When Katie Halchishick, founder of Natural Model Management and its accompanying blog, Healthy Is The New Skinny (HSN), was an up-and-coming model, she heard some unusual (and unhealthy) advice: eat more.
My experience in the industry was frustrating, because I was fully plus-size at one point–like a size 14–and I was working a lot. And they were really encouraging of that, like “gain a little bit of weight. Stay bigger.” And I was a freshman in college, so I was like, ok. Pizza at three in the morning? I have to. It’s work.
That’s because, before Halchishick (who was kind enough to chat with me last week) founded her professional, size-restriction-free agency, there simply wasn’t a way to be a model if you were in-between sizes. If she couldn’t be a size 2, she had to be at least a size 16–which highlights a much bigger problem: Women are damned if they do (lose weight, because it will end in skinny-bashing), or damned if they don’t (hello, fat-shaming); and which is why, even if you’re not a big fashion fan or even media consumer, the natural model movement matters to you.
Unfortunately, those restrictive body-type requirements aren’t good for anyone–in Halchishick’s case, she didn’t exercise, ate junk food, and generally focused more on being the right size than a size that was healthy. In other instances, women are told to slim down dramatically, resulting in equally unhealthy behavior. But luckily for Halchishick (and the women who are now seeing the average-sized women she represents), something changed that got her on the path to a healthier life–and a life-changing project.
When I met my boyfriend, he was a personal trainer. And I told him my goals–that I wanted to get back in shape–and over two years, I lost 50 pounds and went from a 14 to a 6. I was on this kick, I felt awesome, I looked amazing…and then I lost all of my clients. I was overweight, then I got healthy, and then I didn’t have any work. And that didn’t make any sense.
Then, I was teaching a nutrition class at an elementary school, and that’s when it donned on me–these girls were skipping lunches, and trying to lose weight, and they’re in the 5th grade. And that’s when I realized the power that you have as a model. And that no one was really using it for good. No one was standing up for these girls. So I started Healthy is the New Skinny, and I started with that…and eventually, after talking to a lot of women in the industry, we came up with the concept of Natural.
But representing natural models, who are encouraged to be at whatever size they feel their best and most healthy, does more than give real women a chance to work in fashion. Because that’s the thing about media imagery–it’s everywhere. And when we’re perpetually exposed to unrealistic expectations of all kinds (heaven forbid you be either “fat” or “scary skinny” or any other totally negative, body-shaming description that is regularly used to talk about the female body), sometimes, without even realizing it’s happening.
Yes, the natural model movement (and the HNS blog) is changing they way advertisers and consumers look at female bodies, but it’s also Halchishick’s way of letting models tell their side of the story, which can be empowering for your girls and women who have come to assume that models are simply better, prettier, thinner versions of what they should be.
A lot of women don’t want to speak out about what’s happening in the industry, with the pressure of the agencies. There’s a lot of inside dirt that you don’t realize until you’re in that world. I always hated not having a voice, as a model, so [HSN] is that place where models can share about their experience. People look at models as being part of the problem, but if you’re from a small town and someone tells you you can travel and make money, and all you have to do is get your hips down another four inches…what are you going to do? You’d do the same thing.
But even beyond fashion, the visibility of natural models are making a difference. The pervasive pressure to be slim enough and pretty enough impacts women in just about every remotely public profession–even when looks have nothing to do with it. For example, she told me, many female athletes who aren’t thin and traditionally attractive frequently miss out on lucrative sponsorship opportunities.
Bo Stanley, a professional surfer, even developed an eating disorder when she was told she was too big to be featured in advertising for key sponsors, like Billabong. But after finding representation with NMM, she’s been featured on more sites–including Vogue–and in commercials, which has allowed her to not only become a better surfer (starving oneself doesn’t exactly lend itself to excellent athleticism), but also an advocate for girls and women in sports who may be passed over for opportunities because of their appearance. Stanley has even traveled with Halchishick and her models to junior high and high schools to speak with girls about the pressures that they’re facing–which come not only from the media, but from their regular lives.
We have girls who tell us about all the things that are going on in their lives. They’re on the dance troupe, but the uniforms are really revealing and they feel uncomfortable. They’re pressured about sex–they don’t want to be a prude, but they don’t want to be a slut. They’re supposed to be smart and pretty and popular and all of these things. And, on top of all that, they’re supposed to be thin, too. You start to step back and think, “Wow, no wonder girls have eating issues.” It’s not just the media–it’s everything. It’s every part of their school and their life…and any way that we can show them positive body role models, on their level, with great makeup and amazing photos that make them feel better about themselves, we need to.
Which is why, Halchishick says, Natural Model Management works so well. By creating beautiful, fashionable advertising and spreads (and, soon, a retail store and clothing line) that feature women of all sizes, they’re able to present women with an alternative to the negativity. And even if it doesn’t fix every problem, it plants the seed–and allows young women and girls to worry about something other than their weight for a while, because, as Natural’s imagery shows them, you can be confident and happy at whichever size is best for you.
We even get in trouble because our girls aren’t big enough, but you know, that comes back to our message of health. We haven’t seen it in so long, we don’t even know what a “normal” girl looks like. And if we do show someone who’s, say, a 16, and everyone says “She’s not even plus-size!”, then that’s just more of that war on women. It’s time to end the war. We need to focus on health, and show it in beautiful ways. That’s what we do.
Image: natural models, via Healthy Is The New Skinny’s Facebook page.