Entertainment & Arts

Charli Howard: Is this really a 'plus-size' model?

Charli Howard Image copyright OVALS PONTON

Charli Howard isn't short of an opinion or six.

"Models are models for a reason," the 26-year-old tells BBC News. "Not everyone photographs in the same way."

It's a refreshingly blunt assessment of the workings of the fashion world, and perhaps an unusual one for a member of the inclusion-championing body positivity movement.

"You don't want to see your mate Janet in Vogue, you want to see people you can aspire to. I think we want to look for people whose lives seem a bit more glamorous than our own."

While Charli thinks models shouldn't look too ordinary (sorry Janet), she says the key thing is that aspirational beauty "shouldn't be associated with just one body type".

"I look at models like Ashley Graham, who are like size 16, and I still want to be Ashley Graham, 'cause she's cool as hell," she says.

"I don't think women are necessarily drawn to body shapes, I think it's about the personalities of women in magazines and what they stand for."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ashley Graham is one of the most high-profile plus-size models

Charli has just published her first book, Misfit - a memoir that deals openly with her problems with eating disorders and mental health.

She says she struggled to fit in during her school years, which led to her suffering from anxiety and ultimately being attracted to modelling as a way to escape her surroundings.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do as a career, and then I kept getting scouted and people said, 'You should try modelling'," she explains.

"Now, for someone who lived in the middle of Wales at boarding school who felt completely alone, modelling was like this glamorous way out.

"So the book is about someone who was a bit unstable in the brain, how I chased this idea that if I finally got to my dream weight or got accepted by the modelling elite that I would finally be happy."

Charli lays bare the multiple casting calls she went to, where she was regularly told she was too big for a certain client or campaign - despite having drastically altered her diet.

One rejection prompted her to write a Facebook post, which rapidly went viral, calling out the industry for its demands.

"I refuse to feel ashamed and upset on a daily basis for not meeting your ridiculous, unattainable beauty standards," she wrote.

Ironically, the attention from the post led to interest from a modelling agency in the US. Charli looked into their background and found they had a "curve division".

Within a few days, she had flown out to meet them and signed up. She now lives in the US full-time, working as a model - albeit one who is classed as plus-size.

"I have a D-cup. I have hips. I'm never going to fit the super-skinny category any more," she says. "If we're going by industry standards, I'm only going to fit the curved market.

"There isn't really a section for me. There's no-one really representing the UK size 10-12, you either have to be really skinny or really big.

"And I am one of a handful of people trying to show that you can model at this natural size. And it's slap bang in the middle of both categories. And you can still do fashion. That's my whole point."

Charli may be a healthy weight now, but has struggled with anorexia and bulimia throughout her life - conditions she acknowledges are difficult for many to comprehend.

In 2016, Joan Bakewell attracted criticism when she suggested anorexia was a disease of the western world.

"No-one has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food," she told the Sunday Times.

"They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it's possible anorexia could be about narcissism."

Bakewell later apologised but several columnists agreed with her - including Angela Epstein in The Telegraph and Rod Liddle in The Spectator, who said it was a "primarily middle-class illness".

I raise this point cautiously with Charli, but she's quite understanding of this view.

"One of the earliest cases of anorexia was one of Henry VIII's wives. Really upper class," she says - referring to Catherine of Aragon.

"Poor people wouldn't have had that because they didn't have access to food, they wouldn't starve themselves.

"So I do kind of question if having access to food is maybe a factor. I had access to food and therefore also had the ability to restrict it.

"It's the class system, if you have money, you can afford to restrict, if you don't then you can't... I know that's quite a controversial thing."

But, she adds, her main reason for minimising her diet was down to "a society that really put pressure on me to lose weight".

Many people will, of course, find the suggestion that Charli is now considered plus-size utterly ridiculous. Including, she says, other plus-size models.

"Plus-size in an industry term, that's not something I've given myself. And I've had very successful plus-size models say to me 'Well you're not plus-size, I find that really offensive.'

"But what I'm looking for is the unification of women, and to see women on one board, where they don't have to be put into categories based on their sizes."

She admits: "I'm very young to be a plus-size model, most of them are in their 30s. And the 'straight-size' models, their work kind of dies out around 25, 30 if they're lucky. So I do feel quite lucky in that respect."

Charli says there's "tonnes" of work out there for models larger than the average size, "especially in America, not so much in the UK".

She adds: "This is what I don't understand. I think the UK still has these qualms or these weird association with the term 'plus-size'."

The rise of social media since Charli's school days, and Instagram in particular, has, if anything, reinforced beauty stereotypes, making the voice of diverse figures more powerful.

"Fitspo accounts, thinspo accounts [short for fitspiration and thinspiration], you see models who are super-toned - I think that sends a completely different message as well, so it must be really tough," she says.

"I don't think I could be a teenager now. I think I would literally have a breakdown if I was a teenager now.

"But I think that's exactly why we need the Body Positive movement."

Misfit by Charli Howard is out now.


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