It began with a pair of leather-based trousers. Charli Howard was 23, and had simply returned from a shoot in Stockholm when she bought a name from her agent. It was 2015; she’d been modelling for six years, and ravenous herself for 10. “We’ve had a chat,” the booker mentioned, rigorously, “and we don’t feel this is working. The Scandinavian client said you were too big to fit into the trousers. You’re just never going to be small enough.” She was a measurement 6, and had been going to the health club for 5 hours every week; she’d been consuming orange juice-soaked cotton wool. It wasn’t the primary time they’d instructed her to reduce weight, to “tone up”, however it was the primary time that, as a substitute of feeling disgrace, she felt anger. On the best way house she wrote a Facebook put up.
“Here’s an enormous F*CK YOU to my (now ex) mannequin company, for saying that at 5ft 8in tall and a UK measurement 6-8 , I’m ‘too big’ and ‘out of shape’ to work within the trend trade.
“I’ll now not assist you to dictate to me what’s mistaken with my seems to be and what I want to alter in an effort to be ‘beautiful’ (like shedding 1 f***ing inch off my hips), within the hope it’d pressure you to seek out me work.
“I refuse to really feel ashamed and upset every day for not assembly your ridiculous, unattainable magnificence requirements. The extra you pressure us to reduce weight and be small, the extra designers should make garments to suit our sizes, and the extra younger women are being made in poor health. It’s now not a picture I select to characterize. If an company needs to characterize me for myself, my physique & the WOMAN I’ve turn out to be, give me a name. Until then, I’m off to Nando’s.”
“And then… everything changed.” She offers a jolly shrug. It’s a shiny winter morning in London, the place she’s staying together with her sister (“She could be a model if she wanted to, but she’s doing an MA in HR instead”) and whereas her tea brews she describes what occurred subsequent. After the put up went viral, she was approached by a brand new company and moved to New York the place she was welcomed into “the fun side” of the trade. This meant embracing her pure form (a slim measurement 10), reserving work (3 years later this included a magnificence shoot in Edward Enninful’s first issue of British Vogue) and writing a e book for Penguin, a memoir geared toward younger adults, titled Misfit. Its dedication reads: “To all the girls who have ever felt their bodies weren’t good enough.”
The story tracks 20 years of consuming problems and nervousness, punctuated with trend and modest journey. The final time she remembers feeling “angst-free”, she writes, seeing her physique with out judgment, she was eight years previous. After that: “My longing to be thin took over my life. To this day, I have never craved or wished for anything so deeply. I wanted to feel the outline of bones underneath my clothes. I wanted people to gasp at my frail frame.” She describes herself as a “sick-ninja” – no person knew she was throwing up her meals. She has what she calls “sexy illnesses”: OCD, despair, nervousness and consuming problems – attractive as a result of variations of them seem in shiny magazines, stylish as trainers.
“Thirteen years ago, when I started being sick and taking diet pills, it was seen as very glamorous. There were Paris Hilton images everywhere: wanting to be extremely thin was normal.” It was simple to find out how. She’d dangle round Sainsbury’s studying the movie star weight loss program plans in ladies’s magazines; later, at boarding college, discovering a neighborhood of like-minded women on the pro-ana (pro-anorexic) boards. “They were the only places I felt understood. But at the same time it was very competitive – people saying you should kill yourself because you hadn’t made the measurements.” She chuckles, pours tea. “There was this thing – like a secret sign to other girls that you were part of the pro-ana movement – a red bracelet with a butterfly on it. I found the bracelet the other day at my nan’s house.” Her face scrumples barely. “Odd.”
When she turned a mannequin, she began a darkish form of dance together with her company, who often requested she reduce weight. “I’d eat an apple a day, and I still wasn’t thin enough for them.” In Paris, she was instructed to lose 2in from her hips in every week. When she fainted on a shoot, the photographer fanned her together with his fingers and mentioned: “But you look great.”
“It feels insane, looking back now,” she says, “that I went along with these weird beauty standards. In fact, by working in the industry that partially caused my illness, I was contributing to the problem. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.”
Except, by any common individual’s requirements, it did. Not solely is Howard nonetheless a mannequin, right this moment she’s a profitable mannequin. Half her job includes going to castings the place she’ll be scrutinised and judged on the best way she seems to be, the opposite producing aspirational photographs to promote garments and make-up.
Her profession was given an almighty enhance by changing into a spokesperson for physique positivity, a motion that grew in an effort to have a good time numerous physique sorts – this regardless of being white, skinny, and conventionally stunning.
In the 1990s, fashions have been anticipated to be silent and enigmatic – that was a part of their glamour. Today, the alternative is true. To be a profitable mannequin requires greater than magnificence, it requires a message. For a mannequin to e book a trend marketing campaign requires the mannequin to have launched a marketing campaign of their very own on social media, for them to “speak out”.
Adwoa Aboah talks about psychological well being, Cameron Russell sexual harassment, Winnie Harlow bullying. And whereas the outcomes is likely to be constructive – Howard’s Instagram, a stream of portraits typically highlighting the fantastic thing about “squishy” flesh, is peppered with feedback from followers thanking her for making them really feel higher about themselves – there appears a cynical edge to this explicit growth. Aren’t these classes about physique positivity neutralised considerably once we level out that they arrive from fashions – individuals who, nonetheless many stretch marks they’ve on their thighs, are exceptionally good trying? Indeed, are paid to be? And what occurs once we level out, too, that “body positivity” is extraordinarily worthwhile?
The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who has been relentlessly sawing down Britain’s body-image downside for 40 years, sighs: “It’s complicated. Yes, a conversation is happening, but whether it’s actually contributing to a different consciousness by saying there isn’t just one standard of beauty is debatable. And come on, the whole point of beauty is that it’s profitable! Better that models talk about it than not talk at all. Sure, while some are simply out to make money, some are making a political critique.” But, she says, even those that are publicly embracing their magnificence by photographing their again rolls, their bellies, are inevitably in ache. “The truth is, nobody is fine. In a society involved with performance at this level, everyone feels crap. I don’t know how we’d assess whether the ‘body-positivity movement’ is working, but I’m seeing people as hyper-involved and hysterical about it as ever, if not more so. Models, women in their 40s, little kids, all preoccupied [with body image] and it’s totally normalised. It’s about performing a body.”
When I query Charli Howard’s position as an envoy for physique positivity, she nods, slowly: “First, I didn’t choose to call it the ‘Curve’ movement, and I know it offends some people that I’m considered plus-sized, but it’s not my choice. Agencies’ boards should not directed by size. If you photograph women in an aspirational way it doesn’t matter what size they are.”
With one other mannequin, Clémentine Desseaux, Howard based the All Woman Project, a portfolio of photographs created by an all-female manufacturing workforce and a solid of fashions embodying a cross-section of ages, ethnicities and sizes.
“We’re always going to look to fashion images, so we need beautiful pictures that include cellulite. I don’t think we need health stamps on retouched images – zapping out tattoos is fine. It’s the weight thing that is a problem. When our photos went online, this vigilante group of fat bloggers said the women weren’t fat enough. Others said the small ones weren’t small enough. You’re never going to be able to represent every single shape. I wanted to just shout: ‘Give us a break!’” she laughs in her south London accent. “There aren’t actually that many models doing the body-positive thing, apart from plus-sized people who feel the need to prove they can be a model. But I agree, you’re not going to stand out now if you don’t have a message. I know I wouldn’t be here…” – she gestures across the fancy lodge foyer, at her avocado toast, her £4.50 tea – “if I didn’t look like this. ‘Boo hoo you got dropped, get a proper job,’ I’ve had a lot of that. We’ve had the time when models are glamorous and silent, and when women were, too. Now we all have a voice, because of social media. And we’re fascinated by other women. It’s important to see people who inspire us.”
There is an argument to be made that fashions are precisely the individuals who needs to be main conversations about physique picture. While all ladies are topic to scrutiny, it’s fashions who know the way it feels to be judged solely on their seems to be. Either means Howard, who loves modelling however says her true ambition is to “create strong literary characters for girls” (she is engaged on a 2nd e book for kids, about physique picture) is a considerate, sincere and articulate voice for teenage women. But in a means her give attention to physique positivity and the fanfare with which she discovered success on Facebook is clouding a extra private, harder battle: that of managing her issues with psychological well being.
The dialog about curves is inevitably extra “sexy” than even her sexiest sicknesses. “I was a bit worried about having to talk about my eating disorders,” she confesses because the lunch crowd begins to swell round us. “I still feel insecure, and the comments on Instagram can make me feel like a fraud. There’s no fairytale ending to my story,” she says. “I’ve got something in my brain that can be easily triggered. But right now? Right now it’s switched off.”
Misfit by Charli Howard (Penguin, £12.99) is printed on 22 February. Pre-order for £11.04, at guardianbookshop.com
Fashion assistant Melina Frangos. Photographer’s assistant Marija Vainilaviciute