I'm not a big follower of fashion, but Crystal Renn's name pops up periodically in any feminist discussion of beauty and body image in popular culture, as she's one of the most successful "plus size" models working today (never mind the irony that she's in the size 10-12 range - the average size for American women today). I hadn't realized she had written a memoir, but when I saw it nominated for the Amelia Bloomer Project, I knew I had to give it a read.
Renn's memoir looks briefly at her pre-modeling life, living happily with her mother and grandmother who always encouraged her to be happy more than anything else. Despite the hints at some complicated family issues, it's clear that Renn had a happy childhood.
Everything changed for her at the age of 14 when a scouting model looked at her and said she could be a star - if she lost weight. Renn says she's always been a bit compulsive and something of a perfectionist, and the scout's statement was the impetus for her perfectionist tendencies to be directed towards her body. The bulk of the memoir focuses on Renn's struggle with anorexia as she works in modeling in New York City - trying to live the dream, but never finding much success, even as her agents tell her to lose more and more weight. When she hits rock bottom, she finds the strength to get out, get healthy, and re-emerge on the scene, healthier and more talented than ever.
I've been questioning some of the Amelia Bloomer project's nonfiction nominations recently - not because they were poor quality titles, but because they really didn't seem to fall into the "birth to 18" age range the list is built for. Renn, however, is barely out of her teens herself - she's 24 now - so much of the book focuses squarely on her teen years and is written in a way that is totally accessible to teens and adults.
Renn's story is absolutely terrifying. The dominant narrative of anorexia is about girls delusional enough to think they're fat even as they're wasting away. Renn knew she had anorexia and avoided doctors even when she developed other illnesses or injuries because she knew a doctor would take one look at her and declare her anorexic. So why did she keep starving herself? It was the only way she knew how to stay working.
This is more than just Renn's personal story, however. She makes pointed criticisms of the industry and a lot of the "reforms" that have been "suggested" in order to improve the health of the women working the runways of the most important fashion shows around the world. She also gives great insights into the world of fashion that should disabuse anyone of the notion that it's full-time glamorous.
Renn's story is a powerful, positive message. When she switches to plus-size work, Renn is told that there will be plenty of work in advertising, but very little high fashion work. Renn sets out to prove them wrong, and is obviously succeeding considering how often she's been on the covers of magazines around the world. She was in the news again late last month, coming forward with allegations that she'd been photoshopped to look dangerously thin. She acknowledges in the book even that photoshopping is a way of life in the industry - getting rid of zits and stray hairs are great since fashion photography isn't about creating a documentary - but it's clear she has a strong personal line and woe to the photographer that dares to cross it.
This will definitely be of interest to anyone who's curious about the pressures of the entertainment industry - for a lot of what goes on in modeling goes on for other performers as well. It's an inspiring story of overcoming a deadly illness and not letting anything hold you back.