Body Image Week: A Top Model's Thoughts on Air Brushing and Body Image

I’m on vacation this week in California—my sister’s getting married!—so I’ll be re-publishing a series of body image posts from the archives. This one originally ran in October.

Whitney Thompson and Chenese Lewis for Love Your Body Day 2010

Whitney Thompson has had big success since being the first-ever plus-size winner of “America’s Next Top Model” during cycle 10. But that doesn’t mean she’s a big fan of the business. In fact, Whitney spends most of her time these days speaking to college-aged girls about healthy body image—she’s even a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, whose annual conference just finished up Monday.

I sat down with her a couple of days ago to talk about fashion, body image, and eating disorders—the full interview is up on the Huffington Post, but the highlights I thought you guys would care most about are right here:

Q: First, you’ve never suffered from an eating disorder, so why be a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association?

Whitney Thompson: I’ve never dealt with an eating disorder personally; I have friends who have. The reason I went on [Top Model] though, is because I wanted to change the fashion industry. Because it obviously affects people and they way that they view themselves. I mean, when the majority of all 9-year-old girls have been on a diet, we’re doing something wrong. And so, even though I haven’t been personally affected, it’s obvious that the industry is affecting people and it does make women feel bad about themselves, or worse.

Q. So, speaking of airbrushing, have you ever looked at a picture of yourself and had one of those moments of like, “Whoa, I do not look like that”?

WT: Definitely my Cover Girl ads. I thought, like, really? Cover Girl is notorious for airbrushing, I mean, just look at Drew Barrymore’s ads. Everyone knows what she looks like and everyone’s like, “Wow, now that she’s almost 40, she looks amazing!” What I did like about Seventeen was I did a bikini shoot, I was in bathing suits for the whole thing and they told me that they didn’t airbrush me, which I really appreciated. You can see a huge difference, which of course, at first I was like, Oh no! First of all I’m the first winner whose in a bikini in 17 and then they’re not gonna give me a break here, but I think it was really good in hindsight. I definitely lean more towards not being airbrushed away. And I really respect Kate Winslet, because she’s actually sued people over airbrushing. She will not be airbrushed.

I think [airbrushing] even sets up unrealistic expectations for yourself. When I see myself on a billboard in Times Square and I’m looking at my face and your ego gets really big and you’re walking down the street and I don’t look like that. I have sun spots, I’m getting wrinkles, I’m 23 and I’m from Florida, so I age and you don’t see that in pictures. And Cover Girl was definitely the worst. My lip was, I think I looked like a fish. But at the same time, who’s going to complain about a billboard in Times Square. You know? [laughs] I mean, my head is a few stories high, that’s neat, regardless of what it looks like.

Q: I’ve heard model bookers say things that made me cringe about models right in front of them. Do you think some people treat models like they’re not people?

WT: I was a straight-size model [meaning, not plus-size] growing up in high school, and my hips were always one inch too big — and, yeah, you have 45-year-old men saying, “You’re too fat.” You’re a teenage girl. It’s really disgusting.

Q: Eating disorders are often genetic, but these are the types of experiences that can trigger them. A comment like that from a grownup who has your career in his hands … how did that make you feel as a 15-year-old girl?

WT: Awful, I mean that’s an awful thing. It was very mentally wearing on me. I vividly remember having a peanut butter and jelly [sandwich] on the seat next to me when I was driving somewhere and I ate half of it with no crusts and I thought I’m really hungry, I want to eat the other half and I remember like, breaking down and crying because it’s so frustrating. And I’m going, like, “I don’t want to be fat, I don’t want my hips to be big, but I’m hungry.” And I quit modeling because of it.

I said, you know what, it’s not worth it, I want to eat pizza, and I want to be normal, and I just think that life is too short to not have dessert. And so I did, I quit.

Q: You quit for how long-did you quit until you went on “Top Model?”

WT: Yeah, I did. I quit and went to college for a year and I thought I wanted to be a doctor. And then I went on spring break my freshman year to Los Angeles and when I was in the airport flying back home somebody came up to me and said, I work for “America’s Next Top Model,” do you want to try out? They said I would be considered plus size. Because of my experiences I was like, “Oh yeah, I’d love that.” Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m plus size,” I was thinking, “This is awesome, I could do something with this.” And that’s what I did. And then I won! [laughs]

Q: We all know that plus in modeling and fashion does not mean what plus means in real life. Do you ever have a problem with that or for you is it just a term, a word?

WT: I’d love to introduce myself to people as a model, [but] if I do that, they look me up and down and go Really? And so I have to say I’m a plus size model. But, truthfully, size six is considered plus size and some size fours are too “fat” to be models. My BMI is where it’s supposed to be and I workout and I eat right — I mean most of the time. It’s all about balance.

Q: You spend a lot of your time speaking on college campuses.

WT: I do work things around speaking. That’s what I book first, that’s what fills up my calendar and then I kind of fill it in with modeling. Because modeling is great too and it’s important that I keep up my modeling career or else I won’t be a role model. So I still do that all the time, I’ve been working a lot. But I love to speak.

I was really struck by Whitney’s story about the pb&j and how she was crying because she was hungry, but didn’t want the calories. A lot of us have cried and obsessed over what to eat—although it was for different reasons! Did Whitney’s comments bring anything up for you that you’d like to share? xo…Sunny

One Response to Body Image Week: A Top Model's Thoughts on Air Brushing and Body Image

  1. Chelsea says:

    “Size six is considered to be plus-sized”. It’s like saying the sky is green and the grass is blue.

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.