'Fat Acceptance': Women Embrace the F-word

Cover girl and others join the size acceptance movement.

October 1, 2009, 5:54 PM

Oct. 1, 2009 — -- The annual cavalcade of unattainable fashions modeled by women with even more unattainable bodies began in New York City this month; fashion season is officially in full swing.

Every year, one model dominates headlines, and this year that model is Crystal Renn. Renn has that exotic sort of beauty loved by fashion photographers. She's been photographed by the best of them and has been featured in Vogue magazine, the Bible of high-fashion, six times.

But Crystal Renn is not the typical model. She is several sizes bigger than other top models.

"I'm a size 12," she said proudly. In her timely autobiography, "Hungry," Renn describes her crushing introduction to modeling at just 14 years old.

"I had to lose about 10 inches off of my hips," she said. "Doesn't sound like that much when you are 14 years old. But I realized later that, you know, because of those 10 inches, I almost lost my life."

She struggled with anorexia for two years, losing 85 pounds (over three years) and whittling down her 5-foot-9 inch frame to a perilously thin 95 pounds. "I didn't feel beautiful at all because how can you?" she said. "I was so detached from my body to the point where I would look in the mirror and see something that's not real."

But at 16, with her hair falling out and her skin turning grey, she got a modeling agent. And even after she lost 85 pounds, she didn't become the cover girl the magazine editors had promised she'd be.

"All the promises that were for me didn't come true," she said. "They weren't happening. I was very unsuccessful. Yeah, sure I was doing a lot of editorials but I wasn't doing the American Vogue that I wanted to be."

Renn says her body was so out of whack, the weight started coming back with the tiniest bit of food.

"I had two roads in front of me," said Renn. "I said, 'OK, I can starve myself and continue what I am doing. Or I can probably die.' I decided I am going to be healthy, I am going to be voluptuous because that's what I am supposed to be."

'Fat Acceptance'

It was only when Renn let the diet go that she got her dream back -- a contract with industry leader Ford Models and, in 2004, that elusive American Vogue spread, shot by acclaimed photographer Stephen Meisel.

"I finally did get work with the people I had been aspiring to work with since I was 14," she said.

Renn also models for plus-size brands, such as Lane Bryant, and she has her curves to credit. Without knowing it, her decision to gain the weight back makes her part of a growing movement called "fat acceptance."

"It's trying to argue that we need to accept natural body diversity, that diets don't work, that all of the research shows that trying to lose weight and keep it off is fruitless for most people," said Kate Harding, a blogger and author of "Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere." "And we need to stop demonizing fat people and start accepting ourselves in the bodies that we have."

While medical research has drawn links between obesity and disease, Harding points out that weight is not always an indicator of health.

"There's a substantial amount of information suggesting that the obesity crisis is not all it's hyped up to be, that the dangers associated with fat itself are, in fact, way overblown. There are fat fitness instructors, there are fat people who do aerobics, who do cycling, who run triathlons," said Harding.

Celebrities from Oprah to former tennis phenomenon Monica Seles have proclaimed the merits of accepting yourself for your size.

The Internet is bulging with blogs and support groups with women boasting that fat is "flabulous." In the size acceptance movement, "fat" has become like the b-word in the feminist movement.

"I grew up learning that fat was a dirty word," said Harding, "that fat was something that I didn't want to be. It's a matter of reclaiming the word from all those negative connotations."

Model Crystal Renn is hardly fat. At size 12, she is still thinner than the average American woman, who wears a size 14.

"I say voluptuous," she said. "That's what I feel comfortable with and that's what I am. Everyone has their different word and if you say it with a positive meaning, more power to you."

The idea is also showing up on television, where the lifetime sitcom "Drop Dead Diva" has become a breakout hit among women.

The show's main character is a former model who died in a car crash and was reincarnated as a smart, likeable, but larger attorney, played by actress Brooke Elliott.

"To me, the message is that everyone is beautiful," said Elliott. "You don't have to be a size 0 to be beautiful, to know your worth, to know how gorgeous you are and to act accordingly, you know."

Women Should 'Know Their Worth'

In the face of shows like "The Biggest Loser" and "Dance Your Ass-off," the "Drop Dead Diva" heroine eventually choose to lose her self-loathing, instead of the pounds.

For Elliott, the lead role is a vast improvement over the days when she was cast as the sugar bowl in Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast." But in Hollywood, being a plus-size actress -- even a great looking one -- can still be cruel.

"It doesn't hurt my feelings as much as it shows me how much further we have to go," said Elliott, "It takes a while to transition and I think our society as a whole is craving a transition."

Or maybe they're just falling in line with reality. More than 60 percent of American women are considered overweight, but are they, perhaps, the new "normal"?

"There are all these stereotypes that fat people are in denial, that we're ignorant, that we just don't know about good nutrition," said Harding. "That's just not the case. I don't think anybody else should get to tell me what is over the natural weight for my body."

Flipping through the September issue of Vogue, Renn says she is starting to see change. "What a perfect person to put on the cover, Charlize Theron. So comfortable in her body," she said.

Renn says she no longer struggles to fit onto the page. In fact, some of the pages are adjusting to fit her.