Two years ago, Victoria’s Secret made headlines when it finally hired its first plus-size model, but the company was late in the game, at least in the U.S, where in the last few years the plus-size market has witnessed a boom. After decades during which the fashion industry almost completely neglected women with larger body sizes, American and European brands like Christian Siriano, Vince, Karen Millen, Mango and many others have joined already established plus-size names like Ashley Graham in order to finally remove the myth that everyone has to be a size-zero. But in the MENA region, that shift is still happening very shyly and is barely noticeable. Still, there are promising signs of progress, and that’s mostly due to the efforts of the boundary-busting 22-year-old Tunisian model Ameni Esseibi.

During her latest Spring vacation in the Seychelles, Esseibi collected thousands of likes for every sun-dappled swimsuit shot that she posted. The plus-size model now has 150,000 Instagram followers and a red-hot modeling career, but getting there wasn’t easy.

plus-size arab fashion designer
© Rebecca Alison

“I got bullied when I was young,” said Esseibi. The verbal abuse she had to deal with growing up as someone with a larger-than-average body size would have sent others hiding from media platforms, not to mention from the fashion industry itself. But after years spent coping with haters and struggling to find stylish clothes that would fit her, Esseibi decided to stand up for herself and other plus-size women, and to help change the fashion world in the process.

In the past year, the presently Dubai-based Esseibi has become not only a major social media figure, but also one of the most successful plus-size models of the MENA region.

How did she do it? Partly through courage and perseverance, and partly because Esseibi is a creative source of ideas that have inspired designers to take a chance on working with such a model. She nevertheless had to deal with deterring obstacles along the way: On the one hand, the small number of designers in the MENA region who were active in the plus-size market had already their own models, mainly from Europe and beyond. And on the other, the fact remained that most designers were and still are opposed to adding a plus size line to their brand name.

Esseibi started by reaching out to e-commerce designers who were already offering a wider size range. “E-commerce plays an important role in Dubai’s modeling scene,” she says. “So I started by asking brands if they were interested in working with me. But for the first two years, I got nothing but rejections.” She then decided to change strategies. “I realized that some e-commerce brands were getting their models from London and paying for their trip to Dubai. I told them that this was a pure waste of money as I was already living here.”  She convinced a few brands to try her out for one photo shoot, and this is how it all started.

Plus-size arab model posing
© Rebecca Alison

The next issue  was that most of the brands she aspired to work with didn’t cater to plus sizes. Convincing designers, particularly the ones based in the MENA region, to add larger sizes to their line has been an ongoing battle. “Brands need to make sure that there is a market demand. At the end of the day they are businesses,” says Esseibi. For designers who are resisting to commit at creating a plus-size line, modeling a few sample garments with Esseibi can help them realize that the market is ripe. She says that she is now encouraged by the changes happening in the MENA region, even though the U.S. and other markets are way ahead in regards to this matter.

Esseibi credits MENA brands such as Dima Ayad, Namshi, and Mrs. Keepa, and international brands like Pretty Little Things and Marina Rinaldi for committing to the plus-size market with both luxury lines and streetwear. Recently, the Lebanese designer Elie Mizrahi chose to cast a plus-size Black model in a fashion show for his brand Monot.

Meanwhile, Esseibi’s influence keeps growing. She has had recent high-profile events including a modeling gig for 11 Honoré and a feature in Vogue’s Middle East edition. “Things have improved compared to when I started two years ago,” Esseibi said. As for the designers in the MENA region who have not yet decided to take the plunge? “I am in the discussion phase with most of them. We haven’t reached the execution phase yet, but at least we are talking.”

Baby steps – slowly, and let’s hope surely.