By Intern Rusty | Books | May 7, 2010 |
By Intern Rusty | Books | May 7, 2010 |
When I was 13 someone told me I could be a supermodel one day. That person was a well meaning relative trying to put a positive spin on the fact that at the time I looked more than a little like a walking stick figure. However, I topped out at 5’5,” so no matter what Tyra says and no matter what my hip measurements may or may not be, I was never going to be a model.
When Crystal Renn was 14, someone told her she could be a supermodel one day. That person was a scout for a modeling agency and he explained that all she had to do was lose a bit of weight. Renn had the height, lost 42 percent of her body weight to get the shape, and went to New York City at 16 to begin her career as a straight size model. Two years later she put all the weight back on, went into plus size modeling, and became the supermodel she had been told she could become.
Renn’s story is remarkable for several reasons; the narrative in the US is that if you lose weight and maintain a socially acceptable body type, that’s a kind of success. It’s a story told to us through advertisements, television shows, movies, etc. It’s a message being sold to younger and younger children and Renn’s Hungry flies in the face of that message. Renn’s time as a straight size model is miserable and, more to the point, not successful. Returning to the size her body is built to be, a size 12 (which is currently the average size for women in the US), is when she is finally able to take control of her career and be confident in a way she never was when she was constantly dieting and exercising past the point of exhaustion to maintain a size 0-2.
Renn’s whole life is on display in this book, from infancy up to her current life as a married woman with a successful modeling career. In addition to her own story, Renn takes the time to cite facts and statistics about eating disorders in the US and gives insight into the fashion industry. She discusses her experience on shoots in both versions of her modeling career, what it was like to live in a “model apartment” paid for by her agency, and the demands made on her by various photographers, agents, and designers. Mostly, though, the story is about her and the hell she put her body through for a false ideal of beauty before realizing that she would die if she kept living the way she was, and began eating again.
I have a lot of arguments with the way the fashion industry operates. From what I understand the discussion of “who perpetuates the size 0 trend” turns into a kind of round robin where the modeling agencies say they can only hire girls that fit the sample sizes that designers make, designers saying that they have to make sample sizes that small because it’s what the photographers want, and photographers saying that they’re just casting the kind of girls that the agencies send them. I’d be less offended if everyone would just admit that they’re casting models based on who will interfere with the clothing the least, that the garment is the point and not the person wearing it, but that’s not the case; the extreme skinniness of straight size models is sold as a lifestyle, as something we’re supposed to aspire to along with the $1,000 shoes in the advertisement. Many high end designers don’t even make clothing above a size 8 because it doesn’t fit their “brand aesthetic.”
More to the point, the US has embraced this image of skin and bones perfection even as we as a nation are getting larger. Female movie stars are, by and large, held to a physical standard that has more in common with runway models than with the starlets of years past. The diet industry is a multimillion dollar behemoth that spends millions in advertising to convince us all that our lives will be that much better if we just lose those 5/10/20/50 pounds. The first bathing suits seem to hit the shelves of department and big box stores less than a month after the push to make your New Year’s resolution all about losing weight. Young women are raised to be obsessed with their own bodies and the bodies of those around them, and made to feel inferior when they don’t measure up to an artificial set of standards. It’s appalling how much time and energy bright young women waste thinking about the size of their thighs or how to flatten their tummy. And now that the advertisers have young women fretting constantly over their appearance, it seems that they’ve begun to turn their attention to men. In the past year or two I’ve seen a sharp rise in the amount of diet plan commercials and/or advertisements aimed at men.
I wish that Renn’s book was required reading for every high school freshman in the country. Her message is simple and powerful: that happiness comes from being healthy and that healthy is not always a size 2. I’m a big believer in healthy at any size, and a big believer that the US needs to step away from the scale and start focusing on changing how we look at food in order to improve our nation’s health. I also respect Renn a lot for not bashing the naturally skinny girls she worked with; she admits that there are women who fit that size naturally but that she (and many other models she worked with) isn’t one of them. She doesn’t simplify the discussion into “real women with curves” vs. slender women, and she’s right not to because it’s not an issue that can be simplified in that way. The battle to change standards of beauty needs all the help it can get, even if that help comes from women who may fit the current standards. Jenna Sauers, a former straight size model who now writes for Jezebel, is a prime example of someone who is fighting to change beauty standards that directly benefited her.
Hungry is a heartbreaking story of what one teenage girl had to go through to find true happiness at the size her body wanted to be, but I hope that Renn’s message is able to reach more young women before they put themselves through similar experiences. No one should ever hate their body that much.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Rusty’s reviews, check out her blog. Or, follow her on Pajiba After Dark, nightly Sunday - Thursday.