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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".

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