Breaking beauty standards: Catherine Li leads the way

Digital content creator and model Catherine Li is breaking barriers and advocating for size inclusivity and diversity in the fashion industry.

From plus-size model to body positivity role model

The fashion industry designs creations that make us look and feel good. However, it also produces images of perfection are also responsible for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards that can be harmful to our self-esteem and body image.

This is something digital content creator and model Catherine Li can resonate with when growing up. 

“When I was younger, I didn’t think I could model, [because] I didn’t see anybody who looked like me,” the biracial Chinese American said. “I didn’t see any Asian women within ads, no mixed girls like me, [and] nobody my size.”

Catherine Li looks off to the side. Her hair is in a knot.
photo credit: Catherine Li’s website

Despite these doubts, Li decided to pursue modeling to cover her school loans. The side hustle has since taken off with meteoric success and evolved into her full-time career. With a massive social media following and increasing opportunities with major fashion and beauty brands, she has become the role model for other women that she didn’t have growing up. 

As a champion of body positivity, the publicist-turned-model is pushing for more intersections of diversity to be represented in the fashion industry, especially in different body types.

See also: East Meets Dress is modernizing wedding traditions for Asian brides

“Currently we have a start in fashion where they are putting people of color into the spotlight, but is it enough?” asked the San Francisco native. “No, to me, it’s not enough.”

While New York Fashion Week saw the most diverse seasons with more than 55 percent being models of color in 2021, body diversity lagged behind.  

“There needs to be more than one person being in the spotlight,” said Li. “We need to open more doors for more people, more different types of people.”

Four women affirm body positivity in a photoshoot. The outfit colors are darker, with black, purple and blue.
photo credit: little black box

Asian Women Come in All Sizes and Shapes

As a biracial Chinese American and plus-sized, Li had to contend with both Western and Asian beauty ideals. Asian sizes tend to fit smaller than western sizes and favor slender and petite figures. 

“Growing up half-Chinese, curves were not embraced,” she said. 

During a recent visit to a Chinatown dress shop, Li was advised to lose weight in order to fit into the standard sizes. As a result, she partnered with East Meets Dress to create a stunning collection of custom dresses that showed off her curves and personality. 

“It’s important that we start having conversations that Asian women are in all different sizes,” said Li, who also owns her own plus size fashion line. 

A photo of Catherine Li modeling clothing. The focus is on the clothing she wears and her face is only partially visible.
photo credit: instyle

However, there remains a lack of visibility when it comes to the range of body types featured in the media. Often, brands will cast one Asian look rather than a variety. 

According to Li, not only are there only a few plus-size Asian models represented in the industry, they are at the “last on the totem pole” to be considered for jobs.

Outside of the industry, Li is leveraging her digital platforms and collaboration opportunities with other brands to place size inclusivity at the forefront. Other than designing plus size collections, she also shares outfit inspirations in size 14. 

“It’s about opening that conversation and working with brands that are willing to give me that platform,” she said. 

Breaking the Mould As a Biracial Model

Other than her body image, the biracial model also struggled with her identity and never felt like she fit into one culture or the other. 

“When I was in college, the Chinese sororities never recruited me, you know what I mean?”

Even though Li straddles between two cultural identities, her mixed heritage made her more relatable to a larger audience. At size 14, she represents the average American woman. 

By sharing her cultural backgrounds and her identity journey openly, the successful model hopes to empower others to find community and belonging in their body confidence journey. 

Catherine Li takes a photo shoot in a pink bikini. Her brand advocates body positivity.
photo credit: roxy rodriguez

More than just a token: Achieving meaningful representation in fashion

The fashion industry has made some strides towards inclusion of ethnic diversity, but there is a fine line between meaningful and performative representation. 

In the same report that looked at the New York Fashion Week model lineup, only 48 out of 1,252 model appearances were plus-size. Yet, 37 out of the 48 plus-size model appearances were models of colour.

Models of various races stand in front of a rainbow colored wall.
photo credit: Sagmeister & Walsh

“Having one plus size girl in a fashion show is not okay,” she said. “It should be five six and they all should be different nationalities, different body shapes, different looks.”

Emerging brands like Savage x Fenty have become trailblazers in size inclusivity by featuring a diverse cast of genders, body types and ethnic representation. On the contrary, there has been a noticeable decline in the variety of sizes showcased in luxury fashion shows, with brands like Gucci and Prada dropping plus-size models completely or only featuring one plus-size look.

The fashion industry is in need of a makeover, and the shift needs to come from the top. 

“This all changes with people that have positions in power who can really push for making these things normal,” says the model.

Normalizing plus-size body positivity

By pushing for more inclusion within the fashion industry, Li is working towards a future where plus sizes become normalized.

“I’m tired of being the token – the token plus girl, the token half Asian girl or a Chinese girl – and I want to be seen,” Li says. “I want to be a normal person like everybody else and take up spaces.”

Catherine Li stands the ocean at sunset in a yellow bikini.
photo credit: roxy rodriguez

Like Li,  more Asian plus-size models and creatives are joining the body positivity movement by stepping into the spotlight to flaunt their curves. In 2020, Yumi Nu made history by becoming the first Asian American model to grace the cover of the 2020 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. 

Across the digital space, fashion-forward influencers like Naomi Watanabe, a Japanese comedian and designer, and Kaguya, second-generation Korean American photographer and model are examples that Asian girls come in all shapes and sizes, and have their own unique personal styles and talents.

“Right now it’s about taking the stance and just using that term and pushing things that we need,” she said. “It’s going to allow [for us] to open the space…and hopefully eventually we can get rid of those terms.”

Help us uplift Asian diaspora voices

Support Cold Tea Collective with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for and by the next generation of the Asian diaspora are here to stay.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top