This is a story about two pictures.
The first is a photograph of the supermodel Gisele. Taken by the photographer Steven Meisel, it appeared in Vogue in 2000. Gisele is in a clingy white gown, posing in a studio against a seamless gray backdrop. Her skin is golden and gleaming. Her hair is windblown, as if she's been surprised by a breeze from an open window just out of view. Her hands, her eyes, the curve of her back everything is graceful and expressive. She's mesmerizing.
I was fourteen years old when I saw that picture. It was the first time I'd ever leafed through a copy of Vogue. I'd never cared about any fashion magazine; I'd looked at that one only because a man I'll call The Scout had handed me a copy. He was working for a major modeling agency let's just call it The Agency in New York. His job was to troll the back roads of America, visiting junior high schools and suburban malls, in a ceaseless quest for the next top model.
I had never met anyone like The Scout before. He was urbane and kind, smooth-talking yet sincere. I was dazzled by his shirt. Tailored to perfection, it was probably more expensive than my entire wardrobe. When he opened Vogue to Gisele's picture, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was planting a fantasy. In the few seconds it took me to absorb all of Gisele's beauty and allure, I'd constructed a new idea of female perfection. It was Gisele.
That's when the Scout said, "This could be you."
And even though I was only fourteen and weighed sixty pounds more than Gisele and had all the sophistication of a girl from Clinton, Mississippi, population twenty-threethousand, I believed The Scout.
The second photograph is from 2007. It shows the naked back of a curvy woman, her dark hair curling into tendrils at the nape of her neck. Her body is half draped in rich red fabric. She's gazing off into the distance, lit from the side in a soft northern light. She looks like a Greek goddess or an Old Master painting a Vermeer, a Titian. There's an eye-catching weightiness to her. As she leans slightly to her right, two modest folds of flesh collect at her waist. (If you were a snarky sort, you might call this lush abundance "back fat.") The picture was taken by photographer Ruven Afanador for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. It was a public service ad, designed to look timeless but also of the moment. The objective was to show beauty and strength, to offer hope of a healthy future for all women. It ran in every major women's magazine, from Vogue to O to Bon Appétit to Prevention. The woman in that photograph is me.
Hungry is the story of how I got from the first photograph to the second.
A straight line may well be the shortest distance between two points, but for me, the journey from the first picture to the second crossed continents and set the numbers on my bathroom scale spinning backward and then forward like a time-lapse sequence in a 1930s black-and-white melodrama. The interim was a time of triumphs and humiliations, a jagged line of drastic weight loss and brushes with fame and success and failure and emaciation and eating disorders, until I finally said: Enough.
I started to eat. I stopped churning mindless circles on an elliptical cross-trainer for seven or eight hours a day, my arms and legs jerking like a marionette's. I stopped obsessing about chewing a single stick of sugar-free gum. I got heavier. I put on pounds by the dozen and leap frogged dress sizes from 00 to 12. But I honestly didn't mind the weight gain and the loss of my matchstick limbs. I made a choice to stop starving.
Here's the strange part: Call it crazy or ironic or simply perfect justice, but when I stopped starving myself, my career took off. That was when I shot five international editions of Vogue and the covers of international editions of Harper's Bazaar and Elle. That was when I starred in Dolce & Gabbana's ad campaign. That was when I worked the runway as the final model in Jean Paul Gaultier's prêt-à-porter show in a gauzy, breathtaking, form-fitting fairy-tale dress covered in an explosion of tissue-paper-thin silk flowers. That was when I appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. That was when I became the highest-paid plus-size model in America. That was when I became a favorite model of the man who took that amazing picture of Gisele in 2000: the great Steven Meisel. And I did it all at the weight my body wanted to be.
I was hardly alone in my descent into weight obsession and madness. Five to ten million Americans have eating disorders. A 2005 study found that over half of all teenage girls and nearly a third of teenage boys use unhealthy methods to try to be thin, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes for the express purpose of losing weight, vomiting, and taking laxatives. Even women without clinical disorders spend a heartbreaking amount of time obsessing about their weight, hating their bodies, and thinking that if they were only thinner, their lives would be richer, fuller, happier.
I'm the embodiment of the truth that it doesn't have to be that way. You can learn to love the size you're supposed to be. I had to lose seventy pounds (along with lumps of hair, muscle mass, the ability to concentrate, and any sense of joy) before finding my sanity. I regained the weight and, in the process, became an infinitely more successful model. My self-acceptance led to a return of the intellectual curiosity I'd had as a child, before I got on the weight-loss express. It led to a better career. It led to romance. I'm proof that life doesn't have to wait until you're skinny.Copyright © 2009 by Crystal Renn