And yet again, I am disappointed by the fashion industry.

Crystal Renn

In my recent blogosphere wanderings, I’ve noticed a whole lot of flap and rant about one Ms Crystal Renn, for a while the poster-girl for “curves”, “plus size” and — shudder — “real women.” I say for a while, because — and this is where all the flap is coming in — continuing to apply the term ‘plus size’ to this woman is somewhat difficult.

“Plus size”, for me, is a term almost as problematic as the use of the word “real” as a prefix for “women”, “bodies”, “curves” and so on. It means different things to different people, and as a result, no one seems to know where the line into “plus size” (see? I can’t even put it in a sentence without speechmarks) territory is really crossed. For example, I’d say that plus size is a UK 18 (US 16) and above — size UK 16 clothing, although often scarce (and often running very small – I’m looking at you, H&M), is generally available on the racks of about 99% of women’s high street stores in this country. Size 16 is also the dress size of the average British woman. However, ask some women and they’ll say anything above a UK 12 (US 10) should be considered “plus size”. So far, so arbitrary.

The whispers over Renn’s suddenly-shed pounds began all the way back in December last year when she posed for Harper’s Bazaar looking much more like a “straight size” model than she had for previous spreads and campaigns. Renn responded by claiming that she had lost some weight due to “travelling like crazy”, and insisting that she had not been pressured into losing weight, nor chosen to do so in order to bag a particular shoot or contract. She also said that “[the public] have to realize that plus-size model doesn’t mean plus-size woman.” [1] OK, but this doesn’t help matters at all. When we have only a vague idea of what a “plus size woman” is to start with, figuring out what the difference between that and a “plus size model” is and then deciding whether or not we’re alright about the whole situation is more than a little difficult.

But it’s not just the phrase’s ambiguity that’s the problem. Like so many labels, it suggests that those who are branded as or identify as “plus size” are something other, something outside the accepted norm. Those of us who are just people don’t require such monikers, it seems to say. But you’re not just a person, you’re a plus size person. You’re different.

Renn recognises the negative connotations that the term “plus size” carries, and claims to feel them deeply. In a rather-obviously-scripted interview for Ford Models, her current agency, she said she felt “pressure, probably more than from any place, from the public” who had “plac[ed] a title on [her] head,” and then decided — apparently incorrectly — “in their mind about what plus size actually is.” She says, “I couldn’t possibly live up to that.”

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My feelings about all of this are horribly mixed. I remember the first time I became aware of Crystal Renn — at around the time that Hungry came out, and she became the focus of intense media scrutiny — and how I felt. I liked the sound of her. I thought she was gorgeous. I thought she was an excellent example of the fact — and I firmly believe it is a fact — that models do not need to be rail thin in order for the clothes to look their best, or in order for the women looking at them to be suitably transported into the realm of “fantasy escapism” that fashion folks often use as a handy smokescreen for their industry’s less-than-paletable tendencies*. I applauded her for blowing the whistle on the treatment she had received at the hands of talent scouts and other fashion insiders, and for speaking so candidly about her obviously very traumatic eating disorder. I took myself off to Amazon and added Hungry to my Wish List pretty much immediately. I was well and truly signed up to the Crystal Renn fanclub.

Now, however, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. Not because she’s lost weight, obviously – her body is her own to do with what she pleases [2], and the speculation over exactly what dress size she is now and exactly how many pounds or inches she has lost is petty, offensive and irrelevant (not to mention sexist – when was the last time the media bothered their heads about getting a male model’s weight correct to the nearest pound?).

I’m firstly a little bit disappointed about the fact that Renn accuses the public of creating an expectation that she then had to live up to. No, actually, we didn’t. Many folk were like myself and had never heard of Crystal Renn until she pitched up with a book that essentially said look, I am doing something different to the fashion norm. I am putting myself out there as a different kind of model. My message is that you should not conform, you should be an individual [3], and this is the kind of individual I want to be. It was not the public who said “here are Crystal Renn’s thoughts on size and fashion, news outlets – let’s talk about her at length!” No, it was Crystal Renn who did that.

The public, in fact, have done nothing but get behind this fabulous, beautiful and inspiring woman, and support her, it seems. People like me, who have very little interest in fashion ordinarily, went out and bought her book. I remember her picture suddenly popping up on fat acceptance blogs like the sadly-now-defunct Soft Women and fuckyeahchubbygirls with aplomb in the wake of the publication of Hungry. I remember hearing her name all over the blogosphere, around the water-cooler and on the bus, almost always dropped into an excited, positive conversation about a turn-around in the fashion industry or a new dawn for female role models. The public thought Crystal Renn was awesome. I’m disappointed therefore, that she has chosen to tell them hey – this shitstorm? This is all your fault.

However, I am most disappointed not with Renn, but with the fashion industry. I realise this is a bit of a no-shit-Sherlock thing to say – as a 5’11”, size 14/16/18 woman who measures 38, 30, 40, I am so frequently disappointed by the fashion industry that I’ve stopped noticing it, for the most part. But this time I’m disappointed in how obvious they’ve been about things. I mean, Crystal Renn is absolutely stunning. Even at her “largest”, she made any garment she wore look bloody incredible. She won the hearts and minds of the general public by publishing Hungry and becoming synonymous with the “Real Women” (it hurts to even type that phrase) campaign that was going on in Glamour and other magazines at the time. This gave her major column inches and TV airtime and turned her into a household name. But, it seems, Renn could only stay ‘current’ and ‘relevant’ in the fashion world if, eventually, she went back to doing things its way. A couple of years on from the publication of Hungry and no one’s really talking about that anymore. Crystal Renn loses a bit of weight, and funnily enough, lands a campaign with Karl Lagerfeld. Regardless of why she lost the weight or how much she lost or what she did to lose it (none of your business, world), the fashion industry has rewarded her for becoming thinner. They didn’t reward her when she stood up for herself, or when she wrote her own highly successful book, or when she became a seriously saleable commodity with half the women in the world standing in support of her. They didn’t reward her for being ambitious, or outspoken, or brave, or gracious, or even for being gorgeous. They rewarded her solely for getting thin again.

It’s yet another reinforcement for the message that says thin is everything. Says the fashion industry, says the mainstream media, says the Patriarchy: ‘You can be as impressive as you want in other areas, but if you’re impressive and you don’t conform to the beauty standard then sorry, you’re just not quite impressive enough. Never mind that Crystal Renn is a role model or a survivor — is she thin? She is? Awesome. Welcome back to the fold, Crystal.’

* “The girls are so thin because we don’t want them to look like real women! If they looked like real women it wouldn’t be fantasy escapism, and that’s what people want!” “The clothes are so outlandish because we don’t want them to look like any old clothes! It’s about fantasy escapism!” “Our manufacturing may be ethically dodgy but the result needs to be ethnic and otherworldly! It’s fantasy escapism!” “We don’t need to worry about the repurcussions of our actions because it’s not really real! Fashion is fantasy escapism!” and so on unto eternity…

(Photo)

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