I must admit, I’ve never been one to keep up with models. I adore Heidi Klum for her often ridiculous critiques on Project Runway, but otherwise no one model has won me over as a big fan. However, I have recently become enamored with Crystal Renn. Not only do I find her beautiful, her lack of sexy-face brings something new and interesting to the table. Of course, she is known for more than just her expressive photographs; Renn is a size 12 and the leading “plus-size” model working in the industry right now.
At 23, Cystal Renn has been working as a model for seven years, a career she documents in her memoir Hungry (penned with Marjorie Ingall, a former Sassy contributor). Reviews of the book, or articles about Crystal Renn, all seem to provide the same synopsis of her life. She was discovered at a charm school in Mississippi by a modeling scout who told her she could be a supermodel if she lost nearly ten inches off her hips. To achieve this goal, she began dieting heavily and developed an eating disorder, bringing her weight down to less than 100 pounds. She realized the scope of her illness and was able to recover and has now become a very successful plus-size model that works in mainstream fashion magazines like Vogue. And of course, that is all true, but in this book she engages critically with her past, the industry, and her continuing career as a model in a way that is sold short by a sound bite summary. Her recollections of filling her mouth with peanut butter only to wash it out, crying, are enough to make me hungry. While she writes a personal memoir, Renn’s accounts of sitting starving and miserable in her crappy New York model’s apartment bring into focus a larger reality that exists behind the glossy pages.
The chapters that follow the Renn’s life are staggered, with chapters dissecting body image and the inner workings of the fashion industry. Size and beauty are concepts that are intrinsically linked in our society, and Hungry provides more analysis than I expected. One point that Renn focuses on is how the issue of extreme thinness in the fashion world is consistantly made out to be someone else’s problem. Magazines claim to show women who are thin because designers send them sample sizes, but of course designers say they are making clothing for thin women because the magazines define this size as what is in style. And when blaming each other doesn’t work, it seems that the industry blames the models themselves. The book also discusses how the “waif look” (read: skeletal) seems to be tied to xenophobia. While of course there are waifs of many colours, Renn notes how the seasons that are populated by extremely thin woman on the runway (a recent trend) are overwhelmingly white. She believes this is tied to people’s belief that thinness connotes higher class; marginalized populations (which include millions of people of colour) have higher obesity rates, so therefore whiteness and thinness can be read as signifiers of luxury. And what is luxury if it doesn’t exclude 99.9% of us? Or employ a migrant work force of teenage girls?
Renn comes off as a likable, introspective person. I can definitely see how this book will appeal to WORN readers; she poses some serious questions about how we view our bodies through the lens of fashion, but she still takes time to gush about working with Jean Paul Gautier and Steven Meisel. Her life story is no doubt similar to other young models, but because she has become so successful she has the opportunity to speak out. And luckily for us, she is ready and willing to intelligently examine the fashion industry, while still enjoying the widespread acceptance she has received by it.
Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves by Crystal Renn and Marjorie Ingall (Simon & Schuster 2009).
Reviewed by Hillary Predko.