Jessica Milagros is making a splash in the plus size industry: 'I want more body type and body size diversity'

It’s no secret that the modeling industry can be brutal — and for plus size models, the industry brings its own unique set of challenges.

But even within the distinct categories of ‘standard size’ and ‘plus size’, an infinite number of body types exist, each flattered by different and specific styles of clothing.

Translation: Just as no pair of Size 2 girls look the exact same, neither do a pair of Size 26 girls.

Regardless of their size, any woman will agree that there’s an eternal struggle to find clothing completely tailored to their individual body type and that this rings especially true when it comes to one area specifically: Swimwear.

With limited sizes and styles, particularly in the plus size market, finding swimwear that’s both flattering and functional can prove to be defeating and frustrating — there seems to be a lag in the market as far as striking a happy medium seems to go.

Plus size model Jessica Milagros is here not only to mend that gap, but to propel the market forward.

Teaming up with JCPenney, Milagros is making a splash (pun absolutely intended) on the scene by being a brand ambassador the Boutique+ Swim collection (a new collection extending from the brand’s private label plus size brand, Boutique+) designed to fit sizes 1x-3x.

Milagros is the first plus size Latina model to land a national commercial with JCPenney — and Milagros’ infectious energy and passion for disrupting the industry in a fight for more body shape diversity and representation makes it about as much of a no-brainer as a weekend off lounging in the sun in your favorite swimsuit.

We chatted with Milagros about the collection with JCPenney, her road to modeling success and why representation really matters:

AOL: How did your career in modeling begin? Was this something you always saw yourself pursuing?

Jessica Milagros: “I didn’t think of it as a career until I was already in my 20s. It was actually really crazy because obviously … modeling when you’re a bigger girl, a career woman, is not something that you really think about.

I was working at a marketing firm and we had Layne Bryant as a client, and it was my job to kind of do all of the market research because I was pretty much the biggest girl in the marketing company … and I didn’t realize that [the plus size] community existed, I had no idea because we’re average women so you don’t really put yourself in a ‘plus’ category … until I realized that this plus community existed.

Ashley Graham was one of my first inspirations and I was like ‘Wow, I think I could do this!’ and then I took some pictures and I entered into a modeling search for PLUS Model Magazine and I ended up winning second place out of 2,500 entries. So, that was kind of like the beginning of my career, and I didn’t win first place but i won second-runner up and another agency snagged me up, and from there that’s how I started.

Little by little, it was just trying to find myself within the community, because even as a plus size model [I don’t] feel like I have a typical body shape. I might be a little bustier, I might be a little bit hippier and sometimes there’s kind of a standard size and I really worked hard to kind of make my own path in that industry.”

AOL: What was the concept behind Boutique+ Swim? How did the collaboration come to be?

JM: “The process, I always say, was very organic mainly because I had been working with JCPenney as a model prior to that. I first started working with JCPenney on the Ashley Nell Tipton collection — I was one of the main models who actually broke out the Boutique+ [collection], and that was a major win for the plus size community, because we definitley need more lines in that aspect, more options for clothing … I kind of realized that for plus size swim, curvy swim, we’re still very, very limited. [JCPenney] knew how passionate I was about fit and how passionate I was about having styles that fit and flattered women. 

Right now, with swim, we have kind of a gap. It’s either very antiquated or it’s very super sexy and very revealing. And I really wanted to bridge that gap. And plus we need it, we really need more. And as years progress, I feel like more and more brands are coming out with swim. And I’m glad that JCPenney was one of the first to bring it and to bring it in store — that’s big!”

Take a look at Jessica modeling the new Boutique+ Swim collection:

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Jessica Milagros for JCPenney
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Jessica Milagros for JCPenney
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Credit: Charlyne Thorn
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AOL: What was the best part about working with JCPenney?

JM: “I love JCPenney and everything that they stand for and everything that they do. And I think that they’re one of the brands that gets it right … because they are so open to using everybody and to sharing women’s stories at a size 12, at a size 14, at a size 24 — they share those stories … saying ‘these women are doing it, take it and run with it’ … JCPenney has just treated me like such family and has always asked me for my opinions and always made sure I was well taken care of, and they do it with everybody. They are truly a part of the community where they understand their consumer and they just really want to be a voice for [every] woman, whether they be a size 0 or size 26, they really want to be a part of that family. It’s all family with them, and they’re just the sweetest people.”

AOL: What was the transition like stepping into a business leadership role in comparison to a modeling role? What would say was the biggest challenge within that shift?

JM: “I think it was [mostly] being able to make those decisions. I love everything — that’s my problem! So to be a little bit more decisive and trying cut back that collection, and see what is it that’s really important to the plus size women right now … we could’ve come up with 300 different designs but the collection is not that big. So it was definitley trying to just put on my big girl pants on and make a decision. And that’s really hard because when you model, you’re a muse to somebody else and you ask questions … I’m used to saying ‘What do you want? What do you want the shot to look like? How do you want me to convey your clothes?’ and then I do it. Now, it’s reversed — it’s like ‘What do you want, Jessica? What do you like? What do you think girls that look up to you like? What do you think is missing in the plus size community?’ and that was a big task — that was probably one of the most challenging things, trying to cut it short.”

AOL: We’re in this time now where diversity and equal representation are at the forefront of every conversation — why is representation important, in your opinion? What does equal representation look like to you?

JM: “I’m all about size diversity and I think it’s evident that from what you see in the mainstream media, that you’re not seeing a lot of diversity. You’re seeing a change, and that’s great, but there’s still so much of the same body type. And so I personally am here to help women just see something different than your average 5’11 runway model, because it was really important for me to say (and I think all women are real women so I’m not going to say real women) ‘I am the average woman, and there’s not enough of me.’ If i don’t see enough of me around when I’m shooting and when I’m working with these brands, then how is someone bigger than me going to feel? And there’s just such a broad spectrum. So I keep on fighting for size diversity, for inclusion, because I think thats important. I think little girls want to see that, and it should be their normal that there’s not just one standard of beauty. And I don’t think that I look like any of the other models nor do I think any of the other models look like each other. But there needs to be more, and I think thats kind of my biggest thing — I’m a size 16/18 model and so at times, I’m the biggest girl working at a shoot. I don’t really ever tend to work with girls bigger than me — but, let it be known, I’m probably one of the bustiest chicks! But I think that’s important too, because all plus size women don’t carry their weight the same either. Like, you’ll have a size 16 or 14 girl with a smaller bust and bigger hips, a girl that has smaller hips and a bigger bust, one that’s curvier and shaped like a figure-eight — but we need to see all of those types.”

AOL: Was there ever a person, or a campaign or any sort of ‘A-ha!’ moment during your life or career that really made you think, ‘Okay, I can do this, too’?

JM: “I really do want to say that Ashley Graham was one of the main reasons why I felt like i could start in this industry but as time progresses, she’s has kind of shifted into a different path. So I think new people have stepped up to the plate when it comes to pushing for bigger women in the scene. 

She was the main reason, and I haven’t really seen anybody do it like her! But at the same time, I find it to be an issue that she’s the only one that has been able to do it and that there haven’t been more girls that have stepped into that role. We need more voices, we need more of that representation — but I still love that girl! She has opened doors and let everybody come in and then take that and mold it into their own thing. So to me, she’s opened that door and I took it and i want to take it into a little bit of a different direction in saying that I want more body type and body size diversity and even ethnically, racially — diversity in all aspects.”

AOL: What would say to the girl sitting at home right now who wants to break into the industry but is apprehensive because she feels like she’s underrepresented?

JM: “Do it! And that’s the best part, when you see that you are underrepresented. I think that’s when it’s even more likely that you will make it. Every girl has a chance (usually when they’re underrepresented) if they fight hard for it and they’re so passionate that they won’t stop, they don’t give up. That’s usually when they succeed … the point when they think they’re about to hit the wall and want to stop, is right about when you’re about to break through and go to that next level. You see it everywhere, even with the straight size market — you’re seeing so much diversity, a lot of different looks that you wouldn’t consider necessarily a standard type of pretty. 

Everything is beautiful now, and that’s a beautiful thing! You want to have those freckles, and sometimes you want to have that gap and sometimes you want to have big boobs — you want to stand out! I think that there were times when women thought ‘I need to fit in’ and now I think we’re kind of going into that era where everybody is trying to figure out a way to stand out. So if you don’t see yourself and you feel like you’re not going to fit in, then do it, because that’s probably what they’re looking for. And if someone’s not looking for it, then the other person is going to look for it because everybody has different tastes. You know, I might not be what one brand is looking for that day or that moment, that season, but — believe me, it’s happened before — if they didn’t want me then, they may want me today, they may want me next week and you never know, because you never know what the future holds. The only thing that really stops us is ourselves.”

The Boutique+ Swim collection is available at jcpenney.com and  select stores.

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