It is a sad fact that none of us, whatever our careers, have enough time to devote to good books. Given the choice between reading a memoir by someone--anyone--in popular culture, and reading, say, a Shakespeare play, Crystal Renn herself would undoubtedly agree that the latter is the more fulfilling choice. (After all, as she tells us in her newly published memoir, Hungry,
she read Hamlet
as a young girl--purely for enjoyment.)
But that is not to say that reading Renn's memoir is without its rewards, so here is a review of Hungry
for those who are interested. We were pleased to receive our copy just the other day, and all in all, we rate it highly. The book contains a few mixed messages, but most of them thankfully don't appear until the final chapter. With a few minor exceptions, the book is remarkably size-positive.
All in all, we give it four out of five stars (an exemplary rating), and certainly recommend it.
Bravo to the authors.
It only misses out on perfection because, as some of Crystal's remarks in Hungry
suggest, her own journey to size-celebration is not yet complete. That might account for the (very) few regrettable passages in what is otherwise a commendable memoir.
The book has been available from Amazon.ca for about a week now, and Amazon.com has just released it as well.
- Click here to order Hungry from Amazon.com
is co-authored with Marjorie Ingall, but in the following review we will attribute the text variously to "Renn" or to "the authors."
The first thing that impresses the reader about Hungry
is that it is quite a courageous book. In it, Renn allows herself to be far more critical of the fashion industry, and of its stance on underweight models, than she has been in past interviews. The most important passages in the book are those that (a) slam the fashion industry's cowardly and evasive response to the crisis of anorexia that its own images have generated, and (b) expose the hoax of modern weight hysteria, and debunk the "weight epidemic" for the fraud that it is.
Here is a particularly trenchant passage from the finest section of the book. The authors have just been discussing the increased media scrutiny that the fashion industry faced following the anorexia-related deaths of several models in 2006, as well as the industry's subsequent promises to reform itself:
[D]espite the CYA edicts from the international fashion world, the immediate change was nil. High-fashion models in countries with prestigious fashion weeks remained as thin as ever. No one at the Italian shows ever seemed to collect those mythical doctors' letters. (Hey, wasn't announcing it just as good as doing it?) . . .The CFDA "recommends" not hiring girls under sixteen for shows and advocates educating the industry "to identify the early-warning signs in an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder." But those are toothless suggestions, not rules.
The CFDA official guidelines go on to say, "Models who are identified as having an eating disorder should be required to seek professional help, and models who are receiving professional help for an eating disorder should not continue modeling without that professional's approval." That's a lot of use of the passive voice. Who owns the problem here? (98-99)
That is a brilliant analysis--indicating how, even in the face of death, the fashion industry wholly evaded responsibility for a tragedy of its own making, and failed to reform itself. The book refers to fashion as "a whole industry of people pointing the finger" (100), acknowledges that the industry's preferred look is "nearly skeletal" (95), and states, point blank, that the "designers want to see their clothes worn by skinny models and sold to skinny customers" (99). Hungry candidly reveals that the fashion industry is just as weight-prejudiced as it appears to be.* * *
While Renn is something of an apologist for models who don't speak out about this issue due to career concerns (99-101), she is relatively persuasive on this score. After all, the models are all but powerless in the industry, and their only choice, when faced with the pressure to starve themselves to death, is either to leave the industry altogether or to attempt plus-size modelling (which hopefully more will do, after this book is released). But a new horde of victims is always waiting in the wings to take the place of any models who escape the starvation trap, so fashion remains unreformed, and the designers, editors, and photographs are left free to impose their toxic standard on another generation.
The second-best section of the book, found on pages 146 and following, is a thoroughgoing debunking of today's nonexistent weight "epidemic" as a sham and a fraud. The authors cite a host of articles and studies that demonstrate that being full-figured is healthier than being thin (147). They reveal that "No one has ever proved that weight loss provides long-term health benefits" (149) and that full-figured persons "actually live longer than [so-called] normal-weight people." (147). Like Paul Campos in his recent interview, Renn identifies modern weight hysteria as a "moral panic" (122). One has to applaud the authors for taking this stance, for exposing the truth, unpopular as it may be, rather than taking the easy way out and peddling media myths about weight, or dodging the issue altogether.
Apart from one self-defeating comment on p.123 referring to weight diminishment as a potential outcome of a public attitude shift, the two sections cited above are note-perfect, and in and of themselves qualify Hungry as a significant contribution to size-acceptance. Hopefully, if Renn does any speaking tours or lectures as part of her promotional endeavours, she will read from these sections--particularly her damning critique of the fashion industry for its inaction on the eating-disorder crisis that it has engendered.
With regards to anorexia, the book chronicles Renn's personal struggle in a way that is sufficiently brutal that it (hopefully) won't lead to mimicry. The chapters discussing Renn's period of straight-size starvation paint a bleak picture of a young model who was living miserably, ruining her health, dead emotionally, intellectually eviscerated, and experiencing little career success (the latter fact being crucial, in order to prevent emulation). Renn even admits that, at this stage of her career, she was "a bad model." This is where Hungry demonstrates its value as a personal story, beyond its general exposť of fashion's wilful disregard of women's health. One can hardly imagine any young girl wanting to duplicate Renn's anorexic experience, for the book explicitly indicates that not only was she killing herself, but that she was also not leading a glamorous life. Quite the opposite. Her straight-size period comprised months and months of suffering, and career-wise was utterly futile. Past media pieces on Renn have irresponsibly framed her straight-size episode as a case of: "horrible life, beautiful job." Hugry more accurately delineates this period as: "horrible life, horrible job," with no upside whatsoever.
Indeed, anyone who doesn't already feel considerable anger at the fashion industry, and doesn't already realize how dysfunctional and destructive a world it is, especially for young girls, will find the revelations in Hungry to be shocking and infuriating. The book confirms everyone's worst suspicions about fashion as an industry populated, at least in part, by individuals who readily turn a blind eye to the health of young women, who unapologetically force girls to starve (then reward their starvation), who curtail any attempt at regaining weight and health, and who do all of this simply for their own bottom line (in the case of agencies), or for their warped "artistic" vision (in the case of designers and photographers).
(Perhaps most galling of all is Renn's account of a viciously size-negative individual working for the Elena Miro plus-size fashion show. Is it surprising to learn of an anti-plus individual working in the plus-size industry? Hardly. We have always detected, in some parts of full-figure fashion, an antipathy towards visible curves. The use of faux-plus models rather than genuinely full-figured goddesses has been symptomatic of this antipathy, and we have ignored all of the Elena Miro shows because of their refusal to use models over a size 14. New York's recent Full-Figure Fashion Week demonstrated what a plus-size runway show should look like.)
Turning from the specific to the general, the book knowledgeably discusses the severity of anorexia, revealing that it is "the deadliest mental illness" (109). Readers will be moved by the authors' disclosure that the percentage of girls who consider themselves "over"weight has nearly tripled (55). And Hungry offers a particularly poignant vignette when it describes the difference between young women's ambitions of past generations ("to be better, kinder people"), and the goals of today's girls (to be thin) (50). Indeed, the latter revelation is likely to give many readers pause, and to prompt them to contemplate not just the tragedy of increased anorexia, but present-day cultural degeneration as a whole--of which the diminishing femininity of women is symptomatic.* * *
Where the book is a tad less successful is in questioning the fashion industry's responsibility for eating disorders. Commendably, the authors acknowledge that fashion imagery "does play a role in how people view their own bodies. To deny that is disingenuous and dangerous" (112). However, despite referencing a study that specifically demonstrates that fashion images do ruin girls' body image, the authors claim that it is "unclear" whether fashion imagery causes eating disorders (which is at least better than an outright denial). To state that fashion photography cannot be an anorexia trigger simply because it doesn't cause anorexia in everyone who views it is illogical. Fashion photography need not induce anorexia in everyone who views it for it to induce anorexia in some--and since we are dealing with "the deadliest mental illness," as the authors indicate, then the fact that fashion imagery destroys many women's body image and triggers many cases of anorexia is certainly grounds enough for it to be regulated.
Less satisfying still are the book's speculations about the reasons for the industry's antipathy towards full-figured femininity, and for its insistence on an emaciated look. Here Hungry is too timid, especially given its boldness in other areas, and is regrettably hampered by political correctness. It doesn't even advance, let alone discuss, some of the more controversial but persuasive reasons for fashion's insistence on emaciated androgyny, instead offering safe, materialist and feminist explanations, along with some peculiar and unpersuasive theories (102).
Hungry's diffidence in this area is regrettable, because the book even touches on a more controversial yet persuasive hypothesis when it discloses that "True fashionistas look down on Victoria's Secret models because they have breasts and hips" (97). What a shame that the book does not expand on this important observation, or relate it to the androgynous nature of the fashion-industry aesthetic.
Perhaps the book's most questionable assertion is that "Ultimately, fashion is a business, and the market will dictate what's in" (113). That is simply not good enough. As quoted above, Hungry acknowledges that "designers want to see their clothes worn by skinny models and sold to skinny customers," therefore they are not actually interested in what "the market" thinks--only that part of the market that they do not discriminate against. Furthermore, the purveyors of the straight-size aesthetic have a complete monopoly on advertising revenue, on models, on magazines--and monopolies prevent the market from operating naturally. The market does not offer customers a choice between Minus-Size Vogue and Plus-Size Vogue. They can only choose between Minus-Size Vogue and Minus-Size Elle. There is no market option for plus-size beauty.
Saying that the market will dictate what's in is like saying that the people in a communist country will democratically elect their government: Yes, the populace has the pretense of a vote, but they only have one party to vote for (the communist party). No matter how they vote, they can only end up with more communism. Similarly, the "market" currently provides women with the option to choose the skinny magazine . . . or the skinny magazine. No matter which magazine women choose, they can only end up with more androgynous emaciation.
In short, the market does not dictate "what's in"--the people who own the market dictate what's in.
Furthermore, defaulting to "the market" as a sufficient corrective does not acknowledge the fact that every other business which affects public health as significantly as fashion does is regulated and monitored according to strict health codes. The fashion industry needs such regulation as well. It has been given a free pass for far too long, and the result has been widespread physical and mental suffering for fully half of the population. It should no more be allowed to market images that ruin body image than a food company should be allowed to produce salmonella-laced products.
On the positive side, the book includes several passages of rapturous prose describing Renn's curves--passages that would not be out of place on this forum. Consider this fine account of Renn's breast-cancer awareness ad:
She looks like a Greek goddess or an Old Master painting--a Vermeer, a Titian. There's an eye-catching weightiness to her. As she leans slightly to her right, two modest folds of flesh collect at her waist. (xii)
Note the praise of "weightiness" and "folds of flesh." Marvellously pro-curvy text.
That makes it a bit jarring when, in the last chapter, Renn writes, "I don't want . . . Augustus Gloop-like crazed devotion to rolls and rolls of flesh as shock for shock's sake" (218). One can certainly agree with her that the "shock" approach is counter-productive (and we have ignored discussing several shock-oriented uses of plus-size models in Parisian runway show for that very reason). However, we have considerable sympathy for those individuals who do celebrate "rolls and rolls of flesh" from a genuinely appreciative point of view. Moreover, the book's lush descriptions of Crystal's own womanly beauty, exemplified in the passage above, unquestionably celebrate the model's fleshiness.
One hopes that most of the book's readers, especially those girls who possess attractive "rolls" themselves, will understand that the authors' issue is with shock, not flesh. After all, later in the book, Renn encourages women not to be concerned about "belly rolls" or "cellulite" during intimacy (190). And if rolls and dimpled flesh should not be points of concern during personal relations, then they should not be points of concern during photo shoots. Indeed, a more faithful and celebratory depiction of both rolls and dimpled flesh in fashion would help more women to become comfortable with possessing such traits.
The reference to Augustus Gloop is particularly unfortunate, since earlier in the book, Renn specifically decries the negative stereotyping of larger children in classic works of literature--even citing Gloop himself as one such stereotype (120). Hungry's commendable advice to parents to "refrain from reading their kids books with hateful portrayals of f** characters" (223) would be even more persuasive if her book did not invoke just such a portrayal to make a negative point. One cannot decry a negative stereotype on one page, then use that same stereotype on another page, in the same negative manner that it was originally intended (i.e., as a condemnation of greed).
The suggestion to avoid "hateful portrayals of f** characters" is just one of several very constructive suggestions that Hungry offers to parents of full-figured girls. One hopes that any readers with children of their own will take these valuable suggestions to heart. The authors caution mothers not to disparage their own figures in front of their daughters (224), and make a fine plea:
Why can't we embrace children as children, in all their chubby, gap-toothed imperfection? (219)
However, that sets the book at cross-purposes with itself when Renn complains that
[S]omeone once uploaded a picture of my naked a** in horrid lighting onto the Web. It was taken with a camera phone while I was changing backstage at a show. All the commenters discussed my cellulite. I have some right to privacy, and civility should still reign. (219)
The privacy point is a fair one, and if that was all that bothered Renn, then her frustration would be understandable. But readers could easily get the impression that what really troubled Crystal was less the invasion of privacy than the display and discussion of her dimpled flesh--i.e., just the kind of "imperfection" that she otherwise asks society to embrace.* * *
In fact, one wishes that Renn were pleased to acknowledge that she possesses dimpled flesh; that she even encouraged photographers to depict this characteristic. After all, it is a feature that many Old Master paintings celebrate--the paintings with which Hungry compares Renn's own images--and is a trait that many curvy girls possess.
Likewise, it comes as a surprise to hear of Crystal's lukewarm appraisal of her shoot with Luis Sanchis for Australian Harper's Bazaar. That editorial caused a greater public sensation than any other Renn photoshoot in recent memory, because it showed the model looking truly curvaceous and full-figured. Yet Renn opines that the photographer was making "a challenging, in-your-face point about largeness" (217). Well, while Crystal may indeed have looked curvy, she was hardly "challengingly large"--simply fuller-looking than in most of her shoots, where her size is not apparent. In fact, she looked quite beautiful through Sanchis's lens, odd colour-filtering aside.
Furthermore, Renn notes with no pleasure that Sanchis's lighting "made me look more dappled with cellulite than I am" (217), and here too one wishes that she could have been enthusiastic about this fact, rather than seemingly dismayed.
She expresses concern about "designers and editors [who] choose one f** girl to salivate over, and revel in her avoirdupois" (217), but, as noted above, the most passionate prose in Hungry is precisely that which revels in Crystal's opulent curves. Such revelry is shared by the general public, who adored the Sanchis shoot as an unapologetic celebration of Crystal's luscious figure. One wishes that Crystal were more enthusiastic about this fact, to indicate to her female readers how favourably they should regard every aspect of their figures--rolls, dimpled flesh, and all.
Furthermore, a passage on p.155 in which Renn describes how to create a more "flattering line for your body," and discusses how she avoids having her cheeks "pooch out," and achieves a "more defined face," sounds regrettably like an effort to minimize the visual fullness of her look. A more size-celebratory approach would have had Renn describing efforts to showcase her soft fullness--the rounder, the curiver, the better--via displaying a more generous curve of the body, or poochiness in the face, or, as we have said, dimpled flesh.
Renn notes that Dolce & Gabbanna ran two versions of their ad in which she appeared, and that "my thighs look thinner in one than in the other. I'm not sure where each ran" (184). But Renn's readers will be aware of at least one place where the thinner version ran--in this very book. The more size-positive move would have been to include the fuller-thighed version instead.
One final concern, also from the book's final chapter, is Renn's expressed annoyance that some fans prefer her at a larger size and say that she "betray[s] womanhood by not being f**ter" (217). While we have not personally encountered Renn's weight loss being publicly described as a "betrayal" (since she never appeared in a diet ad or a weight-loss TV show), she should be able to comprehend this reaction. It is certainly understandable why many women long to see curvier representatives in fashion. Moreover, it is easy to fathom why a size-16 girl who was overjoyed to see a model her own size will feel great dismay at seeing that model diminish to a size 12.
If Crystal herself truly does not wish to be curvier, whether for personal reasons or due to industry pressures, then the public will accept that. But it is also completely understandable for them to then yearn for the emergence of a different model who will be comfortable at the larger size. In other words, the feeling among many plus-size customers is, "If Crystal wants to be size 12, fine; but please also give us someone who is a size 16."
That we are being particular in our review of this book is a measure of its potential value. But for all that Hungry addresses serious matters, it also has moments of great wit and humour. Look for those.
The prose descriptions of Renn's magazine editorials are effective, particularly that of her groundbreaking American Vogue layout, where she offers a vivid behind-the-scenes account of the shoot. Some of the other shoot descriptions, however, might fail to engage readers who haven't seen the layouts for themselves. As a solution to this, one wishes that the generous photo section had been even more generous, and had included more of the editorials that the book discusses.
Oh, and an index in a work such as this is always beneficial. Hopefully, future editions of Hungry will have one.
Not only does the book offer a rounded portrayal of Renn's personality, but it offers vivid characterizations of many other individuals are well. One develops considerable respect for Renn's husband, for example. The model's account of how she went from a boyfriend who preferred her thinner, to her current love, who adores her curves, and enjoys watching her eat (206), will hopefully encourage other curvy girls to choose someone who appreciates them because they are full-figured, not despite this fact.
As for Crystal herself, she comes across as remarkably self-aware. One wishes that she no longer felt compelled to torture herself with exercise, which, she acknowledges, has left her physically debilitated (153). (In some passages the book is, intentionally or not, as much a warning against excessive exercise as it is against starvation.)
One admires her for condemning her former "careerist sickness" (94). And if she still seems very career-minded, let us remember that without this quality, she might not have reached her current level of success. (There is a fine line here--one doesn't want role models to be mercenary, but one needs them to have the ambition to survive industry pressures.)
Crystal occasionally contrasts herself with other plus-size models, mentioning that she portrays the "hot girl" while others are "unthreatening," and "cute, happy, accessibly pretty" (156, 182). This seems unfair. For one thing, we have featured many images on this site by other plus-size models who emphatically embody the "hot girl" (Charlotte Coyle, Christina Schmidt, Justine Legualt, etc.), and for another, Crystal's editorial career means that she had been allowed to be the "hot girl," while models who have not shot in those contexts have not been given such leeway. For example, Barbara Brickner may be "accessibly pretty," but the world has known nothing hotter than her Douglas Bizzaro test. (Fans have long hoped that Barbara and other plus-size models would create such images more often.)
One applauds Renn for "mak[ing] it a point to eat on shoots" (207). And her advice to women to live their lives enjoying the body that they have, not putting off living until they diminish themselves, is excellent (209).
Finally, we should mention that the book has some fine writing in it. Statements such as these are brilliant and perceptive:
Saying, 'Thin people are discriminated against, too!' is like saying, 'Where's the white issue of Vogue?' Every issue of Vogue is the white issue. Every issue of Vogue is the skinny issue. (130)
A trenchant and quotable point.
But the most glorious passage of all is Renn's account of walking the runway for Jean-Paul Gaultier (pp. 171-2). That remains the high point of her career, thanks not only to the notability of the event, but to its aesthetic perfection. Crystal walked in a show whose theme demanded the presence of a plus-size goddess.
Pick up a copy of the book, and read for yourselves the authors' glorious description of the dress and the show. Best of all is Renn's speculation as to why Gaultier chose her for this event:
[M]y lush body fit with his theme. The show's imagery was all about fertility and nature and happiness; it didn't have the hard edges of urban, minimalist fashion . . . I looked fecund and sexy, like a postnuptual [sic] bride in a fairy tale. (172)
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--and bittersweet for that very reason, because if fashion in general were more about fecundity and lusciousness rather than about urban minimalism, then the need for plus-size models would be obvious, and there would be no question as to which body type is ideal for displaying feminine clothing.* * *
Despite occasional mixed messages about the visible attributes of full figures, Hungry is a significant asset to size-acceptance, and in some passages even to size-celebration. By presenting her straight-size ordeal in the most truthfully negative terms, Renn avoids the danger of triggering eating-disorder mimicry. Young readers who might not be interested in picking up books about the consequences of eating disorders, or about the fallacy of the weight "epidemic," will find important information about both in this volume, which may sooner interest them, thanks to the glamourous associations of "fashion" and "modelling." Hopefully, Renn's memoir will help struggling anorexics (including models) to overcome their eating disorders, and will help women general to develop more positive body image.
Crystal may well succeed in her stated intention to reach more people with this volume than she does with her modelling work. We hope that she will.
- Click here to order Hungry from Amazon.com