You asked me to talk about Crystal’s new ad, so here goes!
Crystal appears in an ad for the re-opening of Chanel’s Soho store. She looks gorgeous. Of course. Amy O’Dell at New York magazine snarked a bit about our old pal Karl hiring the world’s most famous plus-size model and only showing her face, but I’m totally fine with that. Crystal’s a terrific model qua model, not a token. Many of us have noted that plus-models, including Crystal, are so often shown naked — their untamed bodies cannot be constrained by clothing! They are animals! (In reality, of course, they often don’t fit in the sample sizes. Showing them nekkid is as much about lazy editorial as it is about primitivizing and Other-izing the fattie.) We certainly shouldn’t gripe that not only are we not expected to ogle her lush primal untamed curves in this ad, we’re not expected to look at her body at all.
Portraying Crystal in close-up shows that she’s a recognizable beauty, a REAL model. She’s arrived. The girl’s got an incredibly striking, expressive face, and it’s the diametric opposite of tokenism to focus on THAT rather than her body. She’s more than a body!
Modeling is a skill. When you see Crystal on the street, with no makeup, she’s a beautiful woman. When you see her on the job, “working her angles,” as the pros say, she’s unearthly. I watched, agape, as she did this ballet-like thing in front of the camera, leaping and freezing and changing her position radically from shot to shot to shot. Her face looks entirely different when she’s modeling. In real life, she’s got this great crinkly smile that lights up her whole face, and she looks like a kid. But at work her face looks fierce or sexed-up or otherworldly — you rarely see giggly Crystal. And she knows her body so well, selling all kinds of emotions with it — she creates all kinds of tension and interest using only her body and the way it moves. It’s like sculpting. And she got better at it when she got heavier. As we said in Hungry, hmm, lemme find it…
Modeling means breaking your body down to its component parts, isolating elements and moving in ways that convey different moods. It’s like narrative Pilates. When I first started, I had a hard time figuring out what to do with my hands, but [when I stopped starving and my brain started working again] I tapped into my martial arts training to pose in lyrical or powerful ways. I got braver in exploring the different ways my body worked in space, making myself look languorous or limp, full of bravado or genuinely strong. I was finally proud of my body and thrilled to be working with photographers who could help me learn to showcase it.
Now that I had breasts and softness, I felt more sexual and womanly. I also had more range; when I was skinny, my body looked sharp but my poses weren’t as crisp, because I didn’t have assertiveness and strength. Now I could convey angularity and edge when I wanted to, but I could also offer mystery and poetry.
In short, she’s a great model. She knows how to work her face as well as her body. She deserves to be in Chanel ads. But as I keep saying, I don’t think her much-deserved success (whether she’s a size 10 or 12, GOD that line of discussion is dull) presages any huge change in the way actual fat humans are treated in the world. We can’t look to models to validate us. Modeling will always be about selling us stuff — we shouldn’t let meaningful discussion of bias, health and acceptance be derailed by something that’s fundamentally about commerce. Even if Crystal were a size 18, or hey, a 24 — which she wouldn’t be, because then she wouldn’t be Crystal and also because we’re a very long way from seeing size 24s in high fashion — she’d still be in a business that’s all about elevating people who do not look like the rest of us. Even when she was a size 16, when she was learning how to eat again and her body was ricocheting all over the place figuring out what size it wanted to be, she was still proportional and 5’9″ and young and in position of a ravishing face. I’m all for enjoying beauty, and I have been known to enjoy fashion. But plus-size models seem to take up a disproportionate amount of the conversational space when we talk about our culture’s sizeism.
(And back on the fashion tip, for those keeping score, Crystal has walked in Chanel’s resort collection and done an ad for the reopening of a store. These are fabulous steps. Now let’s see her strut the runway in a Fashion Week collection and do an ad for the entire brand. Karl, ball’s in your court.)