Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fat and Fashion

I woke up yesterday morning with a weird combination of nausea and a fever, so I took a sick day and spent it in bed with a good book: Hungry: a Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves by Crystal Renn. Luckily, my strange malady passed quickly, but the book will continue to stay with me for a long time, I hope. Hungry was written with a collaborator and isn't a perfect memoir by any means, but it is stunning in its truthfulness. (Perfect for National Honesty Month!)

Crystal Renn once lost 70 pounds to achieve her dream of becoming a high fashion model. She got the big contract, along with a severe eating disorder. Eventually, she (and her body) rebelled against the pressure to be extremely thin. She's now the highest paid plus-size model working today. But her work hasn't been limited to Lane Bryant fliers. She's done editorial work in Vogue and Glamour, and she walked the runway for Jean-Paul Gaultier in an amazing couture dress designed specifically for her.

This book is a fast and compelling read, despite the gravity of some of the topics. I identified with Crystal quite a bit. While she obsessed over Elle Macpherson's workout tape and Oreos as a teenager, I have memories involving a Cindy Crawford exercise tape and a batch of peanut butter cookies. I've been a yo-yo dieter since my teens. I've always wanted to be super skinny, though it's gotten to the point where I'm not really sure why I want that anymore. At this very moment, my weight is at a high point on the yo-yo's arc, and now is, historically, the time I start running for diet books and new exercise classes. In fact, I bought a copy of The South Beach Diet just the other day.

There are very direct correlations between sewing, body image, and fashion. As I discussed in this post, sewing my own clothes has, to some extent, alleviated a lot of my body issues. But sewing is hardly a happy fuzzy land disconnected with the grim realities of fashion: in fact, they go hand in hand more often than I would like. Vogue Patterns relies on big name designers, and many of us follow the runways religiously so we can knock off the looks on our own. The point is: we're certainly not immune to the workings of the fashion industry, just because we make our own clothes.

And it's hard to ignore that there's something about the whole culture of fashion that makes most women feel bad about themselves (just check out this article for proof), and Hungry gets to this point in a concise way, exploring how the fashion industry employs a certain amount of victim-blaming and lack of humanity in their continued support of models with disordered eating. And to the people that automatically screech, "But being fat is unhealthy!" this book offers a lot of solid research on why health actually comes in many different sizes. I also found Crystal's take on health to be very refreshing; she's an organic food enthusiast and seems to eat more healthfully than many skinny women who, in our culture, appear to be the "picture of good health."

Health at Every Size is a book that Crystal recommends for replacing weight obsession with healthy habits. I think I've found the perfect book to replace my new copy of the South Beach Diet . . .


  1. A good blog for people who are new to FA (Fat Acceptance) is Kate Harding's Shapely Prose Their BMI Project REALLY opened my eyes and made me feel much better about ignoring my doctor when he kept telling me my BMI put me firmly in the high overweight category and my body kept rebelling my attempts to diet down the pounds.

  2. That book sounds very interesting, I would love to read it. Eating disorders is an ever important subject. Regarding body image, I wonder if this might be a cultural question, for although I like to keep in shape for my health (not for my appearance) I really can't see how she (or you) in any way would be plus size. Both of you have beautiful and healthy curves! I would automatically say that too big is not good, but I wonder if my idea of "big" isn't a great bit bigger than yours... (booking two seats on the airplane?)
    But then I'm neither american nor very into fashion. Why is that important? The first part: swedish celebs would be considered fat in Hollywood. Second part: I don't watch top model or Project runway, and hasn't bought a fashion magazin since I was 13. I sew historical clothes, not fashionable vintage.
    Anyway, thank you for bringin up an interesting and important subject!

  3. I keep looking at the photos of the model, and she's not fat by any means! She's looking great, if you ask me.

    Actually, her curvy body reminds me of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Marilyn Monroe - who are/were both very handsome, sexy, yet not skinny ladies.

    It is sad that many women try to put themselves into some stereotype of beauty, ignoring the fact that every body type can be pretty. I know many tall, short, chubby, skinny, curvy, hip-lees, busty, etc. girls that are pretty, attractive and handsome the way they are.

    Sometimes I have a feeling people need a "uniform" to feel comfortable in their own skin. "Ideal" proportions, fashionable clothes, trendy haircuts, etc. As if no one has his/her own taste and sense of style anymore?

  4. I am glad you are feeling better! Sounds like you found an interesting read for your down time. At least you weren't too sick to appreciate the book.
    I think we have become too sedentary in America. Plus, we rely too heavily on fast food. I am fortunate that I have never had to truly worry about weight. I exercise weekday mornings for 10 - 20 minutes depending on time, but I do that more because I like to get going that way and feel better. Overall, I try to eat a healthy diet, but I also like sweets at times.
    I think we put too much emphasis on trying to be stick thin, but I also think we are a society where obesity is becoming much too prevalent. Look at the health issues we are now seeing here as a result of that.
    We need to become health conscious, not size conscious.

  5. Thanks for posting about this! Sounds like a good antidote to the Dorian Leigh book I just read that kind of hurt my brain. Hopefully my NYPL wait won't be too long!

  6. Her AFTER picture looks so much healthier than the scary BEFORE picture! I don't think there is a woman in America who hasn't struggled with this issue.

  7. She--plus size? Really? She looks healthy.

    I've come to believe that all women are beautiful and if it's not readily obvious why any given woman is beautiful at first glance, we are not looking with the right eyes.

  8. I'm glad you're feeling better! Isn't it weird those little ailments that don't last very long?! I was feeling the exact same way Monday morning and afternoon, but was back to my perky ol' self by dinnertime. Odd...

    She is so gorgeous--I just covet her hair and facial bone structure! ;)

    As someone who has struggled deeply with body image for most of my life (I remember my first negative thoughts about my body cropping up around age 5/6), and having been anorexic at one point (which culminated in becoming seriously ill for several months!), I identify with a lot of what you said and what I've read elsewhere about image struggle. It's interesting to see how well she's done, but sad that she is characterized as "plus size", because all I see is one gorgeous gal!

    Some days I have a real love/hat relationship with fashion and sewing, because so often these negative body thoughts are tied hand in hand with my love of both (as you pointed out). In some ways sewing has made it better, because I'm not attached to a size number (but rather fit). But more often than not, I have to separate myself from the contemporary fashion aspect in order to keep from falling into the negative body image issues I still wrestle with. (Is it any surprise when the spring and fall collections come out, and I cave and spend hours on, those are the weeks I tend to slip back into my anorexic habits and stress over my body?!) Which is probably why I like historic and vintage style so much: to me it is somewhat separate from the current ultra-thin trend (until you get into the mid 60s in fashion. Even looking at gals in the 20s, they were not model-thin by today's standards.). To me, those looks aspire more towards fit, flattering and femininity: all things I try to aim for more than being thin. ;)

    Anyway, sorry for a long rant. lol. Like I said, it's just something that is very personal and close to my heart.

  9. Crystal looks much more beautiful in her after than her before. I think that real, every day men are much more attracted to curvy women than women who are nothing but sticks. My grandfather used to say that he preferred women to have a little fat on the body. It makes us soft and cuddly.

    And YOU are a beautiful woman. Curves are beautiful. Just look at pics of Marilyn Monroe versus Twiggy.

    My family and I were just speaking of this same subject two nights ago about how sick the runway models look. It is not attractive at all. Their cheeks are sunken in, and their bodies look like sticks.

    I think it's easier for the designers because they only have to make one size of clothing to fit all. They would rather not worry about having to make different sizes to fit different sizes and shapes of women.

    These women are not women or people to them at all; they are machines, objects, robots that are for the sole purpose of showing off their work.

    The designers have no feeling for the person, and are very snobby and self-absorbed. Their fame has elevated their self-images in their own minds. They feel that they are worshiped and can therefore poo poo on people and say whatever they want, and it doesn't matter who they hurt.

  10. She's fat?
    She's 'Rubenesque" and looks gorgeous...MUCH better than her 'big' contract days!
    There is a difference between being fat and unhealthy and being comfortable with your body type. I think that if we listened more to our own common sense and less to the likes of...oh, I'll just say "fashion" people, magazines, designers...we'd be better of inside as well as out :)

  11. Well, if you're feeling the least bit ill, I recommend not reading this lovely article in which Karl Lagerfield hates on chubby women. What amazed me most is that, by the sound of it, he divides women into "skinny models" and "fat women."

    I've had similar struggles. And like Casey, I remember having negative body issues before I even hit puberty, which is just insane. I didn't even have a body to speak of! I don't think I ever had a full on eating disorder, but I did have disordered practices, for sure, and it's probably what led me to gain a lot of weight in my teens for a while.

    I honestly think feminism saved me. I started reading books like The Beauty Myth and realized what a crock it all was, and that all women are beautiful in their variety. I also started getting really saddened by seeing my girlfriends hate their perfectly lovely, healthy bodies. I guess it made me a little angry, and that seemed to spur a change in my thinking. I focused more on health than looks.

    Of course, I still have the desire to lose a few pounds, I still watch what I eat, and I still find myself wishing parts of me were different. Sometimes the line between "health" and "beauty" gets blurry for me. But I'm not nearly as crazy over it and generally I love my body and all the cool things it can do. I think it will always be a challenge for me, but I have come very far.

  12. May I also recommend Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin? It is a very interesting, very readable examination of the history and science of weight and dieting. It blew my mind.

  13. Thank you for featuring this! When my doctor said I was morbidly obese, despite running daily and eating a high protein organic diet, I knew something was up. I am so glad that I am not the only one who thinks BMI is silly. Plus size does not equal unhealthy. I may be fat, but I have perfect cholesterol levels, my blood pressure is awesome, and I am in no danger of diabetes. I hope more people pick up this book.

  14. First of all, it is shocking to me to look at the photo of Crystal Renn in a bikini and know that she is considered a plus size model. She is a normal, healthy, beautiful size. It is scary to see her rib cage in the other photo. Why is it that looking like you spent some time in a concentration camp is considered at all desirable?

    The research shows that active people are healthier than sedentary people, regardless of their weight. Also, major swings in weight are dangerous because they put stress on the pulmonary system.

    I wonder if this image of insanely thin models is part of why we have an obesity problem in the U.S. By obesity, I don't mean people with a high BMI, because BMI doesn't even consider the fact that muscle is denser than fat. I'm talking body fat percentage and the massive rise in bariatric patients. Anyway, I wonder if the increase in the bariatric population has something to do with the fact that the "ideal" female figure as portrayed by high fashion models has become so unattainable that people just give up entirely.

    Of course, I also believe that the decline in quality of food and normal amounts of daily exercise has a major impact as well. I highly recommend Michal Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, which will totally rework the way you think about food and the worth of diets. It’s all about eating healthfully in order to be healthy, like it seems that Crystal Renn does. I also recommend Jonathan Roche’s Blogtalk radio show about exercise, because he’s all about what is actually feasible to incorporate into your life.

    The persistence of popularity of models with figures like heroin addicts is kind of amazing, considering that they are also totally androgynous, but I think Trudy Callan is spot-on when she says it is because they are easy to fit. Also, they put the *clothes* on display, rather than the clothes making the women more beautiful. When I wear clothes, I want them to make *me* look good. I don’t want to be the figurative equivalent of a coat rack. How about you? I think you’re a beautiful woman and a slender, but still healthy size.

  15. Funny, I just put a hold on it through the NYPL too, and there are so many people ahead of me! I wonder how many are also your readers! Maybe all of them.

    Thanks so much for the recommendation...also glad you're feeling better!

  16. Well, even though Crystal Renn is a plus-sized model, that doesn't mean she's actually plus-sized. Just like 'regular sized' models are way thinner than 'regular' women, so are plus-size models much thinner than plus-sized women. But Crystal Renn definitely looks much much more beautiful in her new size. Her face (and of course her body, too) is just so gorgeous when it's not so bony!

    I do think it's important to remember that there are real women who are naturally really skinny, and they're beautiful, too. Healthy is beautiful, whatever size that is for you. If you're a certain size - large or small - because you don't treat your body (and mind) right, that's not very attractive.

  17. The book does sound like a great read, I think Crystal looks quiet perfect and praise Jean-Paul Gaultier for accepting and dressing such a womanly figure. He has shown that a true designer can make any shape of woman look amazing and I wish more would stand up and use curvy women.
    Also has it ever been brought up before that most high fashion designers are male and some are gay, therefore their preferred body type is male, therefore the models chosen reflect this?
    Just a thought...

  18. I actually gave up sewing for a whole year because of weight. My thinking was why spend hours sewing an outfit if I'm just going to (hopefully) lose weight or (god-forbid) gain weight and the darn thing won't fit anymore anyway. After a year, my weight went unchanged and I realized how foolish I was for stifling my creativity and talent for a whole year. I'm so glad glad I found your site, Sew Retro, and other sites where real women model their work!! I can't tell you the number of times I've thought, "Holy cow! She's got my body type - and man~! does she look hot!" It's been such great motivation - both to keep on sewing and to love my curves.

  19. Gertie, I just wanted to weigh in (ha, no) by saying I don't think you could look any better at any other weight than you do right now: slender but shapely! My own body-image issues are revolting at the idea of anyone wanting to give that up, as much as I totally understand how hard it is for any of us to be happy with what we have.

  20. Yes, health instead of weight, curves are beautiful, blah, blah, blah, everyone here is right. But here's the thing. We keep saying that there's this super skinny image that is pushed at women as desirable, but... is there? The ONLY time I see/hear about that scrawny look is when people are saying how awful it is, and isn't it terrible that women are being told to look like that. But..who's doing the telling? Yes, models are human clothes hangers. So? Nothing to do with me. Don't you think it's more likely our own insecurities telling us we're not good enough, as opposed to any actual outside pressure? Don't you think those girls have those thoughts too? Does that make sense?

  21. Emory is right - plus-sized models are usually a size 12, maybe a 14. Of course, when I think of plus sizes, I'm thinking of the 20/22/24-ish range.

    So I'm wondering what that makes me (a size 10 or 12) - am I a fat "normal" gal, or a skinny "plus-size" woman? :-)

    (Not that I give two you-know-whats about it, mind you.)

  22. Just today I read this article about Ralph Lauren firing Filippa Hamilton for being too fat (and Ralph Lauren photoshopping her image! Here's a link to the many articles out there:

    It's ridiculous - no wonder our body image is so screwed up in the US! I'm a victim to some extent myself as I love to look fashionable and it is difficult with an average size 8-12. I'm always on some "diet."

    I love those new Dove commercials - there are some videos on you tube - this one I especially like the evolution one - every young girl should see it.
    I also attach a link -

  23. Thank you for a great post. As a mum who has and is still struggling with weight and body acceptance issues, I now worry more for my daughter- as well as my sons- and can only hope that they can grow up with a realistic and healthy attitude towards their own bodies.

  24. After reading your post and pondering all day about it, I came to the same conclusion as Just_Fee--many models today look like boys, not women. Or if they are women, they are seriously estrogen deficient. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. I want to read it! This is a cultural issue to some extent, but not just in the U.S. I have a Brazilian friend who says it is just as bad, if not worse in Brazil. I think that the fashion industry doesn't care how much they influence women and girls' self-image. It is deplorable that there aren't more ladies like Ms. Renn on the catwalk. If only there were women of all sizes and shapes, but I suppose as long as the fashion industry is the way it is, that is a pipe dream.

    Just my humble opinion, but you, dearie, have an enviable figure. May I suggest to you and to others a book that revolutionized my eating habits and was instrumental in my gaining some health? "The Diet Cure" by Julia Ross. Go to I cannot say enough good things about this woman's practice. My nurse practitioner requires her patients to read it and a very dear friend is being successfully treated for her serious eating disorder by Ms. Ross.

    The South Beach Diet worked to reduce my husband's triglyceride levels to a normal range (they were off the charts), but it was hard for us to maintain it long term. The principles in it are very good though and it did make me a more creative cook.

    My best wishes to you for your health, gorgeous.

  25. It's not necessarily about the TALK of what is a healthy weight. It's the fact that the actual visual image that we are presented with clashes so much with the reality of that weight. For instance, though we may think that a 5'5" woman at 120 lbs is healthy (absolutely not overweight until about 140), the image of that woman comes as a surprisingly "fat" one. We may think that we are past it, but the way our eyes connect to these stereotypes is just as important as the way logic does. Many people would view that model as being quite slim according to the numbers, but when it comes to the IMAGES, that is where we lack in our visual/verbal connections.

    And I believe that is where we should begin the unlearning.

  26. I think there is a thin line between fat acceptance and maintaining a healthy weight. I struggle with my weight. I'm small and should be quite thin but have rolls of fat around my abdoment. This is plainly unhealthy and needs to be dealt with. Kristel on the other hand is just plain delicious - no rolls just a gorgeous womanly body. I hate the Terry Hartcher skeleton look that US TV promulgates.

  27. I have been thinking about this subject for a little while and I wonder: Is it really the fashion industry that makes women feel bad about themselves? yes, I know, these days many models look unhealthy skinny. But on the other hand: I think always there have been people who were seen as rolmodels, and people who wanted to try and look like them, even when this meant they were deviating from their natural body/face shape/look. The problem is, I think, first of all is that all these pictures of 'rolmodels' are so overal available. We get them pushed in our faces, so to say. But much more than that I think the problem is that the western culture is so focused on superficial appearance as a way of measuring ones value. And then especially an appearance that's thirteen in a dozen. Ofcourse, it would be great if designers chose to design for women all kinds of sizes. But would it really change anything? As long as youngsters learn that they have to look exactly like some rolemodel to be accepted, I think it won't change a thing. It would only replace one problem with a new one, because rolmodels will always exist and there will always be people who want to look the same, but just don't have that figure/shape/size.

    Having said that (as if this comment isn't long enough already): I agree that BMI doesn't say that much. It is important to be healthy, and that number doesn't say everything. I do have to say though that when I read that someone is morbidly obese in the bmi scale I hardly can imagine that that can be healthy in any way. It is good to accept that we don't all have a size 0 and that a bit more weight and curves can be beautiful, but being really fat still isn't healthy. It just isn't.

  28. Karin: Well said.

  29. This discussion interests me very much, and I feel the need to respond to Sandra and Karin's comments.

    While I agree with Sandra that there are few people who are literally saying to young girls, "You must look like this," I do not believe that the pressure is entirely internal. Sandra says:

    "Don't you think it's more likely our own insecurities telling us we're not good enough, as opposed to any actual outside pressure?"

    Setting aside all of the magazine and television makeovers, and the movies where the unpopular girl’s life is turned around after a makeover, what is important in this discussion is what they are striving to become. What standard are they worried about not meeting? The question is, what is "good enough"? Where does the definition of "good enough" come from? I believe it comes from looking at who the movie, television, and fashion industries present to the culture as the "beautiful people".

    Karin says that the people we strive to be like are those who are role models, and I agree. I think the problem lies in who is constantly put before us as role models, and who is selecting those role models. The celebrities whose lives the public is constantly scrutinizing are, by a large margin, the actors and models. The power to select these actors and models -- these celebrities, these role models -- lies entirely in the hands of casting agents, producers, etc. These people are able to choose the direction that the limelight will fall, and they continue to choose to prioritize women who are unhealthily thin. This is where my disagreement with Karin comes in. If the people cast as role models were of a healthy weight, I don’t think it would be more of the same, I think it would be better.

    I think that it is important for all of our mental health that we realize that this vision of beauty is a constructed thing, and that we should strive for a healthy beauty rather than whatever the current fad may be.

  30. Fat is not unhealthy, obesity is. Sometimes.

    Crystal Renn is beautiful, and, from the picture that you post here, you seem to be beautiful, too. The blue "zipped" dress wouldn't be really interesting on a "size -4" model, clearly (and some other design would be more suited for very thin women, that's the point of fashion, isn't it ? If everyone has the same body, where is the challenge ? )

    The key is to find clothes that flatter the body, no to torture the body to flatter the clothes (hey, however fabulous, they're fabric, we're human : we win, all the time !)

  31. It's funny (not that her story is funny, it isn't), in the left picture she's about the size I am (my healthy weight if I eat what my body orders me to eat), so to me that's a very normal/natural size, and yet in my eyes too she looks so much better in the picture on the right hand side. Conclusion: She's the most gorgeous when she's her own size.
    I guess, simply, we all look the best when we let our systems decide our own healthy size (having said that, I don't believe you become obese if you eat what your body needs, I believe you become obese if you are ill or if you have an unhealthy lifestyle, for whatever reason).
    Some are meant to be skinny, others "normal" and others even a bit chubby, and they can all be truly beautiful.
    I really wish that more women would love and accept themselves the way they are. Most of us will never be models anyway...thin or not...

  32. I can identify with everything you have been saying, but particularly with your statement that 'health actually comes in many different sizes.'

    I am short and wide, so my BMI puts me in "Morbidly Obese" despite the fact that my body fat percentage is normal. I am training for a marathon and two days ago completed over 13 miles running without stopping. For me, the scale number and the BMI number have no correlation with whether or not I'm healthy. I'm fit... not skinny, fit. It's a different perspective and one I have to embrace.

  33. I echo the props for HAES and Shapely Prose. In fact, Shapely Prose has been a life-saver for me in really thinking, treating ALL women (and men) better - the fat ones, the very skinny ones - and loving my body.

  34. Looked at "Health at Every Size", because I suspect that health wise I could change some things in my nutrition. But why do I have to read through an introduction (the only thing I see on Amazon) about diet first ? I am not on a diet, I will never be on a diet and my main goal is not to loose weight, but to make sure to live till 90 in a healthy way. When I started at the fitness club, they had real mental problems with me not mentioning my weight or loss of it. If I can be healthy at my current weight, I let my body have it. Give me a book where the author does not assume every woman wants to loose weight please. I am not obsessed with eating, I do not go hungry, if I can avoid it. I just want some ideas beside carrot sticks of tasty, nutritional food. I love carrot sticks by the way. Maybe some ideas beside the Hollywood star regime of 1 hour training every day, what else a normal person could do. In short I want realistic ideas how to avoid dying young and being sick, which worries me much more than, if fashion can live with my body type. I emancipated myself from the fashion industry by learning to sew. Fashion as an art to look at is cool, fashion as an industry is doomed anyway, if they do not make things that customers want to buy, I say good riddance.

  35. "Actually, her curvy body reminds me of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Marilyn Monroe - who are/were both very handsome, sexy, yet not skinny ladies."

    At one point I thought that Zeta-Jones was overweight, but I came to realize that I had been brainwashed into thinking that anything over a size 2 was big. Monroe and Zeta-Jones are classical ladies. Z-J, in particular, is extremely talented. I could never say now that she's overweight.

    And you, Gertie, are absolutely beautiful. I especially like your dark hair with your new red dress.

    As for Crystal, what an absolutely GORGEOUS woman. Fab-u-lous. I hope that my acceptance of different body types and beauty (yeah to Dove commercials) will eventually translate to myself.

  36. AAhh, the yo-yo weight problem... I seem to be at my highest peak of the arc these days too... although I just found out I have hypothyroidism - so I've started taking the meds for that and feeling more energetic and hoping that my weight will start yo-ing in the other/better direction! LOL That book looks like a good read and I can totally relate to sewing connecting with the fashion world... seems like everything is geared to the "perfect size 6" with no butt, no hips, no thighs, etc... all of which I have plenty! LOL
    Anyways, thanks for the honesty posts... I look forward to more! :)

  37. Both of you have beautiful and healthy curves! I would automatically say that too big is not good, but I wonder if my idea of "big" isn't a great bit bigger than yours. Home page

  38. It's not necessarily about the TALK of what is a healthy weight. It's the fact that the actual visual image that we are presented with clashes so much with the reality of that weight.Nicoumalone For instance, though we may think that a 5'5" woman at 120 lbs is healthy (absolutely not overweight until about 140), the image of that woman comes as a surprisingly "fat" one.

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