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The pressure of being a plus-size model

Crystal Renn was an icon for women of a fuller figure. Then she lost weight – and the backbiting began

In an industry dominated by the stick thin, Crystal Renn has stood out as one of the few plus-sized models to have obtained genuine global recognition with the leading fashion houses. She regularly graces the pages of Vogue, is on the books of one of New York's top modelling agencies and is this season's face of Jimmy Choo.

Now the model – whose shape and ubiquity have made her a poster girl for those who struggle to relate to the image of womanhood they see in magazines – has hit out at the media and her fans for boxing her in to the plus-sized category and expecting her to maintain her fuller figure.

In a video interview published on the website of Ford Models, Renn's agency, the 24-year-old said: "Where do I feel pressure? Probably more than any place from the public. And the media.

"By placing a title on my head – which is plus size – and the picture that people have placed in their mind about what plus size is, I'll basically fail you just with that. Because I couldn't possibly live up to that. And at this point in my life, I would actually have to have another eating disorder to live up to that expectation."

Unlike most models who might show frustration trying to stay an industry acceptable thin, Renn is not angry with people for expecting her to keep the weight off. She is instead annoyed by the pressure on her to keep her fuller figure.

Over the past month, fashion blogs and gossip columns have been filled with feverish – and often cruel – comments over Renn's changing figure which has dropped from the UK size 16 that made her so famous to a 12.

In the fashion world, where anything above a size six is considered unusual unless you are very tall, Renn's figure is still relatively curvaceous. Most women of her build would not get a look in at the mainstream agencies. But many commentators have used Renn's recent weight loss as an opportunity to suggest the Florida-born model is somehow selling out the principles on which much of her success is built.

The debate wasn't helped by Ford Models updating its statistics for Renn on its website and giving her size as a two – the equivalent of a UK size four, which would have been a dramatic weight loss.

As speculation went in to overdrive her agent, Gary Dakin, the man considered to have pioneered the recent growing acceptance of plus-sized models, issued a statement saying the mistake was a printing error. He added: "If people have truly followed her message, it is about acceptance and beauty at any size".

Even so, Renn is clearly feeling the pressure to be a standard bearer for plus-sized models – a term that she has always expressed a dislike for because the weight that the fashion industry might regard as plus sized is all but a normal, healthy weight for an average woman in the developed world.

"I had anorexia ultimately because someone set the standard for me and I wanted to follow it," she said referring to her teenage years before she became a plus-sized model. "If I followed what the public, or the media, wanted from me I would be doing the same thing. I would have a binge eating disorder. The most important thing that we all need to know whether you're a model, a normal person walking around, an editor or a photographer is that it's about individual health."

It was a black-and-white photo shoot for the small-circulation fashion magazine Little Planes that got the gossip tongues of New York wagging. Renn appeared in its pages looking noticeably slimmer than in the swimsuit shoot she did for Glamour in 2009 which effectively launched her as the acceptable face of plus sized. The issue received significant feedback as readers poured in their approval of – shock horror – a magazine using a model that actually looked like its readers .

The timing also tied in with a growing recognition inside even the most exclusive fashion houses that consumers were becoming increasingly intolerant of the lack of variety on catwalks and concerned about the health implications of size-zero figures. What made Renn so unusual and refreshing was that her success came once she started to put weight on. She was first discovered by a talent scout at the age of 14 and spent her teenage years following the path of so many young models, trying to maintain a thin figure in the face of biological inevitability.

Anorexia quickly set in as she tried desperately to keep the weight off. Her Damascene moment came as a size-eight teenager being sent home from a catalogue shoot for being too large. Instead of packing in she put weight on and signed with the plus- size agencies and has hardly looked back since.

But if Renn had her way, there wouldn't even be a need to use the phrase plus-sized.

"[You] have to realise that plus- size model doesn't mean plus-size woman," she told a US radio station this week. "But bridging the gap would be a very good thing. We need to have all sizes. This isn't a them against us fight. It's about bringing everybody together."