I Thought I was Thin Until I Met a 'Plus-Size' Model

Our body image expert questions her own self-image after sharing the 'Today' show couch with Crystal Renn

Yesterday morning at 8:09 a.m., a time usually spent ordering my Starbucks Americano and booting up my laptop to begin writing for the day, I found myself in a bright, chilly Today show studio, having a microphone snaked up the front of my shirt. A few feet away was Crystal Renn, 24, curvy girl poster girl and crusader for plus-sized women everywhere. She was stunning: Her gloriously thick, shiny, long black hair and signature bold eyebrows were set in gorgeous contrast to a short cream-colored sheath dress, black ankle boots and a chic mirrored belt that tied in a giant bow in the back. (She later told me she'd fallen in love with it while modeling it in a designer’s show and was given it as a gift.)

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But all of that fabulousness paled in comparison to the main physical characteristic that jumps out and whomps you upside the head the first time you lay eyes on Crystal Renn in person: She is not big. Not in any way, shape or form. It's kind of like waking up at eight years old as your mom tries to place $2 underneath your pillow and realizing this whole Tooth Fairy gig is a farce. If you and your BFF, on your cattiest of catty days, were drunk, PMS-ing and had just swallowed a bottle of mean girl pills, and Renn walked by, you still wouldn’t think to comment on her weight. It wouldn't even cross Mel Gibson's twisted mind. Renn is tall and slender. Not willowy or skinny, but if you ever saw her shopping in the plus-size department of a clothing store, you’d think she was picking up a gift for a friend.

Once I had been miked by the camera man, de-linted by a wardrobe rep, had an errant black bra strap tucked inside my sleeveless top by a friendly guy and wished good luck by the page, I slid over the couch to sit beside Renn. We shook hands and briefly discussed having spoken once before via phone for an iVillage NeverSayDiet interview.  Meredith Vieira came over and said hello, and we all oohed and aahed over her perilously high black patent stilettos. Then the cameras rolled. As we watched some video footage of Renn, the voiceover recounted how the formerly anorexic model had been digitally whittled down in a recent Fashion for Passion campaign and as the before and after pics appeared side-by-side on the teleprompter, Renn shook her head (we weren’t on camera at this point), seemingly still stunned and upset.

"When I first saw the photos, I would have to say I was absolutely shocked," Renn told Vieira during the live portion of our interview. "I think I sat in silence for a good five minutes…I didn’t think it was an accurate portrayal of my body in any way. I’m a size 10, and that’s more like a size 2."

A size 10. I wear a size 10. In fact, the pants I wore on the Today show were a size 10. True, I have some H&M trousers at home that are a size 12, but I also have a suit from New York & Company that’s a size 6, lots of size 6 and 8 dresses, and a bathing suit from Target that’s a small on top and an extra large on the bottom. (All of these pieces fit, an homage to the sheer ridiculousness of vanity sizing.) I’m 5'11" and though I haven’t weighed myself since Thanksgiving -- I, too, struggled with an eating disorder and loathe having that scale albatross hanging around my neck -- I know I weigh somewhere between 140 and 150, a range my doctor and I consider healthy.

To be totally candid, a part of me was upset by the realization that I, too, would be considered "plus-sized" by Jean Paul Gaultier. Yes, I realize the ridiculousness of that statement, on many levels. First, I shop at Target and DSW, not Prada and Gucci, so what do I care what a 58-year-old Frenchman with a penchant for cone bras thinks about my figure?

But more importantly, how shallow must I be to allow myself to get distressed over potentially falling into a "plus" category? I thought I was over my eating disorder, when I left it on a Stairmaster somewhere on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in 1995. How emotionally healthy could I really be if a part of my psyche still clung desperately to the notion that I was "slim," or at least "slender"? And definitely not "big," the curse of tall girls everywhere.

Vieira brought up the fact that many eyebrows were raised onset by Renn’s decidedly not-plus frame. Renn explained that in her field, "plus" simply means more than the norm. So if the norm for models is 5'11" and 115 pounds, which is 20 pounds more than what Renn weighed at the height of her anorexia and compulsive exercising, then yes, 5'9" and 150 pounds (her current measurements) puts her in the "plus" category.

True, she has lost some weight: Since her debut as a plus-sized model, she’s shed 25 pounds.  "I thought it was as great a time as ever to start taking care of myself and reintroducing exercise back into my life," she said, adding that one perk of being a plus model is that she doesn’t have to kill herself to remain within the tight constraints of one size.  "You can be a size 8 all the way up to a 20, and that offers a lot of freedom. With what I do, I can fluctuate, as opposed to what I had to do before."

Renn said she looks forward to a time when all models, regardless of weight, were simply called "models": "No more straight-size, no more plus-size, because I [that makes it seem it’s] us against them; them against us. That is absolutely not the way women should look at each other. That’s where I’m going; that’s where my message is going."

I only got a few words in during the segment, which is OK because Renn had excellent points to make and I wasn’t about to interrupt her while she spoke about how she felt during this whole Photoshop debacle. Afterwards, the two of us walked out together, along with her friend, and we talked a bit more about her career and the insane pressures facing women today. She’s confident and self-assured, honest and poised to make a change. By now she’s probably in Rome or Tokyo, and I’m back in Chicago. I’m still stunned by how far removed she looked in person versus pictures which, when not wildly airbrushed-slim, make her look fairly voluptuous. And I can't shake the powerful "us versus them" image she conjured up, because it is so true. When we can stop relying on labels like we do water and oxygen, when we can relinquish the powerful connotations that terms like "skinny" and "lithe" and "sinewy" have, hopefully we can find a sort of happiness that has nothing to do with pant size, but everything to do with who’s wearing the pants.

What do you think of Crystal Renn being considered a plus-size model? Chime in below.

Love this? Read these:
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