Toccara Elanine Jones first appeared on America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) during Cycle 3 (2004). As this body appeared on the screen my heart stopped. Who is she? How did she get here? Who allowed her to enter? How long would she be here? All these thoughts rushed to my mind as I tried to understand how she stood confidently next to the standardized bodies of ANTM. Biased or not, she quickly became my favorite. Her most memorable quote for me was “I love my skin and I’m working it. I’m hitting 200 in the butt, what?” GIRL SAY THAT. However, my 13 year-old self couldn’t phantom how she stood so strong when we all knew the storm that was coming for her because of her size. In the forecast, I saw brewing clouds of shade, lighting of hate, and possible showers of tears and fears.
With each elimination I grew fearful. I was afraid they were quickly going to call her name, in Tyra Banks fashion, where she holds two photos with three models remaining. The cycle 3 cast flaunted 14 bodies and Toccara placed 7th. Once eliminated, I no longer watched the showed. I WAS ROOTING FOR HER. WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR HER.
Tocarra did not leave without making an intentional mark. She served on that runway and continued to blow my mind with photo after photo. Showing off her body with thongs I would never wear and bras I could never afford. Although Eva took the cake with her win, I still place Tocarra as a winner. Not because she was a larger body that should receive “pitty praise” or the fact she was pretty for a “plus sized” model. She was a model. Period’t. She worked for her place on ANTM. Period’t. After watching her body fade from the collective photo of remaining models, I cussed up a storm and turned off the series forever.
I began to question why Toccara’s presence did not make a bigger impact on the world. I later found out, it did. Placing her ANTM experience aside, she appeared on multiple segments of BET and on red carpets. As she was reminded about her size (both bust and butt) on and off the screen she provided representation for larger bodies. She also appeared on Celebrity Fit Club where she was further socialized to believe she needed to shed weight to make a statement…that she had already made. She belonged. We needed her. We wanted her. But the world did not see that. They needed something that was more palatable and relatable in the form of what America found beautiful. Hence the birth of supermodel Ashley Graham.
Graham identifies as a “curvy” model as she has openly spoke out against the word “plus-size”. As a model that has appeared on the cover of magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and more, she was identified as the face for larger bodies in the fashion industry. She openly celebrates her body and dismisses the misconceptions that come along with it. But when I first saw Ashley I was quickly reminded of a body that became a shadow; Toccara. I know Graham’s rise to fame did not come with the intentionality to erase predecessor Toccara. Graham’s presence continued to bring light to body types that are often dismissed and excluded in the entertainment and fashion industries. But why did Toccara never rise to the idolized stardom, similar to that of Ashley Graham?
Historically, women of culture (formally known as women of color/people of color/person of color) are not frequently chosen to grace the covers of magazines. That did not mean all. Specifically, fat Black women were never on the covers I saw come to my home or in stores. Not Ebony, not Jet, not Essence. I never expected fat bodies to be showcased as the center fold or make it to a page in the publication. Why had I picked up on social cues that big bodies could not grace the cover of a magazine? Why was I okay with accepting a fat body on a magazine was unacceptable and think it was permissible to openly discriminate against them and myself? I was taught that. I absorbed that thinking. It came from the lack of representation to the dialogue I heard around me.
FAT BODIES DON’T GO ON OR IN MAGAZINES. FAT BODIES ARE NOT CUTE. FAT BODIES NEED TO BECOME SLIM AND THEN PEOPLE WILL LISTEN. SEX SELLS AND YOU ARE NOT SEX WHEN YOU’RE FAT. NO ONE WANTS TO LOOK AT FAT PEOPLE. YOU WOULD BE PERFECT IF YOU DROP ## POUNDS.
As a matter of fact, I only saw fat bodies associated with weight loss advertisements when it came to magazines or media. Magazine advertisements always showed this terribly unhappy body in a “before” photo and a slim and trim excited body in an “after” photo. Thing is, these photos were clearly photoshopped or not the same person. I was conditioned to believe I could only see happiness if was like the person in the “after” photo. But Toccara seemed happy, even in the “before” photos. She showed her teeth, had joy, and professed love for her body. However, it seemed like she always had to apologize or make an excuse for existing. SIMPLY EXISTING IN A BODY THAT WAS HERS. She couldn’t 100% “not-give-a-fuck” like Ashley Graham is now allowed to do. Everyone has their days, so I can’t speak to the situation as if Graham doesn’t have her moments of doubt. However, this doubt was met with the opportunity to be placed on numerous magazines and met with multiple industry deals. Toccara Jones graced the cover of KING Magazine, Black Men, and Smooth magazine for reference, so she had some exposure. My question is, what were the selected mediums she graced portraying about her? How is it different from the mediums Graham was on? I’ll leave those questions for debate amongst readers.
The purpose of providing the information before is to recognize how particular bodies, even if they are similar, show up differently in particular spaces and are desired differently. I believe there should be some sort of homage paid to Toccara for the space she carved out when she was navigating reality television alone. To remain in a series where half of the women, half her size, were eliminated before her and watched as she brought forth boldness in a world that appreciated the italicized (y’all catch that?). I continue to long for a world that provides representation fairly for larger bodies that come from diverse background without pushing them into a fading background. If the media of said time era knew of the individuals who were inspired and the amount of people rooting for Tocarra, would the world of plus sized models look different?
Toccara, thank you.