Jennie Runk was volunteering at a PetSmart when the stunningly beautiful woman was spotted by a modeling agent.
There was just one issue.
The 13-year-old was a size 4. She either had to lose weight, the agent said, or gain weight, so she could be marketed as plus-size. Runk chose the latter.
Now 24 and wearing a size 12 or 14, she sent the Internet into seizures earlier this month when major clothing retailer H&M splashed a bikini-clad Runk on its homepage.
She was the face, and body, of its beachwear campaign — not plus-size beachwear, just beachwear — thrusting Runk — suddenly into the limelight as a body image cheerleader and everywoman advocate.
Runk has taken on the role with relish. She penned an op-ed for the BBC describing her awkward adolescence — when she had braces, wide-rimmed glasses, thick curly hair and thighs “the size of [other girls’] waists.”
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“Having finally survived it, I feel compelled to show girls who are going through the same thing that it’s acceptable to be different,” Runk wrote. “You will grow out of this awkwardness fabulously.”
She expresses frustration at the stigma of plus size (the size of “the average American woman” she points out), and laments the stigma that thin girls endure too, slurred as “gangly and bony.”
Runk notably avoids finger-pointing in her public statements, and doesn’t express any objection to the plus-size category. (“Clothing companies do this in order to offer their customers exactly what they’re looking for,” she writes.)
After all, the fashion and media industries are paying Runk’s bills. Her enemy is simply body hatred, and a plus-size model just speaking out on the subject qualifies as activism in itself.
Runk’s Facebook fan page has quickly built a devoted following, with her uplifting posts on “confidence,” “individuality,” and “how to be beautiful naked,” earning hundreds of likes.
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Over the past few years, there’s been a slowly-growing movement in the fashion and media industries to present more realistic images of women. In 2010, Germany’s most popular women’s magazine banned professional models from its pages, opting for “ordinary women” instead.
The next year, the United Kingdom banned two ads for L’Oreal cosmetic foundation as being misleading in its use of airbrushing.
Last year, Israel became the first country to pass a law prohibiting the use of underweight models in advertisements, and Vogue magazine pledged to keep unhealthy-seeming models out of its pages. Britain, France, and Norway all considered mandating warning labels on photos that were digitally altered, but faced stiff opposition from advertisers.
Abercrombie & Fitch faced a backlash last week over its refusal to stock clothes in a size 14, which is what the average American woman wears.
A protest erupted outside one of its Chicago stores, and a Los Angeles filmmaker took a more creative stab at the retailer by giving out its clothes to the homeless.
But advocates are still waiting for the revolution. According to Plus magazine, most models walking the runway today meet the body mass index criteria for anorexia.
This post originally appeared on AOL Jobs.
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