Charli Howard always wanted to be a model. From the age of 11, the London girl who dreamt of a life in front of the camera did everything she thought would get her there. Like some hopefuls, that included battles with bulimia and anorexia which, dozens of episodes later, would send her back to where she started: in front of the mirror.
In many ways, Howard's journey is similar to that of most models. "I was obsessed with being a model. That's all I ever wanted to be," she tells Refinery29. "For someone who is in control of their food, that kind of thing was perfect, because it meant that if I became a model, I would be perfect — and all of the hard work I was doing to keep my weight down wouldn't have been in vain; it would mean something."
But after getting dropped from her first agency after just three years for weighing 100 pounds (which was allegedly higher than the industry standard for straight-sized models at the time), she stopped being polite about her figure. She wrote a letter unequivocally denouncing the industry — and it went viral.
"I refuse to feel ashamed and upset on a daily basis for not meeting your ridiculous, unobtainable [sic] beauty standards, whilst you sit at a desk all day, shovelling cakes and biscuits down your throats and slagging me and my friends off about our appearance," she wrote in a Facebook post in October 2015. "The more you force us to lose weight and be small, the more designers have to make clothes to fit our sizes, and the more young girls are being made ill. It's no longer an image I choose to represent." Howard credits her success to "staying true to her shape."
She recounts what, she says, her agent told her via phone: "'We really appreciate how much you go to the gym, but some people just aren’t designed to be models. Not everyone's body shape is. We're sure that another agency might take you on, but we can’t work with you'." Howard wasn't having it. "I was like, 'Uhh… okay, fuck you,' and that's when I wrote the letter." At last, she saw in the mirror what was actually there.
Throughout her childhood, Howard lacked stability at home; moving around Europe as the military brat to an Air Force father activated an impulse to control. "It started off with obsessive compulsive disorder, but then religion came into it," she begins. Howard attended Catholic school because it was "the only good school" in the Peckham area, she says. According to her, people were more afraid of priests than police. "Despite the fact [my family] wasn't Catholic, I think it put the fear into me about doing things 'wrong.' I'd start overanalysing everything 'bad' I'd done throughout the day," she explains.
"I got hold of a Christian bible and suddenly thought that if I read it, I'd be 'pure.' It became a game of seeing how many passages I could read at night to prove to God that I was pure and true to my word," she says. "If someone came to me and said, If you repent your sins, you'll be fine, it'd make me super anxious because I felt like someone was watching me or that I was doing something wrong." That obsession would eventually manifest in other ways, including another form of anxiety: intrusive thoughts.
"It's a form of OCD where your mind makes you think you've done stuff that you haven't. Some people think they've framed someone or touched a child inappropriately, or that they've done these horrific things," Howard explains. "I had that with religion. I started to get obsessed with what God thought, and then what other people thought — so when you get to the age of nine or 10 and you're looking at your friends who are paranoid about their weight because their moms say things to them, you start thinking, Oh, well maybe there’s something wrong with me."
Because Howard's eating disorder stretched beyond food (as many do), it became an addictive stress reliever that couldn't be solved with quick fixes. Her mother wouldn't find out about her eating habits until she began her recovery in the US. For years, she staved off questions about her thin appearance, telling her parents it was natural. Avoiding them altogether meant she didn't have to face full plates of food, which, to her, would set her progress back. The last time she'd purge was when she moved to New York in 2015.
These days, circa spring 2018, Howard may not be the model she thought she would be (starving, tired, walking the runways), but she wouldn't change a thing. In 2015, Howard joined Muse NYC, a lower Manhattan modelling agency that prides itself on representing unique and diverse talent. "They were so supportive, but everyone was kind of confused where I fit in because I started to put on weight — and, though it was no way a personal goal, I was starting to get a bit too big to be on the runway," she says, noting that at one point, she only had two jobs on her schedule. But before she found "the fun side of modelling," as her agent put it, she needed to get something off her chest.
"At the end of that year, I remembering bringing it all up to the head of the agency and saying: 'If you want to drop me, just drop me. Because I'm not making any money and I'm letting you guys down.'" It was this same type of phone call that preceded her being dropped by her London agency. But this time, the person on the other end of the line disagreed. "Why would you say that? We believe in you and we believe you've got something to offer," he told her. By the start of the next year, Howard went in to speak with the vice president and director of the Muse+ board, who told her to relax and let go. "Then I found myself eating what I wanted and working out, but still battling those demons."
Since signing, she's appeared in the December 2017 issue of British Vogue, fronted campaigns for Desigual, Express, and Mango, and co-founded her own body-diverse e-initiative called the All Woman Project. She can now add author to her resume too: Her book, Misfit (which hit shelves in March), details her struggles with eating disorders, her fight to normalise body diversity in the modelling industry and how humour can be a coping mechanism, among other topics.
"It's been really good for me to purge all of this, for lack of better words," she says of the eight months it took her to write Misfit. "It's been like therapy for me. But I didn't write every traumatic thing I've been through, because it's still difficult to talk about. These memories, they become locked away in your head, and as you try to think about stuff that's happened, suddenly they all come at you. And you lose control of your brain."
More than ever, models are speaking out — via social media and books like Howard's — against the injustices of the fashion industry. From Ashley Graham to Edie Campbell, they’ve come forward in droves with new demands for body inclusion, accounts of professional misconduct, and more — helping to reshape what it means to be a model. With an entire book confronting issues that many famous faces confine to personal essays or Instagram stories, Howard has helped to extend the conversation offline.
But with increased visibility comes increased criticism. She hears words like "fat" and "disgusting" regularly, but doesn't let it go to her head. "The worst comments are people who say, 'Oh, you're not as thin as you once were.' As someone who is trying to recover, you're like, Shit, I have put on weight. Does that mean I'm failing? What do I do?," she admits. Howard says the success of the #AllWoman campaign (now on its fourth run after a collaboration with Aerie) has helped evolve her perspective on the modelling world and her peers. "Seeing girls who were thinner than me but had stretch marks on their back or their tummy helped me. Because even though I was a model, and even though I knew my own images were photoshopped, for some reason my brain wasn't connecting that other girls and their photos were being photoshopped, too."
"I do give a shit about my body," she continues, adding that she goes to the gym "two or three times a week, but I don't kill myself there." Howard also hears regularly from "straight-size models" still struggling to stay unnaturally thin. "Thank God I have an agent who actually lets me be me and books me jobs where I can be myself," she says.
Today, Howard has an entire career – and life – ahead of her. In just a few difficult but transformative years, she's helped redefine what it means to be a model: not a curve model, not a plus-size model, but a model on her own terms — and an author and activist, too.
"It's a very personal thing when you’re letting the world know that your mind isn't as perfect as we all like to think [it is]. Now, I’m just like — I don't give a fuck."