How One Plus-Size Model Stood Up To Years Of Family Bullying

According to a study Refinery29 conducted earlier this summer, 70% of women were already self-conscious about their bodies by the age of 13. And the number-one perpetrators of these feelings of insecurity and shame were the people who are supposed to actually have your best interests at heart: moms. Lauren Karaman (@laurenkaraman) is a woman whose physical beauty is something she's made a career out of. She's a plus-size model, and a good one at that. But even though she's received props from the fashion industry, it wasn't enough to erase years of bad juju. After one particularly toxic interaction with her family, Karaman emailed her good friend, filmmaker Brett Haley, about her frustrations, and together they created a video series for Refinery29 that touches on the challenges, realities, and feelings (both moments of elation and discouragement) of plus-size models. We spoke to Karaman about her impetus in filming this series, and how she was able to have a very hard conversation about hurtful words and unconstructive criticism with the people closest to her.

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What’s the controversy around the word “plus”? Why is it empowering for some and degrading for others?

“Not to be punny, but the word ‘plus’ carries a lot of weight. With ‘plus’ comes years of fat shaming, judgmental looks, backhanded compliments, and twisted body image. Being ‘plus,’ by societal standards, is the least desirable options. ‘Plus’ is often wrongly associated with the phrase “[they] let themselves go.” Screw that healthy looks different on different bodies — that doesn't matter. What matters is that you do absolutely anything you can to not be ‘plus.’ When we are told from all directions — usually beginning in childhood — that skinny is the true sexy, skinny is the true confident, and skinny is the true successful, it’s easy to believe that ‘plus’ is the ugly stepsister to ‘skinny.’ “From my experience, with ‘plus’ in front of my name, it’s easy to feel ‘less than’: less sexy, less confident, less beautiful, less worth it. Because ‘plus’ carries so much negativity in the media, it becomes harder to take back the term as an empowering word. Many people have said to me — and I’ve thought this, too — ‘Why can’t you just be a model? Why do you have to be plus? Well, honestly, I’m not sure if our society is ready to drop the ‘plus.’ I think before that could truthfully happen, we have to embrace the ‘plus,’ and redefine it as a bold, positive, and even desirable term. Why can’t we be proponents of health and accept that sometimes that looks different on different people. Healthy does not always equal size 0 to 4. “I’m not saying everyone should be plus-sized, I’m simply saying that every body — no mater the size or shape — deserves to be loved and taken care of. It feels unfair that my body has faced so much judgment from others — and myself. It feels unfair that I have been shit on for being heavy because my body will never healthily or naturally be a size 2. When I personally began embracing the ‘plus,’ and embracing my body as is, was when I actually started living. This is me. This is all of me. Why shouldn't I be happy and live the life I’ve always wanted?” What’s the last-straw moment that led to the creation of this video series?
“This is a section of what I wrote to Brett the week before the series was born: Even though I’ve signed a 3 year contract with MSA Curve, considered among NY’s top modeling agencies my parents still think I’m too fat.

Two weeks ago, I went home to see my parents for the first time in six months. It took ten minutes for the interrogation to begin. “You look bigger, how much weight have you gained since you've been in NY?” “Are you depressed?” “Have you been lying about being happy there?”

They’ve been obsessed with my fluctuating weight as long as I can remember. I’ve heard it my whole life — at all my sizes. But this time, I could’t take it. Despite my strong will and self-pride I started crying — “Mom! Would you stop? I signed with a MODELING agency. Isn’t that good enough?” She replied: “Just because you’re with that plus-size agency doesn’t mean you can go and gain as much weight as you want.” I was speechless. I know in a twisted way it’s coming from a place of love. They want the best for me. They want things to be easier for me. And I know the way the world works now. In the entertainment industry skinny is “better.” In acting school, I was [discreetly] handed The South Beach Diet book by a director on the second day of rehearsal. But what if the standard for beauty and success was different? What if sizes 0-4 didn’t equal happy? What if my family had told me I was beautiful during the times my weight fluctuated as a teenager?

When I share successes in my modeling career with my parents and grandparents, though I do feel their genuine joy and I know they are bragging about me when I am not around (their friends tell me they do), I still feel like I see an inner struggle in them: “Should we encourage her to stay fat?” Maybe I’m projecting that because I’ve thought that about myself. My whole life, the three most comforting words to me were “When I’m Skinny.” “When I’m Skinny, guys will hit on me,” “When I’m Skinny, I’ll finally have a boyfriend,” “When I’m Skinny, I’ll finally get the acting jobs I’ve always wanted,” “When I’m Skinny, I’ll dress the way I want,” “When I’m Skinny, I’ll be happy.” I’ve even had the completely bogus thought that “When I’m Skinny, I’ll finally put a folk band together.” WHATTT??? WHAT DOES BEING SKINNY HAVE TO DO WITH THAT?? I used to put my life on hold for the moment I was finally “skinny.” A moment that, despite how much weight I lost, would never actually come. It’s funny. I used to think I’ve wasted too many years of my life being fat. Now I realize I waisted too many years of my life believing that lie.

“Reflecting on this email, I wish I knew the answer to the way I was supposed to feel about myself. I’m told so many contradicting things about the way my body ‘should be.’ As proud and confident as I am, I still feel like the world may be right. Maybe I would be happier if I was skinnier. It makes me think, ‘Maybe I should just give in and change.’ But what if that’s wrong? What if I stood up for myself? What if I loved the body I have? What if I actually believed I was sexy? I want to explore these confusing ups and downs in a funny, honest, yet brutally open-wound kind of way. I’m searching for the answer just like so many other men and women are. How can I be happy? How can I honestly love myself exactly as I am?

What’s the best way to start an open conversation with your loved ones who’ve hurt you because of your weight/appearance?

“For me, the conversation finally came because I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t grit my teeth and nod my head anymore. In the past, I wasn't ready to express the way their comments had affected my self-worth because deep down I believed them. But I’ve grown. And with that growth I am now more confident in what I believe to be true. It was a combination of built-up frustration and bravery that allowed me to finally say Stop. This obsession you have with my weight has to stop. I told my mom, “Every time you bring up my weight, you make me feel like I’m not good enough. No matter what else I do in my life, there will always be this one thing that makes me less than. I can’t be confident in the way I look because you guys are always telling me I need to change.’ I remember asking, ‘Even if you don’t agree with me now, or ever, can you please try to stop telling me I need to change?’ “The conversation wasn’t easy. Nor did it end tied up in a pretty bow. But what it did was allow for healing to begin. I mean, my life is a testament for what I hoped this video series would inspire. My family and I have never been more honest with each other. We’re owning up to the ways we’ve hurt each other and the ways we’ve projected things onto each other. I don’t feel like I’m hiding anything from them anymore. I can breathe easier. We’re even able to have a sense of humor about it now. It’s pretty remarkable. I’ve never felt more like myself with them. “My mom recently said to me, ‘I’m sorry that our journey brought us through this. But I understand it. It’s a cycle. My mother told me the same things when I was growing up. I grew up believing I’ll be happy when I’m skinny, and I’m sorry that I put that on you. What breaks my heart is that I allowed you to think that way. Because I thought you knew I loved you more than anything in life and that I was always there to support you. Knowing that I made you feel that way makes me feel like a failure.’ “It’s my hope that through brave, open conversations that we begin to break this cycle in our relationships. “I guess my advice for others would be to go into the conversation with an open mind. Stand up for yourself, but remember that the myth ‘skinny equals happy’ was engrained in them the same way it was in you. If the pressure they placed on you truly came from a place of love, then, hopefully, they will be willing to own up to the ways they were wrong, and release their unrealistic and unnecessary ideals. My parents honestly had no idea how profoundly their words affected my body image. Years of pain and misunderstanding began to heal after one honest conversation. “I want to stress — my parents are not bad people. They are two of the most loving, supportive, selfless people in this world. They have supported and championed everything I’ve done, and would bend over backwards for me without a second glance. But they’re human, too. They were subject to this myth and cycle, just as I was. Let’s stop the chain of deprecating thoughts and language. “Sometimes it’s just a simple change in vocabulary. For example, I’ve heard sentences like: ‘Poor ______, if only she could get the weight off,’ or “Poor ________, she’s so motivated at work, why can’t she get to the gym?’ I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard the word ‘poor’ in front of the names of plus women I know. Beautiful, smart, successful women. Nothing about their lives warrant them the title ‘Poor.’ It makes me think, does that make me ‘Poor-Lauren’? Taking this phrase out of our vocabulary could make a world of difference. What’s the most striking, unexpected example you can think of that highlights the difference in your quality of life from a time when you were unhappy with your body and a time when you were/are?
“I distinctly remember, at 14, crying in my bedroom and coming to the conclusion that when I [do become] skinny, I would finally be happy. I was extremely depressed as a teenager. I was too proud to go to a doctor to be diagnosed because I knew I had the answer for what would fix me: ‘When I’m skinny, this will all be over. When I’m skinny, I’ll be happy.’ “Reality check? I was nowhere near fat then. Yet being skinnier was somehow my sick answer. “I look back at pictures when I was 16 years old and a size 8. I was depressed, on a starvation diet, hated my body, was told by my mother I was heavy because I was no longer a size 6, and I believed it. I hated everything about my body because I thought I was ‘chubby.’ I was six sizes smaller than I am now. “For years, I felt like I was in a never-ending race to somehow make up for the time I was wasting being ‘fat.’ I was the queen of yo-yo diets. I would starve myself until I couldn’t take it any longer. Then I would binge. I could never find a happy medium, because food equals weight. Back then, eating healthy wasn’t about being healthy, it was about losing weight — weight I didn’t even need to lose to be healthy! “It’s taken years of exploring and dismantling the myths I believed. I’m honestly still in the process of doing so. But I have come to a place now in my life where I have never felt more confident in the way I look and feel. I don’t starve myself anymore, nor participate in yo-yo diets. I buy clothes I would never have had the bravery to wear before. I now work out with a personal trainer — not to lose weight but to be healthy. I eat without feeling guilty about it. I can finally stand tall and walk into a room — unapologetic of who I am, all of me. What do you think about the current state of the modeling industry? Where do you think we can grow in the future?
“Thank God for the growing plus industry! More and more plus models are being hired, and more and more stores are creating plus departments. I personally would like to see a day when plus models and straight models are equally represented in media — but, so far, we’ve come a long way! Girls who are a size 8 and up are slowly but surely being encouraged in the media to be proud of who they are. That happy doesn’t mean the standard of ‘skinny’ we’ve been programed to need. Maybe this industry can begin to change the way people speak to each other, amongst their peers, and within their families. “That’s why I love being a plus-size model. That’s why I want to be a part of this movement. That’s why it needs to stay. That’s why it has to become more than a new fad. It’s a need.”

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