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Charli Howard knew all about the ugly side of modelling. Then one day she decided she’d had enough. The body-positive activist reveals why she had to stand up to the fashion industry

It started with a pair of leather trousers. Charli Howard was 23, and had just returned from a shoot in Stockholm when she got a call from her agent. It was 2015; she’d been modelling for six years, and starving herself for 10. “We’ve had a chat,” the booker said, carefully, “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 size 6, and had been going to the gym for five hours a week; she’d been eating orange juice-soaked cotton wool. It wasn’t the first time they’d told her to lose weight, to “tone up”, but it was the first time that, instead of feeling shame, she felt anger. On the way home she wrote a Facebook post.

“Here’s a big F*CK YOU to my (now ex) model agency, for saying that at 5ft 8in tall and a UK size 6-8 , I’m ‘too big’ and ‘out of shape’ to work in the fashion industry.

“I will no longer allow you to dictate to me what’s wrong with my looks and what I need to change in order to be ‘beautiful’ (like losing one f***ing inch off my hips), in the hope it might force you to find me work.

“I refuse to feel ashamed and upset on a daily basis for not meeting your ridiculous, unattainable beauty standards. The more you force us to lose weight and be small, the more designers have to make clothes to fit our sizes, and the more young girls are being made ill. It’s no longer an image I choose to represent. If an agency wishes to represent me for myself, my body & the WOMAN I’ve become, give me a call. Until then, I’m off to Nando’s.”

“And then… everything changed.” She gives a jolly shrug. It’s a bright winter morning in London, where she’s staying with her sister (“She could be a model if she wanted to, but she’s doing an MA in HR instead”) and while her tea brews she describes what happened next. After the post went viral, she was approached by a new agency and moved to New York where she was welcomed into “the fun side” of the industry. This meant embracing her natural shape (a slim size 10), booking work (three years later this included a beauty shoot in Edward Enninful’s first issue of British Vogue) and writing a book for Penguin, a memoir aimed at young 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 eating disorders and anxiety, punctuated with fashion and modest adventure. The last time she remembers feeling “angst-free”, she writes, seeing her body without judgment, she was eight years old. 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” – nobody knew she was throwing up her meals. She has what she calls “sexy illnesses”: OCD, depression, anxiety and eating disorders – sexy because versions of them appear in glossy magazines, trendy 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 easy to learn how. She’d hang around Sainsbury’s reading the celebrity diet plans in women’s magazines; later, at boarding school, finding a community of like-minded girls on the pro-ana (pro-anorexic) forums. “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 slightly. “Odd.”

When she became a model, she started a dark sort of dance with her agency, who regularly requested she lose weight. “I’d eat an apple a day, and I still wasn’t thin enough for them.” In Paris, she was told to lose 2in from her hips in a week. When she fainted on a shoot, the photographer fanned her with his hands and said: “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 average person’s standards, it did. Not only is Howard still a model, today she’s a successful model. Half her job involves going to castings where she’ll be scrutinised and judged on the way she looks, the other producing aspirational images to sell clothes and make-up.

Her career was given an almighty boost by becoming a spokesperson for body positivity, a movement that grew in order to celebrate diverse body types – this despite being white, thin, and conventionally beautiful.

In the 1990s, models were expected to be silent and enigmatic – that was part of their glamour. Today, the opposite is true. To be a successful model requires more than beauty, it requires a message. For a model to book a fashion campaign requires the model to have launched a campaign of their own on social media, for them to “speak out”.

Adwoa Aboah talks about mental health, Cameron Russell sexual harassment, Winnie Harlow bullying. And while the results might be positive – Howard’s Instagram, a stream of portraits often highlighting the beauty of “squishy” flesh, is peppered with comments from fans thanking her for making them feel better about themselves – there seems a cynical edge to this particular development. Aren’t these lessons about body positivity neutralised somewhat when we point out that they come from models – people who, however many stretch marks they have on their thighs, are exceptionally good looking? Indeed, are paid to be? And what happens when we point out, too, that “body positivity” is extremely profitable?

The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who has been relentlessly sawing down Britain’s body-image problem 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 who are publicly embracing their beauty by photographing their back rolls, their bellies, are inevitably in pain. “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 question Charli Howard’s role as an ambassador for body 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 another model, Clémentine Desseaux, Howard founded the All Woman Project, a portfolio of images created by an all-female production team and a cast of models 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 around the fancy hotel lobby, 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 models are exactly the people who should be leading conversations about body image. While all women are subject to scrutiny, it’s models who know how it feels to be judged solely on their looks. Either way Howard, who loves modelling but says her true ambition is to “create strong literary characters for girls” (she is working on a second book for children, about body image) is a thoughtful, honest and articulate voice for teenage girls. But in a way her focus on body positivity and the fanfare with which she found success on Facebook is clouding a more personal, more difficult struggle: that of managing her problems with mental health.

The conversation about curves is inevitably more “sexy” than even her sexiest illnesses. “I was a bit worried about having to talk about my eating disorders,” she confesses as the lunch crowd starts to swell around 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.”

Credit: Guardian