body type — but I can’t help but think it’s actually a sign of misogyny to demand that women conform to these rigid and (for most of us) unrealistic standards.

The last remaining acceptable prejudice?

Let me be clear: Heightism is the last remaining acceptable prejudice in the fashion industry. Nobody would dream of fat-shaming women in public anymore without getting a barrage of hate mail. Racism still exists in the fashion industry, but not openly. Ageism, ableism and other forms of prejudice are all slowly being recognized as unacceptable as well. But it’s still considered not only okay, but practically carved in stone, to tell a woman that she’s too short to model.

And in the process, we’re telling one half of all women that they’re too short for fashion. That fashion is for tall girls, not for them. That they can’t participate.

Of course, this is nonsense. The number of celebrity fashionistas who are 5’3″ and under in Hollywood alone serve as proof against that concept. Fashion is for everyone. It’s just not showcased that way. And when we go out and buy the clothes that we see on the runways, we generally find that they don’t fit, flatter or suit our bodies … because they weren’t designed for us.

Even petite labels and designers show their clothes on standard-height tall models. You can’t browse the catalogue or website of a single petite brand today (except for a couple of pioneer niche brands) and actually see the clothing displayed on petite bodies. Which makes it really frustrating to shop. A few designers went out looking for petite models to display their designs, only to be told — snidely — that such a thing does not exist.

Actually, there are petite models… sort of.

Of course, there are petite models. Not many, but they exist. A 2017 Mic article entitled The Rise of the Very Short Model examined a few petite models who were starting to get noticed in the fashion world at the time:

But over the past few months, more and more models who are Kate Moss’ height and shorter have started breaking into the industry. There’s Amina Blue, who’s walked for Kanye West’s Yeezy every single season, who stands at 5’1”. There’s Lily-Rose Depp, who’s walked for Chanel, who’s 5’3”. There’s Tess Holliday, who recently made her NYFW runway debut at an Ashley Nell Tipton show, who’s also 5’3”.

Mic concluded that this very odd (for fashion) phenomenon was being driven by the rise of Instagram and the desire of women to see themselves represented. And then went on to quote fashion gatekeepers about why this is a negative:

“The big barrier that’s been broken down with fashion is that real people have now taken over,” [casting director James] Scully said. “Because there are no gatekeepers. Fashion’s not meant to be egalitarian, though. If there’s nothing to aspire to, then what’s the point of having it? People want experiences. Fashion was never meant to have this kind of all-over-the-world-ness.”

In other words, according to Scully, height is something to aspire to. Shortness is a bad thing and women shouldn’t / couldn’t possibly aspire to a beauty ideal featuring women of shorter-than-average height. The disdain and prejudice drips with every single word of that cringeworthy attitude. And he’s certainly not the only one.

It’s telling that on the hit TV show Project Runway, the “real woman” challenge is always met with sneering by the competitors. “Ew,” they say. “We have to design for a short woman?” This attitude starts early, in design school, and is rampant all the way through the industry, from judges to commentators to style icons — many of whom are petite women themselves. When Tyra Banks hosted a “petites” season of America’s Next Top Model in 2009, the winner was 5’7″ Nicole Fox. Yes, really.

When you consider that the average woman in North America is 5’4″, having a 5’7″ winner of a “petites” modelling season is very telling.

Realistically, you can’t get a job as a runway model if you’re under 5’9″. Even catalogue modelling is largely inaccessible to women under 5’7″ unless you’re doing hand, foot or other modelling that doesn’t show your, presumably deformed, height disadvantage. The modelling industry says it’s because nobody would book petite models. The industry says it’s because none are available. And round and round we go. The few companies trying to change that, like Bella Petite, are very likely just scamming the women they claim to represent.

The brands driving change

So how do we change it? By speaking up and speaking out, just like with any other form of prejudice. And by supporting the brands who are trying to pioneer change.

Some brands and designers, like Stature and Petite Studio, are trying to break ground by showing their petite clothes on petite models. The former showcases its clothes on a diverse variety of petite models, each of whom have their own website profiles showcasing their measurements as well as their personalities.

Stature NYC makes a point of including its petite models’ heights and measurements on its website.

Meanwhile, the latter even launched a petite model search in 2018 to find the new face of its campaign — something it wouldn’t have had to do if petite models were mainstream and easy to find:

Petite Studio NYC’s 2018 Petite Model Search invited customers to vote on social media for the new face of their brand.

UK-based Bomb Petite is another high-end brand showcasing their designer clothes on petite models, as well as openly accepting applications from 5′-5’4″ wannabe models:

A handful of mainstream and lower-priced brands, such as ASOS, have started to follow suit, showing their petite clothes on actual petite models (whose heights are helpfully listed on their website), though they continue to employ only tall models to display their runway collections.

For now, the brands actually showcasing petite clothes on petite models are few and far between. Most brands that sell petites continue to show them on straight-sized (i.e. tall) models, making it extremely difficult for petite shoppers to see what they’d look like on our bodies. If they’re successful, maybe someone else will do it, and a few more times until it becomes more accepted.

Until then, this is something that we should be talking about. Because runway models aren’t representative of most women, sure. But they’re representative of the beauty ideal that little girls grow up internalizing. We’re all influenced by the media. And when every message out there tells us that you have to be tall to be beautiful, it’s hard to convince girls otherwise.


8 thoughts on “Why are there no petite models?

    1. Hello, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article since I am a petite model myself! Growing up I never thought it would be possible to even dream of modeling, even though I still did lol. It is definitely time for a change because everyone should be able to feel the best about themselves. Although we may be tiny, we are powerful 👑 and sexy!

  1. Thank you so much! It’s as if we didn’t exist at all, really. It’s really frustrating to shop online for many sports clothes brands where all the S and XS are illustrated by 5’11” models… I remember trying to buy a yoga bodysuit and my mother-in-law telling me that I shouldn’t buy it in size Small because on the page it was modelled by a 6 footer! OK, then, what am I supposed to wear then, toddler sizes? Of course, all of us, shorties are already familiar with the concept of wearing children’s clothes but still … it’s shocking that heightism is still going strong in spite of all the other social advances regarding plus sizing, gender, disabilities…

  2. This article is spot on. I just cancelled a monthly subscription to Short Story Box because most of their items are not scaled to women under 5’2”. I wanted to blame them but realized I couldn’t when every petite item online is modeled in size small or extra small on a woman 5’7”-5’9”. It makes no sense. Who is wearing sizes medium and large??

  3. I really appreciated this article as a woman who has to speak publicly and appear publicly and who enjoys fashion. It definitely seems like the fashion world ignores those of us under 6ft. I’m 4’11 and wear XS and need a size 4 1/2 wide shoe and have literally been told by shoe stores that they don’t carry smaller than size 6 or 7 or that only 3 shoes in my size have been released in the states.

    I can’t help but to wonder with the increasing financial success of Asian, Latino and Native American and just women in general, why designers wouldn’t think there would be a desire for fashion among women who can purchase their wares?

  4. I am 5 ft tall , Chinese by race. and proud of it. I am a retired bank lawyer and often have to deal with white misogynists at shareholders meetings.
    But I often come prepared at meetings to interrogate these overpaid directors . Often they come unprepared to be scrutinised by a tiny Chinese woman.
    I get a thrill by the time I leave because they will be wondering who the hell is she.
    I once had a guy at a meeting chased after me to ask if I still practise as a lawyer . My banker friend laughed as he stayed behind at the meeting and one of the shareholders asked if they could vote me to the panel as interrogator !
    It’s about time female magazines and social media be less focused on mere appearances alone. Women need to dictate how we wish to be represented!

  5. Really appreciate this article. I like to mostly shop online which feels nearly impossible as someone 4’11” doing all kinds of crazy measurements and visualizations to figure out where the hems, sleeves, necklines, etc will actually hit me. So frustrating. I don’t understand why all models aren’t at least representing the average height females. It just doesn’t make sense. Plus, I bet the companies would relieve themselves of a lot of costly returns if they showed the clothes on average and petite bodies too.

  6. Finally someone said it! This is a great article, I don’t know how I randomly stumbled upon it. You put to words what I’ve been thinking and feeling for my entire adult life. We need more models who represent REAL women, and that includes petites!
    Much Love,
    Your fellow 5′ tall girly 🙂

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