Thursday morning at 8:09am, a time usually spent ordering my Starbucks Americano and booting up my laptop to begin writing for the day, I found myself in a bright, chilly Today Show studio, having a microphone snaked up the front of my shirt. A few feet away was Crystal Renn, 24, curvy girl poster girl and crusader for plus-sized women everywhere. She was stunning: Her gloriously thick, shiny, long black hair and signature bold eyebrows were set in gorgeous contrast to a short cream-colored sheath dress, black ankle boots and a chic mirrored belt that tied in a big bow in the back. (She later told me she had fallen in love with it while modeling it in a designer's show and was given it as a gift.)
But all of that fabulousness paled in comparison to the main physical characteristic that jumps out and whomps you upside the head the first time you lay eyes on Crystal Renn in person: She is not big. Not in any way, shape or form. If you and your BFF, on your cattiest of catty days, were drunk, PMSing and had just swallowed a bottle of Mean Girl Pills, and Crystal walked by, you STILL wouldn't think to comment on her weight. She is tall and slender. Not willowy or skinny, but if you ever saw her shopping in the Plus department of a clothing store, you'd think she was picking up a gift for a friend.
Once I had been miked by the cameraman, de-linted by a wardrobe rep, had an errant black bra strap tucked inside my sleeveless top by a friendly guy and wished good luck by the page, I slid over the couch to sit beside Renn. We shook hands and briefly discussed having spoken once before for an iVillage NeverSayDiet interview. Meredith Viera came over and said hello, and we all oohed and aahed over her perilously high black patent stilettos. Then the cameras rolled. As we watched some video footage of Renn, the voiceover recounted how the formerly anorexic model had been digitally whittled down in a recent Fashion for Passion campaign and as the Before and After pics appeared side-by-side on the teleprompter, Renn shook her head (we weren't on-camera at this point), seemingly STILL stunned and upset.
"When I first saw the photos, I would have to say I was absolutely shocked," Renn told Vieira during the live portion of our interview. "I think I sat in silence for a good five minutes...I didn't think it was an accurate portrayal of my body in any way. I'm a size 10, and that's more like a size 2."
A size 10. I wear a size 10. In fact, the pants I wore on the Today Show were a size 10. True, I have some H&M trousers at home that are a size 12, but I also have a suit from New York & Company that's a size 6, lots of size 6 and 8 dresses, and a bathing suit from Target that's a Small on top and an Extra Large on the bottom. (All of these pieces fit, an homage to the sheer ridiculousness of vanity sizing.) I'm 5'11" and, though I haven't weighed myself since Thanksgiving -- I, too, struggled with an eating disorder and loathe having that scale albatross hanging around my neck -- I know I weigh somewhere between 140 and 150, a range my doctor and I consider healthy.
To be totally candid, a part of me was upset by the realization that I, too, would be considered "plus-sized" by Jean Paul Gaultier. Yes, I realize the ridiculousness of that statement, on many levels. First, I shop at Target and DSW, not Prada and Gucci, so what do I care what a 58-year-old Frenchman with a penchant for cone bras thinks about my figure?
But more importantly, how shallow must I be to allow myself to get distressed over potentially falling into a "plus" category? I thought I was over my eating disorder, that I left it on a Stairmaster somewhere on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus in 1995. How emotionally healthy could I really be if a part of my psyche still clung desperately to the notion that I was "slim," or at least "slender"? And definitely not "big," the curse of tall girls everywhere.
Viera brought up the fact that many eyebrows were raised onset by Crystal's decidedly NOT-plus frame. Crystal explained that in her field, "plus" simply means "plus the norm." So if the norm is 5'11" and 115 pounds (20 pounds more than what she herself weighed at the height of her anorexia and compulsive exercising), then yes, 5'9" and 150 pounds (her current measurements) is "plus."
True, she has lost some weight: Since her debut as a plus-sized model, she's shed 25 pounds. "I thought it was as great a time as ever to start taking care of myself and reintroducing exercise back into my life," she said, adding that one perk of being a plus model is that she doesn't have to kill herself to remain within the tight constraints of one size. "You can be a size 8 all the way up to a 20, and that offers a lot of freedom. With what I do, I can fluctuate, as opposed to what I had to do before."
Renn said she looks forward to a time when all models, regardless of weight, were simply called "models": "No more straight size, no more plus size, because I [that makes it seem it's] us against them; them against us. That is absolutely not the way women should look at each other. That's where I'm going; that's where my message is going."
I only got a few words in during the segment, which is OK because Crystal had excellent points to make and I wasn't about to interrupt while Crystal Renn spoke about how Crystal Renn felt during this whole Photoshop debacle. Afterwards, the two of us walked out together, along with her friend, and we talked a bit more about her career and the insane pressures facing women today. She's confident and self-assured, honest and poised to make a change. By now she's probably in Rome or Tokyo, and I'm back in Chicago. I'm still stunned by how far removed she looked in person versus pictures which, when not wildly airbrushed-slim, make her look fairly voluptuous. And I can't shake the whole "us versus them" image she conjured up, because it is so true. When we can stop relying on labels like we do water and oxygen, when we can relinquish the powerful connotations that terms like "skinny" and "lithe" and "sinewy" have, hopefully we can find a sort of happiness that has nothing to do with pant size but everything to do with who's wearing the pants.
This essay originally appeared at iVillage's NeverSayDiet