When the United States-based, size-inclusive online retailer 11 Honore launched in Dubai a few weeks ago, it wanted models from the region for its designer apparel, so that people could see how well the clothes fit, and how the fabrics drape and fall on a real body.
In the end, the team found a model. Just one. They had spent weeks searching, growing more panicked as the event drew closer. They realised that finding a curvier model who could wear their clothes and who celebrated her size was almost impossible in the Middle East.
“It was unbelievably difficult, and we thought finding a model was going to prove impossible. So we contacted influencers and sent each one of them a dress from 11 Honore to wear to the launch,” explains founder and chief executive Patrick Herning. “But then we found Ameni.”
Ameni Esseibi is one of the only plus-size models in the Arab world – primarily because it wouldn’t occur to most Arab woman larger than a size UK 14 to pursue a career in modelling. Esseibi knows all about that kind of mindset.
The first curvy model in the Middle East
“Growing up, I never ever thought about modelling,” says the 20-year-old, who is of French-Tunisian descent and has lived in Dubai for the past 15 years. “People are very insecure about bigger sizes in this part of the world, and I would always be treated as such a novelty for appearing so secure and confident as a curvier teenager, as if I shouldn’t be that way.
“I was always the curviest among my friends, but also the most confident because I didn’t care about other peoples’ opinion of me. We are in a very judgemental environment here in the Arab world, and not all of us have the strength to face that judgment. I just wanted to change that, to show how gorgeous any woman can be just the way she is.”
Today, Esseibi calls herself “the first curvy model in the Middle East” because she has never come across any others. “In the summer of 2017, when I was in Tunis, the idea for modelling first occurred to me,” she says.
By then, she had interned for Dior’s PR department, worked for jewellery designer Nadine Kanso (who is a family friend and also a role model for Esseibi), and discovered a passion for make-up, skincare and fashion that made a career in the field seem like the next logical step. Upon returning to Dubai in September 2017, Esseibi set out to carve a career in modelling for herself, setting up meetings with leading agencies across the city. “None of them were interested; none of them accepted the idea of a plus-size model. One of them said they would consider me if I gained 20 kilograms, and I said no way.”
Esseibi visited more than seven major agencies, and most said that there was no market for plus-size modelling and that, although her beauty was undeniable, she would never find modelling jobs in the region. Magazines and fashion brands pursue a more Eurocentric idea of beauty, she was told, and shy away from celebrating Arab beauty, let alone plus-size beauty.
Esseibi, however, is not the type to take no for an answer. “My father wanted me to put my idea on hold and go to university instead, but I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to start this career now, while I’m young. So I started freelancing and promoting myself.”
The market for curvier models
Esseibi began by messaging photographers that she would come across on social media and introducing herself as a curvy model willing to collaborate on fashion projects. “I started posting pictures on Instagram and tagging the agencies I cared about most – Bareface and Wilhelmina – so they would see the pictures and not forget about me. Until one day, they just gave in.”
Three months ago, Esseibi finally signed on with three local modelling agencies: Wilhelmina Dubai, Bareface and MA Models, and the jobs have been rolling in ever since. “Of course there’s a market for curvier models,” she insists. “So many fashion greats in the industry have been supporting me, like Dima Ayad, Dina Zaki – they want curvier models to wear their clothes, because curvy women out there still want beautiful clothes. They don’t want to dress like grandmothers.”
Walk into any clothing store in the mall and head to the plus-size section – if one even exists – and all you'll find are "grandmotherly clothes", Esseibi maintains. "Why shouldn't I want to wear attractive and flattering dresses, or shorts, or bikinis? Why can't I ever find my bra size at Victoria's Secret? I want the same clothes as everyone else, because I take pride in looking good," she says.
'It's about everything I have'
And although there is certainly work out there for a curvy model – the 11 Honore event was the highlight of her month, says Esseibi – the fact still remains that she could make a name and career for herself far quicker outside the Arab world.
“I have family in Paris and in Boston who can’t understand why I continue to struggle here when I could just move to Europe and North America and find work immediately as a curvy model,” she says.
“But I’m not modelling for the sake of modelling. I feel that, as an Arab who is bigger in size, I’m representing all the women living in the shadows, who are told they can’t celebrate their bodies and their beauty because they are not a certain size. They aren’t comfortable in their skin and I want to change that. I want to be their voice.”
Esseibi is the face of online retailer Namshi’s plus-size section, and has modelled extensively for Splash and Max. She is hoping to work with make-up and skincare brands, which seem hesitant because they usually collaborate with a certain type of face: high cheekbones, extreme contouring, defined jawline. “A lot of the brands I love have never had a round face like mine do a campaign for them, and I want to change that,” says Esseibi.
Her looks are distinctive: wide-set eyes, flawless caramel skin, full lips. When she receives negative comments and criticism, it is usually based around the assumption that it’s purely her face that has got her this far in her modelling career. “I’ve been told that I look like a Latina, and that’s why I’m getting attention, not because I’m Arab or because I’m curvy.
“I disagree. It’s not just about my face. It’s about everything I have. I’m Arab, I’m curvy, I’m a plus-size model, and I’m proud of it.”