By Marcia Hunt
A post-photoshoot self-portrait (photo by Mariah Salter)
Purchase alum Mariah Salter has been keeping busy since graduating last year with a double major in photography and graphic design. Boasting over 76,000 followers on TikTok, this August marked the start of a new journey when she won Team Torrid 2021, Torrid's annual virtual casting call for clothing models. Despite all of her success, she has no intention of slowing down.
So, you’re a photographer, a model, a graphic designer; you really do everything!
[She laughs] Yeah, I try to!
Is there one thing you consider to be your main career?
Honestly, I switched my major three times. I started with photography and then I went to graphic design and when I transferred to Purchase I was like “Okay, I’ll just do both.” I love graphic design because it's so concise and clear-cut, but I love photography because you can do whatever you want, you know? You can break rules. I feel like photography was my first love.
The pictures on your Instagram are absolutely stunning! Do you take all of your own photos?
Thank you! Most of them, I do. I think there are a few I had help with, but that was during the [Torrid] contest. But for the most part, I do take all of my photos with my own camera.
That is honestly so cool! I could never do all of that, setting up a tripod seems impossible to me sometimes.
No, you really could! When I first started school, I was too scared to take pictures of other people so I was like “I’ll just try and take them by myself,” and I haven’t stopped since I began school. It’s easier when it's by yourself because you’re the only person you have to worry about.
Did you do a lot of modeling before the competition?
I’ve never worked for a clothing brand. I had one go-see, which is when they call you in, take your measurements and have you try things on, but nothing resulted from that. But after I tried that I was like “I kind of want to get into modeling now.” I mean, I’m not super tall, I’m not the “ideal” body size, whatever that means. I entered the contest just to see what happens, but now this is my first professional modeling gig.
Woohoo! So how are you feeling now after winning?
It is overwhelming in the best possible way, but it's so hard to explain. I’m so excited, I think about it every day, and it's a great experience. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.
Were you apprehensive to submit an application?
It was more that I felt like I was going out on a whim. I didn’t think I was going to be chosen but I was like why not? I wasn’t expecting to actually get in. They told us that they had 7,000 applicants.
Yeah, 7,000 people applied and they had to choose 30. I was nervous because when you think about the things that come with success and being in the public eye, there are things you have to think about. Not everybody is going to like what they see, you know?
Yeah, there’s definitely this stigma against plus-size models and the misconception that body positivity promotes a variety of awful things. What do you think about that sort of discourse?
Growing up, I saw a lot of clothes that I loved and I really wanted to wear them. But, when it came to me going to the plus-size section, it was a complete shift in the way all of the clothing looked. I remember thinking that it didn’t even make sense, like, why couldn’t they just make the clothes I liked larger? So I kind of thought that being bigger meant I had to dress a certain way and cover up more because that’s what was so heavily portrayed in the media and everything.
How did that affect the way you saw yourself?
I struggled with body image and trying to express myself in the way that I dress. Fast forward to college, which is, you know, a long time, I really started being confident in myself and realizing that just because I’m a larger size, it doesn't mean I have to hide my body. My body is not shameful, all bodies are beautiful and it doesn’t matter what you want to wear. If you want to wear booty shorts, wear booty shorts!
Yes, exactly! How would you define your current style?
When it comes to clothing, my style is very much how I feel. I dress how I feel, and whatever that means is whatever that means. Nothing looks the same in my closet. I just like trying new things and shedding the ideals of what I “should” dress like.
In terms of fashion, do you still struggle to find clothes that you want to wear?
Yeah. I struggle a lot with fast fashion because sometimes a lot of these mainstream brands are putting out really cute clothing and then when it comes to plus sizes, a lot of it is made overseas and does not fit me. When I find really beautiful plus-size brands, a lot of times the clothes are expensive because plus-size isn’t mainstream. That’s understandable because plus-size clothes aren’t in demand so they aren’t putting out huge factory-made quantities, but it's not affordable for me or the average person.
There’s that whole concept that you shouldn’t shop fast fashion because it's unethical but then you can’t thrift because straight-sized people are buying your size and reselling it. How do you navigate that?
I was actually at a thrift store recently and I’m thinking about how like five or six years ago when I’d go thrifting, I found all of these beautiful clothes. Now, I can not find one thing in my size! When it comes to trying to find second-hand clothes, thrifting is out of the question because of the accessibility of it all. It’s very hard to find something that’s “in” that will fit you. It almost feels exploitative, like I’m being exploited because of my size.
And then there’s a whole bunch of people that belittle plus-sized people without knowing the struggle. Do you even bother to actively combat those types of comments?
When I started posting about the modeling contest on TikTok, there were people who were so nasty! There were literally people who were like “lose some weight, then you could do it” or like “you probably have diabetes” and I remember first being very hurt by that. It took me a while to be able to try to educate them where I can, and if they don’t want to be educated then that’s on them! It’s something I still struggle with. You want to respond to everybody but at the end of the day, with a lot of these people, it's less about you than it is about them. It’s something within them that they feel the need to spew hate and I will never understand that.
Do you think that portraying more diverse bodies in all fashion brands would help at all would help broaden that view of what a model should be or what a “beautiful” person should look like?
When I started getting into plus-size modeling, in the descriptions for what they were looking for I saw a lot of “good build” or like that you have to be tall and it's like what even is a good build? For me, in a perfect world, a magazine would look like if you walked into the street and saw 10 different people. Because I have more fat at the bottom of my stomach than the top or because it’s not evenly distributed, that should not matter. If this is the way I look, this is the way I look. Leave it like that. I just want to see more diversity.
When you were growing up and gaining more confidence in your body, was there an epiphany? Was it a process? Was it being at Purchase?
I think one day it just clicked for me. I just stopped caring. In high school, you’re really pressured to compare yourself to others but when you go to college, nobody cares! Purchase is just this place where you can be whatever you want and people won’t judge you for it. It's such a supportive community and everyone there is for you! They want to be behind you, and I really miss that.
If you could choose another brand to model for next, which would you choose?
First, I’d choose Universal Standard because they have everyday clothing and their inclusivity when it comes to their models is insane. They are changing the world, literally. But I also want to see someone like me in a mainstream brand. I want to go on Gap and push the envelope because why not? I want to shake it all up!
What’s next for you now?
I want to collaborate with a bunch of people and network. For someone fresh out of school in a pandemic, it was so hard to get out there. I want to expand and wherever that leads me, I’m just happy to go on the journey. I’m going to keep taking self-portraits, keep posting on TikTok, I just want to go wherever I want to go.
So, if you could give advice to another plus-sized woman, what would that be?
Honestly, you’re not going to be on this planet forever. Stop trying to dress for other people and stop trying to dress to make other people feel better about the way you look. You are here for you, so, be unapologetically yourself. Once you stop thinking about what everyone thinks about you and you start thinking about how amazing you are, your whole life will change.
More about Salter's work and modeling journey can be found at her Instagram itsmariahsalter, her TikTok itsmariahsalter, or at mariahsalter.com.