Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Crystal Renn: A New Kind of {Role} Model

For most Americans, the start of a new year heralds the start of yet another diet and/or exercise regime. And I'm no different. Indeed, losing weight has been at the top of my annual resolutions' list for much of my adult life. While I manage to lose (and then gain) the same 15 pounds that I've struggled against since high school, I've never managed to keep said pounds off for more than a year or so at a time. So we beat on, boats against the current....

But I'm not hear to discourage you from your fitness goals, whatever they may be. In fact, I'm here to offer you a new and different kind of role model, one who might help you put your goals in perspective, focus you on being healthy (and not merely skinny) and, above all, inspire you to work with what you've got. If you're looking for that sort of role model, then you may find her (as I did) in Crystal Renn, the current "It Girl" of plus-sized modeling. In the "One Size Fits All" fashion spread in the January issue of V magazine, Crystal goes head-to-head against a "regular" model and proves firsthand that you needn't be a size 0 (or 2 or 4 or even 6...) to be a top model. In case there was any doubt, Crystal is the model who appears on the right in all of these photos by famed fashion photographer Terry Richardson.

In September Crystal published an autobiography called Hungry, which chronicles the story of her modeling career, first as a size-0 model battling anorexia and a flagging career and later as a size-12 "plus-sized" model experiencing unprecedented editorial success. I don't typically read biographies of popular figures, much less self-help or body image books, but after seeing Crystal's spread in V magazine, I had to pick it up for my holiday reading.

I'll also admit that I was initially attracted to this book for personal reasons as well. While I have never battled an eating disorder, I've nevertheless had ongoing battles with my body image (as I suspect most women do). I am, unarguably, a big woman: I stand just over six feet tall and wear a size 14. And you wouldn't believe how many years it's taken me to acknowledge the simple fact that I am "big". I remember in 9th grade how distraught I was after a male friend indelicately referred to me as "big" in passing conversation. In retrospect, I think he might have actually meant it as a compliment.

As women we are conditioned to equate "small" with "good" and "big" with "bad" (and, even worse, "fat"...or what my father years ago termed the "f-word"). But since leaving college, I have learned that the terms "big" and "small" are just adjectives to describe one physical mass in relation to other masses. Big is not a pejorative. I have also learned that being big has its advantages: I am strong, powerful and easy to find in a crowd. And yet, like most women, I waste countless hours bemoaning the size of my waist, thighs, real (and imagined) back fat...and well, just about all the rest of me. I am embarrassed to admit how often I've confused being skinny with being worthy....worthy of love, a relationship, success...everything. In short, I really identify with the pressures that made Crystal initially succumb to anorexia and really respect her ultimate refusal to keep playing the game.

Crystal's book -- and indeed her modeling work -- is a wonderful reminder of how much we stand to gain when we cast aside society's notions of what we should look like and instead embrace our own version of beauty. When Crystal finally stopped starving herself, she gained much more than 70 additional pounds; she gained the confidence and poise necessary to be a model (and a role model). I find it incredibly inspiring that Crystal's career has only taken off once she found the confidence to say "enough". While the writing is uneven in places (particularly in the beginning as Crystal recounts her childhood), the book is nevertheless an engaging and inspiring reminder that weight ain't nothin' but a number -- a number we shouldn't let run our lives or dictate or self worth. Crystal touches on some sociological and gender issues that I would have liked to see her flesh out a bit more, but ultimately this is not that kind of book. It's meant to inspire, not preach.

{Crystal in Jean Paul Gaultier's Prêt-à-porter Spring 2006 show}

Ultimately, like Crystal, I wish that both Hollywood and the fashion industry would embrace the ideal of "healthy" rather than "skinny" and the wider spectrum of ages, ethnicities, and dress sizes that go along with that paradigm shift. Crystal's success represents a great step forward in that direction, and I hope that in 2010 we continue to see more plus-sized (aka regular-sized) models on the runways as we work our way back from the super-skinny ideal that has completely dominated the industry in the past 15 years. And of course, if more designers started selling their clothes in sizes larger than a size 10, that'd be great, too.

{Elle Canada, January 2010}

And so this year, while I'd like to hit the gym a little bit more frequently, continue to play tennis and incorporate more fresh veggies into my diet, my resolution is above all to stop focusing on the scale and stop chasing some imagined ideal of what women are supposed to look like. I resolve to be healthy and, above all, to be happy with just being "me".


Connie @ SogniESorrisi said...

What a wonderful post - and great photo spread!

alison giese Interiors said...

Great post, and I'm so glad you put it out there. If you had not pointed it out, I don't know that I would have realized those were two different models. I hope that's not to say I'm inobservant! I think I just take in the overall image at first glance, and nothing about Crystal reads as "big" to me.
I don't think there are too many women who are completely accepting of themselves - certainly not I. I have the opposite of your situation - I am less than 5'2", and to most people, such stature (or lack thereof!) should equate to tiny-boned petite"ness". Thus, the pressure and struggle to be "little," rather than just mundanely "short."
I've always been incredibly critical of my physical self, but since having Avery, I've vowed not to berate my appearance within her earshot. I know all too well how a young woman can take a mother's self-critism and apply it to themselves, and I want to do everything in my power to help Avery have an amazing sense of self.
It has been a wonderful part of living in Brazil to see how differently the women here present themselves. Daily, I see women trotting out in outfits that would quickly get them on the black-bar-over-eyes "don't" shots on the back pages of Glamour. I LOVE their laissez faire attitude towards "perfection," and think their ideal is so much more attainable and healthy.

Having said that, I could still use some rounding-out of my habits, and join you in your quest for health over mere appearance. Here's to that!

Liz @ It's Great To Be Home said...

I love this post as a whole, but particularly your last 2 sentences. I don't think there's a woman on earth that can't identify with your comments, and I certainly have vowed time and again to accept myself just as I am (flaws and hips and tummy and all). Thanks for reminding us that happiness does not mean perfection.

Couture Carrie said...

Love that V editorial!


Anonymous said...

I've always been a fan of fuller-figured models. There's a great site with many images of Crystal and other plus-size models here:

They're all gorgeous.

The site's forum also has thought-provoking discussions about body image and the media.

yalechk said...

I love this post, and, for the record, have never thought of you as being "big" or "heavy"--only as tall. Obviously someone tall will not be the same size as someone short (even though fashion doesn't seem to recognize that).

Beth Connolly said...

A truly great post Averill. She is absolutely stunning and only in an altered universe would she be considered a plus size. The fashion industry not only perpetuates this emaciated look, it also teaches us that to be short is bad, and until recently, that being a person of color is bad. Thankfully we are now seeing many models that are women of color. But what about models that are not 6 feet tall? Many of our most beautiful actresses like Salma Hayek, Reese Witherspoon, Rachel Bilson, Eva Longoria, Natalie Portman, and Jada Pinkett Smith are petite and would not be considered the right height to model but for their celebrity status. Being 5' 3" myself, I am annoyed by this as well. Also, having a daughter in the fashion industry who is a size 0 makes me even more acutely aware of all these issues.

Averill said...

MLHP/Beth -- I completely agree that there's no reason for models to have a minimum height requirement. I find it truly bizarre (and incredibly self-destructive) that the fashion world promotes 6 feet and a size 0 as an ideal when 99% of women are significantly shorter and significantly heavier than that.

Christy said...

Basically, I'm just standing up and clapping here in my family room. Fantastic post. You know I struggle with my (non-pregnant) size too. And am also irritated with designers who don't create 'larger' clothes! UGH!

ps - I loved Gatsby too and am impressed you incorporate quotes into your post!

Sarah Klassen said...

Averill -- this is such a beautiful post. I mean it. This issue of healthy/fit/skinny/fat is so ongoing and I really detest the judgment that centres around it! I think in the case of anything, there are extremities that should be avoided on either end of the scale. (and I didn't mean that as a pun)

From my own personal experiences, I have been the victim of critical remarks on my size 0/1 figure. I eat a great deal, have a healthy sweet tooth, but I believe I suffer from hypoglycemia. I hate to have people judge me, because those who know me, know my healthy lifestyle...

On the other hand, I have a good friend who is probably a size 12, is incredibly healthy and in my mind, super gorgeous at any size! We agree that it is important to eat a min. of 3 meals a day, and enjoy all food groups.

We also agree that different shapes need different cuts, and what might look stunning on her, would look terrible on me and vice versa. I am happy when I come across a designer that knows a woman's shape and understands that we can, and should, be able to look stunning in fashion of all sizes!

Laura@JourneyChic said...

Crystal is absolutely gorgeous! One of my best friends has battled with eating disorders since we were kids and was even hospitalized for a time when we were in high school, and it was so painful to watch her have these very unrealistic expectations of herself (her mom put her in modeling school, which just compounded problems). Most people are simply not designed to be a size 0, and there's nothing wrong with that if you maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Southern Aspirations said...

I'm so sorry I missed this post initially but so glad that I read it. What a heartfelt, honest, and so TRUE post. I think of heard of Crystal but am now truly intrigued.

I also have struggled with my weight since hitting puberty, honestly. I'm a few inches below 6' but am still "bigger." I wear a size 10 1/2 shoe and have lots of curves but work very hard to get to a size 8/10. I will never be a 0, 4 or even 6. And while I beat myself up about it (and admittedly could probably do with a few less sweets and cheese) I'd be much better off focusing on loving myself and being healthy.

Thank you for raising the discussion and for your honesty.

Maple said...

How is the book? I've really been wanting to read it!

Patricia Shepard said...

I can't believe this woman is considered plus size. To me, she just looks stunning. Great figure and great proportions. And height...ah, height!!! How I would love to be tall. (5'2'' for those who don't know me in the flesh.)
Great post, Aves. Amen to everything you said. It's all about self-acceptance. I have reached the point in life where it Just. Doesn't. Matter. I rarely even think about the weight stuff. And I rue all those hundreds or maybe thousands of hours that I stressed over it, back in end of high school/college. I wish I could go back to my past self and tell her to relax. We all have to learn these lessons in our own ways, I guess. I always thought of you as statuesque and commanding, by the way. ;-)

Niky said...

Do you see those legs? Crystal, you are just magnificient

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