We sat down with the founder of The BTWN, a new modeling agency focused on representing and celebrating bodies exactly as they come.

World

4.18.2019

Bedside With Jane Belfry: Redefining Body Standards & Visibility

It’s a spring morning in Brooklyn when I arrive at Jane Belfry’s apartment. She greets me with dewy skin, a highlighter-pink pant suit, holding her newly rescued Pomeranian, Sprout. Belfry’s place is lit with candles, filled with books, and as we settle onto her couch she tells me of her avid reading habit. Belfry is founder of The BTWN, an in-house modeling agency and lifestyle brand that represents and celebrates bodies as they come: all shapes, sizes, and in-betweens. Originally from the midwest, Jane moved to New York five years ago prior to a stint in LA, and is equipped with an extensive background in the fashion world. It’s her insider lens into the industry with which she credits her fatigue; ultimately prompting a fresh start to where she is now. It was a pleasure to sit with Belfry, a humble yet vibrant force in the fashion space, paving a way for diversity on her brand’s own terms, and redefining the female body as we were taught to know it.

Tell me, what was growing up like for you?

My coming-of-age marked an interesting time. I grew up in an era that was not open to talking about bodies, and was heavily driven by diet culture. Though my family has since moved away from that, I think culturally everybody was pretty susceptible to severe body dysmorphia during that time – it was the thing. People I was surrounded by were on things like Atkins diets, South Beach diets, all that stuff. I also grew up modeling and dancing ballet for years where things like eating disorders were just embedded into those spaces pretty deeply, and nobody really thought of it. It was just the norm to have grown up hating your body and wanting to change it. I also have two older sisters and so certainly seeing them grow up helped shape my coming-of-age. 

Given this cultural dialogue you grew up with, which in many ways is still present today, tell me some more about The BTWN. What is it that you do and are looking to create?

After my experience working in the fashion industry, I worked as a stylist and in modeling agencies for many years, it felt like the natural next step for me was to start building something of my own. I started The BTWN a year ago (formerly The Thicc), as a lifestyle brand talking about and creating content that raised questions surrounding bodies, fashion, and “standards”. As the brand took off I naturally fell into this role where we not only were discussing and sharing notions of “the in-between”, but representing in a completely new and refreshing way. With the rebrand, we’ve fully become a modeling agency where I now represent some of the people on our social account. They are all individuals who are either too short for industry standards, too small to be curve size, too big to be straight size, or just between your average look that somebody might be seeking out. I’m really intrigued by the notion of the space between who the world wants you to be, what the world sees you as, and who you really are. It drives me to create and continue the mission we’ve always had, which is that we aren’t trying to label people – in fact we’re doing the opposite.

I’m really intrigued by the notion of the space between who the world wants you to be, what the world sees you as, and who you really are.

What are your goals with The BTWN?

I want the models that we are repping to be allowed in those rigid industry spaces and create a lasting change. I have a lot of friends who work in beauty and we talk about how we’ll see differences in diversity but not a lot in size. There’s so much flesh in beauty campaigns and you never see like a fat arm or a stretch mark. I was like why is that? I think advertisers need to be more open to models of different heights, and of different skin tones. There’s still a lot of colorism happening in casting. I just am looking to facilitate that change. We’ve had a lot of organic outreach from huge brands that are trying to fit us in, so I’m optimistic in seeing positive change on its way in. We just started with the agency in December, and our call sheets are right up there with some of the top agencies already. At this point I’m just hoping to get more resources to really be able to push it. Hoping to expand to LA at some point too.

Funding is a pretty big thing. Are you pitching?

I haven’t started yet [laughs], but I’ve laid all the groundwork and it’s something I want to start doing soon.

I’m curious about your stance on inclusivity in the female body space. It can be sensitive for women and girls who feel like they still aren’t represented.

Finding every body type is tough. We get messaged a lot about smaller bodies that aren’t being seen, and I certainly understand that there are so many forms to represent. It’s challenging though, and my answer to people is that I shoot all the content myself and we cast through Instagram. It’s all organic, which I prefer. I prefer people who are interested in working with us verses seeking out people to tick off boxes. You know, I want there to be everything for everyone, but we’re still in the early developmental stages and I just can’t wait to grow and get to be there.

Even as someone who is on the larger side of straight size, and a smaller plus, people do ask me what I could possibly gain from my body type being seen. My response is that I don’t see people who look like me either. And that’s true for the people we work with too. They’re being told that they’re not the right measurements, and sizes for traditional curve modeling, which is like girls that are 5’10, with a 38DD, small waist, and just another ideal that people don’t fit into. It’s the same as straight size modeling – it’s like who fits this? That’s the goal. To create something for people to be themselves, where people don’t have to adhere to unattainable standards, and where brands cater to us.

Where do you see bodies fitting into fashion and where do you wish to fill more gaps?

That’s actually something we have been talking about since day one. There’s not a great deal of ready-to-wear larger size clothing options, and even if there are larger size ranges that’s not really the issue. It’s more so the fit doesn’t work for most people. That’s where casting more diverse fit models and getting different ranges within straight and plus size to cater to different actual body types would be incredible. Obviously that’s easier to do with lingerie and stretchy lycra leggings and sports bras, which is amazing and I love that, but we need other clothes to wear too. I think universal standard is doing great, but I’d also love to see some things at a lower price point too, which is tough. They have such a range of sizes now, like 0-40, and that takes a lot of money and attention to detail, which the price reflects, but there’s still a big hole in the market for everyday affordable ready-to-wear.

Would you ever see yourself making a line of clothing?

Definitely! I’ve worked in fashion forever [Laughs]. Shopping for people for half my life I have a pretty good idea of what people want. Maybe someday!

How do we make sure we’re not tokenizing bodies?

That’s something we think about a great deal. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being shown to check off a box of types of diversity. Again, that’s why we have an organic process of representing models. We are sensitive to make sure people don’t feel like they are being fetishized or used for any other agenda. As a curvier woman I definitely have noticed when I’ve been on shoots before that I’m the token curvy girl. Being the biggest person at a size 12 in the room, and not having clothing that fits me is a whole different situation than what it’s like for straight-sized models. A lot of models we work with have experienced that, and so what we’re trying to build is a strong community that holds treating different sized models accountable to the same, if not better, standards that any straight sized model would be treated with. We are putting together community guidelines for the site, and having the people we work with help create those.

Smart to bring in the voices of the people you work with.

I want to make sure everyone has a voice and feels seen. Being in constant communication with the models we represent and being that translator is integral to the agency.

Are there misconceptions your company deals with?

Our imagery by nature is a little sexier, and I think many people saw the account as a sexy curve instagram that was showing female gaze content, but I wanted to make sure people knew it was more than that with a larger mission. We pretty easily got pigeon holed as pictures of sexy girls, and i was like that’s not it [Laughs].

Do you have a personal manifesto or philosophy when it comes to bodies?

I try to practice intuitive eating. I don’t subscribe to any diet culture fads. You know, I eat when I’m hungry and I eat what I want within reason. I try to make sure I’m nourishing myself, but I don’t restrict anything, and its taken some time to get there, but I feel like I’m in a good place with my relationship with food and with my body. If I gain or lose weight it doesn’t bother me anymore, and also creating The BTWN has only helped that philosophy. Seeing the content I create helps me too! I’m like wow this person looks great, and putting myself out there with shoots has forced me to become a lot more comfortable. Doing what your body tells you to do has worked best for me.

I want to make sure everyone has a voice and feels seen.

I feel like we’re not taught to be proud or respectful of our bodies. There’s so much shame.

Right! Culturally we call it things like freshman 15 or stress weight, and I’m like no my body flexes every other month and that’s why all my clothes a stretchy. That’s what’s so hard about sizing and clothing. There’s so much flux hormonally and with stress, and seasonally I’m totally different sizes. We just stress ourselves out about it and don’t talk about it.

My sister just had 2 kids, and they’re 1 and 3. She was talking to me about how after you give birth people are only focused on what you look like, and she was like can we talk about how I just had a child. There’s so much attention on losing things like baby weight immediately, and there’s so much praise if you do. Subconsciously we have a huge attachment to appearance and the social capital you have if you’re, “getting your body back”.

That’s a really interesting point. It insinuates we’ve lost something.

We shouldn’t be in this unhealthy mindset to feel like we have to be “back” to anything, it’s a toxic cycle that doesn’t allow the natural ebb and flow we all go through with ourselves.

What does your sexual wellness routine look like?

I take a lot of baths. Sometimes twice a day. That’s something my body definitely needs. I think the way I feel best is when I’m active, and I get outside and don’t stay stagnant. Getting moving and listening to my body is super important. I do a lot of extensive skincare routines that are head to toe that make feel amazing. I do full body mud masking, exfoliation, AHA exfoliation on my body, and I have light stem LED machines I use too. I show a lot of skin on my page when it calls for it, so keeping everything soft is the best.

I joke that sometimes the only thing that gets me through my day are my rituals with product.

Absolutely! No matter how shitty I’m feeling, doing my skin routine is the best.

What is your advice for young teens navigating their bodies?

I think I spent a lot of time trying to please other people. The best thing to do is spend a lot of time with yourself without other influences getting in and trying to be true to yourself. In a lot of ways I’m sure it’s easier growing up now with the internet and seeing things that we didn’t have growing up, but I’m sure there’s also a lot of new pressure that didn’t even exist before. It’s got to be intense, but just living by your own rules and truly taking ownership of that is the best thing I think anyone can do for themselves.

Anything new to look forward to?

We’re expanding the agency right now and trying to grow our editorial content a little more. I’m excited to keep making the content we’re not seeing anywhere else!

Stay tuned to Milk for more of Bedside and check out our previous installments here.

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