I sit at my desk, eating a “light” vanilla yogurt, reflecting on the countless times I’ve narcissistically stared at my midsection with concern, and very much wanting to believe that Erica Jean Schenk’s cover for Women’s Running will make a lasting difference.
When the cover of Schenk running at a healthy gait with full stomach and giggling curves became public, the 18-year-old Wilhelmina model became the latest poster child for the body positivity movement.
News agencies rushed to praise Women’s Running and Schenk for finally showing that not all cover girls are waifs and not all athletes look like Lindsey Vonn or Maria Sharapova.
However, the more Schenk is paraded as the latest spokeswoman for the body positivity movement, helping people—especially women—to embrace their figures, the more the flipside to this cheerleading is apparent.
We’ve seen this flash in the pan of support before whenever the token not-thin girl is placed on the cover of a magazine, given a spot on the runway, or has snagged a campaign.
In fact, we’ve already spilled ink over it this year with the Lane Bryant #ImNoAngel campaign and Sports Illustrated’s first use of a plus-size model in its (in)famous swimsuit issue.
Every time, I hope this is it, the moment that gets magazines or designers to stop treating super-thin women as the default for feminine beauty.
But so far, it seems these occasions are just another excuse to make the same arguments about the need for improving body images and putting forth more “realistic” women (a term that is nearly as fraught as “plus size”).
These moments do not seem to effect actual change in terms of who gets the magazine covers 95 percent of the time, what sizes fashion houses design for, and, most importantly, what types of body are promoted as “sexy” or merely “acceptable.”
Schenk is beaming when we meet in person in New York City. Whatever makeup has been applied for the Fox News interview she did just before we meet perfectly highlights Schenk’s warmly beautiful green eyes.
“I’ve always had a little bit of body issues,” she says, but without dwelling on it for more than a few seconds.
“I still have a long way to go on the path to body acceptance, but if I can help other women get a little further on their path then that’s all that matters. It really helps seeing women responding positively, even if I am not fully confident or accepting of my own body.”
She says her mother got her involved in modeling at the age of 14 because she needed a “bit of an ego boost.”
However, while Schenk says she has always been “curvy,” she does not cite weight as the reason she was in need of a boost.
“I was a really awkward child. I had braces and glasses and really bad facial acne,” she says with a laugh. “But then I grew six inches and curved out.”
The absence of any mention of weight concerns is glaring. I say that as someone who was an overweight child, who was told by her doctors her health was at risk but only needed to look at other girls to realize I stood out in a bad way.
I cannot tell if Schenk is so rosy because that’s who she is or because she has a rep right next to her.
Schenk radiates a cheerful ambition, but is also very careful with her responses. She is clearly savvy and seems far more composed and polished than the run of the mill 18-year-old.
That is to be expected of a young woman who finished high school at age 15, is set to begin Pepperdine University in the fall with a major in international business marketing, and, lest we forget, has already walked down the aisle.
She says she met her husband two and half years ago through a mutual friend and that she’d “rather he stay out of the media.” The Wilhelmina rep adds, “I think it [the marriage] is the only thing we don’t want to talk about.”
That’s not entirely true. When Schenk mentions that she is vocal when clients have asked her to do things that make her feel uncomfortable on photo shoots, I ask her for examples and she declines to respond. “I don’t think I should,” she says and the handler concurs.
Moments like these are reminders that modeling is first and foremost a business, not an instrument for social change.
This is a point that Schenk herself speaks about quite openly. As much as she relishes the role of body positive spokeswoman, she’s got to pay for college.
“If your client hires you and tells you to dress up in a chicken suit and dance, you do it. It’s a business. You’re being paid for it,” she says.
This financial focus appears to have guided Schenk through the rejections that are part of the relentless cycle of casting calls. Albeit without mentioning any specific weight issues, Schenk admits that modeling can take its emotional toll.
“In the modeling world, it’s a little more difficult to be in the skin you’re in because clients want a certain type. If you take it too personally, it can be offensive. Sometimes, they want someone with black hair, blue eyes,” she says. “It depends what they’re looking for. It’s business in the end. We’re just here to make money.”
You don’t have to be a financial wizard to realize that magazines’ or fashion brands’ use of overweight women is often more about improving bottom lines than improving body images.
Some could argue that this is more than a tad exploitative towards overweight women, playing on their body insecurities as much as the standard skinny girl ads plastered all over Vogue.
I ask Schenk if she feels hurt or exploited for being singled out for her weight. She is once again brimming with positivity.
“The only way anyone gets attention is for going against the grain. If we go with the grain, nothing changes,” she says. “If we want body acceptance, we have to do something different.”
There appears to be little to no room for discussion of body hate or fears, but I understand the need to exhaustingly cheer-lead, such is the media-led stigma around fatness.
Well before “Bridgegate,” we as a country questioned whether Chris Christie was qualified to run for president merely because he is fat.
“Overweight people have much less of a chance of getting a job, they have much less of a chance of keeping a job… they are paid less than those who are thin,” David Birdsell, the dean of Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York, told ABC News.
The prejudices against overweight people are absolutely real. In turn, those of us (myself included) who feel passionately about combating these biases often struggle to talk about the equally real health issues that come with excessive weight.
Schenk herself is insistent that medical professionals have not told her to diet or change her body.
“I’ve never had doctors tell me that I have to lose weight. They used to give me a range of a healthy weight. I feel like I’m pretty close to my range,” she says, pausing before switching gears into a not-entirely medically sound argument about weight and diet.
“They [doctors] also tell me it’s all very subjective. It all depends on your genetics and metabolism. There are so many more medical things that go into it than just your weight.”
It is certainly true that metabolism and genetics play a massive role in how our bodies crave and digest food.
Although it is somewhat controversial, many doctors believe there is a subset of people in the category of “metabolically healthy obesity,” which is when one’s body mass index (BMI) translates to an obese category, but one’s cholesterol, blood pressure, and other important health measure are all in normal range.
At the same time, doctors have also warned that most obese people are not metabolically healthy, and some studies suggest it is a transitory state on the way to an unhealthy obesity.
We should be able to talk about the health risks of being overweight, and champion body diversity.
Schenk whitewashes over any potential health concerns, focusing instead on the importance of feeling good. “I believe the majority of health comes from your mental state. If you’re not mentally healthy and happy with who you are, even if you’re physically healthy, it doesn’t matter.”
That line of logic is a tough pill to swallow when it is abundantly clear that America is still struggling with increasing obesity rates.
Yet I will champion the language of body positive “thick” and “curvy,” rather than “fat” or “obese,” because those latter words are so loaded with the stigma and the pain of being overweight. I will also continue to get a little excited about models like Schenk, even when I am very dubious of the impact they will have.
“I can’t wait for the day a plus-size model can be on the cover, and no one freaks out. No one is either for or against it. It’s just there,” Schenk says. We can all cheer-lead for that.