Emme: "We Need To Push The Boundaries On What Represents Health"

After seeing her speak on a panel about body image and health, I grabbed a few minutes with the legendary full-figured model, cancer survivor, author, blogger, former television news reporter, you-name-it, Emme. Getting through the crowd of admirers was tough.

The audience — eating disorder and obesity activists, writers, Khaliah Ali, a group of women with buttons that all read BAD BODY TALK, and a handful of the disconsolate axe-grinders who gravitate to university conference rooms on weekday mornings — was totally charmed. Even the axe-grinders. Emme has formidable charisma, and everyone wanted to shake her hand. And then tell her their life story. I watched her try three times to get out the door so she could go to the bathroom.

Given her years of industry experience, and her more recent work as a National Eating Disorders Association ambassador, I wanted to talk to Emme about the state of fashion and the culture at large, and the chances of success for any movement for change. She eventually made it through that door to the hallway, and while I waited for her, I found myself looking at the food on offer in a vending machine: Hot Pockets, Lean Pockets, White Castle cheeseburgers, sold in packs of two, Tony's Deep Dish Pizza, and Blue Bunny King Size Cookies 'n' Cream ice cream bars. It occurred to me that, as a culture, we have a long way to go.

We started off by discussing an Arizona State University study she had alluded to on the panel, which found that viewing images of plus-size women was as likely to hurt women consumers' self-esteem as viewing images of straight-size models.

It seemed like you had some things to say about the ASU study.

My background is as a reporter. I used to be a reporter. And that's how I kind of go about my career, kind of delving underneath the surface, and asking the questions that interest me as opposed to [repeating] what I've heard from other people. Because the study was so contrary to what statistics over the last 15 years have shown...Some of the old thinking, I'm talking 70s-80s old thinking, was that women didn't want to see themselves [in magazines], and they wanted to see something more "aspirational"/"inspirational." Well. Yes — we all want to look at something pleasing when we are entertaining ourselves with fashion. But that's why the top full-figured models, who are 6' tall, and size 12, size 14, are used. They're pleasing!

What I'm saying is, all those around the conference room tables, all those making decisions about the imagery of women, let us bring in more breadth of who we are. And let those pages, the covers as well as the internal print pages of the magazines, be diversified in a beautiful, pleasing way, that truly makes us happy. And excited to go to find where those clothes are, because the department stores could really use it.

Do you think it's a little disingenuous for a fashion magazine to be like, 'Oh, here's your April issue where we love your body. Happy now?'

Absolutely. It's almost a way of distancing, like they're in denial. 'Oh, that issue is not really my issue.' But you know what? All you out there — it's a we issue. It's a women's issue. Women who are size 2 celebrate when they see beautiful women of other sizes. And we're not talking unhealthy beauty — but we need to push the boundaries for our own minds as to what represents health and wellness. It has to be very different from what we show right now because we're in such a state of ill health and disease. It starts with us. It really truly does. We need to grapple with that demon within ourselves. And say, Stop feeling so guilty that you're not working out, stop feeling guilty that you're not eating well...

No, that's not productive.

It's not! Guilt and feelings like that keep you from being consistent...I try to consistently put my best foot forward. I try...Are we born perfect? No. This is the journey towards understanding oneself. Is this the journey to be perfect? No. That is a kind of marketing-guru gizmo. I don't think it's very healthy to go for perfection, because when you consider the covers of magazines, even the beautiful women that we're seeing, that's not them. I mean, I've worked with women that were — I'm talking, they were on all the major magazines. And we're in the back, getting changed for a shoot, and you see them looking at a cover and they're saying, 'That's not my nose.'

I think people outside the fashion industry sometimes forget — because the industry is so consistent in its fictionalization of beauty, of models as icons of beauty, and it is basically really good at that — that those images are the result of so many different decisions by so many different people. And they are highly manipulated products.

Oh yeah. And I think that's changing now, the message is getting out. I think if we can see art in the clothing, see the art in artworks, and understand as a consumer that there's a lot going on, that's one thing. I love fashion for the sense that, well, we get to see something different all the time, it's exciting, and there are so many incredibly talented people. I mean, I can't take credit there —

You can take a little credit. I think to be a good model, it takes the ability to captivate, and to perform something. To communicate something. That's a skill. It's certainly not the same as knowing how to drape a dress nobody had imagined before, or to set a perfect sleeve, but it's a contribution.

Being on the side of making clothes, of being a creative director on clothing lines, that too, I always was with professionals who were so good, and that part of the creative process is just awesome. But the other side of it is, the consumer needs to say, This imagery is not good for me. It hurts my daughter, and it hurts me. If you want us to be able to buy your magazine or your clothes, can you please get the size right, or at least show us imagery that is more diversified?

Do you think that the industry is going that way? I feel like we've had this moment before, where it seemed like things could change. Is this going to be different, or just another flash in the pan?

You know what? I think things get worse before they get better. And when you hear about full-figured models now, that can be a size 8. This is the deal: When the pain of not changing is greater than [the pain of] the change itself, that's when change is actually going to happen. And unfortunately, if the industry that serves their customer doesn't change, the customer's going to go to alternative places. And the industry itself is going to wonder what happened... The advertising, the messaging, is going to have to change. Because there are lots of illnesses taking place. Parents are getting pissed off, individuals are dying. And it's not because of the fashion industry, or the advertising industry, that people are dying — but it's triggering things. It's not causing it, but if you are someone who's susceptible. And we know that 80% of kids, of young girls, are dissatisfied with the way that they look...Without question, it's going to have to change. Slow change is lasting change, but it's going to take some time.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on the Body Image Council, it's a new national program for the National Eating Disorders Association. Our primary goal is to create a cultural shift, by having that as our mission, we are going to be raising much-needed funds for refreshing the current research. Just real basic stuff. I'd like to see what the real number of eating disorders, for males and females, are nationwide.

It's shocking, but it's really hard to get accurate data regarding the problem.

Right. If we can raise the money without having a product behind it, and have the money be absolutely at our disposal to do what we want to do with it — the kinds of questions we want to ask, the kinds of polling, the kinds of research firms — then we can get pure results. Pure research for pure results. That's what we want to do. So I'd like to see what the real number is, because we've been saying that there are about 10 million women and girls with eating disorders, and about 1 million men, and 15,000 50,000 people die every year. And I can tell you, if we have 40 million hits on NEDA's website, then the number [of ED sufferers] is way higher than 10 million women and girls.

Another is a program that NEDA has for education. We're taking the body image monologues, and bringing them to every college campus, and then having those groups on college campuses mentor a group at a local high school. [...] That's how you do grass-roots work. We're seeking serious, serious change.

I've got a lot on my plate! [She laughs.] That's the non-profit side. And on my profit side, I'm working on some television projects that revolve around, you know, feeling good, striving for one's dreams, that kind of thing.